Strapped into a prosthetic technology, the eye can stop going naked. Hardening layer by layer, it no longer has merely to see. Now it can look.
We are tempted to read about before reading, and then to read before seeing.
Here, for instance, is a photograph in an unedited, as-is state. You can see that it’s a low-contrast image of the deck of a steamship, mounted with visible tabs on a page of an album. With its four big funnels, the ship looks antique, and it seems likely that the image itself had more tonal range before it began deteriorating with time. But there probably isn’t enough information in the image to make that temporal context into anything like a history.
So go ahead now and try the experiment of reading about and then succumbing to the text. It’s at the other end of this image’s link to a record in the Library of Congress, and it can reward your effort with wordy materials for, if not a history, at least a journalism. The words will fill in the gaps that you may be sensing as you read. One pair of them of them will say, for instance, New York. Date, June 1911. Occasion for creation, completion of the maiden voyage of a passenger liner.
But then, as it proceeds to write itself, the journal will name a name. From the unassisted image itself you might have been able to deduce a location (New York’s Metropolitan Life Tower is visible) and at least one indication of a date range (the Metropolitan Life Tower was completed in 1909). But the name is wholly aniconic. It was printed on the ship, but not in any location visible from this image. You can read it only offsite, and only as a text. It says Olympic.
That, then, changes this image from an icon to a history, and if you know that history from before you will suddenly be filled with the desire to stop seeing this image and instead see an almost but not quite identical image — an image of something that isn’t in fact there. The city will be the same, and probably the pier. The naval architecture will be essentially unchanged too. Only the date will be significantly different: no longer June 1911 but a short time afterward, April 1912. And the name: no longer Olympic but . . .
Oh, you know. And suddenly you’ll realize that (a) most of the image you’ve just seen has been replaced by a fiction,
and (b) what remains will be something you no longer want to see. Filled with impatience before the actual, you won’t want to look at it; you’ll want only to refer from it to a history of something nonexistent. You’ll want to see that — or if not that, at least something as close as possible to that; a that by analogy.
So you’ll bring up this image of Olympic’s body in Photoshop. Make me a metaphor from this, you’ll think as you press keys. Bring sister Titanic before me as an ideal form, crisp and high-contrast and now safe at the pier where she was always meant to be. If that doesn’t give me the power to change the ending of her story, at least I can make a photokeepsake.
But the imaged actuality recorded in the Library never was crisp or high-contrast. It was an actuality of the age of coal, when white was never white but a spectrum of Whistler grays. To recover definition from this artifact is not to make it seeable again; it is only to make it seeable-through from the true actual gray to the false ideal white. If we are actually to teach ourselves to see, we may need the aid of one of those crippling prostheses manufactured for educational purposes: the bellypack bag half full of sloshing water that teaches men what it is like to walk while pregnant; the distorting lenses that teach cataract-vision. On an image, the phototechnical purpose of such an exercise would be straightforward. I shouldn’t want to recover a definition that wasn’t there in 1911; I ought instead to recreate 1911 sight, with its loss of definition. Since this is a photograph, I shouldn’t desire it to transcend its limits and write itself into an unabridged spectral history. I should desire only to read a history of how this ship was seen through smoke. It would be a matter of refusing to overlook mere appearances. If there is a timeless, essential, mythical beauty in this image, let it wait for now. Instead, let’s make a new memory of something we may not be old enough to have experienced: a memory of smoke.
You make the Photoshop decision accordingly and shift the curves to favor the smoke. It dims the distance, lightens the shadows, translates the lifeboats with their sun-reflecting covers from chiaroscuro to grisaille — and then, a moment ahead of this one, it will take back all those effects and start over. There is no consistency here, no lasting value, no dramatic arc; only a play of surfaces, changing without ever rising to a meaning.
And no doubt the superficial, the business of surfaces, deserves its bad rap. The Olympic didn’t sink but came in time to a boring undramatic end in a scrapyard, and of course you’d rather overlook that contextless superficial fact on your way to an in-depth pseudo-memory of Titanic, colorized with metaphor:
Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch. Let’s [meaningful pause] stretch her legs.
But there’s this to be said for the superficial and the rude wordless stare at it: at least it sometimes lets you see what it is you actually have seen, whether or not you knew it at the time.
Source: William Herman Rau, album The S. S. OLYMPIC (eighteen images). Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/coll/item/2005690637/.
Meanwhile, far below, the musicians tune up for the last dance, which (for the convenience of the men of first class who will shortly be boarding the lifeboats) is to be held en travesti. Letter to the editor, New York Times 4 August 2016:
It is time for responsible Republicans to abandon the sinking ship into which Donald Trump is poking holes and set about fine-tuning their primary system to prevent this travesty from happening again.
