Eighty-two words and an untranslated song

From a portrait painted by her father in 1872, Jeanne-Rachel Pissarro (1865-1874) looks out at us sidelong, lips pursed and mouth off center. The mouth is in the light, but the big staring eyes have been cast into shadow. Only they have been painted with a fine brush to show detail. They are the center of the image’s illuminating force. They show us a glimpse of a life on the verge. In this image, everything else — the layered clothes, the shadow-casting hat, the bouquet of colored shadows — is subordinate to the eyes. The layers of thick cloth in which the child is wrapped serve as an integument. It will ward off, but (its muted, fading colors warn and promise) only for now. Only for the time being, while the body is still warm-clad and the flowers are still alive.

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The two figures in my subject line sum up the entire corpus of an extinct language, Crimean Gothic. It has been on record ever since it was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592), a Flemish diplomat stationed in Constantinople. His Turkish Letters remain a valuable historical resource, and from the Levant he introduced the lilac and the tulip to Europe. They bloom now outside the library, but of the history of Crimean Gothic the words are no longer spoken and the song is no longer sung.

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When the invention of the glass negative in 1854 made it easy to create photographs in multiple copies, a new kind of history book entered the corpus: the photo album, rapidly filling with mass-produced carte de visite images like this one.

It can be read as a document in the history of nineteenth-century sentimentality — a silent little counterpart of, say, a Schubert lied or a Dickens novella. The little girl’s poignant expression mimes the poignancy of her plea, which is poignant in its turn because it is in words that can’t be heard. On her behalf, because she is mute, it asks you to give her an image to keep her company in the dark when her book closes.

Silent, upon a peak

Until a moment ago, nothing in this photograph was not wood or mud. But as soon as a man within a wooden box picked up an apparatus shaped like an iron flower, he and it carried each other out of the box and into the pictorial record. The record has changed itself accordingly. For example, it now takes into account a space between boxes where there is newly to be seen a man’s clumsily hemmed suit and a name, Edison, in gold amid the mud.

But the man isn’t going to remain in the light of that temporary setting. His music is waiting for him, and the only place for sound here is off the record, back in the dark of the box. After the man has vacated the photograph he has caused to be made, it will seem once again to signify nothing but wood and mud. But the form that once penetrated the record of that which was to be photographed will have changed it forever. From now on, whatever new light falls on the picture will be seen within the spectral limits of a prior illumination that once made visible the panoply of the man: his wrinkled cloth, leather to be sited on mud, and iron horn.

Leaving the interior of the box and carrying the apparatus into the light to be photographed was the dispositive event. By forcing us to see, it obviated our surmise. Now that we know we have seen a flower with a golden name, we know we can hear its music. The man who carried it toward the mud and the light c‏aused it to change forever from the not yet seen to the soon to be heard.

But the effort has left a blankness in his face. Something previously there has been erased. He will never again stare at the Pacific.

Source: I haven’t found a provenance for this image. A chain of Tumblr and Pinterest reblogs eventually terminated without bibliographical data at a site called vinylespassion.tumblr.com.

I have photoshopped the image for contrast and clarity. Kim Bridges contributed extra post-processing in Nik.

Picturing postcard

Once, in the age of steam, perspective moved through space like an engine and generated a postcard. In there, along a diagonal, it erected a high-sided chute and spilled into it some Italians whose arms and legs were movable in promenade gait. Per design, one of them also functioned to create an additional sense of motion in haste: his blazer buttoned backward, his flyaway hat just recaptured, his feet at trot, his pants rippling. Swinging and pivoting along minor axes, he serves the postcard in the capacity of a small extra part, jiggling. To be so close to this detail that you see what the machinery is doing to it is to receive the postcard’s communication that a man once lived a moment in the wonder of the present tense.

In the present tense, emitting sounds of small talk and chugging steam, the machine that is the mailship König Albert comes toward you, then moves past on your left. Where it was for a moment, the horizontals of the composition’s right side slide left and refill the postcard with vacancy. A moment after a shutter closed at some time between 1899 and 1914, the sentence in the present tense was over and König Albert passed into what is not yet and never again will be picture.

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002720829/. Photoshopped. According to Wikipedia, König Albert was in service for North German Lloyd between 1899 and 1914, after 1902 primarily on routes between Italy and the United States.

Fixed focus

I want myself to remember my rose, but I haven’t been able to get it out of that neighborhood. It ought to be isolated in darkness, where image lights its way through dream to memory. This surround is nothing but a reactive surface where purposely grown rose and weedy incidental all fade to white together. When the reaction has gone to completion and the rose has gone fully blank, there will be no more way back to the memory of red dark. I will sleep open-eyed in death.

tumblr_mvuehhP1xe1rh7mdmo1_540A
Source: http://fifties-sixties-everyday-life.tumblr.com/image/133981576812. The car, datable artifact, may be a 1969 Dodge.

Verso separates from recto

Because it is now a part of the collection of a great library, this demotic little document wants to be read on the library’s terms. These terms include the bibliographical words “recto” and “verso”: words that weren’t part of the card’s language when it was, so to speak, a card. There were immediacies to those communications which are gone now, and reading the card under library discipline can’t bring them back. There can be no feeling left to revive in the recto’s image of the beneficent Czar or the verso’s words about a dreadful bad cough. But feeling’s literary history can grow from the tomb under the gentle rain of additional information.

