Gleam

The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.

Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.

Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !

Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)

One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.

Joseph Antoine Callet, “Nungesser et un de ses mécaniciens.” Bibliothèque nationale de France, https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2020601/https___1914_1918_europeana_eu_contributions_11295_attachments_115062. Contrast and detail restored. The insigne was red (https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/%E2%80%9Cknight-death%E2%80%9D-airplane-insignia).

But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.

That’s so!

To record any moment is to make it supreme. When a memory prosthesis (in a cave in the Pyrenees, a finger dipped in soot; on an American lawn during the Edison era, a camera) translates a momentary perception to something that can be referred to in after times, perception’s momentary allotment of time within life comes to an end and it is translated to memory and the immortal dead language of history. You could call the text of such a translation a truth.

Or at least a word: a word that says “Truth” to you about itself. You’re reading it now. It reads itself to you about what you have just seen, and so it reads to you about yourself.

Man wearing collared shirt

Walt Whitman was one of the most photographed Americans of the nineteenth century, and one of his best known photographs is this one taken in Mathew Brady’s Washington studio in 1862. What’s less known, however, is that the original is a stereo pair:

U.S. National Archives, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/528037

In 2014 I merged the pair in a red-and-blue anaglyph,

https://jonathanmorse.blog/2014/09/14/a-walt-whitman-anaglyph/

but even with 2022’s improved editing technology the 3D remains unimpressive. It doesn’t help us see very much closer to belief in the historical possibility of an Orphic body.

But image sometimes anticipates the eventual completion of its seeing. Rembrandt may have understood that through his portrait etchings, and Whitman may have understood it through his posing body. See, in the left half of its double image: