Parasol, veil, widow’s weeds. The man in the derby may be speaking to the women, but the social group doesn’t include the second man, the one in the sombrero. Hat and all, that man is only a visual element which is adventitious to the composition. The legs are right but the face is in the wrong. At best, the juxtaposition of this figure with the other three or four is feebly ironic, with irony’s requisite little does he know minimally fulfilled by the man’s mere unawareness of the women behind him.
After all, the composition has failed to provide a reason why he should be aware. There’s no drama in this grouping. It’s mere real life.
But an artist once happened to bring the grouping into relation with a massive orthogonal structure forced into the image frame on the diagonal, and immediately a trigonometry took form along lines of sight and began instructing vision in trigonometry’s useful truths. Following one of those truths, a ship’s humble mooring line, white against black, powered itself up and began calling itself to notice. It had become entitled to visibility because it had composed itself and become part of a composition.
Forever after, then, the composition will reach out from the frame toward us, forcing vision on a triangulated course upward and away from the inconspicuous caption printed along the bottom of the picture. Even if we happen to notice the words down there, they will keep evading reading by directing the reading function back toward the image for a translation of what they don’t say. “Sept. 13, ’07,” read the caption’s abridged words, and if we look back upward from their pinched little apostrophe to the richness of the image we’ll be rewarded with an exuberance of millinery history. Here they’ll come, the parasol and the weeds and the hemlines: bursting from their closet after their term in the dark and confiding to us with happy giggles, “We are so 07.”
It would take a pedant to keep reading after that. For that matter, the original image in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004000082/ is now so faded that the words can barely be seen, let alone read.
But yes: even in the unphotoshopped original, the first word remains visible to pedantry. It reads Lusitania.
And the moment we surrender and read, the widow’s weeds will have acquired a pragmatic force in the future tense. Precisely eight years from now, on schedule, they will become the most heavy-handed of ironies.
Translated into a word in the imperative mood, the weeds will become moral. In 1907, until their picture was taken, they were a conventional index of membership in a social grouping. After they had been photographed, they became visible to viewers outside the social grouping and so took on formal meaning in the abstract calculus of visual composition. Within a few more years, Marcel Duchamp would be pushing his geometry of the female body toward Platonic invisibility with a glass model of a bride stripped bare. But in 1915 another significance pushed its way into the picture, capturing it in the name of morality with no more warrant than mere association with the not yet fully meaningful first word of its caption. To live on in the mode of that significance, as a historical memory with an associated morality, is to have become a fact: something known and believed to be real. But it’s a fact that lives only by having replaced with an idea what was once the image of a body.
As of spring 2014, NewsHour, a program on the United States’ non-profit Public Broadcasting System, was underwritten by the BNSF Railway Company and the stockbroker Charles Schwab. Each firm introduced the nightly broadcast with what on a commercial network would be called a commercial.
The railroad commercial was all nostalgia. In black and white and faded color, film clips from the 1940s and ’50s evoked the iron horses and iron men of the old Santa Fe Railway . They showed us a steam engine on a turntable; they showed us an overalled brakeman angled at thirty degrees as he leaned from the ladder running up to a freight car’s rooftop running board, hanging on with one hand and waving with the other, all smiling life, to his engineer. Juxtaposed with the antiquities were color-enhanced clips of modern automated trains. Photoshopped to a high gloss, these trains were free of running boards and free of brakemen, but as they highballed through fields of wind turbines they shared their pastureland with herds of wild horses. And the soundtrack as they rolled was all iron-horse sound effects of choo-choo and whoo-whoo.
The whoo-whoo, especially, could have come right out of something sung by the Pips in Midnight Train to Georgia forty years earlier, when the sound had already passed beyond the allusive range of recognizable onomatopoeia and become a mere burden, a now meaningless noise like “Hey nonny nonny.”
Like the soul song, the BNSF commercial is a music for dream.
But the Charles Schwab commercial begins in the present tense with the sound of an alarm clock.
Awakened, the listener hears a basso declaiming, in American demotic, one more sound out of the corpus of tradition: “There’s a saying around here: you stand behind whatcha say.” Over the sound, the video displays one more rolling-stock anachronism: a car in the rain at dawn, faithfully delivering to a row of houses with heritage architecture a printed newspaper. The words on this paper’s newsprint, however, are the softest of soft copy. These particular words can never yellow or crumble. The audio track assures us that they’re perennials: words that grow and grow again in the rain, season following season. They are the language of what the entity that lives (so to speak) among the heritage homes calls Around Here. In its aspect of uttering itself into being, Around Here tells us that it exists as that which stands behind its constituting words. And its final words are a reassuring command, in the present tense on behalf of the future tense: “Own your tomorrow.”
But the voice of command has nothing like a bodily standing. On the evidence of the audio track, it’s only a voice — and, at that, a voice reciting only the script of an unsecured, unsecurable promise. Invisibly, over a scrolling background of video Americana, the voice says to us who still live in our poor mute uncomprehending bodies:
“For the sake of the past whose language I speak, I ask you buy the articles that I have awakened you to buy. I call those things ‘securities,’ because after all I have to call them something. If you attend fixedly enough to my song while you’re being awakened in order to buy, its sound may grant you a dream, maybe even tonight!, of midnight trains followed, season by season, by newspapers at dawn. In that dream I will stand behind my word ‘security,’ and just like my phrase ‘stand behind’ it will have a meaning, the way words once did in the days of trains and newspapers.
“In the dream you’ll understand what I’m telling you now. You and I together will be parts of its sound. As we board the midnight train, we’ll all be singing from a score whose burden is the peaceful iamb ‘secure.’ The brakeman in his overalls will have closed the door behind us, and we on the midnight train will be on our way for the last time, riding singing into the quiet that will follow the final commercial.”
Technical PS: so as not to lose the links to the commercials for BNSF Railway and Charles Schwab, I converted them to Flash videos for this post. However, neither my Android tablet nor my Android phone will play them in that format. For Android, then, here are the links.
During the night of May 11-12, a urinal in the English Department’s building at the University of Hawaii at Manoa overflowed, flooding offices on two floors and sending water down the elevator shaft into the elevator’s motor room. As the home of an English department, this building is of course subject to what’s euphemistically called “deferred maintenance,” because of course everybody says, “Aw, I always hated English.”
But inside this particular English Department building, the mentalité remains unsoiled, buoyantly afloat on its inland sea of righteousness. Here’s a lifeboat bulletin from Susan M. Schultz.
And from the dry land outside the building, here’s a location shot and a proposed motto.
Source: R. H. Macdonald album image 0011, San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/14197432491/in/photostream/. Photoshopped for contrast and detail.