In memory of a word

Toward the end of 2014, the United States Senate released the partial text of a report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of prisoners held in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. This report showed that torture was a part of the Agency’s repertoire of practices.

In the media, CIA spokesmen defended the agency’s conduct, using for the purpose a vocabulary as chastened in its purity as Racine’s. If anything, in fact, it was purer. Classic French tragedy speaks into existence a life freed of reference to any of the multitudinous comic functions that keep us merely human, but the CIA spokesmen concentrated almost all of their liberating effort on a single word: “torture.” They had two reasons for doing so: one having to do with liability (under the United States Code, torture is unlawful if it’s called torture) and the other having to do with politics (see Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”).

To the extent that the reasons were obvious, they were uninteresting. Nevertheless, words in themselves, if they’re read one by one, have the power to compel our attention. As soon as they escape their contexts, they force us not to retreat into contexts of our own. In the realm of language as such, we cannot be evaded. There, at last, we become like Stevens’s Man on the Dump: errants in search of the definite article.

                                                    Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

In memory of the the, then, this memento: first by way of words, then on its wordless own.

And see: the term that came to your mind wasn’t the CIA’s euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Whether you wanted to or not, you thought of something merely human. The the compelled you to know.

Source: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.


The photograph’s composition is unbalanced. The building on the left isn’t matched by anything comparably massive on the right, and the line of people extending all the way from margin to margin has no margins of its own. The people aren’t arranged in any obvious order, either. Some of them are looking at the harbor scene in the distance but others aren’t.

16773uA small Within the image, we can see only detail by detail, each sub-image in isolation from the rest. It will take some help from literary cliché before we can even decide what’s represented by the details. In the crowd, for instance, there does exist an image of a skipping little girl in antique clothing, her feet poised forever above a matched pair of shadows that vanished from time only a little before the little girl also vanished from time.

Counterbalancing that platitude of interpretation is another. No doubt, says this platitude: All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players, with the cynical emphasis on “merely.” And here in the crowd shot stands a predictable allusion, likewise merely that. Now its task is to illustrate stage 6, the one named Pantaloon: his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide / For his shrunk shank.

16773uA old couple

But so far this is much too easy. Platitudinous moralizing is one of the clichés routinely evoked by street photography and its photographers. But before this third detail, the moral refuses to let itself be drawn. Because a platitude is a platitude, its explanatory power is baffled as soon as it encounters the not yet already explained. Yes indeed: why are some members of this crowd still waving to the distant ship? They must know their signal can no longer communicate itself to anyone on board.

16773uA waving

Well, language can help with at least that. Language asks us to take note of the barely legible words at the top of the image — “La Lorraine 8/5/14” — and then entrust ourselves to the words outside the image frame. There outside the frame, a word broker in a library will confide to us that the words in the cryptic line refer to the French Line ship La Lorraine and the numbers refer to a date in the twentieth century. Furthermore, this date is far more than a mere date of sailing, and this harbor is not just any harbor. The harbor is New York, the French ship is carrying French reservists home from the United States, and as of August 5, 1914, World War I is about to begin. Something henceforth central to history has begun occurring.

Heraldry, a visual genre of literature, has a technique for helping us understand the sense of something central. On either side of the changing genealogy chronicled generation after generation by a coat of arms, heraldry often places an allegorical human or animal figure facing the history and extending its changing interpretations toward the margin of the frame. Mediating between the changing chronicle at the document’s center and its not yet changed readers at the edge, these figures are called supporters. Auxiliaries to meaning, they transmit and interpret the news of meaning’s advent.

Not long before the photographer of August 5, 1914, set down for history his wide-angle memorandum of crowd and departing ship, he was able to move in for a different view: a tight shot poignantly sustained by supporters. That image, too, is still readable in the library. We could look it up, for instance, in a textbook of photographic composition. Unfortunately, however, the chemistry of decay has reduced the image’s central element to indecipherable glare.

16765vBut it is recoverable. There, flanked by supporters, two lovers part. Wordlessly, the unsupported central part of the image tells us that much.

16765uA 8 bit small

And the supporters tell us the wordy rest. The supporter on the left may see the camera, may even understand thereby that his allegorical function is to represent the idea of a communication that has begun and will end in a single instant. But the supporter on the right has no need for either the lovers or the image into which they are about to enter. Holding his American flag and his Royal Navy ensign, he is looking straight ahead toward posterity. He is the custodian of the part of this image that is about to vanish. He is in charge of that which tells its story outside the image frame, in the library. On his side of the frame, the intent is to reassure. Don’t worry, say the supporter’s flags, waving to us spectators at the image’s front margin. Don’t worry; wave your summer hat at the ship. Don’t worry; we two wave and these two live, forever.

Only the decaying center where the lovers are would suggest otherwise.

Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and Photoshopped.

Sports page, crime news, damaged record, and historical irony, 1913-2014

Sources: Photoshopped.

New-York Tribune 6 March 1914: 1. Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

“LUSITANIA — Ship with fans,” 6 March 1914. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Track; buttress

Framed by his open rear window, the conductor of the Putnam Avenue trolleycar has his eye on the curved track rising behind him. The car is moving on schedule through space and time. It and its track, all the other cars and all their tracks, have become the seen parts of a steel and stone structure rising buttress by buttress toward two piers in the hazy sky, and a wall of towers rising still higher beyond them. This construction in space and time dates from an era lasting one particular fraction of a second in the summer of 1908. Click to enlarge.

Toward the image’s right edge some words provide it with a cultural context. Extending the image beyond the visual boundaries of its frame, they refer our acts of seeing to a delimited history: the archive, a specialized history, written in dead language, of that which is no longer available to lived experience. “Try Norsalene Salve today,” counsels a billboard advertising a skin-care product — but then the words once spoken to the now dead canter away from us, laughing as they whinny, “if you want to use your horse.” And to their left another billboard informs us that one of Broadway’s biggest stars, Maxine Elliott, will be at the Grand in a new play, Myself — Bettina, some time after you will have read its words in this photograph of a summer now gone.

Because there no longer exists the possibility that we can anticipate a Maxine in the visual field between the billboard and us, the billboard and its words (“Maxine,” “Myself”) are all that remain in our seen space. In that lexicon of the once seen, even nouns and pronouns (“Maxine,” “Myself”) become imperatives. They induce us to open a new screen and transfer our desired object of vision from a single image we will not be able to see to an archive of images once seen by others. In the archive, closed off from the distraction of the woman actually seeable on the sidewalk far below the Putnam Avenue car, we’ll find that Myself — Bettina actually arrived on a different schedule from the one published on the billboard. It didn’t open at the Grand in November; it opened at Daly’s in October. In fact, it barely even made it into November. According to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran only 32 performances, from October 5 to November 1. All four of the reviews I’ve read online (in The Forum, The Smart Set, and the New York Times and Tribune) are negative. Twelve years after Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware offered reviewers an opportunity to visualize a small American town populated in its religious district by a sophisticated Catholic priest, his atheist friend, a cigarette-smoking aesthetic girl, and a bumbling Methodist minister, the reviewers lined up along Broadway to complain that the small-town religious architecture of Myself — Bettina was visually obsolete.

Imagine reading this review as you rode the Putnam Avenue car onto the bridge. Imagine, then, deciding not to proceed uptown to Daly’s Theatre. Just below and to the right of the Tribune’s view of Myself — Bettina, however, another headline announces the scheduled arrival of a play whose title will offer the New York of the Ellis Island era a more immediately obvious metaphor for itself: The Melting Pot.

Here on the buttresses, however, melting has not yet occurred. The innocent words of the billboards facing into traffic still speak to us only of using our horses and eating our superior macaroni. Hart Crane has not yet imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as “harp and altar, of the fury fused.” But see the buttresses and read the reviewer’s complaint about a drama unwilling to register that which, on the immediately available evidence of the senses, was then seen to be making the Putnam Avenue trolleycar rise to the towers along a buttress’s curve. As of 1908, Hart was only a nine-year-old in Cleveland, waiting. But the bridge was already open for business.

Sources: “Approach to Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn, N.Y.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

New-York Tribune 6 October 1908: 7. Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Performance history of Myself — Bettina: Internet Broadway Database,