Don’t wear. Be.
With two illustrations
1. From a second-story roof, an egret watches a new-mown lawn below him. His yellow eyes communicate an idea of intently. The term rests as still in your mind as a dictionary unopened on a shelf. But when the wings open, the stasis breaks. All is in motion then. The egret flaps himself a few inches up, tips himself over the edge, drops to the grass, pecks, flaps again, reascends with legs trailing, and settles with wings and legs folded back on his roof ridge. He has brought back up what he saw down there: a muscular brown centipede. Beat by beat, the egret shifts himself on the roof, elevates his beak, flips the venomous dangle into the air; catches it headfirst, fangfirst; swallows. Between the bird’s unmoving head and unmoving breast the long neck undulates once. A moment ago a dark living something was writhing in the air, yet at that elevation all that survives now is a light, feathery bulk.
A moment ago, the dark something was matter for a life story with a beginning and an end. Now, as it dissolves in the egret, it is an afterthought. What comes back to mind is white, only. About a writhing brown centipede a brown writher of a story is writeable, but it can’t be traced back to ground that any centipede ever crawled. The memory of writhing in the air has dimmed, and the last bird you see will be the one flying to you in white.
2. From a dove’s wings, frothy light splashes into the firmament. Through fanning feathers, it ripples along from shadow at each wing’s root to light-blurred translucency at its tip.
Aft, between the wings, originates a stout empennage. Holding the rapid beating steady, it aims the dove’s gray little head in the direction of a route. Gray tipped with white, guiding from behind, stiff tailfeathers blaze a way to light.
To dress is to wrap oneself in an idea
Hat : woman :: machine : machine
Le Corbusier inscribed those words in the second (1928) edition of his Toward an Architecture. The first sentence is one of the axioms of modernism. A century later, you are running your fingers over it on page 151 of John Goodman’s translation (Getty Research Institute, 2007), where it is shelved under the subtitle “Liners.”
Liners such as, en route shortly after the launch of Toward an Architecture:
This one was shaped by the modernist aesthetic of Art Deco. Its three sleeked funnels were unequal in height from bow to stern: first tall, then medium, then short (and the short one was a decorative dummy). Viewed from the side, the pattern communicated a knowingly accepted illusion of streamlined speed. Viewed from the bow, the tall funnel allotted the ship’s proportions the way a hat allots a head’s proportions.
Allotting, the hat inscribed below guides the eye to see a face as a petitesse. Petitesse is a curve and the hat is its generatrix.
Also the hat’s crown rakes back in the illusion of speed while the passive woman within the hat remains still. Also the hat’s ribbon, wrapped halfway up around the domed cylinder of the crown, teaches the senses to imagine ribbon and crown as body parts harmonizing at knowingly accepted cross purposes . . .
An eye made use of an apparatus to create this image of a woman designed and curated. She’s more than a century old now but as good as new. You accept the illusion knowingly. You are a member of its comic audience. Defined by the aesthetic of Euclid, a woman is a machine for wearing a hat.
An idol, beginning
Action and event record themselves in memory, but the record isn’t the memory. After it has made contact with the ongoingness of time, memory is no longer bound to its priors. After time flows into a story and separates it from its origin in action and event, the story becomes readable in the languages of other senses. The flowthrough of time delivers cargoes of words that weren’t in the original. But we’ll never again be able to read the original, because the original was only one word long and that word was Eden, and it couldn’t mean.
It couldn’t mean because it couldn’t refer to anything except itself. It only was. It wasn’t a term but a world: “everything that is the case.” In the silent dark around it, it couldn’t be seen or heard, and now, in the aftermath of its beginning, the light that emerges from it into the beginning of a future meaning doesn’t yet illuminate. The flow of time hasn’t yet started delivering its cargo of meaning.
But that is to arrive in a moment, because now the emerging light is letting us see. Unseen, something turns out to have been present all along: a black mouth opening, despite the dark, into undark.
When a hat is worn to the full, it becomes an idea
Grooves in pressed shellac
In 1937 a photographer for the CBS radio network created this silver-halide image of Crockett Ward, a fiddler for the Bog Trotters Band of Galax, Virginia. It is now in the Library of Congress, a part of the collection of folk music amassed by Alan Lomax. Looking at it, I go sentimental. I find comfort in the thought that Mr. Ward could have been among the masses who voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The art history of the Depression has taught me that feeling.
The silver-halide image is faint, and even when it was new most of its detail remained latent and invisible. But its material basis has recently been made transferable from chemistry to electronics, and now we can see in it what no one in 1937 could. Almost the only detail missing will be 1937.
But in the absence of 1937 the image becomes the figure of an ancestor. I look at its bib overalls and its hands, I imagine the body they constituted which in 1937 brought forth song from its fiddle, and the feelings within me are furnished for the occasion by The Grapes of Wrath: a historical novel, a sentimental fiction.
But I’m also pretty sure now that that Crockett’s descendants, if they are still singing Crockett’s songs, probably voted for Donald Trump. A record in pressed shellac can’t sound now the way it did in the time of shellac. The instant I recover a sense of the ancestor’s body, I immobilize it with a coat of impenetrable irony. On the record, the final groove only moves the needle back and forth through an eccentric, ever after.