Not just the delicate temporary touching down from the air, unknowingly populated skyline, and fingerprint just inside the barrier that margins you off from the dead,
but even the defacing scratches and spots on the record itself. For a brief intermission between oblivions, the ordinary is perceived. A moment too late after that, it is understood to have been extraordinary.
Post-processed to restore contrast and recover unregistered pixels, this image becomes readable. It is seen now to be separated from its background among the words of this post as if it were delimited by a beginning and an end. If the photograph were a text like the post, it would betray signs of irony. Within its border and there only, it shows you sharp shadows of a northern solstitial dawn, a cloud of exhaust smoke darkening lacustrine air, motion-blurred propellers, silhouetted men bending to their work, and in the background a Biedermeier landscape about to be reduced to history by the great balloon whose shadow is about to fall on it. As the complex of cloth and shadow ascends, a literary thought-balloon ascends with it and choruses in the buzz of propellers: “I’m gone; I passed out of the picture. Little do you know.”
But you do know the image, for sight doesn’t enter memory in a textual way. To begin perceiving an image is to begin following a trace through light and shadow of a memory that will live on in you even though it it died before you were born. The image you see is a memory error resulting in the optical illusion of belief: the illusion that (for instance) you must have been (for how could you not have been? unconquerable memory has surged out of the image frame and taken dominion over you) a part of what was once, for an instant over an Alpine lake one July morning, seen and thereafter remembered for (as it must have seemed) ever.
The photograph in the New York Public Library no longer gives up much to the eye. It has faded year by year for almost a century now, and most of its remaining significance has been transferred for preservation to a catalog text housed in a database.
There, offsite, words written about this gray blur say that it represents the maiden flight of the British dirigible R38 on June 23, 1921. Exactly two months after that date (the words go on to say), R38 broke in half in the air while making a turn and exploded, killing 44 of the 49 men on board. This was the first of the twentieth century’s great zeppelin disasters. It occurred over the city of Hull, and it must have been witnessed by thousands. But this photograph can’t intimate that, because it represents a moment before a history began. It is a picture of something not yet written into the record and decreed to be a significance accorded priority over other significances. To see it as a picture, in pictorial terms of light and volume, is to experience it pre-historically: as a perception antedating knowledge.
On June 23, 1921, the knowledge of R38 hadn’t yet been brought under the rule of retrospect. On that date, someone in the epistemological space allotted to perception saw only a floating body in the pictorial act of being huge and beautiful and took a camera to it. After that, someone with words took a grease pencil to the photograph of the huge and beautiful and made a decision about what portion of it should remain on the page and be designated “historical record.” The historical record, it turned out, was reserved solely for the portion of the image devoted to the light and air that clothed the moment of huge and beautiful. Its portion of the negative appears to have been retouched accordingly to sharpen its outline and make it clear on behalf of the historical record. Nobody bothered to retouch the zone marked by the grease pencil for exclusion from that record.
There, there were to be seen only two women wearing the not yet short skirts of the early 1920s. With them all along in that part of the image, however, has been a dark smudge on the grass which conceivably could be a historical trace of R38’s shadow. Considering how few shadows destiny allotted to R38, that might now be worth at least a sentimental thought from history. However, the prehistoric grease pencil didn’t select for of the dark. Exterior to R38’s demarcating rectangle, the dark remains only in the erasure zone. There, excluded from the part of the image that will be written up in the language called history, it evokes only questions that the words of the historical record aren’t usually marshaled to answer. (How did the air of June 23, 1921, feel in the moment when a moving, cooling shadow passed through it?) By demarcating R38 from the rest of its image field, the grease pencil defined a distinction between significance and insignificance. It was a fiat: the enforceable distinction between what should remain to be seen and what should remain to be unseen.
But this particular photograph, marked for cutting but not cut, hasn’t yet been brought under rule. Still present in their margin despite the fiat against them, two women in hats and skirts have kept looking toward a part of the sky from which the history of huge and beautiful hasn’t yet barred their gaze. Bound for the record book, the fading image cut off within its rectangle proceeds toward unfading immortality under the power of words. Meanwhile, outside the rectangle, a possible shadow has been cut free from history to play on the grass. I subject it and the women and R38, up there in its air, to the optical control of Photoshop and Topaz AI Clear.
Those technologies won’t make the women’s faces visible, of course. Ever after, the women will be turned away from you even as they look up at the purring silver history passing by up there. Of course, too, they aren’t looking down at the possible shadow before them. They too are prehistoric. But something dark is close to them, and now, for the first time in at least your own history, you are seeing.
R38 was built for the U.S. Navy, where it was to have been designated ZR2, and its crash occurred during what was to have been the last of its test flights before commissioning. You can see the American tricolor on its tail and the American roundel on its hull.
Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.
So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.
Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.
Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.
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.