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.
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.
A year after the Great War, life was still bringing forth cripples. In the New York Tribune for September 21, 1919, news of the routine event made page 12.
A century later, this article is still generically recognizable as a human-interest feature, but its language hasn’t aged well. In 1919 it tried in its generic way to communicate a sense of warm-heartedness, but as of 2017 the temperature of the heart is to be taken in a different range of the thermal spectrum. “Propaganda in behalf of one-legged boys”? “To hunt up and help all crippled boys and men”? Or
The cripples play every day at noon. Every morning and afternoon they work at bench trades, learning to be draughtsmen, jewellers and typewriter repairmen
? No, we don’t say such things now. They have become obsolete. The noun “cripple” has gone the way of the draftsman and the typewriter repairman and the typewriter. In their Bain News Service photograph the cripples themselves now seem little more than components of an abstract textural study comprising a wall of antique handmade bricks, a cluttered dirt surface, and, off to the side, half of a boy without a face. Two decades later, Walker Evans would redo the same formal presentation with another brick wall and a poster of black dancing girls and a stationary wagon with a team of mules.
That image from Alabama in 1936 is famous now. I don’t need to reproduce it here; you can find it in any history of photography. But this prior image?
Almost incidentally in the center are also a one-legged boy with a baseball catcher’s backward cap but no mask or glove, and another boy, a dwarf in little-boy shorts, playing batter. Citation counts in the history of photography will tell us that these human beings have meant less than Evans’s mules. They have spoken to history only the accidentally ironic words that the Bain News Service wrote on their image for them, with its adjective scratched in by Great War reflex and then scratched back out:
ARMY CRIPPLES AT BASEBALL
Those words and that strikethrough have defined the cripples ever since. It has reduced them to a textbook example of irony. And because their image has been transformed by words into something merely exemplary, it probably can’t accommodate the extra non-verbal value of (for instance) colorization. Their caption has reduced them and their name (“Cripples”) to allegorical abstractions. Speaking the dialect of caption, they now tell us only a moral tale in a dead language, archived only in black and white.
Whereas these words and this image from the lower left corner of the newspaper page . . .
She is an idol of nameless wordless life, the unendingly changing. All of her and her breathlessly capitalized Kitten’s Ear Crepe we can love, forever. Six years from now, she may take on, for a moment, the name of Daisy Buchanan. Trembling with anticipation, we read down the page to where she now waits below the fold, and deck her image with Photoshop gold and pink.
As to the cripples, their pre-Photoshop image has now faded almost to vanishing. It can mean little more to memory now than they now do.
But within the image the unfaded caption is still blackly clear — in fact clearer now than it was in 1919, when it was camouflaged by freshly photographed bricks. One day in 1919 a stylus scratched a caption so far through the picture of the bricks laid down in photosensitive emulsion that it reached the hard all-revealing glass of the emulsion’s backing and left there a passage for light to pass through. Passing through ever since, light has faithfully continued transmitting the cripples’ archaic name (“Cripples”) from its incised archive to us and our time. And the name grows darker year by year as the image of crippled bodies fades to white.
But “at baseball”? What can unfade that phrase?
Under at, the OED explains, in language left unchanged since its first edition a century ago:
In his novel, Jane Austen’s Mr. Palmer, exemplifying what Austen calls his Epicurism, is at billiards; on their glass plate the cripples are at baseball. The at phrases and their grammar ought to be equivalent, but they aren’t. I can easily visualize Mr. Palmer, but even with the cripples’ photograph right before me I can barely see them. Somehow, “at billiards” communicates more from the nineteenth century than “at baseball” communicates from the twentieth.
One reason may be that the photograph imposes physical limits on the scope of the words it contains. The cripples’ at is a word from the universe of 1919, only, as seen in an image representing a moment in 1919, only. As its surrounding photograph has become archaic, it has become archaic. Surrounded on all sides by change, it walls off a corpus of the unchanged. But in the invisible medium of the unillustrated, Mr. Palmer’s at lives on for at least a while longer. Unbounded by the borders that constrain image, the archive of imagination has made room within itself for one more old word, communicating one more new meaning.
By the summer of 1922, ten years after the event, Meyer Wolfsheim had shaped its memory into a well formed, well rehearsed narrative, organized classically into beginning, middle, and end. “The old Metropole,” ran Mr. Wolfsheim’s beginning. “Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can’t forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there.”
During the event’s immediate aftermath, of course, the classical hadn’t yet gone into effect. The very long article that the New York Times published on July 26, 1912, for instance, couldn’t settle down to its storytelling until it had jittered and rasped its way through a pre-classical lead-in groove communicating little more than surface noise. That was the pre-narrative sound-effect analogue of a stage direction reading, “Time: the present.”
Likewise, the contemporaneous photograph that accompanied the article was little more than beginner’s literature, with content predetermined by a didactic caption right up top and a moral communicated by a pair of overly obvious symbols: on one side of the image’s woman protagonist a dark portal, on the other a sign proclaiming, with sweatily indignant irony, “Tables for ladies.” The picture story’s supporting roles, too, betray negligence in the casting department. Pigeontoed gumshoe in ill-fitting suit, bald and distressed proprietor wanting to get back inside: the hiring decision that brought these types onto the scene was 9-to-5 hackwork. This photographed setting is just a trailer for a story that (the picture promises us) is fully communicated somewhere else. It satisfies nothing but whatever demand there may be for an illustration of the words “Dodging camera.” In a composition that amateurishly cancels out the overdetermined with the unseen, can Rose be more interesting than the dark behind the door to her right?
But now submit the image to the discipline of the classical. Delete the dark, for instance, and make Rose symmetrical by arranging for her to become a center. Then see:
The delicate mesh purse, the clutched glove, the ungloved fingers daintily curled beside the daintily tenacious thumb and index, the drooping plumes atop what was called, at the time, a picture hat . . .
Seen now merely as she is, freed from the interpretive shackles of her caption, Rose has become fully visible. Now the details of her image have acquired significance and become character attributes. They are honest agents of their protagonist now, working hard to conform themselves to the Aristotelian unities. A photographer has caught them in the act of policing themselves into subordination to the art of the photograph, which is the art of being caught in the act.
On a stage somewhere else, perhaps in the same moment, an artist in a different medium is making cognate gestures in obedience to the discipline of his own art. This artist is a worker in sound, but at the moment he has become quiet —
Vorsichtig löst er den Helm und hebt ihn der Schlafenden vom Haupte ab: langes lockiges Haar bricht hervor. Siegfried erschrickt.
(He carefully unfastens the helmet and lifts it from the sleeper’s head. Long, curling hair pours out. Siegfried is startled.)
— and as we watch, his silence pours from the stage, fills the theater, and becomes another episode, this one silent, of the story noisily illustrated elsewhere by a photograph and a set of stacked headlines. There on the sidewalk in front of Hanover Lunch, the corresponding part of the story turns out to be an American translation of the moment when the warrior woman Brünnhilde was put to sleep somewhere in Germany, there to await the future.
Looking at the photograph, we may still think it differs from the opera. But the classical organization of detail is the same in both works of art, and perhaps the only significant reason for difference is that the art of helmet-making underwent changes between Wagner’s time and, say, Otto Dix’s. In the days of the helmet-shaped picture hat, a single image of the deathly still could be beautiful enough to startle a heroic tenor into silence. Ten years later, it was only the subject of a picturesque anecdote told by Mr. Wolfsheim to his indulgent young friend Major Gatsby, who had already seen the sights from under a helmet of his own.
After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe — Paris, Venice, Rome — collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.
From the window of Jay Gatsby’s car, Nick Carraway sees “A dead man . . . in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday” (73).
Early in 1924, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was at work on The Great Gatsby, The Saturday Evening Post, the most important outlet for his magazine fiction, was serializing a book by the anti-immigration propagandist Lothrop Stoddard called Racial Realities in Europe. Week by week the serial unscrolled a physical anthropology of short upper lips before the Post’s readers, and it asked them to look at what was before and around them as a tragedy of the dolicho-blond.
The Nordic is essentially a high-standard man. He requires healthful living conditions, and pines when deprived of good food, fresh air and exercise. . . . Under modern conditions . . . the crowded city and the cramped factory weed out the Nordic much faster than they do the Alpine or the Mediterranean, both of which stocks seem to be able to stand such an environment with less damage to themselves. It is needless to add that the late war and its aftermath have been terrible blows to the Nordic race.
Racial Realities in Europe substantially repeats Stoddard’s earlier book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, and it’s a commonplace of undergraduate annotation that Fitzgerald must have been thinking of Stoddard when he has the distasteful Tom Buchanan recommend “‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires,’ by this man Goddard” (17). If Tom views colored empires with Goddardian alarm, then perhaps (says The Great Gatsby’s communication at this point) that which will deliver Gatsby’s golden life to death may be Goddard’s Disease, malignant pallor. In the historical event, the propaganda campaign coordinated after the Great War by the racial thinkers Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn was to culminate in an act of congress, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which effectively reduced the sonnet mounted on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty (“I lift my lamp beside the golden door”) to an irony in a dead language.
