She didn’t finish reading Mr. Bloom’s book. Nevertheless, she understood.
Happy Bloomsday, Mrs. Woolf.
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.
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.
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.”
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014684979/
In my post of September 9, 2018, I reproduce an image from Virginia Woolf’s photo album captioned, in writing that looks like Woolf’s, “Lytton Strachey & Yeats at Ottoline Morrell’s.” However, the man identified as Yeats doesn’t much resemble Yeats in other images.
And he isn’t. The photograph, taken by Lady Ottoline in June 1923, shows Woolf between Strachey and the Cambridge historian Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, another member of the Bloomsbury Group.
The Open Culture blogpost “Virginia Woolf’s Personal Photo Album Digitized & Put Online by Harvard,”
links to Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Monk’s House album 4, dated 1939 but containing items from earlier and later. Online, one undated page from the album looks like this.
Here’s a Photoshopped detail.
For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it! This!”
1. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925; New York: Harcourt, 2005) 42
2. Cornell University Press, 1990
3. Costică Acsinte Archive, Slobozia, Romania, https://www.flickr.com/photos/costicaacsinte/, image ca_20150309_21. Photoshopped.
A century later, the image in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection has gone humorous, the way items remembered after oblivion sometimes do. This item stimulates us neither to nostalgia nor to tragedy nor, thanks to the costume’s baggy knees, to the thought of eheu fugaces labuntur anni. The name “Hydroaeromaid” is comical too, with its philological odor of a tavern by a school during the Georgian era (“Ho, maid! Bring me a tankard of nut-brown ale whilst I construe me lines!”). * And so, looking at the image brought back to light, we laugh.
And because the light has been merciful and faded out some of the details, we photoshop. We wield the controls in the spirit of the post-Georgian nymph Dorothy Parker, who wouldn’t have been caught dead with baggy knees.
But long after the era of Dorothy Parker has passed, the girl in the image is still standing on her chair. What would she be now? What was she then, out of the uniform that was once fitted onto her by comedy in one of its sergeant-major moods? If we looked at her in a different way through Photoshop, would we be able to think of her now not as a what but as a who?
And then the image comes to me of an airplane seen at morning in a novel written just after the Georgian era, when the sight of an airplane was still something new: Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of Mrs. Dalloway it is nighttime, and in 1923, the year Mrs. Dalloway was published, airplanes generally weren’t flown after dark. But Mrs. Dalloway has returned home and changed her clothes, and the book’s last sentence ascends from the light of its page like an image newly revealed after a long darkness:
“For there she was.”
* Or, since the flag in the picture is American, of Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (serial publication 1911, publication as a novel 1912), whose hero fills his days quantum sufficit playing football, doing Latin, and adjourning to Morey’s for a toby of musty.
Update: from a pair of notes by Art Siegel at https://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/14440864879/ we learn that the model is named Pearl Palmer and she is posing for a trophy. Mr. Siegel also links to a not very clear contemporary photograph of the trophy, and the New York Tribune published this note about it on August 20, 1916, p. 13.
[Genshiro] Kawamoto, 81, was arrested Tuesday [March 5, 2013] in Tokyo for suspected tax evasion
. . .
In the late 1980s at the peak of Japan’s economic bubble, Kawamoto invested in Hawaii’s housing market, spending what he described as “pocket money” to buy nearly 200 homes around Oahu for at least $85 million.
. . .
[He] returned about a decade ago and began selling most of his homes that he had rented out with little upkeep over the preceding 15 years. Then he began buying up million-dollar estates on Kahala Avenue [a very wealthy neighborhood], spending close to $165 million for almost 30 homes over the last decade.
. . .
Kawamoto crudely broke down walls, leaving rubble lying about. He also filled in swimming pools, he said for liability reasons, and often let vegetation grow wild. Some of his homes fell into disrepair and racked up city fines. Several homes were demolished, some have been vandalized and some were sold.
On four properties he has arranged dozens of statues, including life-size lions, nudes and towering pagodas.
Caroline Bombar-Kaplan, a visitor from Washington state, couldn’t help stopping on the side of the road to take a closer look Tuesday. “I personally think it’s quite hideous,” she said. “It looks like they went to Costco and bought several six-packs of statues and then threw them all over.”
— Andrew Gomes, “Kawamoto is accused of tax evasion.” Honolulu Star-Advertiser 6 March 2013: B5-B6. Print.
The story you have just read has a genre name: catalogue raisonné. It is history’s overview of a work of performance art acted out across three decades. The artwork’s white marbles of tits & ass & lions have been erected on the red soil and porous black rock of Hawaii only to call attention by contrast to the artist’s invisible force of taste. Think of Charles Willson Peale converting a piece of wood into an imperishable extension into the mortal world of the undecaying idea of perspective.
The ground on which Peale shaped his idea was a canvas, but the ground on which the greater artist Genshiro Kawamoto shaped his idea was ground itself. Plowed by the force of the idea, a soil where rich people live brought forth a museum-quality work of arte povera. The cultivation which prepared the ground for that crop wasn’t a mere matter of bulldozer work, either. Kawamoto’s earthwork doesn’t merely move a form into another milieu, in the way that Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” transported a wharf for Charon onto the shore of a desert lake. No; having been built, Kawamoto’s earthwork established domain. In its domain, as domain, it can’t be owned, because it is nothing but a work of ownership. Its creator compounded the aesthetic interest accruing to white rock, the solvent smell of ever-freshening graffiti, and the invisible electronic atmosphere of money into a new thing: an art whose purpose is not to be bought and sold but to be buying and selling, per se. It is all legacy now: an estate that can never again be anything but real.
