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Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is a Lives of the Poets in the mode of magical realism: thirty short biographies of imagined Fascist writers living far from the power centers of Fascism, followed by two imagined bibliographies. In the bibliographies, one descriptive term that recurs is mimeographed. When Nazi Literature in the Americas was a new book, that word connoted a pathetic struggle against indifferent history. Literally, to mimeograph a book was (in the interpretation accepted at the time, Bolaño’s time) to communicate something insignificant. But insignificance in our time, Facebook’s and Twitter’s time, isn’t what it was then. At least one of the terms of its unmeaning, the word mimeograph, has vanished, carrying its own meaning into oblivion.

You can understand what happened by surveying some of its associated dates. Nazi Literature in the Americas was first published in Spanish in 1996, and Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003. An English translation of his book followed in 2008, but by then there remained almost no anglophone readers under the age of 50 who could interpret the word mimeograph in its 1996 sense. For a dwindling number of the old, mimeograph evoked the coarse softness of a thick spongy paper, the warm motherly smell of an oily ink, and possibly a culturally mediated memory like the one in John Updike’s mid-twentieth-century short story “A Sense of Shelter” that forms within a high school boy dreaming of himself as a future man of letters while he cuts a school newspaper cartoon into a waxen stencil made soft and impressible by the warmth of a light bulb. In the time of the mimeograph, all of these phenomena — feel, smell, sentimental New Yorker symbol — came together in a complex of meanings. But for readers of Bolaño experiencing the word mimeograph without having lived through its body of evocations, no significance.

But experience never stops desiring to communicate itself, and some of its desire has always been redirected from dead memory to living creative form, mimeographed or other. In Canada in 2015, a hack of the online dating service Ashley Madison revealed that the great majority of subscribers were men, and the “women” who messaged to them about love were cyberbots, both as dead and unreal and as real and living as Bolaño’s imaginary writers. At the same time in the United States, hundreds of employees in Walmart’s distribution centers were filling carts with stock at the direction of a bot named (or “named”) Jennifer VoicePlus which (or “who”) spoke in an individual woman’s voice with each of them, one on (so to speak) one. Jesse LeCavalier listened in on a few of the conversations and reported:

Voice-directed picking’s actual hardware includes standard communications equipment. Workers receive instructions and vocalize confirmations through headsets. But they are not speaking to a human at the other end of the communications channel. Rather, their confirmations are part of a feedback process in which their voice signals are translated to signals understandable to the voice recognition software, the responses are processed, and in turn they are translated back into signals comprehensible to humans. In this sense, operators are not “talking” to “The Voice” but are entering data into a set of algorithms that provide responses. Managers praise voice-directed picking systems for the ease with which operators can learn to use them. Workers can be trained in a matter of hours rather than the days or even weeks required for other systems. Thus there is little incentive for companies to invest in their employees. Since fewer resources are necessary to bring new employees to a satisfactory performance level, voice-directed systems significantly diminish the consequences of high turnover. Workers, like the software that commands them, can be replaced quickly, with only limited and temporary reductions in productivity. The new forms of literacy demanded of [distribution center] workers are impossible to achieve without the aid of some kind of augmenting technology to mediate between computers and humans.  (168)

The augmenting technologies evolve from year to year, but the desire for mediation has always been with us. One new form of literacy or another is always everybody’s first language: the primal reaching out for a hand to keep us from falling into mute solitude. We don’t need training to grasp at that.

For the solstitial festival of 1924, for example, an artist imagined a black-suited old man stretching his arms into newly populated air as if his body were remembering what it and music had once done with each other. Behind him, two laughing children in sleepwear glowed white. Light had returned to their morning. “It reaches out and out,” cried ecstatic language in its io Paean to the augmenting technology. Those who cried the words and he who painted the picture understood that the old man was as far beyond knowing what was happening to him as a baby is from knowing why his first step has filled everyone around him with joy, but both the baby and the old man understand without having to know.

