Setting forth in black and white

Pre-footnote in prose: in 1609, when Thomas Thorpe published the first collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the word “adventurer” could mean “investor” (as in the current term “venture capital”) and “setting forth” could mean “publishing.” In 1620, the year of the Mayflower,  the investors who financed the voyage referred to themselves in prosaic business English as Plymouth adventurers, and whatever you may find exciting about the title of this 1952 movie is an anachronism.

In business English, the only uncertainty about the meaning of the dedication where Thorpe applies the terms “adventurer” and “setting forth” to himself and his business is in a term for which the text and the library haven’t yet provided glosses. Who is Mr. W. H.? One of these centuries, an archive may open up those initials into full words, and then one of scholarship’s useful prosy tasks will be finished.

But trying to write “The End” at the ends of the open-ended terms “immortality” and “ever-living” will be a different task for meaning. And about the Thorpe text’s syntax and typography there will remain other meanings to think of and say — but what can they be, and how can they be articulated in words?


Look below, for instance. The only words that apply to this being are “eat” and “sleep,” and those words are purely external to him. Because he awakens into a world without meanings that can be expressed in words, he doesn’t think of his awakenings as (for instance) adventures. Because such words originate only with us readers, they can never be intrinsic to him and they can never fully communicate what he is.



Yet as a form seen from without, he evokes a formal meaning. It isn’t expressible in words, but it has a metaphoric typography. To us who can read, it is capable of attaching a literal extension to the figurative term “setting forth.” And at dawn, what is seen without words becomes a black-and-white typography. With the coming of light, a being seen and then played around with and given a name, such as “chiaroscuro,” becomes an only begetter. Realized into words in black and white, it sets forth a text that you begin to know as you begin to see.

He looks out the archive window. On the other side of the glass are warmth and noise and life.

In the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection,

this picture of embarkation on a pilgrimage from New York is dated May 1909. That’s the date of filing in the collection, not the date when the photograph was taken.


But if we assume that the pilgrims are Roman Catholic, a plausible motivation for their excited setting forth in 1909 might be the impending beatification of Joan of Arc in Rome on April 18. A month after that, Blessed Joan’s elevation was to be remembered to American history through a page in the New York Times’s Sunday rotogravure section, but here, even before the beginning, the ecclesiology of the event manifests itself to New York as a procession up a plank to a swirl of happy bodies congregating itself beautifully in the sun.

May 23, 1909. Page number in this section, 11. Cumulative page number, 51.

But the pilgrims’ happy expressions and stripped-down garb don’t originate just in ecclesiology; they also express a physiology and a meteorology. According to the databases available online from the National Centers for Environmental Information,

during the first half of April 1909, New York experienced one warm, sunny surprise of a day: April 7, when no precipitation fell and the temperature ascended to 73. After New York’s long winter, the men and women treading Cunard Lines’ gangway in spring’s new measure must have felt themselves to be in a state perennial but always fearfully despaired of until the happy beginning:

perced to the roote.

Now take that date from one part of the archive, carry it over to another carrel, and yes! see:

The Sun, 7 April 1909, page 10

It isn’t a definite confirmation, but in this image of Lucania you can see, alongside the bulwark just forward of the mainmast, a tall skinny white ventilation funnel very much like the one that stands stockstill amid the image of pilgrims in confined motion.

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As soon we’ve noticed that, the archive will finish writing the historical text for us. The process will be automatic; we won’t even have to leave the building for a breath of air. Lucania’s voyage of April 7, 1909, Wikipedia informs us, would have been one of her last. Built in 1893 and obsolete by 1909, she was laid up in July of that year, then was damaged by fire in August and scrapped.

Which is to say that we and the archive seem to have achieved a tiny historiography. Starting only with an image bearing a cryptic inscription, we have established what may be a date and a physical context. We could proceed from there to (for one possible instance among many) a history of Cunard Lines’ shipboard class structure, which (it will turn out) has something to do in the image with those beautifully shined shoes on the men and those beautifully ironed dresses on the women. If you could take weeks off for God’s sake in 1909, you had servants.

But the invisible servants’ visible masters and mistresses, as depicted? They remain wholly apart from us on their own side of the archive’s windowpane: smiling on their deck, speaking to one another in a language whose words are now not just indecipherable within their necessarily incomplete historical context (because the servants who help them live are invisible) but incomprehensible on their far side of mortality. A woman like a pillar with a dust ruffle, a man with a pencil mustache like a scar: we lack a language to ask of those traces of being how they can ever have been what they now forever are.


And off in a corner a young woman leaning close to see and hear and perhaps sympathize with an old woman whose veil hides her face and whose glittering glasses deflect our own light back to us:


But the old woman’s mouth is closed. The tale she is seen not to be telling is a poem in a book closed to us. We’re in an archive full of other books, openable ones, but they aren’t helping. We seem not to have learned to read after all.


“Departure of pilgrims to Rome, crowd at boat docks, New York,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress,

“S.S. Lucania, July 28, 1894,” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress,

All images post-processed in Photoshop.

Pink always

In the photoblog “Everyday Life in the Past,” Aunt Ida’s degraded photograph is dated 1956.


You can still make out a large Formica-and-aluminum shape, identify its function, and bring back to memory its 1956 word: dinette. But because another of the picture’s compositional elements was transparent in 1956, the photochemistry of time has now reduced it almost to invisibility. To bring the word ashtray back into active memory from within the image will require an active search originating in something learned outside the context of the image itself. Before you can even pick up your magnifying glass and begin looking at the picture, you’ll have had to learn from an archive that dinettes were accessorized with glass or ceramic things called ashtrays.

But for the immediate present, a trace of the collective 1956 idea of dinette and ashtray survives within the image, and there it is still accessible for resuscitation. The process will involve a translation of its spectrum of life from the chemical to the logical, mediated by (among other things) a computer program named AI Clear, where the letters AI indicate that use is to be made of a computer concept called artificial intelligence. If you let me help you think of Aunt Ida’s parrot artificially, says the computer, it will become a bird out of Yeats’s Byzantium:

Miracle, bird or handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork

And see then:


The ashtray is replenished, Aunt Ida’s shining white cup is seen again to be charged with powdered coffee and condensed milk, the bird’s hard ceramic surface is again the green of soft feather, and Aunt Ida’s headcovering has been restored to its proper color for 1956, when pink was popular. Now time itself will be 1956 forever, and never again no longer pink.


The pinkness, we now see, mattered all along. It matters even more now than it did in 1956, because in 1956 it at least had an existence exterior to the image. Now the image is 1956 pink’s sole source. In the aftermath of 1956, to experience 1956 pink again is as if the color were one of the tints of God’s first rainbow, now being re-unfurled in revised final form.



It will be interesting to teach Emerson again after two years away

In 2016, all I had to say to get the discussion started about “Self-Reliance” —

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think–

was “Ayn Rand.” This coming spring, in the Trumpera, the discussion seems all too likely to self-start out of an indignant and rejecting silence.

Still, yes:

Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim.

It’s true, as you see. Nature doesn’t contemplate the possibility of an Ayn or a Donald. In her domain there is only law, reproducing its works by contemplating itself.


Sources: Emerson, “Self-Reliance” and “The American Scholar”