Weeds at embarcation

As he waits to board the car on the right, the young man’s derby seems to be anchored to his head by a cord running to a clip behind his ear. The effect seems disproportionately serious, like the obsessed drawings in one of those books about funny patents. Furthermore, in the years since this photograph from 1905 was taken, the derby itself has acquired comical connotations, and men’s hats in general have gone ironic. But if we treat the image with the common intellectual decency of trying to see it as of 1905, it will go tender on us. The young man and the pretty little woman next to him then might be, oh, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy from “The Dead,” and the little girl in her sailor suit might be one of their children. Backs turned on us who look at them, they are off now to wherever it is that Gabriel and Gretta will voyage through their long snowy night.

Simultaneously, from the door of the car on the left, a young woman is watching two more women say goodbye. One of them, middle-aged, has a foot already on the trainman’s portable step. She is the one who will be leaving on this train, and the car she is about to board has been given a 1905 purpose that, like the derby, is no longer in use: ladies’ dressing room. She seems emotionally undressed herself as she exchanges a kiss with an older woman, but once she boards the dressing room she will become fully clad in the wear of 1905. As to the older woman, she is already dressed because she won’t be boarding the dressing room, and her clothes are another specialization for the seen universe of 1905.

The clothes are called weeds, and weeds were the mourning wear dictated for widows in 1905 America. The word “weed,” singular, had meant “clothing” for about a thousand years before then, from the ninth century through the nineteenth, but it soon acquired specialized meanings which by 1905 had diminished only to one. Some time before 1905, “weed” came to refer only to a widow’s veil, and then (says the Oxford English Dictionary) the rest of the wardrobe followed and became an outfit strictly in the plural.

But the fashions of signifying death didn’t stop changing with that, and as the term “weeds” became incomprehensible in time, the related terms “dressing room” and “lady” also had to be read in new lights. Flash photography, too, is no longer executed with a frying pan full of powdered magnesium, and so we see in new lights as well. On the evidence of this photograph, the fourth wall stood closer to the backdrop in 1905 than it stands now, and the farewell speech in between was more aglare with high contrast.

But we don’t seem able now to read the expression on the face of the third actress, the one standing at the door of her dressing room. In the glare of 1905 it ought to be immediately understandable, but the immediate seems to have vanished from this image. Requiring a mediation that the image can’t supply, the expression on the woman’s face is one more term dated strictly 1905. Time-stamped, it is to be understood as a word extracted from a body language that is no longer comprehensible now.

It has changed, and in the disembodied language you’re now reading we can’t know how. But at least we can say why. Moments after George T. Nicholson took this picture, the ladies’ dressing room rolled away into what’s called forever after, and in the shed whose flashlit form remained in memory over the darkened track, nothing remained.

 

Source: George T. Nicholson, “CC Ladies’ dressing room on the Limited.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649442/. Photoshopped. I don’t know what “CC” stands for — “chair car,” maybe? The Chicago & Alton Railroad used the term, and in 1900 its Alton Limited was the subject of a famous panoramic photograph by George T. Nicholson’s employer, George R. Lawrence.

http://www.midcontinent.org/rollingstock/dictionary/hortonseats.htm

To read, read monocularly

Sometimes reading is possible only through a monocle. Here’s your evidence, below and above.

Below is one of the comment spams that are once again, after a long absence, trying to parasitize this blog. They arrive at exactly the right historical moment: the impending centenary of the Great War, whose concomitant rhetoric caused Hemingway’s Lieutenant Henry to deliver himself of a set speech famously beginning, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain” and continuing, “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.” Keep those lines in mind now as you continue reading and encounter the phrase “For instance.”

Yes, Tenente: “Certain numbers . . . certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.” If it’s read only for the duration, within the sub-grammar of spam, the phrase “For instance” above does mean something. It is an anti-Bayesian element. Its function is to defeat the software that tries to detect a human purpose (such as “Buy my wares”) in the non-verbal vicinity of a verbal communication. But within the larger grammar of the English language, “For instance” also has an inhuman purpose. Out of the disembodied inhuman elements of logic it assembles trains of thought, coupling sex cars to sex cars and photography cars to photography cars. To spam that act of construction by decoupling its contexts is to commit an act of sabotage against language itself.  Yes, Tenente: even the simple adverbial “For instance” can be made to mean nothing.

But once he had thought himself that far into the predicaments of language, Hemingway’s talkative hero retreated a short way by opening his paragraph about the meaninglessness of language with the self-negating formula, “I did not say anything.” As if saying that one is not saying anything could absolve one from saying something.

The monocled man in the picture above was braver when it came to saying something and then dealing with the damage.  This was Tristan Tzara, and when he and his collaborators created Dada they created a language which not only articulated the possibility of meaninglessness but spoke meaninglessness into a counter-meaning. Put on the monocle now and see: a century after Dada, the spam’s money shot following the line about the anatomy of the penis is a link to a Facebook page advertising child care.

If we’re even to hope of thinking grammatically about that, we’ll probably have to break the communication down to single words like “penis” and “care” and read them slowly and squintingly, each one by itself, in isolation from its spamgrammar. For that, a recommended implement might be the monocle.

Source: Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribners, 1929; Hemingway Library Edition, 2012) 161.

Forever, illustrated

A

They’re junk, these words shedding a thin dust of history as they collect around a smiling picture. In the pile, “01 Jul” has nothing to do with “Forever.” “Forever” is inside the picture’s margins, but it could just as well be outside with “01 Jul.” Because it has no place it must be, it has no reason to mean. On its emptied envelope, it can’t help us to remember. It can’t help us to picture.

 

B

Making itself remember that it originated in a light seen and experienced, an image lifts itself out of the darkness between words and becomes real.

 

Click to enlarge.