Toward the end, a new way of reading the word “light”

In New York, one cold morning as the long nineteenth century drew to its close, the front page of the New York Sun bustled with news of the continuing revolution in transportation. Off the coast of Massachusetts, said the Sun, the passenger liner Roma, carrying 500 souls, had been driven by a gale onto the rocks of an island called No Man’s Land, where it was stranded for four hours before being safely refloated. In Florida, Lieutenant J. M. Murray of the Naval Aviation Corps had been killed when his airplane nose-dived into Pensacola Bay. This was the naval station’s first fatal air accident. On the other hand, in California Silas Christofferson had flown from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, reaching an altitude of 7000 feet and effecting history’s first crossing of the Sierras by air. And at the bottom of the page, a one-sentence story datelined London declared: “It is announced that the new Cunard liner Aquitania will sail from this side on her maiden voyage to New York on May 30.”

The page was dated February 17, 1914. Just one more decade afterward, with the long nineteenth century definitively in the past, Le Corbusier would claim the Aquitania as a paradigm for his pedagogy of twentieth-century space.

No people are on view in these images. For Le Corbusier, the people always were secondary to the geometry. But as of 1914 the Sun was still following journalism’s chatty nineteenth-century convention of humanizing events by giving them
names —

(Who, exactly, was Silas Christofferson? No, reader, you don’t know either. But as soon as it crossed your mind that you don’t know, you realized that you live now by means of a sensibility from which the nineteenth century’s ways of perceiving and reacting have departed. Only in the artificial nineteenth century imagined by the twentieth-century ironist P. G. Wodehouse could Jeeves praise Bertie’s new shirts by observing in the spirit of Le Corbusier that the monograms would come in handy if Bertie should forget his name.)

— and this front page had one more chatty story to tell.

At about 7:15 on the night of February 16, said the story, a train on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue elevated line derailed at 138th Street and sideswiped a car on the adjacent track, sending it over the side of the trestle with one end hanging from the rails and the other down on the street in a pile of snow. The car was empty except for its motorman, John Becker, and he wasn’t hurt. But the nineteenth-century conventions of journalism insisted on completing the anecdote by furnishing the named and extricated Motorman Becker with a quip to say, and so to the immortal record Motorman Becker was then said to have said:

“Well, here I am. Guess I’ll go get my dinner.”

To enlarge the quip and try to imagine it as an oration, click it. The click won’t get you far, though, because this nineteenth-century front page is all text, no pictures.

But the long nineteenth century also brought perception the gifts of a camera and a tripod and a frying pan filled with powdered magnesium. In the right hands, these turned out to make it possible to understand in the dark. And so, at the end of this particular century of development, readers began seeing their reading matter in a new way: without words.

Here, for instance, is the wordless version of the anecdote of Motorman Becker. Right at the start, its language is distanced from reading by the effect of translation — in this case, translation from text to chiaroscuro, with the surprise effect of a suddenly vertical railroad car finding its balancing irony in the surprise effect of a suddenly illuminated night. Imagining Motorman Becker locked in his dark cabin in the image’s interior, we on the image’s exterior are locked in a frame full of brilliant reflections. If we do any reflecting of our own there, it won’t be in words. We may think of words later, sitting at (for instance) a typewriter in a newspaper’s city room, but here and now we can have nothing in mind except light and dark, in silence. The Sun story is full of excited conversations in the crowd and the noise of the Eighth Avenue streetcar that eventually hauled the El car back down to horizontal, and because we’re now reading the sound-words in sound-words of our own, the sounds continue. But as you begin seeing your way into this oblong of black, the story is light and dark (seen), and silence (not heard), and nothing else.

In scenes like these, filled with nothing else in a way that isn’t available to text, frying pans loaded with new light began helping readers at the end of the long nineteenth century to draw a dark line around a moment of time and say, “Forever after, anything outside this frame will be named The End.”


Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, second edition, trans. John Goodman (1924; Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), [154].

“Elevated car falls to street 2/16/14.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

The New York Sun from 1914 is online at the Library of Congress’s Historic American Newspapers collection,

Allegorical monument to late capitalism

For the past several years the Donald Trump of Japan, a billionaire named Genshiro Kawamoto, has been buying multimillion-dollar houses in an oceanfront neighborhood of Honolulu. Once he has bought a house he partially demolishes it, then abandons its ruins. From time to time during this period he has descended on Honolulu, proclaimed his intention of building a museum on his consolidated property, and then returned to Japan. Meanwhile, nothing has grown on his shore beside Hawaii’s rich sea except an expanding ring of blight.

Now, however, the museum appears to be under construction. Click on the images to see it, rising tall and enigmatic in the distance —

perhaps a fountain where Godzillas may drink deep.

A letter to English 434: yes, literature thinks of itself as architecture

In the classical era, Horace ends his Odes with a vaunt: Exegi monumentum aere perennius, “I have built a monument whose bronze is everlasting.” Centuries later, the romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson ends his “Nature” with the same metaphor of construction:

Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line by line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

Sometimes, too, literature and architecture have been erected side by side, in a way that’s explicitly interchangeable. That was the case with the stained glass windows of medieval churches, whose illustrations of sacred literature were called “the books of the poor.” With poetic economy, Milton’s Penseroso calls them “storied windows.” The interchangeability is fully reversible, too: building as book, book as building. Click this example to enlarge it for detail.

What you see here on the title page of the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) is a literature which asks us to live in it as if it were a building. The building is specifically a church: a church whose storied stones have been shaped into a work of literature. Unifying the building’s decorative detail is a single visual metaphor depicting the text as a church portal open to the words calling out to us from within, from just behind this page: a text reading itself out to us as “The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New.”

Flanking the door are Moses and Aaron, the two lawgivers of the Old Testament. On their paper page, the two men are to be read as architectural ornaments made of stone, each one in a niche under a bracket which holds up a frieze of the tents and coats of arms of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Above that storied rooftop detail is unwalled heaven, with its two lights, sun and moon, and the source of illumination expressing itself in Hebrew letters as the Name of God. Below that undepictable utterance, the story of the Trinity is incarnated for us to experience with the senses as a pair of picture stories: an image of the Holy Ghost as a dove and an image of the Son as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Around the Lamb sit the Twelve Apostles, each one telling his story of himself with the help of an iconic attribute, and in the corners of the image sit the Four Evangelists, writing. Each of the writers has a story-telling iconic companion, too: Matthew with his angel, Mark with his lion, Luke with his ox, and John with his eagle. And finally, at the bottom, on the stairs, is the Eucharistic image of the pelican, whose story is a legend of a mother who feeds her young with her own blood.

English majors, remember big-talking Laertes in Hamlet referring to himself with characteristic bluster as “the kind life-rendering pelican.” Remember too that Shakespeare is exactly contemporary with this picture guidebook to the architecture of heaven. And one more time: the stairs depicted in the guidebook lead up to a door. The door opens to show us that it is the tenor of a religious metaphor. The vehicle of the metaphor, the image that communicates the tenor to us, is architectural. So yes: it probably does matter that we’re learning about modernist literature this semester inside a building which derives from modernism but gets its own defining metaphors all wrong.


L. Paul Bremer III, who spent the Bush administration bringing disaster to Iraq, is now self-employed as a landscape painter in Vermont. At

you can find an illustrated article about his oeuvre. The man is every bit as good at being an artist as he was at being a proconsul. But he’s confident enough nevertheless to bring his work before the public.

Here, in front of the cathedral in Padua, is the first Renaissance equestrian statue, Donatello’s image of the condottiere Gattamelata. In their own right, the armored image and the cathedral come to us massively, in the final rightness that history bestows on its darlings. But click the photograph anyway if you wish to enlarge it.

Sometimes confidence does bring forth works with the power to outlive. For them, “outlive” is an intransitive verb. It survives their makers, burning away all the evil of their beginning. They can kill, but the deaths they impose aren’t just blundering Bremerian Fingerfehler. We love them for the reason Rilke loved his angels: because they serenely disdain to destroy us.

Models of style


A provisional definition: style is an artist’s way of arranging symbols that have passed under the control of imagination. When the symbols are changed (by, for instance, historical circumstance), our ways of imagining them change and the artists’ styles change accordingly.



An example: George Orwell’s explanatory essay “Anti-Semitism in Britain.” Published in the April 1945 issue of an American Jewish magazine, Contemporary Jewish Record, this article begins with a history of England’s attitudes toward Jews in the twentieth century — a history that breaks down into two parts: before Hitler and after Hitler. Before Hitler, Orwell says, Jews in England had to accept prejudice and discrimination at every level of society and throughout every cultural institution, high or low. That was simply one of the facts of British culture. After 1933, however, that fact became unacceptable, at least as an idea that someone might mention aloud. In “Anti-Semitism in Britain,” Orwell articulates the change in the field of his own art with the help of this catalog of before-and-after detail.

