In 2023 as in 1854

“bravery” doesn’t mean only “courage”;

it can also mean “dressing to show off.” Consider the rose in Herbert’s “Virtue,” with its “hue, angry and brave.”

Or, because the rose display can also include yellow, consider:




A daguerreotype dating from about 1855, this is object no. 84.XT.1582.3 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum,

Daguerreotypes can be erased from their metal backings as easily as the marks on a chalkboard, so the ones that have survived the era of their making are framed behind glass, like this one. Not shown here is the other half of the frame: a hinged cover, velvet-lined. It swings into place over the glass, doubling the protection of the image. .

[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument]
Post-processed for contrast and detail.
By 1855, American daguerreotypes were marketed in standard sizes — the bigger, the more expensive — and this one is the size called ninth-plate: the second-cheapest, at 2 by 2½ inches ( With its mercury surface enriched by tinting and set off in velvet with gold, the glittery little thing has been made into a gem. Whatever it was in 1855, it now asks to be understood as precious.

The museum has given the gem a provisional title, in brackets: “[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument].” In the absence of more specific information, the museum adds that the fireman’s name is lost, and so is the history of the act of heroism commemorated here by his medal and, presumably, his photograph. All that now remains of his value is a transmutation of his person. It is now purchasable as a work of lapidary art, as in his lifetime it was purchasable as flesh.

On October 1, 1851, at 5 PM, Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. [. . .] Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time. An intelligent and very well-behaved man, a mulatto.

We have to put the name “[Henry Williams]” in brackets too; the text makes that clear with its relative clause beginning “who has taken the name of.” Likewise subordinated to the status of a relative clause are the words “His master, who is his father.” Everywhere else, Thoreau’s paragraph is overflowing with Thoreau’s beloved details: the name of a county in Virginia, the name of the place where [Henry] slept, the insurmountable $100 difference for [Henry] between being free of his father and being his father’s possession. We owe this information exclusively to Henry Thoreau’s record. Aside from that, all we will ever be able to know of intelligent, well behaved [Henry] is what was once assessed in the market by his body’s raw material value as an alloy of white and black.

The fireman in his uniform is a civil servant like the Boston policeman. His service entails that he is to be known of by his externally visible attributes, not his name. If we’re accustomed to thinking of firemen as white, seeing this black fireman may make us stop seeing, for a moment, and start looking. But only for a moment. In his jewelbox, the fireman plays a cameo role.

Port: meta-roint

Yesterday I posted a comment praising one of my textless photographs for raising what the pork-offal commenter called incredible roints and sopid arguments. “Sopid,” I assume, is call-center English for “solid,” and “roints” is “points” with an anti-Bayesian Greek rho substituted for the Latin p.

Today that comment attracts a meta-comment, viz.:

F*ckin’ awesome issues here. I’m very glad to look your post.
Thanks so much and i’m taking a look ahead to contact you.
Will you kindly drop me a mail?

Like many other spam comments, this one is hosted by an internet provider in Buffalo, New York, a port on the Great Lakes. Buffalo is what’s called post-industrial, and without the economic activity generated by enterprises like its spamhost, it and its city dialect might now be as extinct as Cavafy’s Alexandria. But with every new click on a comment spam, the old port traffics again, and lives and evolves. Hear its former idiom “looking forward” change under the influence of trade between call-center India and hedge-fund America into “taking a look ahead.”

In 1845, about half a century after New England began industrializing, Henry David Thoreau sat down by a landlocked little lake in New England and wrote, “I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade; it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it is a good port and a good foundation. No Neva marshes to be filled, though you must every where build on piles of your own driving.” In 2016, the port of post-industrial Buffalo sinks piles into the deposits of its former physical language and opens itself to a new commerce with the ethereal. There, unmeaning words flow nonstop from click to click, lapping at piers to which nothing is moored.

