Once upon a time, perhaps in 1922 — the publication date of Ulysses and The Waste Land and of Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt, with its phonographic transcription of the way Americans talked in 1922 —
once upon a time, perhaps in that year when modes of perceiving words changed, someone looked at a photograph captioned with a Connecticut title and asked it the beginning of a question.
Post-processing this grimy old image of a dog bracketed between sentences restores visibility to what subject dog is doing: wagging his tail. But the bracketing question, as worded, hasn’t been brought to completion. What we perceive of the dog doesn’t have a context. The question may signify, “At what address in Westbrook, Conn., was Major?” But alternatively it may signify, “What became of Major, forever after?” Whatever the answer may be to either of those sub-questions, it can’t be now what it would have been in 1922, the year C. K. Ogden translated into English the sentences, “The world is everything that is the case” and then “The picture is a model of reality” and “The picture is a fact” (Tractatus 1, 2.12, 2.141). In perhaps 1922 someone writing a graceful nineteenth-century hand molded the words “Westbrook Conn.” around a void and shaped it into a model of the fact of permanent self-evidence. The case of the top margin is Westbrook Conn.; what else can it ever be? But evidence is missing from the laborious blockprint at the bottom. Down there, there appears to be no connection between the question on the left and the date on the right.
But the space in the line at the bottom may be a meaning in its own right: a negative one, empty antonym of the space at the top. The gap between Westbrook and Conn at the top is a temporarily vacant lot that can be filled in at any time with more New England, but the question mark at the bottom designates an unbounded void. Worse, and with vast implications, is that the R’s and N’s at the top and bottom of the whole image are similarly formed. The two lines look different at first glance, but they may have had a single writer. What appears to be a real difference may be only an aesthetic one: a consequence of indifferent time. Over the little interval between the top and the bottom of a text the scribe grew old, and the aging worked its way even into the microtexture of each line’s language. The passage from one letter to the next was a decay. Memento mori, therefore: the spaced subject at the bottom, “Where is he? Nov 1922” may signify not just “Major” but “Major as of 1922” or (an all too possible expansion of the frame of understanding) just “1922.” That is, horribly: “1922, when Major and I were, for a moment, alive.”
Major’s picture documents the case of 1922-and-thereafter. During the time it was processed into what you’re now reading it probably remained in physical existence: a soiled little slip of paper marked with silver halides at its center and inked words in its margins. But it’s the center that has now become marginal to the document’s meaning. Any answer we could make to the question “Where is he?” would have to come from there in the halides, but in that sector there never were words to mean with. Once it had been made metallic by a bath in a reducing agent in (let’s say, because we have to say something) 1922, the wordless chemistry of the story became a bords durs trace of what was once a dog’s life. In that dog story it isn’t the exact date of the abrupt transition from blurrily wagging to stilled that matters. Whenever it was imposed, it was imposed forever.
The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), December 24, 1890:
The print doesn’t welcome your presence. But notice that Mr. Joyce himself persisted with the aid of a magnifying glass.
Persist, therefore. Think of yourself as Gabriel at the Christmas feast and afterward, paying attention right to the end.
Clio and Apollo will rest you merry.
On Thursday, December 23, 1920, The New York Times reported on page 9:
The article was headed “Olympic’s Notables See Gain in Europe,” and among the disembarking notables its reporter interviewed was New York’s Assistant District Attorney Owen W. Bohan, on his way home from having assisted in Italy in a prosecution for murder. A photographer from the Bain News Agency was also on hand.
On the other side of the Atlantic, earlier in 1920, the architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had caused himself to be made over as a theory apparatus named Le Corbusier. Throughout that year, that apparatus outputted a series of polemics in a journal named L’Esprit nouveau. In 1923, it collected the articles into a book and called the book Vers une architecture. The title implied that architecture was something that lay ahead, something yet to be achieved. Much of the material that supplied the book’s thesis and body of examples was marine architecture — specifically, the architecture of the great four-stacker ocean liners whose creators were now teaching — if architects would only listen! — that steel could be a system of the human body like muscle and bone. “So old, so old!” cried the apparatus as it contemplated the time when pre-metallic humans lived in caves of stone.
And so, on a December day in 1920, another apparatus sailed up the bay into icy New York: a cylindrical construction built of linen and starch. At its apex, the construction displayed a triumphal decoration shaped like a head. The head looked human, but because the apparatus was made of cloth, the construction was only an idol. The cloth could have been woven in a cave, and one of its purposes as an idol was to represent to its cave-bound worshiper that there is a reality beyond representation. It is waiting to be seen. It is in the light, outside.
And yes: outside on December 22, 1920, looming behind the notable, not wrapped like him in cloth but warm from its own source below decks, there stood a cylinder of steel.
Perhaps the steel thing was only another idol, a transitional object erecting itself to mark the evolutionary passage from soft cloth to hard metal to a pure idea standing at the end of change. If it was, we probably don’t have to worry about our own soft mortal selves. There will be more idols to come, interposing their comforting representations between us and the moment when our hearts stop beating and desire ends. Le Corbusier himself was famously annoyed when the tenants of his buildings insisted on filling them with comfortable furniture. But for the quarter-century that began in about 1920, many people took Corbusian steel itself to be the idea, and worshiped it with temples and blood sacrifice.
Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711873/. Photoshopped.
Background: anonymous Vorticist drawing, 1916.
The provenance of this stereophotograph of the World War II Japanese battleship Musashi isn’t indicated online, but a lot of its art history is preloaded. The shell-deflecting curves of the ship’s armor, for instance, are prominent in its image for reasons having to to with the history of Art Deco, and the camera’s heroic angle, gazing raptly upward, was probably designed in the studio of Alexander Rodchenko, artist of the totalitarian. Then too there is the matter of the photograph’s dramatically dark tones, which were probably generated in-camera by a red filter.
In the eye, then, per design, the twinned Musashi artworks, one image for the left eye and one for the right, are massed and ungraspable and black. Blocking out the light, they push together into your senses, take control, and merge into a single black ingot. After that, the ingot is no longer something capable of being seen, in the light, from without. It has become the material for a stamping mill broaching darkness within.
Forty years earlier, a different ship in a different world looked as innocent as a maiden as it struck a happy pose and waved its flags with both hands. The ship was wearing white, too, and the camera was looking down at it as if it were little. I can imagine Musashi having been photographed by a professionally adoring, professionally upward-gazing modernist woman like Margaret Bourke-White or Leni Riefenstahl, but the idea of a happy little boat seems to have brought out something protectively chivalric in Messrs. Underwood and Underwood’s cameragentleman.
But the happy little boat happened to be another battleship, with a battleship’s single purpose. Guns got bigger and armor got thicker in the course of the battleship’s half-century of naval dominance, but from the beginning of the era to the end, the corpses floating in each successive wake followed only one model of naked form. If the older corpses seem somehow simpler than the more recent ones, that’s only because more of their historical detail has been eaten by the fish.
This believing in an illusion of simplicity is an ordinary error committed by beginners at living in time. Because we were once younger and more ignorant than we are now, we think the world was younger and more ignorant too. But in these two particular artworks, the error can be corrected by a simple trip to the eye doctor. The corrective process isn’t just good for us, either; it’s also educational.
Go ahead with it, then. To begin the process of correction, assemble each stereo pair into an anaglyph. Then bring the two anaglyphs into juxtaposition. This formal art-maneuver will reduce the historical distances between the two images — distances across time, distances between democracy and fascism — to almost nothing. After that, with history controlled for and minimized, there will be little for the eye to do except see.
Once they’ve been brought together at a single moment, the two images from different times will simplify to a single timeless idea. It will be what the two otherwise different battleship images have in common: a battleship idea, the idea of that which is death-dealing. Having been subsumed into a general idea of the death-dealing, each separate death-dealing image can shed its distracting photographic artifacts of (on the one hand) black and (on the other) white. The polychrome stains of life and death will then become imaginable again, and after that we’ll need to do just one more eye exercise.
It will be this. To see the colors as they were before they became a part of history’s blacks and whites, we will only have to unlearn the way of seeing that we once learned from a block of black steel.
Online, I’ve been able to find the image of Musashi only in an otherwise unidentified list of World War II photographs. The image of Wisconsin is at the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, http://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/wisconsin-bb-9/NH-100334-A.html. I’ve photoshopped it for contrast. The anaglyphs require a red-and-blue stereo viewer.
Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/dc0362.photos.027542p/. Photoshopped.
A century later, the image in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection has gone humorous, the way items remembered after oblivion sometimes do. This item stimulates us neither to nostalgia nor to tragedy nor, thanks to the costume’s baggy knees, to the thought of eheu fugaces labuntur anni. The name “Hydroaeromaid” is comical too, with its philological odor of a tavern by a school during the Georgian era (“Ho, maid! Bring me a tankard of nut-brown ale whilst I construe me lines!”). * And so, looking at the image brought back to light, we laugh.
And because the light has been merciful and faded out some of the details, we photoshop. We wield the controls in the spirit of the post-Georgian nymph Dorothy Parker, who wouldn’t have been caught dead with baggy knees.
But long after the era of Dorothy Parker has passed, the girl in the image is still standing on her chair. What would she be now? What was she then, out of the uniform that was once fitted onto her by comedy in one of its sergeant-major moods? If we looked at her in a different way through Photoshop, would we be able to think of her now not as a what but as a who?
And then the image comes to me of an airplane seen at morning in a novel written just after the Georgian era, when the sight of an airplane was still something new: Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of Mrs. Dalloway it is nighttime, and in 1923, the year Mrs. Dalloway was published, airplanes generally weren’t flown after dark. But Mrs. Dalloway has returned home and changed her clothes, and the book’s last sentence ascends from the light of its page like an image newly revealed after a long darkness:
“For there she was.”
* Or, since the flag in the picture is American, of Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (serial publication 1911, publication as a novel 1912), whose hero fills his days quantum sufficit playing football, doing Latin, and adjourning to Morey’s for a toby of musty.
Update: from a pair of notes by Art Siegel at https://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/14440864879/ we learn that the model is named Pearl Palmer and she is posing for a trophy. Mr. Siegel also links to a not very clear contemporary photograph of the trophy, and the New York Tribune published this note about it on August 20, 1916, p. 13.