On the radio in my car, the theologian Lauren Winner was being interviewed by National Public Radio’s Guy Raz about her new book Still, a memoir of a crisis in her faith. The car and I were in Honolulu, heading south on Atkinson Drive. As we approached the T intersection and turned west along the ocean, Winner began telling a story.
Sunk deep in depression (Lauren told Guy), she hadn’t wanted to be in church that Sunday morning. Nevertheless, she was there. She was doing her unwilling best to concentrate on the service, she said, when a woman who looked the worse for wear (those were Winner’s words: “looked the worse for wear”) sidled into the pew next to her (“sidled” was Winner’s word) and then began tapping on the pew in front. Instinctively, Winner said, she reached out and put her hand on the woman’s, as if the woman were a child in need of calming.
The woman didn’t recoil or pull her hand away. Instead, she turned her palm over and took Winner’s hand. The two women sat that way for the rest of the service, holding hands.
And, said Winner, Jesus was there.
As the anecdote unscrolled and reached its heartwarming conclusion, I had been driving down Ala Moana Boulevard. On my right, one shopping center had succeeded another: first the enormous Ala Moana Center, an important resource for Hawaii’s tourist economy; then the smaller Ward Centre and Ward Warehouse. On my left, rolling past, block after block, was one of the reasons people visit Hawaii: big, beautiful, free Ala Moana Beach Park.
But one thing the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau doesn’t tell visitors is that Honolulu’s parks and streets are populated by thousands of homeless people. In the fall of 2011, in advance of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu, city and state agencies chivvied the homeless away from the beaches and the main thoroughfares, denying all the while that they were doing so. But Lauren Winner was telling her story about Jesus on February 25, 2012, and by then the homeless were back along the beach at Ala Moana. On February 26, somebody in real estate would tell the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the impending closure of the Sears store in Ala Moana Center will be an opportunity to upgrade the shopping experience, because (he would say, in these words) Sears is blue-collar. But as I stopped at a red light on February 25, I had time to look at one of the men who live across the street from the stores. Along the park’s wall he had assembled what amounted to a little home, with a tent and a chair and a neatly arranged and quite sizable mound of possessions, perhaps five feet high. He was sitting in the chair, looking at the Pacific Ocean and smoking.
By the time I crossed Ward Avenue, pulled into the parking lot at OfficeMax, and killed the ignition, Lauren had moved on to other topics. I bought my office supplies, then headed home by the South King route in order to have lunch at Zippy’s McCully. In that neighborhood the homeless no longer occupy the sidewalk in front of Old Stadium Park, but there still are a lot of them all along the street. When I left the restaurant, one was just outside the door with his shopping cart. On the step above him stood the restaurant manager.
“You cannot stay here,” he was saying to the man with the cart. (In Hawaii Creolized English, the normal contraction is “cannot,” not “can’t.”)
The man had his mouth open and his lips were moving, but no sound came out.
I stepped down, walked around him, got back in my car, and turned the key. I hadn’t looked back or said a word. By now National Public Radio was broadcasting the Saturday Metropolitan Opera quiz. The quizmaster, who spoke with a brogue, said, “I’d like to say hello to listeners in my home city of Glasgow — both of them.”
Very late that night, I was startled awake by a loud thump on my front door. When I opened the door to look out, one of Hawaii’s big lace-necked doves flew right in, flapped silently across the living room, and landed on the piano. When I tried to catch her, she took off again and flapped to the other side of the room. That kept happening for about five minutes, but eventually she settled on something I could pick up. Unresisting by then, apparently disoriented and exhausted, the dove let me pick up her perch and dump her back out the door. In the morning there was no sign that she had ever visited my home.
If my name were Lauren Winner, I might take that as an omen. I might tell a story about it, and stake a claim to significance.
But there was probably no significance.
Chekhov is famous for the effect: just before the end of one of his plays, a sound will add its wordless voice to the words’ dramatic irony. Just before the end of Three Sisters, both the actors onstage and we in the audience hear a shot in the distance, and that (we and the actors are about to learn together, a moment too late) is the sound of Solyony killing Tusenbach. Just before the end of Uncle Vanya we hear jingle bells, and that is the sound of Astrov going away forever. Just before the end of The Cherry Orchard we hear saws and axes, and that is the sound of the orchard being cut down. After the play’s context has enabled us to establish a verbal interpretation for a wordless sound effect (“That is the sound of . . .”), the interpretation turns its newly real countenance toward us and wordlessly says that there will now be no more happiness, before or ever after the final curtain.
Of course, if we’re sophisticated enough to be in a Chekhov audience, we won’t be naive enough to think the sound effects themselves are real. Of course we know they were written into the play. But because they emanate from offstage, they seem somehow to be at least as much a part of the audience function as of the stage function. If they aren’t onstage, then they’re at least partly offstage with us, down here in the dark of our offstage being where we are simultaneously experiencing the sound of the shot (what was that?) and the memory life we brought with us into the theater (did I remember to lock the garage?). A part of the mixed, impure ongoingness of memory, the sound we hear in the theater seems real in a way we can’t fully believe the actors to be. The actors inhabit a system of meaning with a “The End” at the end of it, but the sound can’t. It propagates forever.
But it isn’t just sound that propagates. History seems to impose a Chekhovian irony on certain visual artifacts too – for instance, photographs taken just before a moment of change, or taken during the change but focused elsewhere. That photograph of people smiling at their desks in an office? Little do the people in the photograph know that those desks are in the World Trade Center and the date is September 10, 2001. Or the long-skirted women in that black-and-white street scene, going about their business unaware that just on the other side of a monitor there are now, forever after, troubled young men desperate to overlook them and catch their sight of Hitler.
In its bin at Costco, the piece of cardboard holding a blister-wrapped camera is big, to discourage shoplifting. With lots of space at its disposal, the cardboard uses that space to signify that this camera, a Canon Elph 100HS, is marketed to women. Words printed all over the front of the card promise that the Elph is small and light and easy to use, and through its blister we can see that the camera itself comes in a variety of pretty colors. The card also offers consumers a look at a picture: a picture of a picture that we are to think might have been taken with a woman’s camera like this one, even though some fine print on the back of the card says it wasn’t. The picture within the picture comes from a woman’s social system, and it seems intended to remind buyers how pictures function as part of a feminine experience of the world.
See: within their pictured frame, three women sit at a table in a restaurant, eating and talking and looking into one another’s faces and laughing. This is a picture that you too will be able to take, promises Costco’s piece of cardboard. You will take the picture, you will pass it around among your friends, and then there will come, for you together with them, a moment of intimate happiness. You will have come into possession of an image that first derived meaning from a context, like a pistol shot offstage, and now reestablishes that context, over and over, one view at a time, as it is passed from hand to hand to hand, forever. Remember yesterday in the restaurant? How happy we were?
Not yet cut apart and discarded, the cardboard implores us to open its blisters and begin. At the moment you take your picture, promises the cardboard, you’ll be both director and camerawoman, you’ll be active. But a moment later and forever happily ever after, you’ll be a part of an audience, passively taking in the picture as you once passively heard the sound of Solyony’s pistol. From then on, there won’t be a thing you can do about it. Your pretty new camera will have taken in a few meaningless milliseconds and changed them to a meaning, forever.
For Charles Dickens’s bicentennial this month, The Atlantic has posted an online appreciation and a stereopticon portrait. The two images in the portrait aren’t at all balanced; one is much darker and more contrasty than the other. But here’s what an anaglyph (red-and-blue composite; requires glasses with red and blue lenses) looks like after some cosmetic work in Photoshop. Click to enlarge.