Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world

The fat man appears to be airborne over the deck of his ship, hovering with arms stiffly extended forward and down like landing gear. His cushiony, shock-absorbing hands appear to be huge, but perhaps that’s an illusion produced by foreshortening. In his image, outlined by a rectangular frame of decayed photographic emulsion, he is strongly foreshortened at every point.

“W. N. McMillan.” G. G. Bain collection, Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.18560/  Click to enlarge.

At and around the man’s hands, further decay has accentuated the contrast between the image’s light and dark areas. The decay has done an artist’s job: it has shaped an outline.

An outline is usually a line of demarcation which an artist lays down between his creation and the rest of the universe. Here, however, outline is an index of decay. The universe has invaded the physiology of this image like a virus and set it to manufacturing a counterfeit of the artist’s death-defying gesture of separation from time.

And the optics of photographic image-making have bloated the man into an incipient sphere: a fruit rounding as it ripens toward decay.

The rounding has been preserved in its incipience, however. It comes to us educationally, preserved through natural history as if it and we had been destined from the beginning to face each other from opposite sides of a vitrine.

Surrounded by the Library of Congress’s explanatory words, the image is a fat mute struldbrug surrounded by volubly signifying youthfulness. The words singing in the surround are a choir of still unravished brides.

Second homes

March 20, 1939: Gershom Scholem, in Jerusalem, writes to Walter Benjamin, in Paris:

I’ll be traveling to Port Said at the beginning of next week, to see my mother for three hours once again when her ship [carrying her from Germany to exile in Australia] puts into harbor there: this is likely to be our last meeting by human reckoning. I’ll be writing much more soon. I will certainly make use of any opportunity I might somehow, somewhere, come across for you. I am asking myself whether you shouldn’t try to get into the U.S.A. while you still can, and whether that wouldn’t be better for you than anything else. (251)

September 25, 1942: snow falls in Iowa and Illinois, USA. For the weather bureau in Des Moines this is the first September snowfall on record, and elsewhere in the state the football game between Garner and Buffalo Center has to be called after wet, wind-blown snow breaks seven lights on the field. On a train, the conductor and brakeman are impressed enough to make a note. In chalk, one of them writes “1′ / of Snow 9-25 5 PM” on one of the rafters that support the roof of his caboose. The words will still be there four months later, when the photographer Jack Delano records a moment in the history of the caboose for the Office of War Information.

http://www.shorpy.com/node/9733
Click to enlarge.

To posterity, Delano will later explain: “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. The caboose is the conductor’s second home. He always uses the same one and many conductors cook and sleep there while waiting for trains to take back from division points.” After Delano, other viewers of the image will follow his narrative to its completion. To the comment stream where I found the image on Shorpy.com, one will contribute the weather report for September 25, 1942, while others will observe the splatters of tobacco juice on the floorboards and the different sorts of girls’ pictures on the bulkheads. Those data are precious to the commentators because they are history, because there are no cabooses now. The commentators explain: brakemen are no longer needed to watch for fires under the train because wheel bearings are no longer packed with oil-soaked rags; and switches now are thrown electrically under radio control, not manually by a brakeman who has climbed down from a caboose; and air pressure in the train’s brake lines is now read and communicated to the engineer by electronic sensors, not by a brakeman swinging a lantern.

But the brakeman in Jack Delano’s picture doesn’t know. For the camera he is wearing new overalls and a new shirt and smoking a pipe, as many American men did in January 1943, the month that shows on the calendar beside his head. Photography has done its magic again; looking, we believe the moment can be 1943 forever, with the pipe scenting the air along with coal smoke from the iron stove. And above the conductor’s head, as he sits at his desk, is the punctum of the men’s presence in the moment: inconspicuous on the bulkhead behind the girl prettily standing on tiptoe to hang laundry on a line the way American women did in 1943, an air pressure gauge. Until that indicated a certain number to a brakeman, a train in 1943 couldn’t move. But of course there’s nothing left of any of this information, now, except a still photographic image bearing pictures of a conductor and a brakeman and some scribbled words and some pretty girls who are less likely than the two men in their little portable home to have gone invisible to memory.

As to Gershom Scholem’s mother, she disappears from the text of The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem after the sentence I’ve quoted above. The correspondence itself ends fourteen pages later. We know how it turned out. In an appendix, Scholem notes that cemetery attendants in Port Bou “who, in consideration of the number of inquiries, wanted to assure themselves of a tip” (268) used to show visitors an enclosed plot of ground and tell them it was Benjamin’s grave. But it wasn’t a grave.

Here below are some more plats of homes from which Walter Benjamin was absented. And Susan Schultz, whose mother now listens as an attendant in what’s called a home reads to her from The Little Prince, thinks of exile and a lost kingdom and writes:

There was a happy ending, at least for a time. Using dowsing sticks, they found a spot, unmarked by stone or twig, dug until they reached a vein of water. They drank from the same bucket, sharing more than the cold water. But then the daughters came, and their retinues, and their resentments, even the youngest one’s recovered love. There were swords and bitter words, nothing water could wash away, not yet.

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http://www.shorpy.com/node/10430  “Haifa, British Mandate Palestine, circa 1940. ‘Swimming pool at the Casino, Bat Galim neighborhood.’ Medium-format acetate negative by the American Colony Photo Department/Matson Photo Service.”

 

Works cited:

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940. Ed. Gershom Scholem, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere. New York: Schocken, 1989.

Schultz, Susan. “King Lear Enters The Little Prince.http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2011/04/king-lear-enters-little-prince.html, 25 April 2011.