In 1916, wings could still be translucent. Their delicate black markings were shadows of a metaphor for the term endoskeleton. At each tip, these particular wings also shadowed a purely human term: Germany’s black Iron Cross.
On the record, these wings and this thorax are black and white. One of the black and white men accumulating before the lower wing is wearing the tunic ribbon of the Iron Cross, but in 1916 that too would have been black and white. The other tunics are in various 1916 instars: some accurately following contours of flesh and bone, others shaped by the now dead; all black and white.
But in the white space between two of the human bodies hangs a cross in blue. At the time it was inked onto the Rostock print somebody intended it to refer to one or the other of the bodies, but nobody now can tell which. Separated by a shared white space, the black and white bodies are in the midst of an uninked record. The inked cross suspended in the white looks like what we readers think of as an X, but it is the X in an alphabet that can no longer be read. We receive it now only as a shape combined with a color. The color is the color of a sky no longer perturbable by wing.
The heavy cap glowed blue. It was exciting. She could feel the mare pulse under her, bringing and bringing her to the man. Then she had arrived. Stilled, she pressed into a stirrup and lifted, caressing the horse’s fragrant body as she descended its flank. Then she bent to the man on the ground, lifted him into the bed she had carried, and held him in her arms.
Motor ambulancemen John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, E. E. Cummings, Harry Crosby, Ernest Hemingway
The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.
Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.
Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !
Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)
One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.
But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.
= Fascism, the operetta.