Content though blind, had I no better guide

In the Library of Congress’s William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, the carte de visite print is labeled on the reverse in what looks like twentieth-century penmanship:

At the time when this image was formed, “contraband” was the ordinary colloquial term for a slave who had escaped through the lines to the Union forces and at least a hope of freedom. Lexicographically considered, it’s a nonce-word. Everywhere else in the dictionary, “contraband” refers to a thing, not a person, so the penciled markings you’re reading now on a slip of light-sensitized paper amount to a one-word history of American slavery considered as a mercantile institution. Whatever image may be visible when you turn the slip over, it will have no recorded name. It will not be a human image; it will be an image of a thing.

What that thing-named-contraband is, what it has, is something that a photographer somewhere, some time between 1862 and 1865, considered worth his while to transport into a studio for posterity to look at. Perhaps it was the looped and windowed raggedness. At any rate, the looped and windowed raggedness is almost the only trace of content that survives in the faded and discolored albumen on the card’s obverse.

But after all there are new ways to see this superannuated image. A single pass through Photoshop restores some of the contrast between the man and his impassive architectural setting, for example. The splendor of his image’s gilded double margin shines again as well. On our side of the image, at least, some of the light that once transited through a lens on its way to the past seems to have been returned.

It still has no name, but now it seems to promise us the chance to look at it with decent duteous human love. To see it might be a step — perhaps a first step that can’t be followed by a second step, but at least a step — toward perceiving and taking into ourselves an idea of sorrow. Emboldened by that idea, emboldened too by our distance in time from the unquestionably dead-now and copyright-free contraband, we carry his image once again into a photostudio.

Then we close the door on it. Then we feed it into an apparatus running Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Detail, Topaz In Focus, Lucis, and a battery of superimposed Nik filters. Then we look.

Once the contraband was led out the door of a studio on a no longer recorded day in the 1860s, his name was lost to history. But a century and a half later, we can at least recover one historical datum that wasn’t recorded then: the contraband had to be led out because he was blind. Once upon a time people could see that. Once upon a time people dressed him in their rags and perhaps spoke his name to him. Now we know again.

Once too, perhaps, people could also read the look on the man’s face. But the lexicon on the back of his image doesn’t seem to be written in that dead language.

Source: Library of Congress, item The quotation in the subject line is from Milton’s “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon His Blindness.”

The fabrication of sapphire

but to my taske. Neptune besids the sway
of every salt flood & each ebbing streame
tooke in by lot twixt high, & neather Jove
imp̳iall rule of all the sea-girt Isles
that like to rich & various gems inlay
the unadorned bosome of ye deepe
wch he to grace his tributarie gods
by course committs to severall goverment
and give them leave to weare their saphire crowns
and weild thire little tridents, but this Isle
the greatest & the best of all the maine
he quarters to his blu-hair’d dieties

Milton, A MaskPoems, Reproduced in Facsimile from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge. Menston Ilkley: Scolar Press, 1973. The line through the character p̳  indicates an abbreviation; in this case, an abbreviation of the word “imperial.”

Estampe XIX: mooring

And fast by hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Star
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.


“Docking a Big Liner, S.S. Oceanic,” 1903. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Paradise Lost II.1051-53.

Technical: well, Milton did specify a GOOD book

The lines from “Areopagitica” are duly qualified, this way.

I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.

And sometimes it’s possible online to watch editors learn the use of wariness.

A regular dogpaddler in the comment stream of The Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, used to be a person who wrote under the name of S. Britchky. About article after article, week after week, S. would write in to say exactly one thing, over and over: “Today I am indignant about . . .” After a while, other readers began complaining about the burden to the Earth, and then the editors of the Chronicle ordered S. out of the stream.

More recently, the comment stream of Salon was blocked every day by a troll who wrote under the name of Wang Dang Doodle. It was like putting up with the expellee who brings an airhorn to commencement.  However, the inhumanity that turned Doodle into an extension of his horn has now turned itself against him (or her, assuming Doodle is still human enough to have a sex). Salon now processes all its comments through an editorial algorithm called Livefyre, and that surrender to the machine has secured the reopening of the stream. As a reading experience, the change has been dramatic. It’s as if robot surgery has given Salon a brain transplant. Algorithm 1, airhorn 0: surrounded by Livefyre like so many Brünnhildes, we can now sleep on for a while longer, happily dreaming that we’re human after all.

So I’ve just set a ring of Livefyre alight around this blog’s comment function.

One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge call’d

On April 12, 2013, the headline in the online Jewish Daily Forward read, “Top Modern Orthodox Rabbi Michael Broyde Admits Fake Name Scheme. Professor Nettled Rival Group by Using Phony Identity.” At

the article explained that Rabbi Broyde, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, joined the more liberal International Rabbinical Fellowship under the name of Hershel Goldwasser, gained access thereby to the Fellowship’s members-only e-mail list, and used that privileged information to work mischief.

Most of the comments below the article condemned Rabbi Broyde, but the rabbi did have one persistent defender. Girding himself in citations from the Talmud and from literary history, this defender claimed that Rabbi Broyde was guilty of nothing more egregious than writing under a pseudonym. As the defender specifically put it,

“Technically he was still a member under his nom de plum.”

About the taxonomy of such a defender, who can say? Here online, the development of identity generally eventuates in a nut. But sometimes a floruit brings forth fruit, and when it does there’s an irresistible lusciousness in the scent of nom de plum.

So thank you, Rrose Sélavy, for helping forward that inspiration to the Forward. Its comment stream is not unmoderated after all. On the contrary, it is a river of peace, and henceforth Rrose is the genius of its shore.

Free (special glasses required)

Virginia, July or August 1862. A Conestoga wagon fords the Rappahannock and approaches the lines of the Union army, carrying slaves traveling in search of freedom. As they enter Timothy O’Sullivan’s visual field, he opens the twin shutters of his stereoscopic camera. On a cracked glass plate, its record of the moment survives. Click any image below to enlarge it.



In Photoshop I separate the two images and equalize their brightness and contrast.




Then I recombine them into an anaglyph.



After I have viewed my work product through specialized lenses


I appear to have consummated the illusion of a three-dimensional experience that Timothy O’Sullivan’s camera created a century and a half ago. Yet I haven’t been able to see in anything like the freedom that the moment of passage through the water demanded of me. There’s this to remember about specialized lenses:

To preserve the illusion of the Emerald City, Dorothy and Toto are fitted with emerald-colored glasses

if we can see the passage to freedom only with their aid, perhaps the moment when a camera opened onto freedom was (as the Penseroso says)

too bright
to hit the sense of human sight.

Source: Library of Congress,