Of course we adults who will realize the understanding by buying the Radiola have undertaken the mediating chore of bringing the music and laughter and lectures and sports into a world that (we know, even if the baby and the old man don’t) can never be filled enough with music, can never be made fully happy. Soon enough the music will grow fungible, and the musicians. Soon enough even love and its enclosing bodies will go virtual and be outsourced to a purely notional Canada. But for now the gesture of stretching away is a dance that is different for the first time from other dances. For the first time, the elderly dancer brings music down from the ether to himself as he dons his fawnskin — aged Tiresias, he who knows the secret of what it is to be a man! — and prepares to sing io Paean in chorus with Radiola.

Sources:

Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008.

Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

John Updike, “A Sense of Shelter.” The New Yorker 16 January 1960, pp. 28-34.

The Radiola advertisement, from The Literary Digest 20 December 1924, is reprinted at http://blog.vintascope.com/post/154641194549/radiola-19241220-literary-digest. I have restored it in Photoshop.

Product placement with revelation

As they soared over the junction where the streetcar track divided and transport could go two-way, it happened.

Suddenly the beer bottle grew huge and the white man in the boater looked up in surprise at the black man. Rigid, with bulging eyes, the black man was staring into a zone just above the other white man, the one in the thinking cap. Seen as yet only by the black man, light had begun descending on his table as it descends on the high places where to see is to know love .

Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003663800/. Photoshopped.

Language note: in a time of austerity, the conscience undergoes change

During the early 1970s, Marlboro cigarettes, formerly a niche brand, rocketed to the top of the market and became the best selling cigarettes in the world. The reason is well covered in histories of advertising: Marlboro’s manufacturer switched niches. If the cigarettes haven’t killed you yet, you associate Marlboros with masculinity, thanks to the extraordinary success of an advertising campaign whose icons came coughing onto the page beginning in 1954 — first as men with tattoos, then as cowboys. Look to your left, however, and you’ll see that as of 1944 Marlboros were a woman’s cigarette, tipped with red to hide lipstick stains. At http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php you’ll find a richly illustrated history of the gender reassignment. This note is about a language change that seems to have occurred concomitantly, and perhaps a moral change too.

Yes, in this advertisement even the illustration has a moral. Between the woman and her ashtray stands Daniel Chester French’s image of the Minuteman of Concord, steadfastly posted eyes-front at breast height. Almost as an afterthought, the advertisement’s text is duty-bound likewise. “Two luxuries she can conscientiously enjoy,” it explains about the illustration, and it half-conceals its heroine’s lineaments of conscientiously gratified desire behind a turned back and a mirror image guarded by a raised arm.

Nineteen-forty-four, after all, was a year when openly acknowledged desire must have seemed shameful. In the sixth year of the Second World War, all of the unashamed rest of America was austere. In window after window hung a little flag bearing at least one star, each star the symbol of a son in the Armed Forces or (if the star were gold) of a son dead on the field. In magazine after magazine, too, the advertisers who articulated the language of America’s economy somberly explained the necessities of shortage and pleaded for willing submission to the unending sacrifice. Turning her back and refusing to look at anyone but herself, Miss Marlboro counterpleaded, with feminine emphasis and a feminine diminutive, for “mere pennies,” but the 1943 penny itself was a memento mori. Not made of copper that year because copper was desperately needed for shell casings, it was minted instead in galvanized steel: no longer the red of a Marlboro beauty tip but gray, gray. “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had cried with defiant joy as he stood before Harvard’s divinity school in 1838, but 106 years later the threat to joy was no longer a three-quarters-dead regional Puritanism but death itself, fully dressed against the summer in menacing black.

But no, pretty miss in heels and peach-colored panties: even under that dread circumstance, you need not feel ashamed of your bath. It makes you not just clean but clean-feeling, and that harmless benefit comes to you free of any charge, either in money or in currencies of the soul. The world outside has descended fully into 1944, but in this room with the ashtray on the vanity you are about to sink into a bath conscientiously. The original sense of that adverb happens to have been in good conscience.

