A grammar of of

It’s the nature of their profession: most journalists are forgotten as soon as history has erased the events they recreated as words. The British journalist W. T. Stead has a place in the history of Victorian social reform, but if he’s remembered outside that subject area (Library of Congress class HN, “social reform”) it’s probably only for his death. Clio once told us about that event, and people still care to remember: wordy Mr. Stead rode to his wordless end in the Titanic on a first-class ticket, no. 113514, for which he paid 26 pounds 11 shillings.

http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-thomas-stead.html

Of the events before the voyage, less survives. That’s probably why I didn’t receive the communication when I first saw George Frederic Watts’s “The Minotaur.”

Click to enlarge.

I knew the story of Pasiphae’s monstrous son, but in this image I saw only a horned and wistful prisoner. The term “hybridity” was fashionable in my profession a few years ago, and here was the hybrid himself, gazing forlornly from his parapet.

Night coming tenderly,
Black like me.

But yes, I am a member of the profession. I knew that Watts is conventionally considered a symbolist artist, so I proceeded to look up his symbol. It was right there, too, in its holding institution’s institutional footnote.

Watts, an allegorical painter who employed art to convey moral messages, uses the character of the Minotaur to signify man’s bestiality and especially male lust. The making and meaning of The Minotaur can be traced to the social purity crusades against child prostitution, which led in 1885 to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In the forefront of these crusades was the figure of W.T. Stead (1849-1912), whose series of articles on the London trade in child prostitution were published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885 under the title ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Stead’s explicit references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur throughout his exposé reputedly inspired the subject of Watts’s painting: ‘The appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable’, wrote Stead; ‘If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make’ (quoted in Mathews, p.339). Watt’s close friend Mrs Russell Barrington records how The Minotaur was painted with unusual rapidity early one morning in response to ‘a painful subject’ that ‘had filled one of the evening papers’; almost certainly the Pall Mall Gazette (Barrington, pp.38-9). When The Minotaur was first shown, at the Liverpool Autumn exhibition of 1885, Watts explained that his aim in painting it had been ‘to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal’ (quoted in Art Journal, 1885, p.322).

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-the-minotaur-n01634/text-summary    Text by Rebecca Virag, March 2001

And I had failed to detest. Watts’s image of the Minotaur was created with an explicit intention, as part of a social context current as of 1885, and because I didn’t know my 1885 I derived an experience out of keeping with the intention. I saw a picture, but I was meant to see an illustration.

That failure of mine wasn’t just a failure of history; it was also a failure of grammar. I should have recalled that when an image bears a title that is explicitly allusive, like “The Minotaur,” that title is a predication: a statement of doing, being, or occurring. Some of those predications are even independent clauses, uttering their allusions as if they possessed stand-alone significance. Millais’s “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,” for instance, shows us a Ferdinand, an Ariel, and a luring: object, subject, and verb. The sentence encodes an explicit intention. It means to translate a Shakespearean stage direction into body language.

Even if the image’s title is only a noun phrase, literary context can provide an understood verb to complete the predication. In the nature of language, we can’t see Hunt’s “Lady of Shalott” crying, “The curse is come upon me,” but we can see that her web is floating wide and her mirror is crack’d from side to side. The lady’s words can’t be illustrated, but the poet’s words can. Tennyson’s poem is still ubiquitous in print, too, so the lady is still employed as a cover girl by The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Victorian volumeFrom there she reminds us of our duty to understand what she’s saying.

But copies of The Pall Mall Gazette from the Victorian era have lost their ubiquity. Because the world stopped being Victorian before I was born, I couldn’t understand a priori that when Watts painted his Minotaur he was obeying the rules of at least three grammars: one grounded in classical mythology, another grounded in the classrooms of Eton and Oxford, and a third grounded upon the street grid of Dickens’s London. Unable to access any of those grammars except the first, I could only see Watts’s image as an image. It is actually an illustration, but until I read the words of a curator’s annotation I couldn’t know that because I didn’t know what it was an illustration of.

That is, I’d made the anachronistic mistake of failing to read a Victorian image by the rules of language. Watts painted his language picture in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t until five years after Queen Victoria’s death that Pablo Picasso first saw language as a blemish on his working surfaces. In 1906, on the canvas Picasso was preparing to receive a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein, language had left its preemptive mark: the illustrative word of. In 1906, Picasso erased it. Modeling the face of his portrait not on Miss Stein but on an African mask where the representation was built up from a simple array of geometric shapes on a disc, Picasso achieved, for the first time in history, a picture that renounced any claim to be a picture of — of Gertrude Stein or of anyone or anything else. Thenceforth, forever, if an image took dominion over a space, it took dominion on its own terms, not language’s. If an image’s title happened to look like a predication, that appearance too was a part of the image. No grammar can slip you through the mesh of Marcel Duchamp’s wire cage full of little marble cubes, the one titled “Why Not Sneeze?” There is nothing in that cage but more cage. Wonderfully, Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee turned out not to have had to be anything but a parallelogram.

But the parallelogram you see here isn’t a Stevens. It’s still an illustration, still the artifact of a journalistic, pre-Picasso way of seeing. It still retains an of: an of whose shape is an exception to the rule of parallelogram. The exception has taken the form of a date written by fiat into the parallelogram: 1944. Nineteen forty-four was the year when Jews in France began taking off the yellow fiat star that Gertrude Stein had never been forced to wear. In parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, that same year, a painter wrote an unanswerable question on a billboard. It will have to be history, not poetry, that teaches us to read it.

The Tennessee billboard bearing that question was in Oak Ridge, where minutes did count in 1944 but words didn’t happen to be the normative way of counting. In 1944 Oak Ridge was in a special language district, under the seal of silence. Secretly, a large-scale deconstruction avant la lettre was under way there: a tinkering with the grammar of the periodic table with the intention of producing a nuclear bomb. Oak Ridge’s work of fission, current within nature’s labyrinth as of 1944, remains current within the labyrinth today. But today we can tour the labyrinth and then move on to the art museum, talking as we go. The souvenir we pick up there may be museological, too: an experience to put on a bookshelf with our other words. The next time we pull them down and read them, they will be unstoppably on their way into a past. Looking back at them as they recede, realizing that even from the past they will still call to us, we may conclude that poets, even after Stein and Stevens, won’t find it as easy as painters did after Picasso to erase the incriminating word of. Perhaps the unsayable things of 1944 or 1885 will always recur: unforgotten, unforgettable, but still unsayable. From any new poem something will always have just escaped and returned to the library where the old words are.  Fugitive but secure there, it will claim to be the permanent property of a grammar not yet released to understanding. From the labyrinth it will still call out:

“I am not guilty of what you see around you. I have become absent from that now. I am only an image. I am only an image of.”

Images by Watts, Millais, and Hunt from 120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009).

Image of the Oak Ridge billboard from “The Secret City,” The Atlantic 25 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/06/the-secret-city/100326/  Caption in the online article: “A billboard in Oak Ridge, photographed during WW II, on January 21, 1944.”

For the composition of Picasso’s “Portrait of Miss Gertrude Stein,” see Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; rpt. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1984).

 

 

Push and shove, hook and crook, Bernstein

When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.

— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” http://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight

Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.”  Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”

As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.

Text 2: “By hook or by crook.”  Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.

Kielce, Poland, July 1946

Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”

Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.

But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”