Codes forever unbreaking


In his 2012 screenplay for Anna Karenina, Tom Stoppard envisions Anna’s world as a ballet russe. It isn’t a glamorous ballet, however. Startlingly, it offers its audience neither a box of Petipa chocolates nor a healthful diet Balanchine. No; it is as specifically as can be a Soviet ballet, all moralizing didactic pantomime. All it lacks in that respect is a score by Khachaturian. As a Soviet ballet, it makes itself inaccessible to any of Tolstoy’s evocations of thought and feeling, but it excels at realizing his narrative of surfaces, etiquettes, coded languages of the coutures of rank. The time of the commissars was one of the great eras when language communicated not directly but through a code – a code whose breakability was a secret not yet revealed.


It wasn’t the only such era, of course. To describe the return of the Marquis de Vardes to the court of Louis XIV after twenty years in exile, Mme. de Sévigné wrote a language that could just as well have been the dialect of Diana Vreeland.

He arrived on Saturday morning, looking quite extraordinary, and wearing an ancient justaucorps à brevet in the style of those worn in 1663. . . . After this first interview, the King caused M. le Dauphin to be called, and presented him to him as a young courtier, M. de Vardes recognized him and bowed to him. The King said to him laughingly: ‘Vardes, what a stupid thing to do, you know quite well that you do not bow to anyone when in my presence.’ M. de Vardes replied in the same tone: ‘Sire, I no longer know anything, I have forgotten everything, Your Majesty will will have to pardon me even thirty stupidities.’ ‘That I will,’ said the King, ‘you have twenty-nine left.’ Later, when the King made fun of his coat, M. de Vardes said: ‘Sire, when a man is so wretched as to be banished from your presence, he is not only unfortunate, he becomes ridiculous as well.’

Gilette Ziegler, At the Court of Versailles: Eye-Witness Reports from the Reign of Louis XIV, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (1966; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), 154-55.

The etiquette governing that conversation was, you see, entirely impersonal. Like a physical law, it enforced itself equally and disinterestedly on both the subject and his king. And the ancient historian Carlin A. Barton has generalized an anthology of such anecdotes into something like a  code dictionary. With its help, we can begin to decrypt what our ancestors spoke without themselves understanding,

It seems that the restraints of Roman decorum grew ever more subtle and elaborate in the period of the civil wars and after. . . . Walking, sitting, reclining, facial expressions and gestures, and, above all, speech – its tone and tenor, rhythm and accent – were subject to regulation according to a set of increasingly refined stylistic models. Every aspect of the individual’s appearance and behavior was scrutinized and subject to strictures, ignorance of which invited ridicule and exclusion. . . . The esoteric, exclusive, highly scripted politesse of the Romans rigidly segregated them. To enter the society of the elite from the outside required total immersion in the fastidious etiquette that distinguished it. . . . And not even the preeminence of Hadrian could save him from being mocked in the Senate for his Spanish accent.

The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 115-16.


The process of decryption can also work at shorter distances from the past – for instance, if we apply it to the corpus of the Soviet novelist F. S. Gladkov (1883-1958), author of the paradigmatic Socialist-Realist fiction, Cement. According to Pavla Veselá (104-05), that book went through 36 editions between 1925 and 1958, with Gladkov diligently rewriting full time, year after year, to reflect the ever-changing Party line and its ever-changing rules for properly interpreting the Socialist Real. But of course neither Cement’s title nor its plot (after the revolution and the civil war, heroic workers and their even more heroic leader rebuild the ruined cement works!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) could be acknowledged to have been brought, even once, into the presence of any of that change. A total society is like the perfect work envisaged in the Brahman fantasy at the end of Walden: into it time does not enter.

(Fyodor Gladkov, Cement, trans. Liv Tadge. 1981; Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1985.

(Pavla Veselá, “The Hardening of Cement: Russian Women and Modernization.” NWSA Journal 15.3 [2003]: 104-23.)


