The two wistful images below depict an uneasy dream staged during the long naptime between the death of Victoria and the beginning of the Great War. That was the era of G. K. Chesterton, when language sweated grease under starched linen as it sleepily tried to say what it had to say; then tried again; then tried again.
All that the Philharmonic Society of Buffalo wanted to say during three spring evenings in 1912, for example, was one simple, poignant thing: “Beauty deserves to be noticed, even if we are in Buffalo.” But what prolonged the poignancy through seven agonizing paragraphs wasn’t its multiplying words; it was their echoless surround. In the merchant city of Buffalo, a city that was all transaction with others, the Society’s prose was admitting to itself that it could speak only to itself. Knowing (the Society’s own Buffalo ledgers confirmed the truth) that its words were being ignored, it comforted itself with a little song whose words went, “I am beautiful, nevertheless.” It repeated the song, tema e variazioni, but still heard no reply. Then, by way of at least salvaging a memory from the hurt, it wrote out the song’s verses in a pretty typeface and gave them a poem’s pretty title: “Proem.” At exactly the same historical moment, Lewis Wickes Hine was capturing his images of child laborers, some of them the scions of parents who had loved them and given them wishful aristocratic names. The images forecast no future except misery and premature death, and the Buffalo printer had trouble with the name “Philharmonic.”
But a century after that sad last paragraph, the Buffalo Philharmonic is alive and prospering. In 1912 the authors of “Proem” did not labor in vain. The memorial to their achievement is now an archival online tombeau that also holds the program of (for instance) a piano recital performed on April 17, 1928, by the undying Maurice Ravel, assisted by the soprano Greta Torpadie. During that era, too, Greta Torpadie not only sang beauty into a passing Buffalo night per “Proem” (“Music . . in the very act of being is gone”). No; in herself, as herself, probably while located somewhere other than Buffalo, she enacted a silent beauty within the universal memory of not-Buffalo. There in the not-Buffalo, at the instant she took a ceramic cat into her hand and instructed a photographer to commence recording, she established the shape called Cat in a form capable of communicating in human terms. Touching the cat under the camera’s transforming gaze, the soprano made it desirable. Desire then diffused throughout the camera’s work product, making its image of the piano and the pictures on the walls and the woman’s flowered tunic and smooth dark hair and profound eyes into the working, intercommunicating organs of a single living thing. Like “Proem,” that living thing came into being under the aspect of a generic name. The name of the unified life in the photograph was Collectible (noun).
In Buffalo after Buffalo, Collectible originates by acquisition and inheritance of a single genetic trait: “a certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough.” But uttering the spacious pronoun “enough” frees us to reutter “Collectible” in a simpler, grander way. “Enough” connotes the unlimited, connotes inexhaustible happy surprise, connotes treasure. The nouns “collectible” and “treasure” then combine into something like the emotion we feel when we experience certain faces. We call that emotion Beauty. Its origin is the idea of treasure: something desired without yet being namable, then acquired, and only then experienced as a growing, changing life in memory and as memory.
Reconsidered that way as a memory treasure, beauty becomes a Pharaonic inheritance of Cayman Island safe deposit boxes stuffed with mummified cats and remembered in wills. Soprano memento, beauty expresses itself as a culture’s collective will. Finally, says the document to us readers of its words, I, beauty, am so all-comprehending that I’m simple. All I’m for, all I am, is committed desire and the promise of return. The term of my bequest is this: the instant you vest me in the documented form of dark eyes and a score on the Steinway, I’ll burst into song, forever.
“Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pre-History: 1840-1935.” http://www.music.buffalo.edu/bpo/bx-pre.htm
The image of Greta Torpadie is from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006004550/. Photoshopped for contrast.
The Simplex advertisement is in Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters CD-ROM and Book, ed. Carol Belanger Grafton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 080.