RMS Olympic arrives in New York on her maiden voyage, June 21, 1911. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004009371/. Photoshopped.
In Southampton, the New York had become an interesting footnote to the history of tragedy two years earlier, on April 10, 1912, when suction generated by the propellers of the departing Titanic tore the smaller ship from its mooring and drew it toward the Titanic’s stern. Only skillful ship-handling by the Titanic’s Captain Edward J. Smith averted a collision and allowed the Titanic to resume its journey toward the iceberg. That enriches the New York’s log for April 10, 1912, with irony. By comparison, the log for any other day in the ship’s long history (1888-1923) might as well be blank.
So this second image of the New York on August 9, 1914, is all but meaningless to the kind of history that consists in a log of things seen. The second image was taken closer to the ship in space and time, but proximity has left little ironic context within the image frame for a log’s words to work on. If anything, the camera’s privileged proximity has erased the rest of the contextual universe from consideration. Unlike the first image, this one fills the visual field solely with itself. There, it is nothing but a view of morally neutral steel, and of some human flesh seen in incidental connection with the steel.
But look anyway at these smiling faces steel-engraved into the image. They are among the first refugee photographs of the Great War, and that is their claim on us and on memory. The claim isn’t visible within the image, however. Under that limiting spectral circumstance, the bodies pressed against a port-side railing on board the New York can be seen now only as representations of what is not present to the eye. As of August 9, 1914, in New York, the war zone is still elsewhere. We see the faces that have arrived from there, but as of August 9 we’ll never yet be ready to understand what there will look like and how history will remember it.
Instead, we (don’t we? don’t you?) scroll back up to look again at the pretty ship New York and its busily helping tugs, two of whom have names we can make out: Claremont and Excelsior. Excelsior is the motto of New York State and also the title of an easy-to-read inspirational poem by Longfellow, composed during an era when great ships were being strenuously conceived. But August 9, 1914, was one of the dates when reading poetry began getting harder. If you come close enough now to this picture of a ship approaching land, you may feel the little zephyr of a closing book.
Sources: “NEW YORK arrives, 8/9/14” and “On NEW YORK.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005017039/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005017040/. The two larger images have been photoshopped.
It’s the nature of their profession: most journalists are forgotten as soon as history has erased the events they recreated as words. The British journalist W. T. Stead has a place in the history of Victorian social reform, but if he’s remembered outside that subject area (Library of Congress class HN, “social reform”) it’s probably only for his death. Clio once told us about that event, and people still care to remember: wordy Mr. Stead rode to his wordless end in the Titanic on a first-class ticket, no. 113514, for which he paid 26 pounds 11 shillings.
Of the events before the voyage, less survives. That’s probably why I didn’t receive the communication when I first saw George Frederic Watts’s “The Minotaur.”
Click to enlarge.
I knew the story of Pasiphae’s monstrous son, but in this image I saw only a horned and wistful prisoner. The term “hybridity” was fashionable in my profession a few years ago, and here was the hybrid himself, gazing forlornly from his parapet.
Night coming tenderly,
Black like me.
But yes, I am a member of the profession. I knew that Watts is conventionally considered a symbolist artist, so I proceeded to look up his symbol. It was right there, too, in its holding institution’s institutional footnote.
Watts, an allegorical painter who employed art to convey moral messages, uses the character of the Minotaur to signify man’s bestiality and especially male lust. The making and meaning of The Minotaur can be traced to the social purity crusades against child prostitution, which led in 1885 to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In the forefront of these crusades was the figure of W.T. Stead (1849-1912), whose series of articles on the London trade in child prostitution were published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885 under the title ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Stead’s explicit references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur throughout his exposé reputedly inspired the subject of Watts’s painting: ‘The appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable’, wrote Stead; ‘If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make’ (quoted in Mathews, p.339). Watt’s close friend Mrs Russell Barrington records how The Minotaur was painted with unusual rapidity early one morning in response to ‘a painful subject’ that ‘had filled one of the evening papers’; almost certainly the Pall Mall Gazette (Barrington, pp.38-9). When The Minotaur was first shown, at the Liverpool Autumn exhibition of 1885, Watts explained that his aim in painting it had been ‘to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal’ (quoted in Art Journal, 1885, p.322).
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-the-minotaur-n01634/text-summary Text by Rebecca Virag, March 2001
And I had failed to detest. Watts’s image of the Minotaur was created with an explicit intention, as part of a social context current as of 1885, and because I didn’t know my 1885 I derived an experience out of keeping with the intention. I saw a picture, but I was meant to see an illustration.
