Many lips, photographed

1

From the window of Jay Gatsby’s car, Nick Carraway sees “A dead man . . . in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday” (73).

2

Early in 1924, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was at work on The Great Gatsby, The Saturday Evening Post, the most important outlet for his magazine fiction, was serializing a book by the anti-immigration propagandist Lothrop Stoddard called Racial Realities in Europe. Week by week the serial unscrolled a physical anthropology of short upper lips before the Post’s readers, and it asked them to look at what was before and around them as a tragedy of the dolicho-blond.

The Nordic is essentially a high-standard man. He requires healthful living conditions, and pines when deprived of good food, fresh air and exercise. . . . Under modern conditions . . . the crowded city and the cramped factory weed out the Nordic much faster than they do the Alpine or the Mediterranean, both of which stocks seem to be able to stand such an environment with less damage to themselves. It is needless to add that the late war and its aftermath have been terrible blows to the Nordic race.

Racial Realities in Europe substantially repeats Stoddard’s earlier book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, and it’s a commonplace of undergraduate annotation that Fitzgerald must have been thinking of Stoddard when he has the distasteful Tom Buchanan recommend “‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires,’ by this man Goddard” (17). If Tom views colored empires with Goddardian alarm, then perhaps (says The Great Gatsby’s communication at this point) that which will deliver Gatsby’s golden life to death may be Goddard’s Disease, malignant pallor. In the historical event, the propaganda campaign coordinated after the Great War by the racial thinkers Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn was to culminate in an act of congress, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which effectively reduced the sonnet mounted on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty (“I lift my lamp beside the golden door”) to an irony in a dead language.

3

But go back prewar and look at the photograph that illustrates Maria Todorova’s recent book review in the TLS. Most of the faces in this southeastern European street scene are broadly smiling, and their upper lips are so short that the faces have become comic masks. Mouths laughingly stretch themselves to lip their buddy noses, and the funniest, shortest-lipped face in the picture belongs to a boy whose whole body, clad in old, too-small clothes and old, too-big shoes, seems to be a happy retelling in clownface of a joke about innocence.

The book under review is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, and the photograph is captioned simply, “Belgrade, July 29, 1914.” Of course the effect of those words, 99 years later, is to instruct us to reread the comic image in a surprising new way. Their mobilization orders have just been posted, and these Serbs are happy. Little do they know. Somebody at the TLS predicted that a surprise like that would give readers a moment of tragic pleasure, and a request for reprint permission was accordingly placed with an agency called Bridgeman Art Library. For amplifying and clarifying a communication in the language of the heart, that request communicated an idea of money well spent.

It was a request with a history extending all the way back to that instant of photographic exposure in 1914. Even after the instant had reached the age of ninety-nine years, it was still covered by a copyright held by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung as successor to the photograph’s original publisher, Scherl-Verlag. The founder of Scherl-Verlag, August Scherl (1849-1921), was to German journalism what Pulitzer and Hearst were to American journalism, and in 1913 an American journalist, Frederic William Wile, wrote that the Scherl technique of teaching through journalism had permanently changed German ways of experiencing the emotional effects of history.

Of course, in retrospect, it appears that there’s a difference in meaning between the words about Scherl that Wile set down on his page in 1913 (“he had exploited almost every important field of human activity”) and the words we try to distinguish on the same page in 2013. The gulf between 1913 and 1914 aside, the admiring Wile was a Jew, and long after Scherl’s death Scherl-Verlag was taken over by the Nazi publisher Franz Eher. The retrospective difficulty that that causes for the reading of Wile’s words carries over to a difficulty in seeing Scherl’s images, and of course this difficulty is a general effect. Mutatis mutandis, it will interfere with any reading that ventures close to history. To marvel at the image below, for instance, would have been to experience one thing in 1914, something else in 1918, a third thing in, say, 1945, and a fourth in 2013, when a British publisher paid a British agency to arrange for the erasure of these German watermarks on behalf of the 21st-century book reviewer Maria Todorova.

So even now, after payment has been made and the cleaned image has been published in high resolution, we readers who follow in the trace laid down for us by Maria Todorova can’t see all of it. Long before the image passed under the control of copyright, it had been stamped with a primary watermark which was indelible because invisible. The mark imposed on the image by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2013 can be paid off and sent into erasure, but below it there remains the unseeable mark which was laid down forever as from July 29, 1914. Once upon a time on a street in Belgrade, a photographer aimed a camera at some men and some boys during an instant when they entered into an existence which (as it happens) was to become the subject of tragic fantasy a century later. According to the caption outside the image frame, the time was July 29, 1914. But at the instant of light in 1914 no one brought into in the image frame could have realized the momentary blaze within the camera as a change in the ways of being. A fraction of a second after history opened before a boy with a short upper lip, a shutter closed down again on the uninterrupted continuity of some lives that always had been and thenceforth always would continue to be in dark.

