Estampe XVI: blemish

In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.

On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.

Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.

Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.

However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.

You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.

The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.

You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.

Sources

“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994004837/PP/. Photoshopped.

“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1901/08/15/

Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.

Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Estampe XV: “After that I lived like a young rajah . . .”

After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe — Paris, Venice, Rome — collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.


Source: “Model Yacht,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005018958/. Photoshopped.

At last

In Girodet’s Apothéose des héros français morts pour la patrie pendant la guerre de la Liberté, the heroes, some of Napoleon’s favorite generals, are shaved and bathed and unsullied by their wounds. They’re in uniform, too, as if they had never looked like anything but generals, and at their moment of apotheosis they are no younger than they were at the moment of their death.

Moment, singular. According to their group portrait, that moment occurred just once. At that moment, each hero became forever an element of a composition whose medium was rigor mortis. At the moment of death, each hero became perpetual. With his promotion to Statuary General, he lost the Other Ranks’ privilege of changing his clothes.


Likewise, Girodet’s statuary Ossian is old and blind as he welcomes the group representing sculptured military middle age, while the Rhinemaidens or whoever they are are moisturized and young even though they too are statuary. That’s how the picturesque does elegy. It’s a technique for making visual the idea of simultaneity that is communicated by the elements on either side of the conjunction and in the prayer, “Now and at the hour of our death.”

 —

When the troubled genius Charles Sanders Peirce died in his eccentric edifice of a house, he was laid to rest there, disposed in an eccentric artwork that also included bookshelves and a separate artwork depicting a dog.

I learned this from a book: Joseph Brent’s Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). This picture of its pages amounts to another display: a trophy gallery of Brent’s expedition through Peirce’s thought and the archives of the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. Click it to enlarge.

If you brought a Peircian disposition to the click, you might be able to think of it as an index of me. Shining through a diffuser at the left of the image, for instance, is the brilliant tropical sunlight of Hawaii, where I happen to live. At the top can be seen the property stamp of the Hawaii State Public Library System, where I happen to get delivery service because my wife is a librarian there. And that metal thing at the bottom is a little plastic-and-wire book support whose appearance may signify something about a man in his seventies who still plays with school toys. Elsewhere in the image, too, thanks to sun and shadow and Photoshop, you can glimpse the texture of Indiana University Press’s twenty-two-year-old paper, still imploring the possibility of a staged dramatic reading: “(Pause. Then, with a catch in the throat:)”

But of course Peirce will remain dead. Under a steady drizzle of traces of life, that which once was Peirce has nevertheless undergone its final change. In its interior, the rain-swept stone remains dry. That incongruity between the images of life on the surface of things and the deathly actuality at their center is why elegy is always ironic, with irony’s trick of making us think one thing while knowing another.

But aren’t Napoleon’s death-rewarding Rhinemaidens cute as they frolic on their surface? Let us, as the cantors deludedly intone every Saturday morning, choose life.

Two purities

On September 27, 1901, the New-York Tribune’s front page headlines opened themselves to readers chastely, in a font that seemed to connote a paired purity of sight and thought. If this above-the-fold item, for instance, had been mediated for reading by a didactic font like Comic Sans, it might feel unfinished in the absence of a terminating exclamation mark. The readers on whom Comic Sans has its designs are the kind of readers who need to be guided toward what they ought to feel.Castro To Declare WarBut as of 1901 the Tribune’s headlines were in a neoclassicizing font designed in 1798 by Giambattista Bodoni, and when the muse of journalism displayed herself garbed in Bodoni’s upright verticals and delicate serifs, she became a Canova nymph, all whiteness and purity around armatures of the cleanest black.

On this particular page, another pure Bodoni headline is accompanied by an equally pure photograph of the two yachts then racing for the America’s Cup. The photograph, however, derives its form from a different geometry. There, set off by Bodoni’s contrasting orthogonals, the British Shamrock and the American Columbia curve along diagonals laid out for them not by the logics of grammar or the copybooks of typography but by a wordless wind.

