William Butler Yeats didn’t at all enjoy getting old, and like a Silicon Valley frat boy of the twenty-first century he tried to do something about it. One of his projects was to construct, elaborate and describe a model of himself as a poem self-transmigrated from a mortal body with ink-stained living fingers to an immortal mechanism: a prosody fabricating itself to carry out the work of eternity.
But Yeats also had a more practical project in mind. That one wasn’t an original poem; at the time, it was current in such other texts as the lyric of Irving Berlin’s song “The Monkey Doodle-Doo.” Its key word there, however, was not gold but gland, and that G-word wasn’t a bejeweled utterance gleaming in the air but a soft, flesh-muffled sense inside the body, warmed with the blood of mortal life and comical and shameful as life is comical and shameful. The joke is on you, sings gland’s song there through a mouthful of meat. I am going to give out on you no matter what, and so you are going to die.
In Ulysses, gland takes on the comically anti-transcendental form of a pork kidney in a Zionist butcher shop. But Yeats’s gland was delivered to him on what he conceived of as an altar, even if the altar happened to be an operating table in a zoo filled with funny animals. At the end of this note you’ll find the animal joke’s sacerdotal history, with medical illustrations.
And now, a century post-surgery, the air over the island of Oahu is filled with the descendants of escaped cage birds. This one, a Java finch, lives with her family in the shadow under my eaves. But my eaves also shelter a Photoshop workshop, and Photoshop has joined with the feather-warmed bird to bring a simulacrum of light to bear on her image.
And see: gland has become jeweled artifice, and a beak has become an artwork claiming for its rigid boniness the fleshly attribute of smiling human happiness.
In 1930, in his early middle age, William Faulkner bought an unoccupied nineteenth-century house in his Mississippi home town. The next year he gave it a name, Rowan Oak, and began the remodeling that would occupy the remainder of his life there. As the transformation into an ancestral estate went forward, the estate’s on-site storyteller devised a tradition for it: every evening at dinnertime, one of the family retainers would parade the main course around the table before setting it down. Perhaps the idea was that this would mark the end of one day and the beginning of the next, for always.
Before dinner, the Modernist storyteller had been teaching language some things about time that would make tradition obsolete. In that telling, Quentin Compson had begun the day of his death by tearing the hands off his father’s watch.
Chris Wiley’s essay “What Old Money Looks Like in America, and Who Pays For It,”
introduces the work of Buck Ellison, who photographs carefully staged tableaux of models wearing the very best of understated fashion in the very best of settings, with every blade of grass on the putting green just so and the outdoor or indoor weather always perfect. Before the first image reveals itself, the prose prepares us this way for the responsibility of seeing it.
It’s the cut of the jacket that’s the dead giveaway. The graceful arc it draws above the woman’s waistline looks architecturally engineered, its hourglass effect enhanced by tastefully wide peaked lapels. The fabric, too, looks sumptuous. Cashmere? Probably.
Wiley mentions in passing that Ellison is gay, and the import of this deadpan scrapbook seems to be a travesti like the Trockadero Ballet — a travesti with all the wistfulness of an anatomically male body forcing itself onto pointe but none of the forced hysterical laughter. What’s being acted out through Ellison’s images isn’t at all gentle, but it is acted quietly.
After all, it is acted in The New Yorker, whose language is written in a traditional script. To the native speakers of The New Yorker’s dialect, the discreet but firmly lodged diereses in coöperate and reëlect are to be heard only at the overtones of their natural frequencies, and the ostensibly nonfictional is punctuated at strictly observed canonical intervals with understatedly Homeric descriptions of the characters’ clothes. These details of house style are themes, and they claim a moral purport. Other languages will change, says the house style to itself about itself, but I am as classic as changeless Roman marble. Simultaneously, on the advertising pages, capital is at romp, melting all that is solid into air.
In this 1849 print by Nathaniel Currier, one of the men at the foot of George Washington’s deathbed is identified as “Quaker, an intimate friend of Washington.” Perhaps out of Quaker modesty, his name is not named and his face is not shown. But we know the style he would speak in this silent image, because he is wearing the small-clothes of a gentleman at the end of the eighteenth century.
The other man’s face does show. The man is identified, too: with a euphemism, “Domestic.” But that is a mere pleonasm, because after all the man’s color reveals half of the unnamed truth of what he is.
The clothes reveal the other half. Close enough to the body of the father of his country to love but never to have been loved, this is a sans-culotte.
Bernard Faÿ, a French Modernist man of letters, saved the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during World War II by letting them live, rent-free, in his house in the unoccupied zone. He wasn’t using it himself at the time because he was occupied in administering both the Bibliothètheque Nationale and the Pétain government’s anti-Masonic program. At war’s end, he was one of the bitter-end collaborationists sheltered by the Nazis at Sigmaringen. After the war he escaped from prison with suspicious ease and crossed the French border into Switzerland, where he picked up his career where he had left off and spent the remainder of his professional life at the University of Fribourg.
