Miss Pegleg dances the danse macabre

From a distance, the Tumblr of somebody who claimed to be following my photoblog looked typical of Tumblr’s teen-girl genre: a digital collage of fashion shots and perky notes, all against a pastel background. The images within the frame, likewise, communicated only normal feminine narcissism. Think of yourself when you look at me, said every picture. Think of yourself as if you were me, dancing with yourself in every step you take. Be aware at the ending of every nerve that your living body and the beauty of the clothes it wears are extensions of each other, each making its other half complete.

But within the clothes, briefly illuminated by the studio lights but unreadable, was a corpus of body language that left me unable to understand my own word for “myself.” I can at least try to imagine what it would be to be, say, George Eliot, but that’s because I have some idea of how I might write a caption for a steel engraving of George Eliot. But about the girls in these digital photographs, whatever I might have said would have been swallowed up and silenced by an incomprehensible something extended along the zone where clothes touch the surface of the body. Looking, unable to follow my vanished thought into the zone, I couldn’t understand what these pictures were communicating. None of the young women they depicted could have weighed more than eighty pounds, but affixed to the front of every skull was what Blake called the lineaments of gratified desire. Like so many Emily Dickinsons, these girls were sated with their hunger. Next to a photograph of one of them a little text block praised the beauty of legs that don’t touch but separately stick straight down from opposing corners of the pelvis. For legs like those, image’s creative force had brought the dead metaphor “leg of a chair” back to life. It was now a poem once again, albeit a poem that couldn’t communicate in any language except mute gesture. Reconceived within the zone of silence as an idea of unupholstered furniture, the skeletons of busy young Dickinsons were now filling with animated silence a fantasy picture as beautifully real as any by Blake or Bosch or Grünewald. All there was there was silence, and words can’t move through a vacuum.

Of course I understood, looking, that the picture’s silent intimations were merely results of a strategy. The life I seemed to sense within the glow coming from my monitor wasn’t the biology of any woman’s body; it was a consciously created illusion originating in a business plan written out in words. Every anorexic fashion shot in this Tumblr was captioned with a link (in words) to an advertisement (in words) for a weight-loss product. In my own unaided words, I can understand that the images which initiate and record this communication actually depict a mass murder inflicted by monetization of the body. But the images, having once been created, are now independent both of their creators’ motives and of their consumers’ morals. Unthinkable on any terms but their own, proof against the legal language of the Food and Drug Administration, they now obey only the laws of art. A lipstick wielded by Ayn Rand has scored through my naïve word “actually” and transformed the images on my monitor into works of disinterested beauty, to be bought and sold sous rature alongside Damien Hirst’s works of decorated carrion. All that is solid melts into air, as an old book once put it.

As she melts away, then, the girl in the picture approaches ever closer to a mode of being that’s purely transactional, like money. She becomes all medium: a psychic agency existing only to mediate a physical transfer of currencies from one wallet to another. Touching our own wallets in homage as we look into a monitor filled with beautiful intimations of the transaction, we see each human model’s depicted motion change first to a depicted idea of motion, then change again (as the process of abstraction goes to completion) to an idea of stillness, then cease changing in a final dark stillness beyond idea. Finally there is no self left to dance with or be the dance. Wealth in its final equilibrium, with all the purchaser’s money transferred to the source of the image and the purchaser herself erased from the account, is a half-rhyme for death.

And then it has happened, just as Barthesian theory predicts: a body has been been transformed from the living to the photographed.

Miss Stein, may I present Herr Bertolt Brecht and Mr. Dorian Gray?

In this exhibit,


Robert Doisneau’s two photographs of Paris during World War II show us the world capital of chic keeping up appearances beautifully. Look at the calligraphy and composition of a bakery’s explanation to its customers that there is no more bread because there is neither fuel nor flour. Its corners carefully trimmed, its margins as impeccable as snowy cuffs, the hunger text is volubly tasteful. Look, too, at the bicycle rickshaw, double-headed as it pounds through the snow in front of the Opéra. Click any image to enlarge it.