Postwar, I get the impression that that sense has all but disappeared from American English. The word conscientiously now seems to connote little more than rational but uninspired acceptance of a duty. Yes, yes; I do, conscientiously, try to practice good dental hygiene. But except perhaps as a vestigial technicality in the legal term conscientious objector, any sense of conscience as a motivating joy seems almost to have vanished from English. In 1914, in the first poem of the sonnet sequence he called 1914, Rupert Brooke compared men about to volunteer for the war with “swimmers into cleanness leaping,” but as early as 1918 some of the Englishmen to whom that simile had once seemed to mean something were saying, “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came home with Siegfried Sassoon.”

So conscience understands that it will be different this time when you take off your panties and leap. But do leap. It seems possible that the calendar will never again advance from 1944, and the leap will at least make you feel clean until you resurface in the smoky air. As a poet who thought himself postwar once sang:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since.

 

Sources:

http://rbrower45.tumblr.com/post/147185242401/gameraboy-marlboro-ad-1944. Photoshopped.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address”

Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV”

“Nor have they then a makeshift body”

In front of television cameras in 1998, Representative Henry Hyde regressed for a moment to a pre-television English. As he prepared to consider the impeachment of President Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee, he asked the clerk, “How much time have I?” I still remember being startled by that idiom, the inversion of subject and main verb in a question. For decades before 1998 I had heard it only in old movies, yet suddenly Representative Hyde, on color TV, was speaking the language of a black-and-white newsreel.

Well, the anachronism isn’t mysterious. In 1998 Representative Hyde was 74 years old, and he was simply continuing to speak English as it had been spoken when he was young — for instance, in the year 1938, when a physician in William Carlos Williams’s short story “The Girl with a Pimply Face” asked about a sick baby, “Has it diarrhoea?” (119). I haven’t conducted a systematic search, but from books and movies I get the impression that during the first half of the twentieth century that inverted construction (“Has it diarrhoea?”) gave way rapidly and almost completely to the construction with an auxiliary verb, along with a related change in pronoun reference (“Does she have diarrhea?”). As infant mortality became unusual in the Anglophone world, speakers of English no longer had a practical use for the self-protective reflex of referring to babies as only provisionally human it-objects. But Representative Hyde, by that time in his own history, was no longer noticing.

Outside sickrooms, however, the old idiom’s final years coincided with the aftermath of the war and plague of 1914-1918. Even in health during that time, speakers of American English must have felt the fear of mortality in new ways. At any rate, advertisers seemed to have intuited such an insecurity, for the idiom of their advertisements began straining after the perdurable. Fonts went lapidary, vocabulary went Latinate, and syntax began pacing itself slower to accommodate the dignified walking rhythms of the healthily portly. For the portly in one such advertisement, the penalty of Adam was to be mitigated by something called the Enclosure, and the vocabulary that prepared souls to enter the Enclosure sang of eternal life. Its syntax, too, modulated itself into a gently rocking iambic tetrameter with a feminine ending as it intoned, “Nor have they then a makeshift body.”

But the rite of the Enclosure drew its deepest power from its simplest trait: mobility, the assurance it extended to the enclosed that it wasn’t just an Enclosure but an Enclosure on wheels. After 1918, especially, that assurance drew strength from a new, post-1918 knowledge: the knowledge that at a not unimaginably great distance from the hard stable surface under the Enclosure’s wheels, a body lay barely moving in a bed. The sense of that difference took form as a solemn didactic happiness, and it taught itself to riders in the Enclosure with a single noun scratched deep into its own photosensitized surface. Cripple, said the noun to the world of 1918, in a photographic caption carefully worked into a Socratic lesson plan. And the world of just after 1918 happily responded in the counter-language it had newly learned, “The Enclosure cannot rattle or squeak.”

But to the world no longer inhabited by Henry Hyde the old noun still cries Cripple. A blogger with a taste for the comedy of the antique may have posted the pompous disyllable cannot because “cannot rattle or squeak” makes a more nineteenth-century sound than “can’t rattle or squeak,” but cripple seems unaffected by the passage of time. Affixed to its glass backing, the depicted body of the cripple has a permanent context. The glass is cracked but not altered in its transparency to meaning.