There was also literary Jew-baiting, which in the hands of Belloc, Chesterton and their followers reached an almost continental level of scurrility. Non-Catholic writers were sometimes guilty of the same thing in a milder form. There has been a perceptible anti-Semitic strain in English literature from Chaucer onwards, and without even getting up from this table to consult a book I can think of passages which if written now would be stigmatised as anti-Semitism, in the works of Shakespeare, Smollett, Thackeray, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and various others. Offhand, the only English writers I can think of who, before the days of Hitler, made a definite effort to stick up for Jews are Dickens and Charles Reade. And however little the average intellectual may have agreed with the opinions of Belloc and Chesterton, he did not acutely disapprove of them. Chesterton’s endless tirades against Jews, which he thrust into stories and essays upon the flimsiest pretexts, never got him into trouble — indeed Chesterton was one of the most generally respected figures in English literary life. Anyone who wrote in that strain now would bring down a storm of abuse upon himself, or more probably would find it impossible to get his writings published.

Orwell might have had in mind something like this page from G. K. Chesterton’s record of his trip to the Holy Land, The New Jerusalem (New York: George H. Doran, 1920).

Click to enlarge.



Chesterton has headed this page “The Problem of Zionism,” and we can see that he defines the problem as an artist would: in relation to his own creative impulse. For Chesterton, Zionism is a Christian artist’s gesture. Making the gesture, the Christian creator of a Zionist art will confine every Jew he sees to a ghetto and force him to look as different from the Christian as the Christian understands him really to be. After all, says Chesterton (who was educated in the visual arts at the Slade School), that act, performed with handcuffs and clubs, will be nothing more than an enforcement of the Platonic laws that govern the universe. Given real expression by those laws, truth is a style — a style in clothing, a style as a way of seeing, style itself as a universal grammar of perception, now translated into a human language by G. K. Chesterton.



Of course, Chesterton has articulated his translation with the help of a technique specific to the reality of his time and place. On this page, for instance, he has expressed himself as a specifically Edwardian artist — that is, as an artist working in an era when the classical trope of copia was taught as a moral virtue and a writer was expected to say something, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again, then say it again. It’s an imperial trope, and its domain in Edwardian history extends beyond the borders of the map where the countries are named in words. The overtopping impulse to build and build and build is also audible in the music of Elgar, and perhaps its most striking manifestation lies in the wordless achievement of Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the architect of the capital that the British Empire built between 1912 and 1931 to show its face to the world from New Delhi.

Most of the images you’ll see of Lutyens’ buildings are imperial. In architecture, imperialism is primarily a style of conceiving and delineating: the abstraction of a building’s presence in a space whose human inhabitants are reduced to sketchy markings that serve to show the scale. But from Lutyens’ own time there has come down to us this striking photograph of an architecture at work in a counter-imperial space from which it draws the idea of  a style dominated not by stone quarried from the mute earth beneath the imperial map but by the wordy human body.

Left unfinished by the architect and only recently completed, this is Lutyens’ model for a Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. If it had been built, the cathedral would have been the second-largest in the world. It was never built, however. At the outbreak of World War II only its crypt had been finished, and the postwar structure that now serves Catholic faith from Liverpool was built under the regime of a diminished imaginative power. As a symbol of transmission and perpetuation, its little circle of antennas or stick-figure crown (the cathedral is named Christ the King) is no match for Lutyens’ great egg full of light.

But look again at that blurry monochrome image of a church coupled with its man. If the church were a building, the man would make it tiny: a tabernacle, the housel of a god compacted to a symbol. Since the church is a model, the man makes it huge: a temple, the home of an unconfinable god. The reciprocating translations of scale are a continuous transformation. They prevent us from coming to rest in any single perception. They change our style of receiving reality from the Chestertonian sub specie aeternitatis to something unresting, ever rising from its deathbed.

That change is the gesture of a history capable of renewing the human through a sense of the real as a continual surprise. You could think of its effect as the advent of a Jew in an emerald green tie. To G. K. Chesterton such a sight in what’s called the real world (he named its purlieu: Margate) amounted to a blasphemy before God. He thought of it as a defiance of eternal styles, a peremptory demand for its own erasure. Chesterton even claimed the artist’s creative privilege of giving that erasure a name of its own. He called it Zionism.

But from his perch on the roof of the cathedral, the Jew in his green tie may yet be about to speak back to Chesterton and to us. In a language that won’t be Edwardian ever again, he’ll say . . .