In Gertrude Stein’s twentieth-century America there was a whole pictorial genre of travel scenes like that second one, but on that side of the Atlantic the motive unit was a superhuman machine and the direction of movement was usually an advance to the front of the picture plane, not a retreat.

Grif Teller, “Giant Conquerors of Space and Time,” 1931

On either side of the ocean, however, Gertrude Stein experienced transport from a greater distance than this, and de haut en bas. “When I was in America [1934-35],” she wrote, “I for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane.” Remaining behind in France during the war, continuing to create chic out of her carefully rationed words, she was able both to supersede train and airplane and to rise above vitrine and pedicab. Herr Brecht once wrote her a song containing the line “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral,” but Mr. Gray offered her a beautiful portrait of himself for her permanent collection.

Source: Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; Mineola, NY: Dover, 1984), 50.

Temperance beverage

The term is an old one for what we now would call a soft drink. To Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest it brings back memories of an adventurous youth. “It seems to be mine,” she says of the handbag which holds the secret of Jack’s birth. “Yes, here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant mood I had had them placed there.” The suspense builds, teasing us with a language that is all polysyllables, with its verbs in the past perfect voice. It is a language which has descended all the way into temperateness and come out at the other end, like Dante at the center of hell.

During the presidential election of 2012, the Republican candidate was a man famously (at the time) temperate of speech. “Gosh,” he would say. Nevertheless, he lost — done in by what his fellow Republicans temperately called urban voters. In the spirit of temperance, therefore, let us offer a toast in memory of the rail-spanned America that might have come once more to be if only those urban people had been temperate.

Allegorical monument to late capitalism

For the past several years the Donald Trump of Japan, a billionaire named Genshiro Kawamoto, has been buying multimillion-dollar houses in an oceanfront neighborhood of Honolulu. Once he has bought a house he partially demolishes it, then abandons its ruins. From time to time during this period he has descended on Honolulu, proclaimed his intention of building a museum on his consolidated property, and then returned to Japan. Meanwhile, nothing has grown on his shore beside Hawaii’s rich sea except an expanding ring of blight.

Now, however, the museum appears to be under construction. Click on the images to see it, rising tall and enigmatic in the distance —

perhaps a fountain where Godzillas may drink deep.

Mr. Sheldon and Mrs. Elton

During the spring, summer, and fall of 2012, the philanthropist Sheldon Adelson donated several tens of millions of dollars to the presidential campaigns of the now forgotten conservative intellectuals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. In the aftermath of the election, Mr. Adelson compared his unsuccessful investment to a marital strategy.
Mr. Adelson’s giving to super PACs and other outside groups came to more than $60 million, though in public Mr. Adelson did not seem overly concerned about the paltry returns on his investment.

“Paying bills,” Mr. Adelson said on Tuesday night when asked by a Norwegian reporter how he thought his donations had been spent. “That’s how you spend money. Either that or become a Jewish husband — you spend a lot of money.”

— Nicholas Confessore and Jeff Bidgood, “Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors,” New York Times 7 November 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/us/politics/little-to-show-for-cash-flood-by-big-donors.html


In Emma, a small crisis ensues when Mrs. Elton learns that Jane, for a pre-marital reason of her own, has just walked all the way to the post office and back in the rain.

“Oh! she shall not do such a thing again,” eagerly rejoined Mrs. Elton. “We will not allow her to do such a thing again:” — and nodding significantly — “there must be some arrangements made, there must indeed. I shall speak to Mr. E. The man who fetches our letters every morning (one of our men, I forget his name) shall inquire for your’s too and bring them to you. That will obviate all difficulties you know; and from us I really think, my dear Jane, you can have no scruple to accept such an accommodation.”   (II.xvi)


Some vulgarities are immortal. Others aren’t, even though they cost more.