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

In memory of a word

Toward the end of 2014, the United States Senate released the partial text of a report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of prisoners held in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. This report showed that torture was a part of the Agency’s repertoire of practices.

In the media, CIA spokesmen defended the agency’s conduct, using for the purpose a vocabulary as chastened in its purity as Racine’s. If anything, in fact, it was purer. Classic French tragedy speaks into existence a life freed of reference to any of the multitudinous comic functions that keep us merely human, but the CIA spokesmen concentrated almost all of their liberating effort on a single word: “torture.” They had two reasons for doing so: one having to do with liability (under the United States Code, torture is unlawful if it’s called torture) and the other having to do with politics (see Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”).

To the extent that the reasons were obvious, they were uninteresting. Nevertheless, words in themselves, if they’re read one by one, have the power to compel our attention. As soon as they escape their contexts, they force us not to retreat into contexts of our own. In the realm of language as such, we cannot be evaded. There, at last, we become like Stevens’s Man on the Dump: errants in search of the definite article.

                                                    Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

In memory of the the, then, this memento: first by way of words, then on its wordless own.

And see: the term that came to your mind wasn’t the CIA’s euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Whether you wanted to or not, you thought of something merely human. The the compelled you to know.

Source: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013645644/. Photoshopped.

Adjective neutral, noun bad

 

At minute 4 of this video about a small lake in New Hampshire called Jew Pond, the director of the New Hampshire Jewish Federation makes the point that the noun “Jew” is pejorative when it’s used as an adjective. His examples are “Jew politician” and “Jew lawyer,” and he might also have mentioned T. S. Eliot’s scornful phrase about one of his benefactors, “Jew publisher.” “If the name had been ‘Jewish Pond,'” the director tells the interviewer, “we would not be having this conversation.”

And that’s why Republicans say “Democrat Party.”

Addendum: Gary Ostrower writes to recommend the Wikipedia article “Democrat Party (phrase),” and adds,

“The difference between using ‘Democrat’ as an adjective and ‘Jew’ as an adjective is that the latter has nearly 2000 years of negative connotation behind it. Not so ‘Democrat.’ Most — maybe all — of my own students would not recognize ‘Democrat’ as slur; not so with ‘Jew.'”

And that’s true enough. Just two days ago one of my own rhythm-challenged students sent me a friendly e-mail beginning, “High Professor Morse.” No, he didn’t mean “Herr Oberprofessor,” and no he couldn’t hear the pause where the comma should go. For that matter, when I took my physical exam for the draft in 1966 the sergeant in charge of the paperwork instructed us to fill in the Race blank “Neg” if we were, as he carefully put it, Negroic.

Further note, March 14, 2012: Jew Pond will now be renamed. Story here:

http://forward.com/articles/152987/nh-town-votes-to-rename-jew-pond