That failure of mine wasn’t just a failure of history; it was also a failure of grammar. I should have recalled that when an image bears a title that is explicitly allusive, like “The Minotaur,” that title is a predication: a statement of doing, being, or occurring. Some of those predications are even independent clauses, uttering their allusions as if they possessed stand-alone significance. Millais’s “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,” for instance, shows us a Ferdinand, an Ariel, and a luring: object, subject, and verb. The sentence encodes an explicit intention. It means to translate a Shakespearean stage direction into body language.
Even if the image’s title is only a noun phrase, literary context can provide an understood verb to complete the predication. In the nature of language, we can’t see Hunt’s “Lady of Shalott” crying, “The curse is come upon me,” but we can see that her web is floating wide and her mirror is crack’d from side to side. The lady’s words can’t be illustrated, but the poet’s words can. Tennyson’s poem is still ubiquitous in print, too, so the lady is still employed as a cover girl by The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Victorian volume. From there she reminds us of our duty to understand what she’s saying.
But copies of The Pall Mall Gazette from the Victorian era have lost their ubiquity. Because the world stopped being Victorian before I was born, I couldn’t understand a priori that when Watts painted his Minotaur he was obeying the rules of at least three grammars: one grounded in classical mythology, another grounded in the classrooms of Eton and Oxford, and a third grounded upon the street grid of Dickens’s London. Unable to access any of those grammars except the first, I could only see Watts’s image as an image. It is actually an illustration, but until I read the words of a curator’s annotation I couldn’t know that because I didn’t know what it was an illustration of.
That is, I’d made the anachronistic mistake of failing to read a Victorian image by the rules of language. Watts painted his language picture in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t until five years after Queen Victoria’s death that Pablo Picasso first saw language as a blemish on his working surfaces. In 1906, on the canvas Picasso was preparing to receive a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein, language had left its preemptive mark: the illustrative word of. In 1906, Picasso erased it. Modeling the face of his portrait not on Miss Stein but on an African mask where the representation was built up from a simple array of geometric shapes on a disc, Picasso achieved, for the first time in history, a picture that renounced any claim to be a picture of — of Gertrude Stein or of anyone or anything else. Thenceforth, forever, if an image took dominion over a space, it took dominion on its own terms, not language’s. If an image’s title happened to look like a predication, that appearance too was a part of the image. No grammar can slip you through the mesh of Marcel Duchamp’s wire cage full of little marble cubes, the one titled “Why Not Sneeze?” There is nothing in that cage but more cage. Wonderfully, Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee turned out not to have had to be anything but a parallelogram.
But the parallelogram you see here isn’t a Stevens. It’s still an illustration, still the artifact of a journalistic, pre-Picasso way of seeing. It still retains an of: an of whose shape is an exception to the rule of parallelogram. The exception has taken the form of a date written by fiat into the parallelogram: 1944. Nineteen forty-four was the year when Jews in France began taking off the yellow fiat star that Gertrude Stein had never been forced to wear. In parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, that same year, a painter wrote an unanswerable question on a billboard. It will have to be history, not poetry, that teaches us to read it.
The Tennessee billboard bearing that question was in Oak Ridge, where minutes did count in 1944 but words didn’t happen to be the normative way of counting. In 1944 Oak Ridge was in a special language district, under the seal of silence. Secretly, a large-scale deconstruction avant la lettre was under way there: a tinkering with the grammar of the periodic table with the intention of producing a nuclear bomb. Oak Ridge’s work of fission, current within nature’s labyrinth as of 1944, remains current within the labyrinth today. But today we can tour the labyrinth and then move on to the art museum, talking as we go. The souvenir we pick up there may be museological, too: an experience to put on a bookshelf with our other words. The next time we pull them down and read them, they will be unstoppably on their way into a past. Looking back at them as they recede, realizing that even from the past they will still call to us, we may conclude that poets, even after Stein and Stevens, won’t find it as easy as painters did after Picasso to erase the incriminating word of. Perhaps the unsayable things of 1944 or 1885 will always recur: unforgotten, unforgettable, but still unsayable. From any new poem something will always have just escaped and returned to the library where the old words are. Fugitive but secure there, it will claim to be the permanent property of a grammar not yet released to understanding. From the labyrinth it will still call out:
“I am not guilty of what you see around you. I have become absent from that now. I am only an image. I am only an image of.”
Images by Watts, Millais, and Hunt from 120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009).
Image of the Oak Ridge billboard from “The Secret City,” The Atlantic 25 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/06/the-secret-city/100326/ Caption in the online article: “A billboard in Oak Ridge, photographed during WW II, on January 21, 1944.”
For the composition of Picasso’s “Portrait of Miss Gertrude Stein,” see Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; rpt. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1984).