In memory of David Peck Todd, the astronomer who almost but not quite discovered the moons of Mars.
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”
Frank O’Hara, d. July 25, 1966
USS Nicholas, 1945
One day the pioneer modern dancer Ruth St. Denis changed her clothes and underwent metamorphosis into an event. During the time leading up to that success, her body and her closet full of cloth had had separate histories, but now they were adorning each other in a single aspect of forever after: history itself, history large and one. Within history, Ruth had become a read chapter. Thereafter, in penciled words and photographic images, she set about compiling the chronology of her body’s triumph, and the New York Public Library’s Denishawn Collection is now custodian of the corpus. It is 949 chapters long, and this is one of the chapters cataloged in 1904 as Radha.
Because what remains of Ruth is a history of a dancing body, its meanings are a flow which changes from chapter to chapter, and reading a chapter-to-chapter translation is a matter of understanding how clothes and the body keep changing each other. See, for instance, how much this Radha clothesword has changed since the day in 1906 when it was written.
“Wriggler” wouldn’t be what we say these days — not now that ways of talking about Ruth St. Denis have been codified and made canonical. But of course no translation, no matter how contemporaneous, can ever represent complete synonymy. Even in long-skirted 1906, barefooted didn’t stand merely for the shock of flesh suddenly realized to be naked.* A rendering capable of justice to the whole of partially garbed Ruth’s swish and sway might have been better written as something like outfit. In the language of outfit, articulating itself fabric by fabric, a body expressing itself by means of cloth might be understood as saying, I change and I will change forever, always fashioning new bodies for the next clothes-hangers over. Among the technical vocabularies capable of describing such a flow of meaning in 1906, one actually was a Linnaean binomial: Awfully artistic. Utilizing that, The World’s curator of dance pinned wriggle to his page about Ruth and characterized it as a looping around the wriggler’s name.
Then somebody else turned the page, and on a different page there was revealed a scrapbook inventory, this one not pinnable down by doodle but already pasted into place. On a sheet of dark paper, some of Ruth’s body’s parts (“jeweled hands and feet”) were now exposed separately to the light which had once fused them into a single grace. On the glass of a photographic negative, Ruth had been seeable as a whole. Wholly self-explanatory to anyone with memories of his own body, she was fully comprehensible in any of body’s languages. But on paper, pasted to a substrate in the mode of a dismembered and de-completed set of positives, Ruth’s isolated hands and feet could only be read — and read only as an analytical treatise representing dissociated thought and the disintegrated self.
During the instant before change, Ruth’s body in its first costume must have filled the entirety of Ruth-space with wriggling, gem-shimmering light. But then it stilled itself within the narrow space allotted to it for a pose, passed through the camera’s lens, and became the silver halide trace of an outfit permanently smoothed down upon dark paper. Unlike body’s nonce-wriggling, however, outfit’s stillness remains on record. There in its still remainder we will be able to look up the nature of outfit, representing forever after what can no longer be seen.
On a different page, a different body remains: a body of words set down about a little girl named Rose who once raised to her lips a death-bringing vial of iodine. The world’s first photographs were creations of iodine and silver bonded by light, but no light had been allotted to Rose. The rags she wore were once described but never pictured. Between the covers of Ruth’s history, the Rose chapter is read-only and in the dark. Any light that may fall upon it will have to originate from within the text, as a reflection from silvered Ruth. Like the silvery photographs in the Denishawn Collection, Rose’s image in the mind has been separated from flowing time and stilled in a single aspect. But a photograph’s stillness can be exchanged in memory for a memory image of unphotographed life moving in its flow, and Rose’s unseen stillness can’t. The instant that the Rose of unpictured text walked out a courtroom door and became an orphan of the living but also unpictured, the plot of her no longer readable story stopped moving. We’ll never know how it turned out. And Radha is only to be known dancingly.
* “What matter if the baser minds put their programmes before their eyes and announced that the brown feet of the whirling dancer blended into the tints above the anklets too realistically for the legs to be clad in tights? What matter if the movements of the torso below the short jacket divulged every undulation of the flesh?”
In the days of Betty Friedan, an object of feminist scorn was Phyllis McGinley, poet of suburban domesticity. The hate has gone away now, if only because the immensely successful writer of the middle twentieth century is now unread. A fast history of her representative evanishment from memory, if you need one, is Ginia Bellafante’s “Suburban Rapture,” New York Times, December 24, 2008.