But go back prewar and look at the photograph that illustrates Maria Todorova’s recent book review in the TLS. Most of the faces in this southeastern European street scene are broadly smiling, and their upper lips are so short that the faces have become comic masks. Mouths laughingly stretch themselves to lip their buddy noses, and the funniest, shortest-lipped face in the picture belongs to a boy whose whole body, clad in old, too-small clothes and old, too-big shoes, seems to be a happy retelling in clownface of a joke about innocence.
The book under review is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, and the photograph is captioned simply, “Belgrade, July 29, 1914.” Of course the effect of those words, 99 years later, is to instruct us to reread the comic image in a surprising new way. Their mobilization orders have just been posted, and these Serbs are happy.Little do they know. Somebody at the TLS predicted that a surprise like that would give readers a moment of tragic pleasure, and a request for reprint permission was accordingly placed with an agency called Bridgeman Art Library. For amplifying and clarifying a communication in the language of the heart, that request communicated an idea of money well spent.
It was a request with a history extending all the way back to that instant of photographic exposure in 1914. Even after the instant had reached the age of ninety-nine years, it was still covered by a copyright held by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung as successor to the photograph’s original publisher, Scherl-Verlag. The founder of Scherl-Verlag, August Scherl (1849-1921), was to German journalism what Pulitzer and Hearst were to American journalism, and in 1913 an American journalist, Frederic William Wile, wrote that the Scherl technique of teaching through journalism had permanently changed German ways of experiencing the emotional effects of history.
Of course, in retrospect, it appears that there’s a difference in meaning between the words about Scherl that Wile set down on his page in 1913 (“he had exploited almost every important field of human activity”) and the words we try to distinguish on the same page in 2013. The gulf between 1913 and 1914 aside, the admiring Wile was a Jew, and long after Scherl’s death Scherl-Verlag was taken over by the Nazi publisher Franz Eher. The retrospective difficulty that that causes for the reading of Wile’s words carries over to a difficulty in seeing Scherl’s images, and of course this difficulty is a general effect. Mutatis mutandis, it will interfere with any reading that ventures close to history. To marvel at the image below, for instance, would have been to experience one thing in 1914, something else in 1918, a third thing in, say, 1945, and a fourth in 2013, when a British publisher paid a British agency to arrange for the erasure of these German watermarks on behalf of the 21st-century book reviewer Maria Todorova.
So even now, after payment has been made and the cleaned image has been published in high resolution, we readers who follow in the trace laid down for us by Maria Todorova can’t see all of it. Long before the image passed under the control of copyright, it had been stamped with a primary watermark which was indelible because invisible. The mark imposed on the image by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2013canbe paid off and sent into erasure, but below it there remains the unseeable mark which was laid down forever as from July 29, 1914. Once upon a time on a street in Belgrade, a photographer aimed a camera at some men and some boys during an instant when they entered into an existence which (as it happens) was to become the subject of tragic fantasy a century later. According to the caption outside the image frame, the time was July 29, 1914. But at the instant of light in 1914 no one brought into in the image frame could have realized the momentary blaze within the camera as a change in the ways of being. A fraction of a second after history opened before a boy with a short upper lip, a shutter closed down again on the uninterrupted continuity of some lives that always had been and thenceforth always would continue to be in dark.
Now, 99 years later, on a page surrounding a frame filled with a photographically generated pattern of shadow and light, some words outside the frame offer you, in exchange for a credit card payment to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a bigger, clearer view of whatever it is that’s in the frame. It may be history; it may be art. Within the frame there are also some words, distractingly reiterating Süddeutsche ZeitungPhotoSüddeutsche Zeitung Photo. Pay me, promises Süddeutsche Zeitung, and I will clear those. You’ll see much farther into the frame then. At the least, you’ll be three words closer to the image plane.
But there are other words within the image plane itself, and those will have to remain uncovered by the terms of the exchange. They will be the names of everything there that is dead: the words that weren’t recorded during the instant when the camera opened itself to the light of July 29, 1914. Unspoken, they’ll always have rendered their speakers invisible, no matter what has been done in the dark since the instant of unspeaking.
Keep a stiff upper lip, then. Put the credit card back in your wallet and remind yourself: little will I know.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew Bruccoli. 1925. New York: Scribner, 1992.
“Frederic W. Wile, News Columnist.” Obituary. New York Times 8 April 1941. Online.
Stoddard, Lothrop. “Racial Realities in Europe,” installment 1 of 12. Saturday Evening Post 22 March 1924: 14+. Rpt. in Racial Realities in Europe (New York: Scribner, 1925).
—. The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. New York: Scribner, 1920.
Todorova, Maria. “Outrages and Their Outcomes.” Review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark. TLS 4 January 2013: 9-10. This review contains a high-resolution four-column print of the Belgrade street scene.
Wile, Frederic William. Men Around the Kaiser: The Makers of Modern Germany. London: Heinemann, 1913.