But the cripple’s glass has been paired with another hard permanent document, and that one is reassuringly opaque. Within the image itself, erected directly over the cripple’s bed, a wooden slab promises in knotty pine, “I can’t speak, but if I could I would say, ‘I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed.’ My name, which none of us need to speak because all of us know it, is Makeshift.”

Even more reassuring, Makeshift has another name, in actual speakable language: the word design. Design is a word from the universe of meaning that Keats, making use of a mobile metaphor (“Much have I travell’d”), called the realms of gold. Singing from a libretto scratched deep into the cripple’s image, design assures us who are not yet crippled that in coming times it will enchant us as well. It will dance, too, as it comes. It will dance right through the glass that will begin enclosing us when we sink into our bed. After all, the sinking will still be a motion of the body.

So rejoice, sings the word design. So long as you remain only partially crippled, I will be with you. While you still are able, raise your paintbrush and let it touch me and transmit my strength to you. For the time being, now am I your makeshift body.

 

Sources: William Carlos Williams, “The Girl with a Pimply Face.” The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1996) 117-30. The story was first published in book form in Life Along the Passaic River (1938).

The automobile advertisement originally appeared in Literary Digest 24 November 1923. I copied it and Photoshopped it for sharpness from http://blog.vintascope.com/post/145306079472/oakland-motor-car-company-19231124-literary

The undated photograph of the man in bed is one of a group of World War I hospital images apparently taken in France. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006002284/. Photoshopped.

From 1922, some contemporary satire of the pretentious diction of American advertisements can be found in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.

Indian summer

This memorandum about Bostonian style is copyrighted 1904, but in its right half it advertises some plays that opened in Boston in the fall of 1903: Lady Rose’s Daughter in November, The Earl of Pawtucket and A Hot Old Time in October. Elsewhere in the image are more equivocations. In the elevated train rolling through the Dudley Street station the motorman’s window is open but the passenger windows are shut, and at every point within the composition’s frame the sunny air is full of winter smoke. See how it is hazing over the sign atop Ferdinand’s Blue Store. You conclude these observations by making a weather report to yourself: Indian summer.

But every human image is reported in Indian Summer Time. If we could hear the words in the mouths of the pictured dead, the communication would consist only of gossip about that light-filled pause in the oncoming darkness. Its words would efface themselves as they reiterated their gossipy promise: “I must be going.”

But the words in the mouths of the dead – say, the dead half-lighted in this image: the group of women with a little girl in a big sailor hat, the man standing by himself down below – are not to be heard, even by the dead themselves. On Dudley Street in 1903, the dead were surrounded by walls covered with words addressed to them, but the instant those words became part of a photograph they became part of a foreign language: a language comprehensible only outside the image frame. On a low wall in a corner of the domain of the dead, its imaged advertisement for photographic supplies and processing is still decipherable, but it is no longer readable because to read is to enact a coming to life of meaning in a living mind. Because its text is addressed only to the dead, the photographic advertisement can no longer be anything but a photograph. We can’t read it; we can only see it. We are not yet in the picture. While Indian summer lasts, we are too alive.

You pick up the photograph and warm it in your hand. It depicts a noisy flock of electric railcars ringing and grinding their ways along steel. It is a historical proof of deducible noise, but it communicates that idea (“Noise! If you can’t hear it, feel it through your fingertips!”) only to the insensate dead. The Indian summer that it records has sunken fully into its no longer photosensitive surface. Its silvered paper integument has become the weatherproofed chronicle of a now silent season.

Sources:

“Dudley Street Station, Boston ‘L’ Ry., Boston, Mass.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994000745/PP/. Photoshopped.

“The Boston Stage. Full Review of the Theatrical Season. An Alphabetical Record of Dramatic Works Performed in Boston During the Season of 1903-1904.” Boston Evening Transcript 16 July 1904: 24 and 23 July 1904: 45.