Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
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.
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 : 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.
“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
Sunset, Kamiloiki Valley, Honolulu, April 17, 2011
Click to enlarge.
This landscape is a complex of the human and the inhuman, changing as the inhuman light changes around it. Because it’s a complex, it’s available to interpretation and judgment and the partialities of art. But photography’s way of recording the changing sky over a changed ground seems different from anything else available to a human artist. Consider, by way of contrast, this written recording.
The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am.
The landscape through which Henry David Thoreau travels here is a constructed one with people in it, and Thoreau observes it and the people with all his senses. This passage from Walden begins in the kinesthetics of a solitary walk and expands into the stylized dance of the social. But then, magically, its grammar changes and it makes an escape from anything that might merely be seen, as it might be in a photograph.
Photography, after all, is the art of the indicative mood. It originates in the idea of a fully automatic, fully self-generating art, one in which the human artist is reduced to the subordinate function of middleman between the camera and its subject. Of course that automatism never completes itself by becoming fully inhuman; it’s always interrupted by the moment when a human being decides whether or not to allow the shutter to open. But a human being holding a camera is more anchored to the indicative and its limitations than a human being holding, say, a paintbrush. The indicative will impose its agenda.
The photographer Arthur Fellig, for instance, worked under the byline of Weegee, as in “Ouija board,” because (he said) his agenda gave him psychic powers. The moment a photogenic crime occurred, Weegee said, his elbow would start itching, and that was the agenda’s order to get in his car with its developing tank and contact printer in the trunk, turn on the police radio, and head for the scene. Once he was there, the equipment could take over and carry the agenda to completion. Look, Weegee’s Speed Graphic and flashbulb and high-contrast paper would say then: blood on the sidewalk. But – perhaps because Thoreau’s walk to town along the railroad track is described in the chapter of Walden called “Sounds” – it ends in a soaring upward from the completely seen, in the indicative mood, to the not yet seen, in the optative.
I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.
And with the recording of that sentence, photography has been left behind. Photography, it turns out, is an art form incapable of communicating a future tense. In the moments when it communicates wide-eyed with us, what it communicates is only the Little did they know sense of the present learning the truth that the past has been trying to say. Thoreau’s art is an art looking upward from the lighted earth to a not yet illuminated future; photography is an art caught forever on the boundary of blinding light between what we see in the present and what we are about to cease forever to see.
For recording his subjects’ instants on that boundary, Weegee preset the Speed Graphic to f16 and always used flash.
About Weegee: http://museum.icp.org/museum/collections/special/weegee/