Unconscious despair: the face of the consolation prize


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

Walden, chapter 1



Bravery: “Finery, fine clothes.”  — Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3b

As things fade to white

Between 1903 and 1917, a woman named Phoebe Snow traveled like a celestial body along the tracks of one of America’s regional railroads, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western.

Click to enlarge.

The creature of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American history, Miss Snow existed only to be unceasing: unceasingly in motion along a pounding iambic dimeter, unceasingly white, unceasingly bountiful of her whiteness. In her unceasingness, she was loved.

This illustrated history may help show you why. A comet always arriving, destined never to drop back into the dark and go still, Phoebe lived as light and motion, bestowing herself on everyone beside the track who existed to make her sidereal. Along the path of her orbit, brilliance illuminated the labor of engine crews, yard crews, porters and dining car waiters and the brilliantly white-clad cooks in the dining car’s galley. In her presence, light entered into the interior of what it seemed to mean to be human, dissolving secrecy and shame and shadow into a single all-encompassing whiteness.


The whiteness released her victims from darkness into love. It even extended underground, to the veins of coal and the men who worked them and the mules who worked alongside the men like brothers of Phoebe’s. There underground, Phoebe became her picture’s source of light. Descending into the dark and then ascending again, she traced letters from light across the darkness, and interpreted them to mean that all will be happy now, even in the face of death.

On August 8, 1914, that consciousness was still alive and still animating a gentleman in love with nature. By then, however, it had abruptly become remarkable. On August 9, a reporter for The New York Times observed it in its descent toward incomprehensibility. Far down now in the third paragraph of an article, it was barely readable by then; too deep in the shade cast by the headline. The language of that headline was a dark new dialect whose words could not have endured in the sunshine vocabulary of Snow.

Not far from the pier, the transatlantic cables surfacing in New York were drowning Phoebe’s meters in irregular sobbings, and Belgian reservists were boarding a ship bound eastward, where the dark was rising.

To understand, then, we have to look away from Phoebe and the gentleman entomologist.. A camera creature has surfaced from the dark flood, extending a black-and-white photograph of the Olympic’s cheering stewards to us.

Source of this image and the next two:
The next two have been Photoshopped for contrast.

From this angle in the photograph’s space, the time is the present. The stewards are and will always have been seen to be in mid-cheer. Panning toward the Olympic’s sister ship, the cameraman records the visual testimony of the Belgian reservists singing and cheering back. As they sing, marking time, they are moving outward. The stern of the Adriatic is being eased away from the pier.

That motion has prepared us to receive an image that history, in due time, will call definitive. Now and forever, this image holds us back on August 8, 1914, at the watery verge of a pier in New York. At the far boundary of the space, receding as we watch, the White Star liner Adriatic is now becoming visible as a whole. On board the ship, certain men who will soon die can no longer be seen, though unillustrated abstract history provisionally asserts that they are still, for the moment of August 8, 1914, alive.

In comparison with the blankness into which the ship is now disappearing, Phoebe Snow’s immortally conceived whiteness was only a whim. Anthracite burns cleaner (a little cleaner) than soft coal, but to have believed in Phoebe’s absolute whiteness was never more than a suspension of disbelief. “Of course,” says Phoebe’s image to you, “I am only one of art’s happy ways of helping you imagine possibility. You always knew that.” To have looked at Phoebe’s picture, read her poem, and then bought a ticket on the Road of Anthracite was never a more significant act than, say, buying a ticket to a movie with the cheerful intent of surrendering for a couple of hours to an optical illusion. If Miss Marion Murray had been in this scene, she would have been stationed among us dark-clad neutrals left behind on terra firma, imagining like us rather than being imagined like Phoebe. The optics of this photograph don’t work only on the mind’s eye the way an image of Phoebe does.

Because as the Adriatic begins fading into the dazzle of a hazed atmosphere just at the moment when we take it in, it becomes less visible to the eye even as it becomes more conceivable to the imagination. On August 8, 1914, men and women on a pier and in boats and barges saw a ship loom up through space under clouds of coal smoke and then fade in accordance with the laws of physics. If we could only see it now, we would see it as they did: as a mortal body fading to white, as graceful as it traverses its bright vanishing instant as Miss Marion Murray ever was.

Between “the” and “grand Pooh-Bahs,” a pause long enough to say “Fox News” on the inhale

John Stossel, Fox News, May 18, 2012. Click to play.


I changed the channel, but the sound of that analysis was still affecting me. I picked up my copy of the Chronicle, held it to the mirror beside my face, and checked. No, there couldn’t be any doubt. Mr. Stossel was entirely right: I am grand.

So thanks for everything on Fox News, Roger Ailes! Have a Pooh-Bah song!


Push and shove, hook and crook, Bernstein

When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.

— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” http://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight

Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.”  Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”

As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.

Text 2: “By hook or by crook.”  Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.

Kielce, Poland, July 1946

Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”

Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.

But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”

Far from equal: the chimeric species "Judeo-Christian"


From Mitt Romney’s commencement address, Liberty University, May 12, 2012:

You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal.  Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter.  His conclusion:  Culture makes all the difference.  Not natural resources, not geography, but what people believe and value. Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-the-full-text-of-mitt-romneys-liberty-university-commencement-address-2012-5#ixzz1ui5Tj5KJ


A Judeo-Christian, type species: