Blink

Most of the coverage in this issue of the Soviet magazine Proletarian Photo was devoted to parades. The occasion was the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution, and the magazine’s page-1 editorial was titled Шаг вперед, Shag vpered, “Step forward.”

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https://archive.org/details/prolphoto_1932_12

As an idea, forward can connote motion through time as well as space, and the mood of most of the images that follow those words is triumphant across time in the mechanical nineteenth-century style of Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter.” A huge rectangular block of men is depicted moving methodically from one side to the other of Red Square. An approaching locomotive seen from a low angle, Rodchenko-style, rushes into the image plane and smashes it flat with a nameplate stamped J. Stalin. Repeating from one page to the next, the series might remind you of Wordsworth calling up to you from his own page, “Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books,” if Wordsworth’s voice were possessed of a sidewalk crusader’s shriek. Just come and come and come, shriek the pictures. But amid the shrieking there does stand out one image consecrated to pious memories of the past and, perhaps, hope for a future in which the story of war is a quiet tale to be told to grandchildren.

This image’s caption reads, “Red partisans on the tribune at Red Square. Photo by A. Sternberg (Soyuzphoto).”

ProletarskoePhoto_1932_12

Like the magazine’s cover, the page bearing the image toward us has been browned by time. But at least a change of pigmentation can be partially reversed in the computer, and that reversal may appear to lighten the image’s connotative burden along with its optical saturation. After all, the portentous artifact you’ve just seen on a monitor was once just a layer of journalism laid down on newsprint: white and new and almost free up to then of history’s darkening, end-of-life symptoms.

ProletarskoePhoto_1932_12

And there are faces — faces some of which seem to have been looking, at the time, directly into A. Sternberg’s camera.

I want them to be looking through the camera, to me. And I do have a computer partially connected to A. Sternberg’s apparatus, and the proletarians of Red Square helpfully inform me that for one of his other images (not this one) Sternberg used

ProletarskoePhoto_1932_12
“Leica, f3.5, 50 mm lens, distance 3½ meters, exposure 1/40 second, film Supersensitive Pan.”

So I try to look back through the Leica at the faces, with a connection to the computer as tight as I can make it.

ProletarskoePhoto_1932_12

But as of 1932 the eyes of the man on the right are closed and the eyes of the man on the left are filmily obscured. It appears that for a fraction of Leica’s fortieth-of-a-second historiographic act, history was blocked by a pair of blinks, or to be precise a blink and a half.

Take that as your paradigm and cautionary moral. It tells you that Molotov and Stalin, the men on the cover of the magazine, were wrong about photography, and Viktor Shklovsky the decadent formalist was right. Look at the blinkings and the craquelure, says Shklovsky; they’re all that was really there in the picture anyway. All they can be now, all they ever could have been, is artifacts of the process, manifested and then seen. Seeing is a kind of guesswork over the decay. It can never teach us what was there before the image was recorded, when all was blankly present. But it does teach us itself every time we open our eyes in the spirit of apparatus, and then it assures us that we too, as we see, are part of the picture.

In the presence of life,

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still your facial muscles and enter the state of what Wordsworth calls wise passiveness. Then the part of your self that up to then has failed to receive experience will take on and become color, gesture, and the beautiful dead fabric of the unnatural.

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Sources:

The print (with color and contrast restored in Photoshop) is by Kogyo Terasaki (1866-1919), at https://fujiwara57.tumblr.com/post/174621038848/bijin-no-kaisuiyoku-beach-girl-de-terasaki

The poem by Wordsworth is “Expostulation and Reply.”

Shadowing Domesday lines

Under fluorescent light on Philip Larkin’s desk in the library at the University of Hull lies a black-and-white photograph. Looking in, Larkin notices a midden of tiny broken English things. These he takes to be metonyms for a larger England which is about to be broken. In the image, under the famous cloudless sky of summer 1914, are men standing in lines to enlist for what is about to become the Great War. Observing the behavior of the shadows cast by the lines, Larkin writes out a forecast: in an amazingly short time from this illuminated moment, the sun will shine down on one more thing: the title of the poem Larkin is now about to write, “MCMXIV.” Then the word will be inscribed in the stone of a war memorial. But for now, in the photograph, it is not yet even a word. It is only a pre-verbal, pre-stone dust that nobody yet understands to be subject to future inscription:

. . . the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns . . .

A farthing was a copper coin worth one fourth of England’s old pre-decimal penny — that is, 1/960 of a pound. A sovereign was a one-pound coin made of gold. Long before England’s currency went decimal in 1965, both coins had disappeared from circulation — the farthing because its purchasing power had diminished to nothing, the sovereign because the gold it was made of had become worth more than the shrunken fiat pound. Larkin’s term for the vanished years of farthing and sovereign is “innocence.”

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word . . .

Or, in prose: on the sunny day they signed up to die for the British Empire, the men of 1914 had their pockets full of soon-to-be-lost value. They lived before the loss began, poor innocent men, and the British Empire died with them, and now not all the antique shops in England can keep the Pakis out of Larkin’s neighborhood. For most of its length, “MCMXIV” expresses an idea, and that really is all the idea amounts to. As George Orwell remarks in “Inside the Whale” about A. E. Housman’s tragic young men in their emotionally similar situation: “Hard cheese, old chap!”

Nevertheless, all sentimentality discounted, on the other side of the brooks too broad for leaping there does lie a world different from ours. There everything in the present is seen at eye level, and the past isn’t seen but experienced by intuition. This sovereign landscape is pastoral, and its weather hints at pastoral’s delicate foreboding irony: the quality of both knowing and seeming not to know that it is a mere literary fashion.

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence . . .

The earth-father of these Larkin lines is Wordsworth, and Larkin has obviously done the responsible thing and read Wordsworth’s report about the detection of splendor in the grass. But it’s hard to sense the grass-hazed coordinates of poetry’s specifics from on high, and during the Great War the coordinates of vision began acquiring a vertical axis. Here, then, is a counterimage to the one in “MCMXIV.” We see it from altitude, the War’s new sightline.

Onto the old world, says altitude, I have superimposed a new ruin: the aluminum frame of a German zeppelin bomber, all that remained after the zeppelin’s lifting gas burned off and recombined with its originating air. For the moment, the frame’s unburned streamlines are still contained within the rectilinear subframes of a pastoral landscape. In the poetry of Larkin and Housman and Edward Thomas and Hardy, these straight lines are taken to be metaphors for a natural order which incorporates human order into itself and makes the two orders one. Under the rules governing that genre, the only world there is is a world at ground level, seen from the height of a man. But the new ruin has begun to change that way of seeing. It descended on the land from above, and we see it now from above.

In ancient tragedy, only the gods see from above. The new image comes to us demonstrating that that’s no longer true. The original shadows of Domesday, level with the earth they were drawn on, have now been supplemented by lines surveyed from a higher angle. “MCMXIV” reads the new lines as an ironic antipastoral: not yet a new way of reading tragically, but a start.

For the start, poems like “MCMXIV” need more light, better distributed. Something verbal needs to be done, for instance, with the instance of light that penetrated for the first time into the skeleton of an airship. But time has been allotted for that to occur. After all, says the somber forecast from 1914, the new light is going to keep falling forever. With every declining sun in the century since a camera in the air first detected a fallen flightform, the lengthening, darkening, ever more almost-readable shapes of its roundness on the earth have shown us promises of more.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001296/. Photoshopped.

The lecture about botany

It’s a standard thing to point out in the introductory class: although Wordsworth was a nature poet, he also wrote a sonnet about London, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” whose first line is “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”

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Much more typical for Wordsworth, however, is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” whose lines overflow with a still yet ceaselessly moving

host of yellow daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

At the poem’s end, Wordsworth (or rather his sister, whose diary he raided for the description and the emotion) understands with his body what he has seen and what he is about to write down:

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

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And dances with the daffodils.

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At about the time this picture was being taken, Ezra Pound, who had no respect for William Wordsworth, found himself in the Paris metro being overtaken by something like Dorothy Wordsworth’s sense of light flowing through earth and surfacing in blossom. Pound’s flowers, however, then and later, blossomed in the dark.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001714/. Photoshopped.

 

Some little animals

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A missing comma made the sentence funny.

