In the February 22 New York Times Book Review, p. 35, Mohsin Hamid and Francine Prose discuss the question, “Does fiction have the power to sway politics?” Ms. Prose mentions political fictions published as fictions, such as The Jungle, while Mr. Hamid calls our attention to fictions that are ostensibly non-fictional, such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the media releases about weapons of mass destruction that were published in the runup to the Iraq War. Both essayists also mention Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and either of them could have mentioned that Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott for convincing a bunch of slave-rapists that they were lairds possessed of an honor worth dying for. And I wonder, too:
Wouldn’t San Francisco in particular, wouldn’t the United States in general, be healthier and happier if its oligarchs hadn’t been taught by the didactic fictions of Ayn Rand that they really, non-fictionally, are Nietzschean supermen, jenseits von Gut und Böse and as sound as a dollar?
The papers that came in from the Hong Kong students weren’t in ESL. They weren’t incoherent, not at all. But they were incomprehensible. The year was 1977, my first as a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, and the assignment had been ordinary by American undergraduate standards: a reading of a text, five typed pages long. One of the Hong Kong students gave me what I’d asked for, but from each of the others I received only a startling surprise: a thick wad of lined notebook paper consisting of thirty pages hand-copied, word for word, right out of the textbook.
This wasn’t cheating — not in any ordinary sense of the idea. There couldn’t have been any intent to deceive. The students must have known that I’d read the book. But then what had they given me? Why in the world would anybody want to look at it? I tried asking the students, but that didn’t help at all. With tears glittering in their eyes, they protested that they had to do their work that way, because that was what they had been taught in school. And (with indignation added to the tears) NO!, they couldn’t type their papers either. They had to copy the words by hand. That was what they had been taught.
Finally the student who had done the assignment American-style rescued me. In Hong Kong as of 1977, she explained, there were two school systems: the British and the Chinese. She had attended a British school and received pretty much the same education she would have received in England. It transferred right over to the University of Hawaii, an American school in an Unamerican locale. But the Chinese schools were strictly Confucian. An English class there wasn’t about learning English; it was about learning to ascribe the moral authority of tradition to a repeated activity — in this case, a muscle activity called “writing.” My own sense of the word “writing” had nothing to do with it.
A few weeks ago somebody from an electric utility commented in Salon about how much his industry has been changed by the computer. In his building, for instance, there was once a large room full of draftsmen. No more — and when I read that word “draftsmen” on my screen I suddenly realized that I hadn’t read it at all, anywhere else, for who knows how many years now? An entire category of labor, its name and its idea, have gone obsolete.
The draftsman’s pipe is no more, and so is the draftsman. The War Production Board, likewise, fulfilled its purpose and then vanished into history. Labor and laboriousness, however, remain in effect and on wartime footing. Yesterday, for instance, I posted a note about a mysterious daily attempt, apparently originating from many sources in Poland, to reach a note about Margaret Bourke-White that I posted to this blog a year ago. I’d guess that that busily repeated simulation of a desire to read has something to do with a larger cyberprocess that has been going on all year now: a massive effort to take over computers running WordPress (like mine, for this blog) and turn them into automated spam engines. Here, for instance, is a screenshot that I took last night with the help of the tracking program StatComm. It displays a barrage of attempts to log into “The Art Part” by hundreds of cyberpersonae attempting to impersonate me.
And in this morning’s screenshot, the tracking program Wordfence displays a tiny part of the ongoing effort, universalized all through cyberspace, to take over any computer running a WordPress page passworded with the default name admin. To the algorithm running that process, the word part of the term password has nothing to do with that human thing, writing in words. It’s only a coefficient to be changed in order to change communication from a manpower to something with a less anachronistic name.
While we still can, however, let’s consider one more labor function from the past. At the right of Ford Madox Brown’s Victorian allegory Work, two writer-sages, Frederick Denison Maurice and (in the hat) Thomas Carlyle, contemplate a repeated muscle activity under the aspect of its ideal form. In his poem addressed to Maurice, “Come, when no graver cares employ,” Tennyson envisioned that ideal as a series of laborious imperatives:
How best to help the slender store,
How mend the dwellings, of the poor; How gain in life, as life advances,
Valour and charity more and more.
A century and a half later, the shovel and the horse and the barefoot man with vegetation on his head are as obsolete as any draftsman, and the vocabulary word “charity” means something different when its culture’s writer-sage is Ayn Rand. Still, wouldn’t Frederick Denison Maurice and Alfred, Lord Tennyson have wanted us to hope that there may still remain something valorously human in Polish cyberspace — some impulse, for instance, toward actually reading my post about Margaret Bourke-White?
In that hope, let’s honor Maurice and Tennyson and Bourke-White as my students once honored Confucius. I registered Bourke-White’s photographs with the help of the fine muscles of my eyes, but then I wrote about them with the help of unembodied language. What I wrote may be unrepetitive after all, and subject to non-mechanical variation, and therefore untranslatable except in an error-prone, merely human way. Napisz komentarz w polu!
From a distance, the Tumblr of somebody who claimed to be following my photoblog looked typical of Tumblr’s teen-girl genre: a digital collage of fashion shots and perky notes, all against a pastel background. The images within the frame, likewise, communicated only normal feminine narcissism. Think of yourself when you look at me, said every picture. Think of yourself as if you were me, dancing with yourself in every step you take. Be aware at the ending of every nerve that your living body and the beauty of the clothes it wears are extensions of each other, each making its other half complete.
But within the clothes, briefly illuminated by the studio lights but unreadable, was a corpus of body language that left me unable to understand my own word for “myself.” I can at least try to imagine what it would be to be, say, George Eliot, but that’s because I have some idea of how I might write a caption for a steel engraving of George Eliot. But about the girls in these digital photographs, whatever I might have said would have been swallowed up and silenced by an incomprehensible something extended along the zone where clothes touch the surface of the body. Looking, unable to follow my vanished thought into the zone, I couldn’t understand what these pictures were communicating. None of the young women they depicted could have weighed more than eighty pounds, but affixed to the front of every skull was what Blake called the lineaments of gratified desire. Like so many Emily Dickinsons, these girls were sated with their hunger. Next to a photograph of one of them a little text block praised the beauty of legs that don’t touch but separately stick straight down from opposing corners of the pelvis. For legs like those, image’s creative force had brought the dead metaphor “leg of a chair” back to life. It was now a poem once again, albeit a poem that couldn’t communicate in any language except mute gesture. Reconceived within the zone of silence as an idea of unupholstered furniture, the skeletons of busy young Dickinsons were now filling with animated silence a fantasy picture as beautifully real as any by Blake or Bosch or Grünewald. All there was there was silence, and words can’t move through a vacuum.
Of course I understood, looking, that the picture’s silent intimations were merely results of a strategy. The life I seemed to sense within the glow coming from my monitor wasn’t the biology of any woman’s body; it was a consciously created illusion originating in a business plan written out in words. Every anorexic fashion shot in this Tumblr was captioned with a link (in words) to an advertisement (in words) for a weight-loss product. In my own unaided words, I can understand that the images which initiate and record this communication actually depict a mass murder inflicted by monetization of the body. But the images, having once been created, are now independent both of their creators’ motives and of their consumers’ morals. Unthinkable on any terms but their own, proof against the legal language of the Food and Drug Administration, they now obey only the laws of art. A lipstick wielded by Ayn Rand has scored through my naïve word “actually” and transformed the images on my monitor into works of disinterested beauty, to be bought and sold sous rature alongside Damien Hirst’s works of decorated carrion. All that is solid melts into air, as an old book once put it.
As she melts away, then, the girl in the picture approaches ever closer to a mode of being that’s purely transactional, like money. She becomes all medium: a psychic agency existing only to mediate a physical transfer of currencies from one wallet to another. Touching our own wallets in homage as we look into a monitor filled with beautiful intimations of the transaction, we see each human model’s depicted motion change first to a depicted idea of motion, then change again (as the process of abstraction goes to completion) to an idea of stillness, then cease changing in a final dark stillness beyond idea. Finally there is no self left to dance with or be the dance. Wealth in its final equilibrium, with all the purchaser’s money transferred to the source of the image and the purchaser herself erased from the account, is a half-rhyme for death.
And then it has happened, just as Barthesian theory predicts: a body has been been transformed from the living to the photographed.
Trimalchio is forever young. As we read about him in delighted shame, we invest him with all the immortality of our desires. Down the ages his name will change, but he will not. Look at the Jumbotron, reader! Have you ever been silly? High above you on the screen, the billionaire Paul Allen is now throwing money away on his yachts and his Science Fiction Museum. Henceforth, forever, your own silliness will be both known to the universe and safely dead with you. Have you ever been unreasonable? Because the display on the Jumbotron now shows the billionaire Howard Ahmanson bankrolling the creationists of the Discovery Institute, nobody will have to know about that time when you too denied to yourself the truth of death. There will be more billionaires to come, too, because desire will never die. Watching the forecast on the Jumbotron, we suddenly understand how good that news is. In Petronius’s original report, Trimalchio communed with his guests in meat and drink and then acted out his funeral. The guests escaped. They — we — had been returned to life.
