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 transcripts of the way Americans talked in 1922, and of vol. 1, no. 1 of Babbitt’s real-time control corpus Reader’s Digest —
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.
Adjusting the clarity and contrast of this dog bounded between words restores visibility to what he is doing: wagging his tail. But the bounding 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 of any kind is missing from the laborious blockprint at the bottom. Down there, there is no connection between the question on the left and the date on the right. More, and terribly: the writing at the bottom may be an old writer’s correction of the erratum she herself created at the top while she was young. The R’s are similarly formed. Now that the writer understands that her mood should have been interrogative rather than indicative, she writes correspondents from the time zone after 1922 an interrogative letter of request. Skipping past the image between its two lines of words, we are to write back with any story we can tell about a dog who slipped the words.
We hold the letter from perhaps 1922 in our hands: a little slip of paper marked with ink in its margins and silver halides at its center. Any answer we make will have to be marginal, skipping from top to bottom past the halides and their caption reading “Connecticut.” Centered in the halides, the wordless part of the story is the dog’s life.
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.