Into language itself, of course, time enters slowly when it enters at all. When we read an English translation of a Russian novel of social change like Cement, for instance, we may want to keep in mind that the Russian language has no articles. The distinction between “a” and “the,” communicated explicitly in English, is communicated in Russian through context, and of course context is difficult to translate. However, there can be no doubt at all (at least in the translation I’ve read) that Gladkov’s cement mill is a the, not an a. To the workers who scurry around it like worker ants around their queen, it is all there is: sole object in their sole world. In one of the book’s most powerful passages, a little girl dies of lack of love because her mother has forbidden herself to live for anything except the mill. When the mill reopens at last, therefore, we are to regard that change as not just final but definitively final. Redeeming every pain and every death, it realizes the definite article: the moment of happily ever after. Following that utterance, nothing need ever change again.

The siren is the wordless birth cry of an eternal moment in the present tense, a full happiness ever in being because ever becoming. Of course F. S. Gladkov’s language changed with every breeze that rippled the flag held by his hero Gleb, but because Gleb was a part of the language himself he couldn’t know that. To him the words he spoke just before he grabbed hold of the flag (“We’re building socialism, comrades, building our own proletarian culture. . . Onwards to victory, comrades! . . .” [405; ellipses in original]) were a code which had finally been broken by the siren. Broken, it promised to release – any second now, as soon as the siren lets up! – a totally decrypted, totally comprehensible communication – a noise! a beautiful noise! – from the dead husks of what once was language. But the history of total societies always tacks the same distressingly happy ending onto that story. It assures us that language always outwaits the noise, reencodes itself, and goes right back to its life of crime, happily pushing ballerina after ballerina, forever after, under the wheels of the Moscow-St. Petersburg Express.

Unconscious despair: the face of the consolation prize


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

Walden, chapter 1



Bravery: “Finery, fine clothes.”  — Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3b

Subordinate clause: a sentence for the party of states’ rights and family values

At 5 PM on October 1, 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. Heard that there were writs out for two Williamses, fugitives. . . . Accordingly fled to Concord last night on foot. 

In mid-nineteenth-century American English, “into the cars” meant “on the train.” However, the terms “agent” and “writ” haven’t changed since Thoreau’s time. They still have the social meanings now that they possessed in 1860, when

the South’s 4 million enslaved human beings were worth between $3 billion and $4 billion: the largest single asset in the entire United States, representing more than the value of all the nation’s railroads and factories combined. Slaves, even more than land, were Southern planters’ safest and most lucrative investment. Prices had been skyrocketing — doubling in the 1850s alone. Natural human reproduction ensured a further return. Slaves could easily be rented, mortgaged, or liquidated. A planter’s slaves were often, in modern terms, not just his work force, but also his stock portfolio.

(Adam Goodheart, “The Color of Money,” New York Times Online 21 June 2011)

With that transactional economics in mind, look at the little phrase I’ve printed in red above: “who is his father.” Grammar calls such an array of words a subordinate clause, meaning that it’s a statement of doing, being, or occurring which depends for its meaning on another statement of doing, being, or occurring. The word “because” in “Because I could not stop for death” changes a complete sentence into a subordinate clause. It’s an agent, like the man in 1851 who presumably charged a fee for trying to change Henry Williams’s relationship with his father from servile to independent.

The transaction wasn’t completed in Thoreau’s lifetime, but for a while in the twentieth century it seemed that the period at the end of the sentence could be in view and it might one day be possible to think of people as priceless. However, the grammar of politics is stubborn and conservative. Perhaps the family history of slavery and freedom is only a cyclical narrative after all, like Walden or the twin narratives of Isaac and Ishmael. If it is, the party of Ayn Rand may understand the idea of subordination better than the party of Henry David Thoreau. For the father and son in Thoreau’s little tale, at any rate, subordination is the basis to which words always return when they need to represent people in relation to other people. That power transaction is language at its ground state: the fathering grammar of what the New England conservative Emily Dickinson called (in “There’s a certain slant of light”)

internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –