The poetics of cleansing

As of April 21 my new WordPress blog hasn’t yet been found by Googlebot, but it already seems to be picking up more spam comments in a week than the old Blogger blog attracted in six months. The latest one compliments my brilliance and then extends an invitation to advertise something called Juice Cleanse Detoxify, and the more I look at that phrase in my own blog’s composing window the more seductive it seems.

After all, the notion that the literal or figurative body is a vessel full of poison is not just perdurable but ancient. Walt Whitman, who suffered from chronic constipation, was always writing himself resolutions to purify and then rebuild his body, and the metaphor is prevalent throughout nineteenth-century America, from the writings of the health lecturer Sylvester Graham, “the peristaltic persuader,” to the Book of Mormon. In twentieth-century Europe, too, Gottfried Benn was attacked by a fellow Nazi, the propaganda painter Wolfgang Willrich, in a book which was called Säuberung des Kunsttempels, or “Cleansing the Temple of Art.” In that title the metaphor presumably (I haven’t read the book) comes from the Bible, perhaps by way of Psalm 51: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” At the opening of the Mass, the priest symbolically purifies the congregation by sprinkling holy water as he chants that verse.

Willrich’s own art was pure in the extreme;

Click to enlarge

Benn’s perhaps less so. Taking notes in wartime like a responsible clinician, Dr. Benn observed one of his fellow officers in the act of commenting on his own language practice — “I command only once” — and then completed the communication by completing the predication: “The subject was latrine-cleaning” (58). That realized a little zone of the world by anchoring its language to the soiled human actuality of a toilet brush. As spoken by the officer, the phrase “I command only once” could have significance only for the officer, but after the poet translated it into what Wordsworth called “the language really spoken by men,” it acquired communicable meaning.

But the art of Willrich’s portrait begins by expelling the really spoken. Erase the black, says this art, and leave the paper white; purge the unclean and leave the perceiving eye nothing to perceive but the clean. Willrich’s head model has been cleaned that way by the artist’s charcoal, and so he no longer senses the persuasions of his lower body. Erased from within, his expression has lost the fascia that once made it move. You can’t believe you could see through that unmoving face into a mind full of thought, as you might believe in front of a portrait by Rembrandt. A head by Willrich has no body, and there is nothing inside it except paper. The paper is a painter’s, too, not a poet’s. It’s blank and wordless.

As for me writing words in the postwar, I dismissed as spam my commentator’s persuasive invitation to collaborate in the ongoing work of cleansing and detoxifying. But thanks anyway for thinking of me, anonymous bringer of hyssop from the ancient world.

*

Work cited: “Block II, Room 66,” trans. E. B. Ashton. Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, ed. Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987), 53-63.

 

Landscape with wires and boat

Sunset, Kamiloiki Valley, Honolulu, April 17, 2011
Click to enlarge.

This landscape is a complex of the human and the inhuman, changing as the inhuman light changes around it. Because it’s a complex, it’s available to interpretation and judgment and the partialities of art. But photography’s way of recording the changing sky over a changed ground seems different from anything else available to a human artist. Consider, by way of contrast, this written recording.

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am.

The landscape through which Henry David Thoreau travels here is a constructed one with people in it, and Thoreau observes it and the people with all his senses. This passage from Walden begins in the kinesthetics of a solitary walk and expands into the stylized dance of the social. But then, magically, its grammar changes and it makes an escape from anything that might merely be seen, as it might be in a photograph.

Photography, after all, is the art of the indicative mood. It originates in the idea of a fully automatic, fully self-generating art, one in which the human artist is reduced to the subordinate function of middleman between the camera and its subject. Of course that automatism never completes itself by becoming fully inhuman; it’s always interrupted by the moment when a human being decides whether or not to allow the shutter to open. But a human being holding a camera is more anchored to the indicative and its limitations than a human being holding, say, a paintbrush. The indicative will impose its agenda.

The photographer Arthur Fellig, for instance, worked under the byline of Weegee, as in “Ouija board,” because (he said) his agenda gave him psychic powers. The moment a photogenic crime occurred, Weegee said, his elbow would start itching, and that was the agenda’s order to get in his car with its developing tank and contact printer in the trunk, turn on the police radio, and head for the scene. Once he was there, the equipment could take over and carry the agenda to completion. Look, Weegee’s Speed Graphic and flashbulb and high-contrast paper would say then: blood on the sidewalk. But – perhaps because Thoreau’s walk to town along the railroad track is described in the chapter of Walden called “Sounds” – it ends in a soaring upward from the completely seen, in the indicative mood, to the not yet seen, in the optative.

I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

And with the recording of that sentence, photography has been left behind. Photography, it turns out, is an art form incapable of communicating a future tense. In the moments when it communicates wide-eyed with us, what it communicates is only the Little did they know sense of the present learning the truth that the past has been trying to say. Thoreau’s art is an art looking upward from the lighted earth to a not yet illuminated future; photography is an art caught forever on the boundary of blinding light between what we see in the present and what we are about to cease forever to see.

For recording his subjects’ instants on that boundary, Weegee preset the Speed Graphic to f16 and always used flash.

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About Weegee: http://museum.icp.org/museum/collections/special/weegee/

To chasten and subdue

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

 

1

William Wordsworth didn’t walk down the Wye River valley in 1793; he ran, “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved.” Revisiting the valley in 1798, he discovered that the unrepeatability of that primal experience had slowed him to a walk. By 1908, when so much more had vanished into the immer schon, even the idea of seeking the thing one loves had changed. Now – thanks to the new geometry imposed on the planet by the railroads and canals of the nineteenth century – it was possible for a view from above to become a mental exercise: a laying down of parallel lines.

“Maumee River waterfront”
Toledo, Ohio, ca. 1908
http://www.shorpy.com/node/10239. Click to enlarge.

 

Only the tufts of smoke coming from the blocky building in the right background and the tugboat getting up steam in the river are non-linear. The river has no ripples left to show; they and their unpredictable little excursions into the air have been erased by the slow shutter speed of the 1908 camera. The camera itself would have been a large wooden box mounted on a tripod. An exercise for the class would be to reconstruct the lines of perspective radiating from the still glass point at the box’s front center.

 

2

 

In 1906 someone sat down with needle and thread and fashioned a change for a cat, turning her into a man smiling in stripes and a tie and fuzzy shoes. Shot from below, the image makes us look up toward the face. That angle imposes words on us, along the lines of, “He looks so proud.” Under the words’ control, we’ll smile too – and not like the cat with her muzzle fixed by anatomy in a curve, but consciously, muscles extending themselves to exert power over the micro-environment of our face and the thoughts it expresses.

3

Think of the ore carrier Jay C. Morse (no relation) as one more muscle, extending the smile indefinitely along what was once a river valley. Patiently waiting before its image for it to begin moving again, we seek the thing we love. And at the top of our line of sight in the meantime is the cat from 105 years ago: an earnest of our hope to live on if our curvy smile can charm the line of time.

 

 

In transit

I started saying it last year: Blogger, the Google program that was hosting The Art Part, seems unstable. Last year it decided to delete all the spaces between paragraphs in my archived posts, and a few days ago it did the same thing to another Blogger blogger, Jerome Rothenberg.

So for now I’m switching to WordPress. Transferring my image files here from Blogger turns out to be a complicated, expensive job, so (again, for now) I’ll just keep the old pages where they are, reachable by link from the bloglist on the right.

And now for a test picture:

 

This is an anaglyph (the kind you need to view through red-and-blue glasses) of a 1902 stereograph of Honolulu. If it works I’ll say more about it in another post, but now I’m about to click “Publish” and see what happens.

Does the full-screen toggle work? Does the picture enlarge when it’s clicked?