In 1918 a caption written in American expository prose employed the word twixt. The caption’s author assumed that that word twixt would mean something to his readership, just like the two-word combination Hoffman House. If it has turned out that you don’t know what Hoffman House means, he was wrong. In 1918 his words were part of a lexicon dating from 1918, but that number turned out to be impossible for computers to handle in 1918, when the word computer referred to a person. In 1918, on May 19, James Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver about Ulysses, “It is impossible to say how much of the book is really written.” But in 1918 Joyce was in the process of writing off 1918.
In the same magazine, another block of prose suggested ten years as a range of history during which terms like Hoffman House might remain stably conceivable. The thought must have seemed reasonable while its subject was still sharing a present tense with horse traffic.
But now we know that it’s harder to say “It identifies” than we used to think. In 1918 a billboard atop the building at the left of the image of Madison Square identified a remedy for indiscretion, but the identification couldn’t be read in 1918’s Geographic text and in texts post-1918 it can’t be understood.
But now that it can’t be understood, it can be read.
As people say, it goes without saying. Artificial intelligence has transported us up Fifth Avenue to a caption. The caption’s lexicon now comprehends the legible words laxative water on a rooftop and legible fashion on women approaching a door. In the fullness of time, the deposit of data saved on a large-format negative in 1918 has matured at last. Its worth is redeemable now. But what, now, can at last mean?
We have been enabled to read 1918, but all we can do now that 1918 is over is to see it: depictionless, without seeing that its label bears a signature. Unsigned, however, is the glare that comes forward behind the Flatiron and reverberates from the wet paving. That you can still experience as people experienced in 1918: communication in a present not bound to a knowable future. The wordless glare in the gutter isn’t a part of the caption because it isn’t captionable. All along, faithfully paralleling the caption from 1918, has been something just above it on the page: something long pre-1918. There in the unchronicled is image uncaptioned, without words to slow the light that comes flowing down the gutters of Fifth Avenue to us.
Somebody at lower right went blurry and moved off in the dark. For a time a shutter had opened and the dark was filled with glitter. It threw light on the change of circumstance. Within the dark, non-glittering somebody would never be seen again.
In 1916, wings could still be translucent. Their delicate black markings were shadows of a metaphor for the term endoskeleton. At each tip, these particular wings also shadowed a purely human term: Germany’s black Iron Cross.
On the record, these wings and this thorax are black and white. One of the black and white men accumulating before the lower wing is wearing the tunic ribbon of the Iron Cross, but in 1916 that too would have been black and white. The other tunics are in various 1916 instars: some accurately following contours of flesh and bone, others shaped by the now dead; all black and white.
But in the white space between two of the human bodies hangs a cross in blue. At the time it was inked onto the Rostock print somebody intended it to refer to one or the other of the bodies, but nobody now can tell which. Separated by a shared white space, the black and white bodies are in the midst of an uninked record. The inked cross suspended in the white looks like what we readers think of as an X, but it is the X in an alphabet that can no longer be read. We receive it now only as a shape combined with a color. The color is the color of a sky no longer perturbable by wing.
The Crimean War of 1853-56 contributed to the history of form the Raglan sleeve, the balaclava, the cardigan, and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Then, swelling the record, Roger Fenton made it the first photographed war in history.
Having learned that, you realize that form is unchanged under any of its aspects, and undying.
Once upon a time a U.S. Navy radioman named C. W. Allen served on seaplanes based at the Panama Canal Zone and flew with a camera. His photo album is now in the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and viewable online at
It includes this image of the Navy zeppelin Shenandoah traversing the canal in 1924 or 1925 with its mooring ship Patoka. I’ve previously posted some attempts at reconstructing it, but because editing software keeps improving, the merely historical interest of the original,
grows only more attenuated by the year. It’s small, its resolution is low, some of it has been whited out by the corner stickers that Radioman Allen used to glue it into his album, and every time it’s reseen its aesthetic sense becomes harder to experience in the emotional form of memory. Think of the surface noise of its epoch. It was bad then, even before vinyl and then digital. Now . . .
Now, in the workroom of a mortuary, you wouldn’t be able to hear this waltz if it were played over the speakers — not as you would have heard it in its own epoch. Now, instead, you’ll be under obligation to look down at the table where a silent waxwork has been made to appear.
And if something then starts sounding through you, you won’t be able to silence it. The sound coming from your mouth will be an affront to the silence of the past, but it won’t be motivated by any intent, bad or good. It will be a sound that can’t help itself. Think back. Beside the waters of the Zone, a mechanism was wound up with a crank, a needle descended on a spinning shellac surface — right? — and a song welled up automatically.
This business day in the mortuary, you think, “I sound like I’m alive!”