A tree for Walter Benjamin, author

At the bargain price of $16.78 from Amazon.com, the shirt comes with an almost superfluous bonus: hanging from a button, a tiny four-page book that attests to the shirt’s pedigree. This shirt, the pedigree book certifies, isn’t just a shirt; it’s a Chestnut Hill. And then it humbly asks us (us! us, the undocumented!) to accept it.

In the United States there are at least two Chestnut Hills: a neighborhood of Philadelphia and a suburb of Boston. Both of those Chestnut Hills are upscale, accessorized with architecture that communicates the patrician values of old houses and old money. The chestnut tree (pictured) also has a sturdy American symbolism, as in Thanksgiving stuffing and the first two stanzas of Longfellow’s once beloved poem “The Village Blacksmith”:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.


However, the chestnut tree itself is now almost extinct in the United States, wiped out early in the twentieth century by a parasitic fungus. In the financialized American economy of the twenty-first century, too, the line “He owes not any man” retains little of its primitive truth-value. In the days of Longfellow it connoted virtue, but now it is only a nonsense, with the additional connotation of irresponsible naïveté. And as to combining the best of American style with a sophisticated European sensibility, the shirt itself is made in China.

So the Chestnut Hill where this pedigree has originated can’t meaningfully be thought of as a visitable place in the physical world, with a latitude and a longitude. All it is, as it looks up at us from the page of its little book, is a concept. Here in the pedigree, its name isn’t to be read as the word “Chestnut” followed by the word “Hill,” with each term referable to the atlas. Instead, it’s to be read as a portmanteau form consisting of two inseparable parts, each deriving all of its meaning from the other. On its own, the first part, “Chestnut Hill,” is actually meaningless. It is a term from an atlas without a geography. On its own, the second part, “®,” is meaningless likewise. It is a term signifying the legal status of a word outside any of the laws of meaning. But when the two parts are brought into meaningful juxtaposition by an economic motive, each becomes a lexeme. The combined word-like object that results, “Chestnut Hill®,” has no textual meaning that might be referable to any document except its own pedigree, but there in the pedigree it becomes something that means. It means in an especially luxurious way, too: silently, drawing all of its wordless significance from the body which it has colored by being put on and buttoned up.

But the pedigree also has a verso: this.

The recto, a series of roman constatives demanding to be read as facts, is actually fiction. The verso, an italic simile asking to be read only as a poem, is actually non-fiction. We can’t read the simile as anything but a simile: a closed semantic system with a tenor referring only to its vehicle, which in turn refers back only to its tenor. Into that closed system the lying world cannot enter. Nothing exists there but the system’s own words. Because the words cannot be falsified there, they are either true or meaningless. And Walter Benjamin, Author, comes naming himself onto the page to assure us that he’s still speaking to us, and therefore he’s still alive, and therefore the words on his page are true.

But are the trees in his picture chestnut trees?

I don’t think so, but I’m willing to believe the document that delivers their image to me. In words, they are something warm, to be worn silently on the body.



Estampe III

August 9, 1914: at the beginning of World War I, the American Line ship New York arrives in New York from Southampton, having departed from an England not yet at war.

In Southampton, the New York had become an interesting footnote to the history of tragedy two years earlier, on April 10, 1912, when suction generated by the propellers of the departing Titanic tore the smaller ship from its mooring and drew it toward the Titanic’s stern. Only skillful ship-handling by the Titanic’s Captain Edward J. Smith averted a collision and allowed the Titanic to resume its journey toward the iceberg. That enriches the New York’s log for April 10, 1912, with irony. By comparison, the log for any other day in the ship’s long history (1888-1923) might as well be blank.

So this second image of the New York on August 9, 1914, is all but meaningless to the kind of history that consists in a log of things seen. The second image was taken closer to the ship in space and time, but proximity has left little ironic context within the image frame for a log’s words to work on. If anything, the camera’s privileged proximity has erased the rest of the contextual universe from consideration. Unlike the first image, this one fills the visual field solely with itself. There, it is nothing but a view of morally neutral steel, and of some human flesh seen in incidental connection with the steel.


But look anyway at these smiling faces steel-engraved into the image. They are among the first refugee photographs of the Great War, and that is their claim on us and on memory. The claim isn’t visible within the image, however. Under that limiting spectral circumstance, the bodies pressed against a port-side railing on board the New York can be seen now only as representations of what is not present to the eye. As of August 9, 1914, in New York, the war zone is still elsewhere. We see the faces that have arrived from there, but as of August 9 we’ll never yet be ready to understand what there will look like and how history will remember it.


Instead, we (don’t we? don’t you?) scroll back up to look again at the pretty ship New York and its busily helping tugs, two of whom have names we can make out: Claremont and Excelsior. Excelsior is the motto of New York State and also the title of an easy-to-read inspirational poem by Longfellow, composed during an era when great ships were being strenuously conceived. But August 9, 1914, was one of the dates when reading poetry began getting harder. If you come close enough now to this picture of a ship approaching land, you may feel the little zephyr of a closing book.

Sources: “NEW YORK arrives, 8/9/14” and “On NEW YORK.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005017039/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005017040/. The two larger images have been photoshopped.