A little bibliography of the never to be read again

Before the arrival of the house painters, four decisions in front of an emptying bookshelf and a filling wastebasket:

— A photoreduced edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, acquired as a premium for joining a now dead twentieth-century institution, the Book-of-the-Month Club. I’ll keep the nice big magnifying glass that came with it, and at my age I still very much use my multi-volume full-size edition of the original, picked up from the express agency on the same day (April 9, 1968) that I took delivery of my late beloved 1968 Mustang. A book still makes for the best browsing experience, reading in the rising smell of mildew. Obviously, though, the new database OED can do things that are all but impossible with ink on paper. So goodbye, intermediate technology reducing every four pages of the word-hoard to one page to make room on the shelf for one more book a month. The old printed books that remain and the new printed books that will arrive are equally antique now. My wife the librarian says not even the Friends of the Library would want you.

— A book club edition of An American Tragedy, saved from a colleague’s discard pile for the sake of its introductory essay by H. L. Mencken. The book has a place in literary history. Its author, Theodore Dreiser, was historically a man of both the nineteenth and the twentieth century, and he bestrode the boundary.

For a while during the twentieth century it appeared that the passage of time might have rusted naturalism’s cruelty and Dreiser’s ignorant greatheartedness together and created something interestingly historical, like the Antikythera Mechanism brought up from lightless depths in a fisherman’s net. But with Social Darwinism resurgent in the twenty-first century, the naturalist mechanism may now be powering itself back up, and I’m finding that thought heartbreaking. I think it anyway, though — partly because I am alive during the current events of a Republican administration but partly too just because I am alive. When the mechanism is carried into a studio, given a light-name, A Place in the Sun, and bathed in George Stevens light, its movements fascinate us into attending to the play of natural forms that they inscribe in space.

And then the film begins respeaking Dreiser’s clumsy words to us in movie-star voices articulately immortal. Having experienced that transition from the page to the double track of video and audio, I doubt that I’ll ever need to read the book again. But I think I may nevertheless remember something life-and-death tragic about its words the next time I hear the sound of a Republican noise like “jobkillingregulations” gabbling itself out in a single forced electric-chair exhale.

http://www.filmreference.com/images/sjff_01_img0390.jpg

— James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover. Once again I stopped reading after the first few pages, but when I closed the book this time it was probably forever. This time, under a Republican administration, I had to acknowledge that the flip side of religious whimsy is death by coathanger abortion.

— Two volumes of plays by Sam Shepard. As of 2017, I seem to have been deserted by whatever once induced me to read the words of men in cowboy hats whose creator spelled their second-person pronoun ya’, with a Republican apostrophe.

 

Archaic preposition

A year after the Great War, life was still bringing forth cripples. In the New York Tribune for September 21, 1919, news of the routine event made page 12.

A century later, this article is still generically recognizable as a human-interest feature, but its language hasn’t aged well. In 1919 it tried in its generic way to communicate a sense of warm-heartedness, but as of 2017 the temperature of the heart is to be taken in a different range of the thermal spectrum. “Propaganda in behalf of one-legged boys”? “To hunt up and help all crippled boys and men”? Or

The cripples play every day at noon. Every morning and afternoon they work at bench trades, learning to be draughtsmen, jewellers and typewriter repairmen

? No, we don’t say such things now. They have become obsolete. The noun “cripple” has gone the way of the draftsman and the typewriter repairman and the typewriter. In their Bain News Service photograph the cripples themselves now seem little more than components of an abstract textural study comprising a wall of antique handmade bricks, a cluttered dirt surface, and, off to the side, half of a boy without a face. Two decades later, Walker Evans would redo the same formal presentation with another brick wall and a poster of black dancing girls and a stationary wagon with a team of mules.

That image from Alabama in 1936 is famous now. I don’t need to reproduce it here; you can find it in any history of photography. But this prior image?

Almost incidentally in the center are also a one-legged boy with a baseball catcher’s backward cap but no mask or glove, and another boy, a dwarf in little-boy shorts, playing batter. Citation counts in the history of photography will tell us that these human beings have meant less than Evans’s mules. They have spoken to history only the accidentally ironic words that the Bain News Service wrote on their image for them, with its adjective scratched in by Great War reflex and then scratched back out:

ARMY CRIPPLES AT BASEBALL

Those words and that strikethrough have defined the cripples ever since. It has reduced them to a textbook example of irony. And because their image has been transformed by words into something merely exemplary, it probably can’t accommodate the extra non-verbal value of (for instance) colorization. Their caption has reduced them and their name (“Cripples”) to allegorical abstractions. Speaking the dialect of caption, they now tell us only a moral tale in a dead language, archived only in black and white.

Whereas these words and this image from the lower left corner of the newspaper page . . .

She is an idol of nameless wordless life, the unendingly changing. All of her and her breathlessly capitalized Kitten’s Ear Crepe we can love, forever. Six years from now, she may take on, for a moment, the name of Daisy Buchanan. Trembling with anticipation, we read down the page to where she now waits below the fold, and deck her image with Photoshop gold and pink.

As to the cripples, their pre-Photoshop image has now faded almost to vanishing. It can mean little more to memory now than they now do.

But within the image the unfaded caption is still blackly clear — in fact clearer now than it was in 1919, when it was camouflaged by freshly photographed bricks. One day in 1919 a stylus scratched a caption so far through the picture of the bricks laid down in photosensitive emulsion that it reached the hard all-revealing glass of the emulsion’s backing and left there a passage for light to pass through. Passing through ever since, light has faithfully continued transmitting the cripples’ archaic name (“Cripples”) from its incised archive to us and our time. And the name grows darker year by year as the image of crippled bodies fades to white.

But “at baseball”? What can unfade that phrase?

Under at, the OED explains, in language left unchanged since its first edition a century ago:

In his novel, Jane Austen’s Mr. Palmer, exemplifying what Austen calls his Epicurism, is at billiards; on their glass plate the cripples are at baseball. The at phrases and their grammar ought to be equivalent, but they aren’t. I can easily visualize Mr. Palmer, but even with the cripples’ photograph right before me I can barely see them. Somehow, “at billiards” communicates more from the nineteenth century than “at baseball” communicates from the twentieth.

One reason may be that the photograph imposes physical limits on the scope of the words it contains. The cripples’ at is a word from the universe of 1919, only, as seen in an image representing a moment in 1919, only. As its surrounding photograph has become archaic, it has become archaic. Surrounded on all sides by change, it walls off a corpus of the unchanged. But in the invisible medium of the unillustrated, Mr. Palmer’s at lives on for at least a while longer. Unbounded by the borders that constrain image, the archive of imagination has made room within itself for one more old word, communicating one more new meaning.

 

Source of the newspaper: Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1919-09-21/ed-1/seq-12/. Photoshopped.

Source of the photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006004847/. Photoshopped.

 

 

Unconscious despair: the face of the consolation prize

1

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”

Walden, chapter 1

2

3

Bravery: “Finery, fine clothes.”  — Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3b