In the United States during the fall of 2011, a group of Republican candidates for President traveled from city to city, holding televised “debates” before enthusiastically Republican audiences. When one candidate was asked whether an ill person without health insurance should be allowed to die, people in the audience responded with scattered shouts of “Yeah!” The shouts weren’t at all scattered when a gay soldier spoke; that time the audience bellowed its loud and all but unanimous boos. The boos turned to high-volume cheers when anybody spoke the word “execution.” And as to the problem of immigration from Mexico — the more murderous a candidate’s suggestion in the way of high-voltage electric fences along the border, the more frenzied was the noise from the plush seats.

In Texas, the noise evoked a quiet response: a Mexican-American talk show host cut his Republican party card in half and posted a picture online. Reporting the cut, however, the Hispanic blog “¡Somos Republicans!” went noisy. It explained, “The Republican Party lost a long life [sic] Republican, who is a Texas Latino GOP leader due to the continued betrayal of the Republican Party.”

http://somosrepublicans.com/2011/10/latino-gop-leader-leaves-republican-party-after-herman-cain-advocates-death-of-latin-immigrants-and-rnc-failure-to-lead-in-moderating-anti-latino-rhetoric/

Well, I did take that sentence to class to do the English-teacher thing and talk about listening to the words. Oh yes: please listen, then please indicate the pause that wants to be heard before the phrase “due to.” Better still, eliminate “due to.” Best of all, rearrange the whole sentence into something like, “Because of its continued betrayals, the Republican Party lost a lifelong Republican, the Texas Latino GOP leader Lauro Garza.”  That version says more and says it more clearly, and it’s four words shorter too. But it’s also educational about words, and as such it misses the point of what it is to be a Republican. That point has nothing to do with words.

You can see this in a tellingly imperative word a few sentences farther down the page. Bellows the blog: “FOR THE CRITICS: Lauro is a long life [sic, again] Republican, staunch advocate of 2nd amendment rights and hunts religiously.” For Lauro, apparently, killing animals is in the first instance neither an economic necessity nor even a pleasure. It’s an act of obedience to duty, the noun that Wordsworth called “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God.” Connected with the noun “duty” by the adverb “religiously,” the verb “hunts” enters the special thought-lexicon of prayer, perhaps as prayer is defined by George Herbert: “something understood.” For the blogger who interprets Lauro’s trigger-words, to hunt is to go after God, for whatever purpose. Think of Ahab and Starbuck changing places.

 

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In the same month that Lauro was wielding his scissors in Texas, Kurt Cardinal Koch, the head of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, was going after God in New Jersey with a different implement. A Jewish newspaper reported:

This past July, [Cardinal Koch] came into conflict with Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, when he wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the cross is “the permanent and universal Yom Kippur” and a symbol of reconciliation.

Di Segni responded in a subsequent edition of L’Osservatore Romano, “If the terms of the discussion are those of pointing Jews to the way of the cross, it is not clear why there should be dialogue.” . . .

When Koch was asked [in October] about his statement regarding the cross as the eternal Yom Kippur and the cross’s connotation to Jews as a symbol of persecution, he said, “I know the history what Christianity have made with the cross and I think that it is our duty to show that the cross isn’t a motive for hate. In the Christian view the cross is an invitation of reconciliation and I can’t understand because Jews can’t be content with this invitation.”

http://www.forward.com/articles/145285/

 

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In a 1927 photograph from Life magazine’s online archive, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, Nuncio to Germany and the future Pope Pius XII, sweeps out of the palace of President Hindenburg and descends a short flight of stairs to his waiting limousine. His driver is saluting, as are President Hindenburg’s two rifleman sentries. Since approximately 1933, the silhouette of the riflemen’s helmets has borne an unfortunate connotation in the archive. But what the image preserves is a pre-archival instant in 1927, and within that instant the archbishop’s own silhouette has been fixed pre-archivally for all time, suspended for a fraction of a second just as it became a sign. Within the silent picture, for a fraction of a second of 1927’s time, it was as if a word had been spoken. As the archbishop stepped off the last riser into air, his foot passed under his cape and became invisible. There in his image, then and now, the archbishop has stepped and is stepping into ascending flight, forever. When he hunts his prey, he will leave a wake through heaven.

Click to enlarge.
http://www.life.com/news-pictures/2668596/pacelli-at-berlin

As to the mice in the shrubbery at the moment of the Nuncio’s ascent, they never were archived. The camera didn’t understand that they were present. They were only there to die anyway.