We like that happy ending, and so it has become a genre. But some stories in the genre don’t fit well into any idea of a canon. What are we to do, for instance, with the tale of a billionaire who furiously buys multimillion-dollar house after multimillion-dollar house in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, then partially demolishes his purchases and abandons their remains? The billionaire is eighty years old. Does he have long-term plans for a future that, in his case, isn’t going to arrive? And why has he used one of his now vacant lots as a dump for dozens of enormous garden statues, and why does he putter around with gardening tools among his ruins? What sort of Eden might this billionaire have in mind? He isn’t saying. As of the page we’ve reached so far, his story is unsatisfactory.
The story isn’t satisfactory and the billionaire isn’t saying, but we all want somebody to say. Therefore, in partial satisfaction of that desire of ours, the canon has authorized release of a term into the lexicon of journalism: “eccentric billionaire.” The term doesn’t explain anything, but at least it has the outward generic form of a characterization. It signifies “apparent violation of convention; mysterious character with plot function to be revealed later in the story.” Until the next Dickens comes along, that will probably have to do. In any case, it will equip us with some nomenclature to help us think the billionaire has been pinned down for us to observe. Of course, in what the media call real life and you and I call genre convention, the billionaire hasn’t been pinned down. He refuses to talk to the media, leaves town to evade confrontation, seems to have found a way to silence anyone who has dealt with him, and in any case can’t or won’t speak English. But the phrase “eccentric billionaire” grants us the illusion of control over those epiphenomenal details. The billionaire has his billions, but we have our word “eccentric.”
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
This poem, one of Stevens’s last, bears an uncharacteristically hopeful title: “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” It may imply that we can attain to knowing — knowing what the word “eccentric” might mean, knowing therefore what the billionaire thinks, knowing some answer to the question “Why?,” knowing — if we can just bring ourselves to unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs, and head outside.
But recent discussions of Gertrude Stein’s life from 1933 to 1945 remind us once again that of course there is no outside. Is it even possible to think of Gertrude Stein in, say, 1943, as someone with a life separable from the words she wrote then? Words that have successfully evaded genre, words that have no more concern for other people’s categories than a billionaire with a copy of Atlas Shrugged in his man purse has for other people’s laws? Bewildered, a blogger covering the controversy for The New Yorker reports that some of those other people seem actually not to want to know Stein — or, at any rate, seem be be making an effort not to want to know about Stein.
The title of that post, “Why Won’t the Met Tell the Whole Truth About Gertrude Stein?” comes to us from the courtroom, where witnesses are formally asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” The title of Charles Bernstein’s recent study in archival scholarship, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight,” comes from the same venue. Both titles share the optimistic assumption that there is a god — that is, a stable source of meaning — and that furthermore this god is a helpful god, a cheerfully obliging setter-straight of records. After he got done laughing at the joke, Wallace Stevens might disagree, and so might the history that Gertrude Stein lived through and helped, with her outlaw words, to write.
At 5 PM on October 1, 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:
Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. Heard that there were writs out for two Williamses, fugitives. . . . Accordingly fled to Concord last night on foot.
In mid-nineteenth-century American English, “into the cars” meant “on the train.” However, the terms “agent” and “writ” haven’t changed since Thoreau’s time. They still have the social meanings now that they possessed in 1860, when
the South’s 4 million enslaved human beings were worth between $3 billion and $4 billion: the largest single asset in the entire United States, representing more than the value of all the nation’s railroads and factories combined. Slaves, even more than land, were Southern planters’ safest and most lucrative investment. Prices had been skyrocketing — doubling in the 1850s alone. Natural human reproduction ensured a further return. Slaves could easily be rented, mortgaged, or liquidated. A planter’s slaves were often, in modern terms, not just his work force, but also his stock portfolio.
(Adam Goodheart, “The Color of Money,” New York Times Online 21 June 2011)
With that transactional economics in mind, look at the little phrase I’ve printed in red above: “who is his father.” Grammar calls such an array of words a subordinate clause, meaning that it’s a statement of doing, being, or occurring which depends for its meaning on another statement of doing, being, or occurring. The word “because” in “Because I could not stop for death” changes a complete sentence into a subordinate clause. It’s an agent, like the man in 1851 who presumably charged a fee for trying to change Henry Williams’s relationship with his father from servile to independent.
The transaction wasn’t completed in Thoreau’s lifetime, but for a while in the twentieth century it seemed that the period at the end of the sentence could be in view and it might one day be possible to think of people as priceless. However, the grammar of politics is stubborn and conservative. Perhaps the family history of slavery and freedom is only a cyclical narrative after all, like Walden or the twin narratives of Isaac and Ishmael. If it is, the party of Ayn Rand may understand the idea of subordination better than the party of Henry David Thoreau. For the father and son in Thoreau’s little tale, at any rate, subordination is the basis to which words always return when they need to represent people in relation to other people. That power transaction is language at its ground state: the fathering grammar of what the New England conservative Emily Dickinson called (in “There’s a certain slant of light”)