Now, 99  years later, on a page surrounding a frame filled with a photographically generated pattern of shadow and light, some words outside the frame offer you, in exchange for a credit card payment to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a bigger, clearer view of whatever it is that’s in the frame. It may be history; it may be art. Within the frame there are also some words, distractingly reiterating Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo. Pay me, promises Süddeutsche Zeitung, and I will clear those. You’ll see much farther into the frame then. At the least, you’ll be three words closer to the image plane.

But there are other words within the image plane itself, and those will have to remain uncovered by the terms of the exchange. They will be the names of everything there that is dead: the words that weren’t recorded during the instant when the camera opened itself to the light of July 29, 1914. Unspoken, they’ll always have rendered their speakers invisible, no matter what has been done in the dark since the instant of unspeaking.

Keep a stiff upper lip, then. Put the credit card back in your wallet and remind yourself: little will I know.

Sources

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew Bruccoli. 1925. New York: Scribner, 1992.

“Frederic W. Wile, News Columnist.” Obituary. New York Times 8 April 1941. Online.

Stoddard, Lothrop. “Racial Realities in Europe,” installment 1 of 12. Saturday Evening Post 22 March 1924: 14+. Rpt. in Racial Realities in Europe (New York: Scribner, 1925).

—. The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. New York: Scribner, 1920.

Todorova, Maria. “Outrages and Their Outcomes.” Review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark. TLS 4 January 2013: 9-10. This review contains a high-resolution four-column print of the Belgrade street scene.

Wile, Frederic William. Men Around the Kaiser: The Makers of Modern Germany. London: Heinemann, 1913.

On not getting the joke

Item: as I recall the old article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an autistic student failed a question on an exam because the question was based on a joke. The student reacted by asking a court to require every assignment written for him to be strictly fact-based, with no humor or other figurative use of language allowed.

Item: to date, my only contribution to the letters page of the TLS responded to a review by A. N. Wilson of a book about the controversial British politician Shirley Porter. Porter’s father was the founder of the giant retail chain Tesco, and, as Wilson observed, the “co” stands for Cohen. Having made that observation, Wilson then took it Python (“Wink wink nudge nudge know what I mean know what I mean?”) and generated a sentence which tried so hard to shriek “I hate Jews” and “I hate Israel” in the same breath that it exploded in a spit-spray of ungrammatical incoherence.

I pointed that out to the readers of the TLS. Back from the United Kingdom came a handwritten aerogram accusing me of antisemitism.

Item: an artist who articulates the connection between item 1 and item 2 is Eli Valley, creator of Stuart the Jewish Turtle. It’s true about Stuart, and it’s sad: we don’t very often talk to the people before us. All we hear and all we respond to, most of the time, is the autistic echo inside our own shells.

http://forward.com/articles/14860/stuart-the-jewish-turtle/

Item: in his glass box, to himself, Stuart the Jewish Turtle grumbled “Goddamn antisemites!” during the last months of the George W. Bush administration. Items 1 and 2 above are even older. (Reader, when was the last time you received an aerogram?) But now I’m going to be coy and vague about something that appeared on the Net just last night. Its blurred outline looks like this.

The author of a comic strip I’ve enjoyed for its irony announced, in his opening panel, that his strip had lost its syndication. The rest of the strip was ironic about people too unsophisticated to appreciate irony. I appreciated the strip and sent it approvingly along to a graduate student. But then, for the first time ever, I looked at the author’s blog.

The author turns out to be heavily involved in his small town’s politics. One of his blogposts about that reproduces a handwritten note politely asking him to try to keep his emotions under control in meetings, followed by a handwritten reply ordering the writer of the note never to speak to him again. In another blogpost, the author reproaches his fellow citizens for upsetting him so badly that he had a stroke which left him blind in one eye. And a third post, quite a long one, is the author’s agonized analysis of the love and hate he feels for Holden Caulfield.

Oh poor guy.

And I thought I was getting a sophisticated joke.

There’s probably a moral to this story, and it’s probably cautionary. But now I’m not sure I know what it might be.