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.

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.

Lomax Collection, Library of Congress,

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.

Family, picture

When he laid his body into an array of images, the black cat became contiguous with it. Before he arrived, the images on this bureau had preexisted as a historic order predefined outside the frame, acquiring its meaning in a private community of reading through the community’s wordy memory. (“This,” people explain about a photograph, “is my dog.” When they say “is,” they refer not to the dog’s or the photograph’s visual form but to a name recorded in a list of words called a history.) But a community like this one on its bureau is also under the control of image’s physical meanings. On a bureau where differently dated images have been brought together, each of them fades to white on its own schedule. Within the frame of this integrated image of images, however, a clock has imposed an apparent uniformity of time. It registers the integral on the eye as a single perception. Time has entered the image, and the image has clocked and stopped it. For an instant, the metaphor of time as motion seems to have been suspended, and the living black cat seems as still as the dead images into whose space he has moved. The clock records the infinitesimal of suspended time as December 17, 2022, 8:17 AM.

Outside the image frame, of course, the actually never still cat continued moving. The shadows cast by a venetian blind moved too, and then a woman became visible to handle the comb and lay it back down, warmed now by touch as well as sun. To have realized such a truism of perception is a poignancy. For a perceived instant we could think we were stilled, like the cat. That was an illusion, of course. It is called persistence of vision. Seen at what used to be called the moving picture show, it is the sense that there can be an instant unchangeable: an infinitesimal of time and life never coming to an end.



Karsh of Ottawa (Yousuf Karsh, 1908-2002; studied stage lighting at the Ottawa Little Theatre, and dramatic lighting was one of the hallmarks of his portraits. In his iconic image of Humphrey Bogart, for instance, a dedicated spotlight delineated the smoky detail of Bogart’s cigarette.

Toward the end of his life, Karsh moved all the way south to Boston, where he died. But half of Canada spends the winter in Hawaii, and you see that Karsh’s successor enterprise now lives southerly on in deeper winter quarters.