And now, somewhere between its prepared ground in Hawaii and a courtroom in Japan, the transaction that brought it forth seems to have been completed. Long days of emptiness must follow; long years of poverty among the money. But every artist comes in time to know that. It is the last spear thrust with the brush that will enable Genshiro Kawamoto too to say at last, “It is finished.”
Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was — her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
So goodbye, Mr. Kawamoto, and thanks. If I can get away with it, I’ll send you some kamaboko with a file baked inside.
My earlier posts about Mr. Kawamoto are
A small edit to the fashion dictum: clothes make the man of letters. At this late date you might not be able to identify Arthur Conan Doyle by his face, but a Sherlock Holmes costume is all it takes to return him to the time when his visage seemed unchangeably memorable. In Dover Publications’ Literature and Humanities catalog for October 2012, the Arthur Conan Doyle paper doll is an alpha body, dominating a whole page of other literature. Click his domain to enlarge it.
Like Sir Arthur with Holmes’s deerstalker cap, meerschaum pipe, and violin, the four other men in the advertisement for Literary Greats Paper Dolls are accessorized from the workshops of their own imaginations. Hemingway is carrying the old man’s big fish, Shakespeare is holding Yorick’s skull, Poe has shouldered his pallid bust and noir bird, and Mark Twain is toting Tom Sawyer’s bucket of whitewash. But the boys have been joined on their page by a woman, Virginia Woolf, and Mrs. Woolf seems to have arrived there from quite a different boutique. At first glance I thought she was wearing Orlando’s doublet and hose, but no.
Virginia Woolf – on the cover of this book, only she – did not dress herself. That creative task was delegated to someone working in another profession entirely. The clothes of the other writers bear labels cut from the spines of their own books – The Old Man and the Sea, “The Raven” – but Mrs. Woolf’s wardrobe master did his shopping among the discount racks of Dover Thrift Editions. There the customer information read, “Prose that is all nerve endings, nervous breakdowns, suicide,” with the cover term about language marked out. This remaindered Virginia Woolf was then dressed for publication by Sir William Bradshaw, the Harley Street psychiatrist of Mrs. Dalloway, and for her new cover shot he chose a straitjacket.
But what else could he have chosen? When I try to visualize Mrs. Dalloway myself, I see only the face of a movie star: Vanessa Redgrave in Mrs. Dalloway or Meryl Streep in The Hours. On the pages of the book, the words that might have described Clarissa Dalloway herself are sunk in inward reference. It is only from her sense of holding a needle and a thimble that we learn the color of her dress: green (35-36). When she crosses the room to console weeping Peter Walsh (46), she rustles and tinkles. But dresses also rustle and chains also tinkle in To the Lighthouse (152). It was Mrs. Dalloway’s clothes that made their comforting social sounds, not Mrs. Dalloway. And the hazy fabric has also blurred the outline of Mrs. Dalloway’s form.
But outside Mrs. Dalloway’s soul, where the haze (in her essay “Modern Fiction,” Woolf calls it a luminous halo) has not descended, vision and voice and outline remain sharp and clear. There in the zone of clarity, the book’s two villains, menacing Sir William and dreary Doris Kilman, strut forth under brilliant runway lighting, wearing a whole designer thesaurus of social markers. Doris and Sir William have upsprung into Mrs. Dalloway from the lower classes, both of them, and there is no luminous halo blurring Woolf’s vision when it is de haut en bas.
But Mrs. Dalloway once looked upward rather than down, and there she perceived a source of significance wholly different from her creator’s breeding.. From it there flowed a word in a silent language. Neither Mrs. Dalloway nor anyone else in that chapter of her book could read the word, but it communicated happiness to all, as if all could understand it. Mrs. Dalloway’s sensorium is hard to distinguish from Woolf’s as it responds, rising, to the skywritten word, but somewhere in the interior of one soul or the other there is a word for that wordless understanding: “ecstasy.” Literally, etymologically, the word means “standing outside oneself.”
It was strange; it was still. Not a sound was to be heard above the traffic. Unguided it seemed; sped of its own free will. And now, curving up and up, straight up, like something mounting in ecstasy, in pure delight, out from behind poured white smoke looping, writing a T, an O, an F. (28)
Up there, outside herself, what would Virginia Woolf have worn? If she had been a male author, of course, the fashion statement would have been easy to make. As Le Corbusier says, “One can pass judgment on a truly elegant man more conclusively than on a truly elegant woman, because male dress is standardized” (189, caption). So the creator of Sherlock Holmes stands out in his illustration by repeating Holmes’s gesture of wearing a country hat in the city; so the creator of Hamlet stands out by wearing Hamlet’s solemn black. “I have sought external significance by daring to approach the boundary of what is standard,” says such an act. And then it says, “See me there, and judge.” Because women clothe themselves less in order to speak that way to others than to tell themselves what they are, the act was less available to Mrs. Dalloway.
Fortunately for us and for Dover Publications, however, Mrs. Dalloway’s airplane offers to the imagination a function that Woolf’s friend T. S. Eliot called the objective correlative. Ascend, says the airborne rhythm of Woolf’s prose. Reading then, ascending as we read, we become passengers of Mrs. Dalloway as she rises on the scents of the florist’s shop: “light, very tall, upright” (12). Then, transported above ourselves, we touch down on a wing. On the wing waits our hostess, and she has dressed herself, by herself, for herself, at last. Close Sir Arthur’s and Sir William’s catalog, open Mrs. Woolf’s book, and see. She is in her gorgeous green paperwear.
Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, second edition (1928), trans. John Goodman. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1923; New York: Harcourt, 2005) and To the Lighthouse (1927; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).