In the event which Bodoni proceeded to enter in the historical record on September 27, the wind died and the race ended without a winner. But after the wind revived, one more photograph signifying velocity by means of curvature was published in a different, Bodoni-free medium. It looked like this.

On behalf of the record book, the caption in the photograph’s lower margin carries out language’s task of exposition and explanation. It is printed a little crooked, but here that doesn’t matter. Even if it were straight, sight and understanding wouldn’t want to remain within its bounds for an instant longer than the necessary minimum. Along the margin, sight and understanding and all the rest of our powers come together, wanting in unison to stop reading, look back upward, and resume their flight toward seeing. There, waiting in the upward to be seen, is what we think we are beginning to love: this curved body in intimate contact with the water and the sky of our world, our own answering body.

The body’s image is black and white, but it evokes a content we understand to be in color. Forty-six years before the photograph was taken, Walt Whitman explained to us why that is. Look how motion travels through time and then comes to rest as color, said Whitman.

The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in.

In a new, permanent, Bodoni black and white, the maroon bar in its spread of purity has returned. It stands as an exception to the rule of body’s death. In the archive of words printed in black on white, its tint lives ever after.

Columbia was the property of J. P. Morgan, a pragmatically imaginative man who is alleged to have said about the cost of owning a yacht, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Walt Whitman, who was poor all his life, couldn’t afford it. But in 1855 he did give this form from 1901 one of the names through which we can come to understand it: the name purity. There in the photograph are Whitman’s cloud and pure light. There too, in the bronze hull conceived and formed by the naval architect Nathanael Herreshoff, one curve at the bow poses the idea of forward in the infinitesimal just before motion begins, while at the stern another curve mimes a girl throwing her legs backward behind her as she runs.

Of course this large-crewed sailing craft and its governing geometries of wave and sky and running are obsolete now, and of course time has updated them. In 2015, for example, another New York headline gave warning of changing weather over the yacht harbor. “Volatility Is Prompting Hedge Funds To Close,” said the bulletin. The body of the story then went into barometric detail about a special and beautiful sense of the verb close. Within the curved hull of the hedgy episteme, as it turns out, close no longer has to mean end or die. Closed, the hedge funds will merely ascend in their function from serving investors to serving the money that the now vanished investors have left behind. What gives the closed funds their newly perennial life is a preparation of the if-you-have-to-ask that has been reacted all the way to fully theoretical completion. J. P. Morgan, in his youth an excellent mathematician who could extract cube roots in his head, would entirely have approved the change from the impurity of life in the world of men to the purity of death in the idea of money.

In sunset-colored Bodoni, then, let us pay homage to those in the yacht harbor who have been changed. Speaking through the mouth of one of its hedgy oracles, change now teaches us this about its purpose in the universe.

Purity, say transformation’s pink words to themselves. Whitman’s cloud and Nathanael Herreshoff’s hull geometry weren’t pure enough. They were accessible only by means of the senses, of the changing, dying body. By contrast, the hedge fund’s one-man contemplative order subserves nothing that is not unchanging. In that sense of the term classical, it is as classical as Bodoni’s font, or as the Grecian urn which once explained to Keats, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” If we’re to admit the imperfect to our own contemplation, we’ll have to notice at first that the pink hedgewords floating above these black words of my own do seem to look ugly. But looks are precisely what purity is not about. The purity of speculative contemplation is a purity which has transcended the bodily function of seeing. It is a pink idea that has gone fully and perfectly invisible. It will never again have to tint the vapor of a mere physical cloud at sunset.

Sources:

The page from the New-York Tribune is online in the Library of Congress’s archive of historic American newspapers, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/. Whitman’s poem is “There Was a Child Went Forth.” The photograph of Columbia has been photoshopped from the image in the Library of Congress at www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001160/PP/.

The newspaper article from 2015 is Alexandra Stevenson, “Volatility Is Prompting Hedge Funds to Close,” New York Times 18 May 2015: B1-2 (print). The name of the hedge-fund contemplative is Gideon King.