Acting on the need isn’t mandatory, though. The historical point about Phyllis really makes itself. It has a completely self-evident background, for example, here on these four pages from The New Yorker. “War war war! Fiddle dee dee!” Miss Scarlett had protested a short time before they appeared, but by now the date on the cover had advanced to October 25, 1941. The war had been on for more than two years as of then, and Pearl Harbor was less than two months in the fully foreseeable future. So no, say the images on the pages to you, as of 1941 and also as of ever after: don’t ignore and don’t evade. Fiddle dee dee won’t work, and now you are obliged to know that it never did. You always had to look.
But the consecutive corpus is actually five pages long, and you looked only at pages 1, 3, 4 and 5. Except for the little dog-doodle by James Thurber, page 2 is read-only, and one part of the reading it imposes on you is not in prose. There it is, below the dog: the poem by Phyllis McGinley.
See how The New Yorker’s typographers have helped you identify it the way a timetable identifies a train. Yes: Phyllis McGinley, poet of America’s northeastern burbs, classified this section of her lexicon into an English or Shakespearean sonnet, a consist actually devised by Surrey. That arrangement of words is a form, and it belongs to literature. After the war, when Americans who had survived the war needed to forget, literature went looking within its forms and found there a Phyllis technique for forgetting the whole by remembering parts. After a while, when the work of forgetting was complete, that phase in the history of form could be broken back down to the parts: octave and sestet, salvageable steam engine and children. Phyllis McGinley herself (1905-1978) could be trucked to the antique store, and while we’re at it ubi sunt the Spasmodic poets and Mrs. Humphry Ward?
But affection isn’t mortal on schedule.
Look at this Phyllis. If the looking gets you to think, as unerringly as birdsong, some such word as “face,” perhaps the association has evoked a notion of being loved face to face, regardless of what you know better. So a possibility remains that in some nest somewhere there always will be a Phyllis, regardless of the But you know better words that persist in saying things like “pathetic fallacy.” Ahistorically, just as a matter of biological necessity, a Phyllis nest may still be building somewhere for us, regardless of who the Phyllis of the moment may be.
Compare the expressions of the man at the controls and the woman being controlled.
Then imagine the Marquis de Sade in a state of meditative connoisseurship, contemplating Srta. Riviero’s calves as she rises into the air, lashed. Her knotted binding may be a bridal garment at its symbolic work of standing for. The conception comes to the marquis. Ever after, the white symbol may stand for control. Ever after, it may inflict.
From England’s Natural History Museum, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/departments-and-staff/library-and-archives/collections/piltdown-man.html:
In 1912 Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the ‘missing link’ between ape and man. He had found part of a human-like skull in Pleistocene gravel beds near Piltdown village in Sussex, England.
Dawson wrote to Arthur Smith Woodward, Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum at the time, about his find.
Dawson and Smith Woodward started working together, making further discoveries in the area. They found a set of teeth, a jawbone, more skull fragments and primitive tools, which they suggested belonged to the same individual.
Smith Woodward made a reconstruction of the skull fragments, and the archaeologists hypothesised that the find indicated evidence of a human ancestor living 500,000 years ago. They announced their discovery at a Geological Society meeting in 1912. For the most part, their story was accepted in good faith.
However, in 1949 new dating technology arrived that changed scientific opinion on the age of the remains. Using fluorine tests, Dr Kenneth Oakley, a geologist at the Natural History Museum, discovered that the Piltdown remains were only 50,000 years old. This eliminated the possibility of the Piltdown Man being the missing link between humans and apes as at this point in time humans had already developed into their Homo sapiens form.
Following this, biological anthropologist Dr Joseph Weiner and human anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, both from Oxford University, worked with Dr Oakley to further test the age of the Piltdown findings. Their results showed that the skull and jaw fragments actually came from two different species, a human and an ape, probably an orangutan.
Scratches on the surfaces of the teeth, visible under the microscope, revealed that the teeth had been filed down to make them look human. They also discovered that most of the finds from the Piltdown site had been artificially stained to match the local gravels.
The conclusion: Piltdown Man was an audacious fake and a sophisticated scientific fraud.
We hold many documents and photographs relating to the Piltdown Man, including correspondence between Woodward Smith and Dr Oakley and communications within the Museum’s palaeontology department. The Museum also has a large collection of photographs of the original findings and cranial restoration. There are also a number of Museum publications on the Piltdown story.
Nevertheless, what you’re seeing is in color, just like your TV.
So you know it’s true.