There he continued his long collaboration with another right-wing Catholic, the Fribourgeois man of letters Gonzague de Reynold. The Fribourg years came and went, and de Reynold marked their passage with a tradition of his own: on special occasions, in the gallery-crypt where the culottes of his ancestors were preserved, he opened the chest and dressed up.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
You can still make out a large Formica-and-aluminum shape, identify its function, and bring back to memory its 1956 word: dinette. But because another of the picture’s compositional elements was transparent in 1956, the photochemistry of time has now reduced it almost to invisibility. To bring the word ashtray back into active memory from within the image will require an active search originating in something learned outside the context of the image itself. Before you can even pick up your magnifying glass and begin looking at the picture, you’ll have had to learn from an archive that dinettes were accessorized with glass or ceramic things called ashtrays.
But for the immediate present, a trace of the collective 1956 idea of dinette and ashtray survives within the image, and there it is still accessible for resuscitation. The process will involve a translation of its spectrum of life from the chemical to the logical, mediated by (among other things) a computer program named AI Clear, where the letters AI indicate that use is to be made of a computer concept called artificial intelligence. If you let me help you think of Aunt Ida’s parrot artificially, says the computer, it will become a bird out of Yeats’s Byzantium:
Miracle, bird or handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork
And see then:
The ashtray is replenished, Aunt Ida’s shining white cup is seen again to be charged with powdered coffee and condensed milk, the bird’s hard ceramic surface is again the green of soft feather, and Aunt Ida’s headcovering has been restored to its proper color for 1956, when pink was popular. Now time itself will be 1956 forever, and never again no longer pink.
The pinkness, we now see, mattered all along. It matters even more now than it did in 1956, because in 1956 it at least had an existence exterior to the image. Now the image is 1956 pink’s sole source. In the aftermath of 1956, to experience 1956 pink again is as if the color were one of the tints of God’s first rainbow, now being re-unfurled in revised final form.
In the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994016929/PP/, this photograph has gone white with lost detail. We pretty much have to take the librarians’ word that it depicts a famous American train from the turn of the twentieth century, the New York Central Railroad’s Empire State Express, on its way though Syracuse. For their own part, the librarians can only approximate the date of the passage. The faded image and its owners’ records tell them only that this photograph of the Express’s transit was taken some time between 1900 and 1915.
But parts of the transit can be retraced by post-processing, and I suppose that may aid in fine-focusing its history. Clicking away from this image to the next one, for instance, a railroad historian might be able to do something with the more legible number on the Express’s locomotive, and a fashion historian might be able to make something chronological of the dress worn by the one woman I can now see again. For historians of Syracuse, too, Photoshop has put the century-old signs back up on Syracuse’s businesses. See how that has put the big building on the left back into communication with time. Carved deep into its rock there on an upper-story frieze, the two monosyllables The Yates look once more the way they did on the date of the transit: as if they’d traveled to The Yates by express from Mount Sinai. The history of The Yates, says reread stone, hasn’t had to die after all. The lost, says Photoshop, may be restorable.
But to read the history of the image as a whole we’d need to know the history of the light that filled a camera in Syracuse for a sunny moment some time between 1900 and 1915, and the lighting script for that moment has been rewritten. Syracuse’s light isn’t now what it was during the century and a half of the steam era. Seen through smoky light as it was seen then, the Express under its moving cloud has passed through Syracuse forever, and it won’t be back. Light no longer works the way it did when locomotive no. 3897 offered up its smoke to the air. On the building to the left, the frieze that the sun lighted in those years was lighted for those years only. Then its inscription, “The Yates,” was to be read only by day, under layers of soot; now it’s to be read by day or night, carbonless by day and with its night colors changed by sodium vapor.
Because the way we read is always changing in this way and others, a poet once dreamed of a writing as resistant to change as metal. He was old, he cried, and about the light and shadow of the changing earth on which his body lay he cried, “That is no country for old men.” Funnily, he had a name homophonic with “Yates,” and in his hard Yates poem he sang,
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold.
And yes: framed here on your monitor, The Yates does look lapidary, hammered into a permanent place in a permanent image. But compare the original image with my photoshopped version and you’ll understand that the lapidary look is only an effect of artifice and temporal confusion. Next to an image of a vanishing cloud of smoke, an image of a stone building looks immortal by comparison. The symbolism of this particular building’s Renaissance architecture, too, is an evocation in stone of ideas like traditional. But a tradition expressed within an image must have originated outside the image, before the image existed, while on the other hand the image’s work of evocation can begin only within the image. First an artist envisions an empty frame, and only then does it begin to fill itself with picture. Look up, for instance, to the dappling light near the top of The Yates where smoke seems to touch and fill and then withdraw from shadowed stone. It’s the pictured dapple, only, that hurts your heart. And as to you with the hurting heart who take your picture from an upper-story window, you have set up your camera on the Express’s side of the street, where nothing is still.
Leave the camera there and descend. Cross from the single hard-edged shadow of your building into the unclear polyshadow of the smoke. Approach the still glass front of The Yates along the roadway where Syracuse’s slow light is moving a horse and a tall-helmeted policeman into position. Step between the horse and the policeman. The light reflected from their bodies will help you when you begin looking into the window. For now, the window in the image lets you see only two glittering words, The Yates, and a tall-helmeted reflection. While the shadow of the smoke lasts, there will be nothing else. But when the shadow moves off and the Express is gone and the dark glass is restored to full reflectivity, the Syracuse light may unseal its record. And then, under glass in the smoky light that once illuminated the dead, you may see that you too have been changed by passages over you of cloud and light.