Initial information, then: in 1920 the card was written by somebody named Clara Leavitt to an address in Maine, and its phrase “dreadful bad” in the verso text is a Maine idiom. Knowing that much, I can begin assembling data into a shadow biography of the woman who wrote “dreadful bad.” In 1920, say some of the data, a Clara L. Leavitt, aged 24, was living in the village of Waldo, Maine, at two addresses: one on Sheldon Road, the residence of her parents, and the other on Patterson Road, where she worked as a housekeeper for a man named Roy C. Fish. Clara the housekeeper’s spelling is a little shaky, but her handwriting is assured and her language is clear: perhaps a testimonial to New England’s high educational standards, perhaps also a sign of what Clara actually was. And Waldo adjoins the town of Belfast, so now I can guess that the word “Belfast” is what the card’s postmark was trying to say to the historical record at 5:30 PM on February 4, 1920.

In New England in the early twentieth century, villages too small for a post office were the bleak settings of ­Ethan Frome and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poems: something like orphanages for life, where life ended soon. In Waldo in 1920, for instance, Clara’s parents were also sheltering a seven-year-old granddaughter, Avis Leavitt, about whose parents the surviving records seem to retain no memory. She would live to the age of 56. As to Clara, she married Everett G. Payson of Waldo on March 18, 1929. Three years younger than Clara, he had been married previously to Margaret J. Gurney (1900 – ?), the mother of his daughter Anniebell Payson (1920-1923). To the 1930 census, he was a farm laborer who owned a house worth $200. Clara didn’t outlive him; she died in Belfast on April 7, 1967, probably around the time of her seventy-first birthday.

Half a century before then, the serious little Czar on the recto of her card had received his waiter’s salute. The card bearing that image was published in 1914 or 1915, but by the time Clara Leavitt wrote “dreadful bad” on its verso, the Czar had long since come to his own dreadful and well-deserved end. If that long-term change meant anything to Clara, it doesn’t show on her side of the cardboard. There on the verso, the communication seems to be only that the seasons went on – first in Mr. Fish’s home, then in Mr. Payson’s. The verso was only a blank space until Clara filled it, and when it was full she licked a stamp and brought that episode of her life to an end. But the recto wasn’t yet ready to end, because as of 1914 or 1915 it had five or six years of change to undergo. After 1914 or 1915 it never was blank, and then it kept itself busy signifying in new way after new way until the day it stopped signifying forever.

For the card, the five or six years began on the date when a courtier without a visible sense of irony wrote, “As the photo shows.”

Year by year from that moment on, people who looked at such photos actually saw less and less. Eventually they understood that the photos were going blank because they had no more to show, and then the Czar and his family were led down to the basement for their appointment with a firing squad. But what still does show amid the courtier’s now meaningless words is a trace of Clara’s pencil. Clara did some erasing before she mailed her card, but the Clara lines that remain are now going to remain forever, thanks to the immortalizing spirit of the archive. There will also remain a little segment of the card’s postmark: the black cancellation that came whamming down on the verso during the evening of February 4, 1920. That was what finally brought the change to a stop. From that moment, the card’s recto and verso would be divided between a before and an after, and the tailored little czar and the words “dreadful bad” would be separated from each other by a wall of time as opaque as a slip of cardboard.

Sources:

Winokur-Munblit Collection of the Russian Empire Postcards, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012648262/. Photoshopped.

Online sources of information about Clara Leavitt:

http://www.mocavo.com/Clara-L-Leavitt-B1896-Waldo-Maine-1920-United-States-Census/09356065416247432197

http://www.mocavo.com/Clara-L-Leavitt-B1896-Waldo-Maine-1920-United-States-Census/00829956448961505575

http://marriage-divorce-records.mooseroots.com/l/76908968/Clara-L-Leavitt#

http://www.mocavo.com/1930-United-States-Census/126213/004950958/422#row-0

http://www.geni.com/people/Clara-PAYSON/6000000022524627808

The image against the idea

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Interviewer Thomas Vašek: You speak of a “metaphysical antisemitism” . . .

Donatella di Cesare, vice president of the Martin Heidegger Society and author of Heidegger e gli ebrei. I “Quaderni Neri” [Heidegger and the Jews: The “Black Notebooks”], forthcoming in English translation: [Heidegger] outlines a metaphysics of the Jew. That is, he doesn’t speak of specific Jews in their individual differences and he isn’t interested in the history of the Jewish people. Rather, he asks: What is the Jew? What is the nature of the Jew? And when he does that he falls back into metaphysics, against which he guards himself at all other times. That’s why I would speak of a metaphysical antisemitism.

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Sources: “Heidegger-Enthüllung” [“Unmasking Heidegger”]. Hohe Luft 10 February 2015, http://www.hoheluft-magazin.de/2015/02/heidegger-enthuellung/. Online.

The Warsaw Ghetto in Photographs: 206 Views Made in 1941. Ed. Ulrich Keller. New York: Dover, 1984.