That H

The bookstore’s display card calls attention to a novel of moral crisis published in 1901 and typical of its era: a serious-indeed romance about a young man having to decide between a bad girl and a good one. Imagine Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers without the cliff. It seems not to have made much impression. Online in 2017, I’ve found only two things that resemble reviews: in The Salt Lake Tribune for November 11, 1901, page 2, a single quotation (“Your face is not your fortune”) in a filler graf headed “Wit and Wisdom from New Books”; and in advance in The New York Times, this.

Tonally, that précis is accurate; in Reginald Wright Kauffman’s Harvard, dorm-room conversations are held about the mystical influence of Harvard. But in terms of page count, most of the Bildung in this Bildungsroman is football. Our hero’s moral crisis occurs after the game is lost to Yale, 28-0.

The genre formalism isn’t interesting either. At the end the bad girl plays Wagner on her piano in the background, good sport! for the kiss with the good girl.

But on the card there’s this.

That H isn’t just a team identifier; it’s a Peircian symbol. A black rectilinear hardness swirled around by crimson brushstrokes, it imposes control on their flow and gives it a form. In form, forcibly concentrated to a meaning, the connotations of the initial H burst forth into a sentence-long idea: H (yes! at last I realize it, in the dazzling, newly discovered full sense of the word!) is for Harvard. Understood on the body, the sentence in crimson oil teaches its boy wearer to think of his body as a newly understood allegory of its institutional self. The boy has learned at last to think of his body as H.

The bodily letter takes dominion everywhere. In the portion of the image that hasn’t yet been changed, the boy’s epicene face has started going tiny as the body below swells to manly form and presses against the yielding boundaries of what it is about to cease being.

“It is true,” says the boy’s friend. Burgeoning and then contracting, truth concentrates itself down to a single word. Then, in red and black oils, it leaves behind the word’s last vestige of mere referential meaning and dwindles to an abstract shape which has shed all reference to anything beyond itself. It has now fully become an idol, and its name forever after will be H. From every mouth in the stands, forever after, it will sigh the breathy hymn of itself.

Sources:

Jarvis of Harvard is online at Archive.org. The quotation above comes from page 353.

The display card is in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Art & Architecture Collection, New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-9516-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped.

At last

In Girodet’s Apothéose des héros français morts pour la patrie pendant la guerre de la Liberté, the heroes, some of Napoleon’s favorite generals, are shaved and bathed and unsullied by their wounds. They’re in uniform, too, as if they had never looked like anything but generals, and at their moment of apotheosis they are no younger than they were at the moment of their death.

Moment, singular. According to their group portrait, that moment occurred just once. At that moment, each hero became forever an element of a composition whose medium was rigor mortis. At the moment of death, each hero became perpetual. With his promotion to Statuary General, he lost the Other Ranks’ privilege of changing his clothes.


Likewise, Girodet’s statuary Ossian is old and blind as he welcomes the group representing sculptured military middle age, while the Rhinemaidens or whoever they are are moisturized and young even though they too are statuary. That’s how the picturesque does elegy. It’s a technique for making visual the idea of simultaneity that is communicated by the elements on either side of the conjunction and in the prayer, “Now and at the hour of our death.”

 —

When the troubled genius Charles Sanders Peirce died in his eccentric edifice of a house, he was laid to rest there, disposed in an eccentric artwork that also included bookshelves and a separate artwork depicting a dog.

I learned this from a book: Joseph Brent’s Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). This picture of its pages amounts to another display: a trophy gallery of Brent’s expedition through Peirce’s thought and the archives of the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. Click it to enlarge.

If you brought a Peircian disposition to the click, you might be able to think of it as an index of me. Shining through a diffuser at the left of the image, for instance, is the brilliant tropical sunlight of Hawaii, where I happen to live. At the top can be seen the property stamp of the Hawaii State Public Library System, where I happen to get delivery service because my wife is a librarian there. And that metal thing at the bottom is a little plastic-and-wire book support whose appearance may signify something about a man in his seventies who still plays with school toys. Elsewhere in the image, too, thanks to sun and shadow and Photoshop, you can glimpse the texture of Indiana University Press’s twenty-two-year-old paper, still imploring the possibility of a staged dramatic reading: “(Pause. Then, with a catch in the throat:)”

But of course Peirce will remain dead. Under a steady drizzle of traces of life, that which once was Peirce has nevertheless undergone its final change. In its interior, the rain-swept stone remains dry. That incongruity between the images of life on the surface of things and the deathly actuality at their center is why elegy is always ironic, with irony’s trick of making us think one thing while knowing another.

But aren’t Napoleon’s death-rewarding Rhinemaidens cute as they frolic on their surface? Let us, as the cantors deludedly intone every Saturday morning, choose life.