Against the bridal day, which was not long

With a conductor’s gesture, a man poised at a brink once brought together two curves.

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Angular flesh and rounded iron approached each other, light and shadow moved over them, and a moment was consummated and became past.

Borne above the shapes like a banner, the word Trimble meant nothing. It only said, as if say were an intransitive verb. It was an order of service: a separately published hymnal to be sung from while the two bodies approached, touched, and then fell away. During that limit instant, the word and the two bodies were united in a single imaged meaning, fully understood but not articulable. Thereafter, in separation, all that could be said in words took the form of a caption (“Davis lock, St, Mary’s Falls canal”) that sang of the watery bed but not of the coming together in light and shadow that had once filled it.

 

Source: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016800144/. The complete, pre-Photoshopped image is

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The Library dates the image between 1913 and 1920. However, the mustached man with the pipe appears to be wearing a wristwatch — an accessory which didn’t come into wide use until after World War I.

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In New York on April 30, 1921, as the liner Aquitania sailed up the bay from quarantine, the tenor John McCormack, one of the most celebrated singers of the time, showed himself before the recording instruments of the media. The role he was performing approximated what his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats was to call (in “Among School Children”) “a smiling public man.” A space of foggy air and wooden decking separated him from the battery of cameras.

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Then, though, the cameras moved in closer and the singer began to speak.

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The reporters took down his words. They turned out to be Irish words.

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New York Tribune, 1 May 1921, page 12

Along with the celebrated singer, a celebrated newspaper publisher was on board the ship, and so was a celebrated Hollywood producer. We’re willing to believe they were because the story tells us so in indirect discourse. We don’t need the publisher’s or the producer’s actual words to bear witness. And as to the singer, in 1921 all the cameras had to be silent.

But perhaps we can see words forming on his face.

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Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014712442/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014712445/. Post-processed to restore detail and contrast.

Light falling on face

Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.

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With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.

The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.

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But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:

“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”

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Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014684979/

A crateload of metonyms

Transliterated into German, the caption within this image reads, Er versorgt sie mit allem — “He provides them with everything.” The verb versorgt communicates connotations of cares and cares for, and the recipients of the gifts and the care, they, would be Jews fighting for America in the Great War. But the key transactional word in the sentence is alles. Within the image frame alles defines visual allness metonymically, piling example upon example. When you began wearing a uniform like mine, say the provider’s Jewish body language and Yiddish words, you lost some memory of what you are. But your words are still understood, have been understood all along. And now I bring you a cargo of word-things that will make your memory whole again.

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Rolled up in its mantle and held tight and alone under the provider’s left arm is the primary thing: a Sefer Torah, the unabridged text of the definition of Jew. But just below it, dangling from the provider’s left hand, is a string-wrapped bundle of other texts cheerfully inviting untying. These are books to be read on the six other days of the Jewish week. Their language is not Hebrew, the language of the synagogue, but Yiddish, the language of the home, and the authors’ names on their spines — Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, I. L. Peretz — are contemporaneous with the clean-shaven, secular young Jew who is cheerfully hefting their supplementary weight. One more of the authors on the spines, a reminder that as of the date of this composition Yiddish was the living language of heym for the great majority of American Jews, is the now all but forgotten Avrom Reisen, who wrote a short story a week, year after year, for the Forverts. Then here before your eyes, say imaged names like Reisen’s, is what we mean when we say alles. To be comprehended, the words of All’s language require only to be read once again as they were read in your home the day you put on your uniform and left. They are still there, waiting only for you to return and speak them once more. Through the coming years of silence, they will not change. They will always be there to be understood and to understand you. The moment you reopen their books, they will rise from their pages and meet you. You will not have been forgotten.

And carried into the image frame on the welfare man’s right shoulder comes still more. For Jews to read there is a newspaper, presumably a Yiddish one. There are some round orange things which I’d guess may be dried fruit — comforting to have on hand when the meat in the mess hall is tref, and carrying connotations as well of Jewish tenderheartedness and Jewish mother love. And there is — oi, yes! — a violin.

Well, fund appeals during America’s participation in the Great War were coordinated across many cultural dialects. The blog cited below includes reproductions of posters in Polish and Chinese, not to mention one in English that demands, “Are you 100% American? Prove it!” The poster we’ve been looking at is a product of that coordinated effort: not a work of art but a work of war art. It is intended to evoke only clear and unmixed feelings. The emotional provisions that it delivers have been massed in the image frame only for the straightforward purpose of increasing military efficiency by strengthening morale. So it isn’t necessary to play that Jewish violin in a high theoretical register with a word like metonymy. Stereotype will work just as well.

But we want the Jew to play his violin, don’t we?

If we do, since we do, let’s thank our brown-booted provider for his welfare. Whatever the military intent of the Jewish Welfare Board may have been, a violin can at least remind us that the they in their image won’t always be in uniform. And the date preprinted on the poster happens to be Armistice Day.

Source: I first saw this poster by Josef Foshko on X-Ray Delta One, James Vaughan’s Flickr blog of old commercial images. But for the image that I photoshopped I went back to Vaughan’s source in the Museum of the City of New York, as reproduced in the exhibition blog “Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York,” https://blog.mcny.org/2017/04/04/posters-and-patriotism-selling-world-war-i-in-new-york/