Reading in the decor

Decor 1

In the dining room in the background, the curtain is lace and there’s a decorative candle on the sideboard. The basic architecture of the living room is decorated likewise with consoling little flourishes of beauty. The brickwork of the fireplace is set off by the walls’ rusticated plaster, the overstuffed chair displays three crocheted antimacassars, and on the mantel with the portrait and the two little china things there’s also a clock that reads 3:55.

Perhaps the photograph was taken on a weekend, or perhaps the man who is tuning the radio is retired. At any rate, he is home at that hour, and wearing bedroom slippers. At that hour, a time scheme of slippers and daytime radio communicates leisure, and the man’s smile communicates satisfaction with the scheme for the present and optimism for its future.

But the Library’s record somberly adds that this home was in Royal Oak, Michigan, during the 1930s. History knows now what that means: this is a picture of a family suffering. Royal Oak in the 1930s was the home parish of Charles E. Coughlin, a Jew-baiting priest whose nationally popular radio broadcasts grew steadily more Fascist in their sympathies until they were silenced by the Bishop of Detroit after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in this photomemoir of the Royal Oak moment the nice grandmother in her comfortable chair is holding a copy of Father Coughlin’s newspaper Social Justice. Its headline is to be read only as a scream of distress.

It cries, WORLD REVOLUTION ORDERED BY STALIN! Furthermore, its sans-serif font on folded newsprint assures the old woman, as she lets its fall into her lap from an unsteady hand, that it speaks the truth. Especially, too, when it’s read in a house full of things, it reminds the old woman that she has much to lose if what it says is true — and it adds that what it says is true because it’s on newsprint, in sans-serif. Because she has bound up her life with sans-serif in a roomful of things, she must now remain in the room forever after, with all her unhappy valuables of polished wooden radio and sans-serif on newsprint. She can’t afford to leave. Having turned on the room’s radio and subscribed to the room’s newspaper, she has been deprived of the power to imagine being happy. In this room, ever after, there will be no more fiction.

Decor 2

The man has been reduced. When he lay down on a cot to read, everything was taken from him except a suit of underwear, for decency’s grudging sake, and the glasses that someone once bought for him, taught him to read through, and then forgot to take back.

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But I’d guess that the fragment of title readable on the cover of the man’s magazine is “The Western,” and its Old West typeface tells a story different from the sans-serif of Royal Oak. This story says: in Sioux City, Iowa, in an institution called the homeless men’s bureau, imagination lives and brings not happiness, surely, but at least oblivion. Held close to the underwear like an amulet, words spelled out in an Old West font fill their reader with the power to forget.

Sources:

The Royal Oak photograph is one of thirteen that Arthur S. Siegel took in December 1939 for a Life magazine photoessay which wound up not being published. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/coll/item/2004677780/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001018668/PP/. Photoshopped.

The other photograph, by Russell Lee, is one of a group taken for the United States Resettlement Administration in December 1936. Its Library of Congress title is “Man lying on bed reading magazine, homeless men’s bureau, Sioux City, Iowa.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997021496/PP/. Photoshopped.

The way of the monitor and the way of the stylus

According to Christopher Busta-Peck’s blog about the history of Cleveland, this photograph depicts the moment on March 25, 1913, when flood currents drove the ship William Henry Mack into the swing bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River at West Third Street, demolishing it.

Like the prose you’re now reading, Mr. Busta-Peck’s blog is set in the font called Georgia. According to the Wikipedia article “Georgia (typeface),” this font belongs very much to the history of the computer. Its date of origin is 1993, and it was originated specifically to fill a need for legibility on low-resolution screens. There it is read by default in screen mode, the mode of prose: transparently, offering access to language’s content while making only the necessary minimum of contact with language’s form.

Mr. Busta-Peck’s Georgia-accented prose about the flood is to be accessed at http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html, in a post dated December 26, 2009. But even before the flood of 1913, Ernest Fenollosa had begun insuring language against prose damage with his essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” Writing from the flood plain of English, Fenollosa recommended that a flood policy ought to be written flood-style, in “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”

To Ezra Pound, who completed this unfinished essay after Fenollosa’s death, this meant writing poetry in a specifically poetic language. Pound’s preferred medium for that was the typewriter, and he famously subdued the apparatus to his poet’s will by means of James Whitcomb Riley dialect spellin’, the alienation effect of text incorporated from other languages, and two hard hits on the spacebar after every word. But at exactly the moment Pound was rolling paper into the platen for the purpose of discipline in mediation, some nameless scribes employed by the Bain News Service were composing their own “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” directly upon records inscribed by nature itself.

They had the records, thanks to the operation of certain photochemical processes. They needed to write their shorthand picture. They could have done that the way poets do, of course: with a typewriter or a stenographer’s notebook. But they didn’t. Instead, they laid mediating hands directly upon the negative that just a moment earlier had been flooded by reality, and in its soft gelatin emulsion, writing backwards, they inscribed. If the inscription didn’t look quite like any other human alphabet, that was because its mediation into language was incomplete. Some of its form remained untranslated, still in the language of nature. The scribes weren’t fully in command of that language because some of it remained subject to the silent, wordless grammar of musculature failing to overcome the nature of things.

The verb above, for instance, is swept away. Its lingua franca is the language of deluge, and it is inscribed in a font that could have been named Debris. You are reading it within the liquid crystal display of a monitor, but the instrument that carved it into that lightbox of yours was a stylus scratching letters onto a 5-by-7 inch glass plate named Negative. Think of a Chinese connoisseur writing a poem on a picture. He sows words and makes the picture into an image from which words grow.

Or think of somebody stepping for the first time onto the mud deposited by the subsidence of the Black Sea, picking up a handful, molding it into a tablet, picking up a twig, and beginning to write on the mud the story of Gilgamesh.

Sources:

“Bridge being swept away by flood — Cleveland.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005011625/. Photoshopped.

Ernest Fenollosa, ed. Ezra Pound, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” 1918. Excerpted in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973. 13-35.

A martyr’s metaphors

“Here’s the thing,” Rabbi Avi Shafran chummily confides to the Jewish magazine Tablet. Then, summoning his reserves of charm, he proceeds to confess:

“Here’s the thing: I’m a Jewish heretic. I don’t mean forsaking (as some famously have done) traditional Orthodox Jewish belief and practice for a libertine life [. . .] Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a hearty hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is . . . evolution.

“There, I’ve written it.”

If, like me, you grew up in a small town in the days of prayer in the schools, you’ll recognize Rabbi Shafran’s tone from sixty years ago. It’s “Hey, kids! You know who’s really cool? Jesus!” But this recent history also has a prehistory, and embedded in that are some actually interesting bits. Those are the vestiges within the fossil: traces of classical rhetoric retroactively assimilated into the stone-age dialect of theology. Consider, from the same essay:

“[. . .] the high priests of scientism (and the masses that venerate them) [. . .]”

“Yet it is unassailable dogma among the enlightened these days that non-living matter generated living matter [. . .]”

“I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. And I’ve read and pondered all the ‘answers’ to my questions.* My skepticism remains unbudged.** [. . .]

High priests, venerate, dogma, the enlightened: here Rabbi Shafran employs irony, or rather irony’s shabby cousin, sarcasm, in the service of his heretical persona. But with these days the mask comes off (in Latin, persona means “mask”) and the rabbinical beard springs back into view. It is a seriously long beard, too. No more “Hey, kids” noises surface from its depths. Instead there comes a piercing and utterly sincere cry de profundis:

“In the meantime, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim [. . .]”

Well, we’re all familiar with this vocabulary of martyrdom. It’s ecumenical. In the United States as of 2015, it’s the property not just of Rabbi Shafran but of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fox News. It’s also long established. As far back as 1704 Jonathan Swift was taking an interested view of it in A Tale of a Tub.

Meanwhile, in 2015, in Syria and Pakistan and West Africa, Christians actually are being martyred. The tools of their martyrdom aren’t figurative stocks or pillories, either, or even copies of The Origin of Species. No; they’re non-literary, actually literal agents like slavery and murder.

On the scale of the suffering inflicted by those physical things, Rabbi Shafran’s own effective excommunication from polite society may seem to score low. But effective excommunication from polite society does command a reserve of pain that mere slavery and murder don’t have. Unlike slavery or murder, after all, the agents that torture Rabbi Shafran have an aesthetic power. They give pain a form shaped by the concept called metaphor, which works by evoking an analogy between something that doesn’t exist and something that does. Twinned by metaphor with an image of the real, the name of something imaginary (pillory, proclaim) begins to seem real itself. It communicates not pain but an idea of pain from the body (somebody else’s nameless, featureless, who-cares body) to the mind (Rabbi Shafran’s own, uniquely self-treasured mind).

In the mind, of course, it still isn’t real. But now (or rather these days) any language that might have been able to say so lies buried under institutional rock. Look, there, at the strata of language that have been laid down to hold reality’s mute remains still! They shape a tomb whose Hic jacet translates as “Here’s the thing.”

Of course the thing isn’t there. Technically, it never was there. It was a vehicle whose tenor never did exist. The metaphors that built its tomb covered its non-existence with words, spoke more words to make it seem to have disappeared, and then set men happily howling, “I am a martyr” at what they would no longer have to know. No more science commanding, “Know the world”; no more Delphic Oracle commanding, “Know yourself.” Only the howl, the happy wordy howl howling effective excommunication from polite society.

Among its echoes, nothing need remain standing except the tomb. Word-bearing but silent, it is stone all the way to its center; but stone artistically made to appear formerly alive and capable of meaning.

Duomo, Milan

 

* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”

** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?

 

Source: Avi Shafran, “Skeptical About Evolution — And Not Because of Religion.” Tablet 20 July 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/192334/skeptical-about-evolution-and-not-because-of-religion. Accessed 23 July 2015.

 

The stern morality of the Socialist Camp

In the early hours of this morning my Skype account was taken over by a cyberentity which changed the password and then proceeded to make dozens (hundreds?) of calls, paying for them with $25 credit after $25 credit charged to me.

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All of the calls were to Belarus.

Weeds at embarcation

As he waits to board the car on the right, the young man’s derby seems to be anchored to his head by a cord running to a clip behind his ear. The effect seems disproportionately serious, like the obsessed drawings in one of those books about funny patents. Furthermore, in the years since this photograph from 1905 was taken, the derby itself has acquired comical connotations, and men’s hats in general have gone ironic. But if we treat the image with the common intellectual decency of trying to see it as of 1905, it will go tender on us. The young man and the pretty little woman next to him then might be, oh, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy from “The Dead,” and the little girl in her sailor suit might be one of their children. Backs turned on us who look at them, they are off now to wherever it is that Gabriel and Gretta will voyage through their long snowy night.

Simultaneously, from the door of the car on the left, a young woman is watching two more women say goodbye. One of them, middle-aged, has a foot already on the trainman’s portable step. She is the one who will be leaving on this train, and the car she is about to board has been given a 1905 purpose that, like the derby, is no longer in use: ladies’ dressing room. She seems emotionally undressed herself as she exchanges a kiss with an older woman, but once she boards the dressing room she will become fully clad in the wear of 1905. As to the older woman, she is already dressed because she won’t be boarding the dressing room, and her clothes are another specialization for the seen universe of 1905.

The clothes are called weeds, and weeds were the mourning wear dictated for widows in 1905 America. The word “weed,” singular, had meant “clothing” for about a thousand years before then, from the ninth century through the nineteenth, but it soon acquired specialized meanings which by 1905 had diminished only to one. Some time before 1905, “weed” came to refer only to a widow’s veil, and then (says the Oxford English Dictionary) the rest of the wardrobe followed and became an outfit strictly in the plural.

But the fashions of signifying death didn’t stop changing with that, and as the term “weeds” became incomprehensible in time, the related terms “dressing room” and “lady” also had to be read in new lights. Flash photography, too, is no longer executed with a frying pan full of powdered magnesium, and so we see in new lights as well. On the evidence of this photograph, the fourth wall stood closer to the backdrop in 1905 than it stands now, and the farewell speech in between was more aglare with high contrast.

But we don’t seem able now to read the expression on the face of the third actress, the one standing at the door of her dressing room. In the glare of 1905 it ought to be immediately understandable, but the immediate seems to have vanished from this image. Requiring a mediation that the image can’t supply, the expression on the woman’s face is one more term dated strictly 1905. Time-stamped, it is to be understood as a word extracted from a body language that is no longer comprehensible now.

It has changed, and in the disembodied language you’re now reading we can’t know how. But at least we can say why. Moments after George T. Nicholson took this picture, the ladies’ dressing room rolled away into what’s called forever after, and in the shed whose flashlit form remained in memory over the darkened track, nothing remained.

 

Source: George T. Nicholson, “CC Ladies’ dressing room on the Limited.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649442/. Photoshopped. I don’t know what “CC” stands for — “chair car,” maybe? The Chicago & Alton Railroad used the term, and in 1900 its Alton Limited was the subject of a famous panoramic photograph by George T. Nicholson’s employer, George R. Lawrence.

http://www.midcontinent.org/rollingstock/dictionary/hortonseats.htm