Mistah Tennyson — he dead

Ten years ago, Wikipedia’s article about Emily Dickinson read like a high school project full of beginner’s mistakes. That’s the Wikipedia problem in general, I would tell my students during the last days of the floppy disc. Sure, Wikipedia is handy. Sure, I use it myself. But you can’t trust it.

But Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing algorithm has kept on doing its relentless eugenic good. Now, in the tablet era, Wikipedia’s article about Dickinson has become as useful an introduction as you’d find in a reputable print encyclopedia. The entire process of reference is evolving through a sequence of change as earnestly, unidrectionally Victorian as the project of “Locksley Hall”:

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new;
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do.

But about those men . . .

Early in 2013, the writer Amanda Filipacchi discovered that her Wikipedia entry had been moved from the category “American novelists” to a brand new category, “American women novelists.” The change seemed to have been the unexamined idea of a single Wikipedia editor (male), and after Filipacchi complained in print she was joined in protest by a number of other writers, female and male. Immediately after that, her Wikipedia article was re-edited in an apparent attempt to trash her into oblivion.


The news brought me back to this memory.

A few years ago I was surprised and gratified to find an article of mine cited in Wikipedia’s article about Ezra Pound. The next time I looked, however, my article was gone. Some time later it was put back, and then it disappeared again. Puzzled, I went searching through the pages reserved for Wikipedia’s editorial use, and that’s when I discovered what men they were who had taken charge of my online reputation.

Well, not exactly men, or at least not men yet. One of the Pound boys had given himself the modest nom de guerre of “Truthtalker” and another, no doubt in the spirit of the Master himself, wrote for the Wikisource as Malleus Fatuorum, “the hammer of fools.” A third boy wanted to call the others’ attention to something interesting from his own experience. He had met several people named Ezra, this boy said, and every one of them without exception was Jewish. So could it be, asked the boy, that Ezra Pound was a Jew?

Well, you know along what river of knowledge these young belated Victorians steam. No, it isn’t the Congo. This is still one of the dark places on the earth, and Mistah Kurtz — he dead. The River Wikipedia is a comment stream, and on its banks its bands of savages still shriek and gesticulate. The only difference is that the old savages lived in grass huts and the new savages live in their mothers’ basements.

A grammar of of

It’s the nature of their profession: most journalists are forgotten as soon as history has erased the events they recreated as words. The British journalist W. T. Stead has a place in the history of Victorian social reform, but if he’s remembered outside that subject area (Library of Congress class HN, “social reform”) it’s probably only for his death. Clio once told us about that event, and people still care to remember: wordy Mr. Stead rode to his wordless end in the Titanic on a first-class ticket, no. 113514, for which he paid 26 pounds 11 shillings.


Of the events before the voyage, less survives. That’s probably why I didn’t receive the communication when I first saw George Frederic Watts’s “The Minotaur.”

Click to enlarge.

I knew the story of Pasiphae’s monstrous son, but in this image I saw only a horned and wistful prisoner. The term “hybridity” was fashionable in my profession a few years ago, and here was the hybrid himself, gazing forlornly from his parapet.

Night coming tenderly,
Black like me.

But yes, I am a member of the profession. I knew that Watts is conventionally considered a symbolist artist, so I proceeded to look up his symbol. It was right there, too, in its holding institution’s institutional footnote.

Watts, an allegorical painter who employed art to convey moral messages, uses the character of the Minotaur to signify man’s bestiality and especially male lust. The making and meaning of The Minotaur can be traced to the social purity crusades against child prostitution, which led in 1885 to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In the forefront of these crusades was the figure of W.T. Stead (1849-1912), whose series of articles on the London trade in child prostitution were published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885 under the title ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Stead’s explicit references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur throughout his exposé reputedly inspired the subject of Watts’s painting: ‘The appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable’, wrote Stead; ‘If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make’ (quoted in Mathews, p.339). Watt’s close friend Mrs Russell Barrington records how The Minotaur was painted with unusual rapidity early one morning in response to ‘a painful subject’ that ‘had filled one of the evening papers’; almost certainly the Pall Mall Gazette (Barrington, pp.38-9). When The Minotaur was first shown, at the Liverpool Autumn exhibition of 1885, Watts explained that his aim in painting it had been ‘to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal’ (quoted in Art Journal, 1885, p.322).

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-the-minotaur-n01634/text-summary    Text by Rebecca Virag, March 2001

And I had failed to detest. Watts’s image of the Minotaur was created with an explicit intention, as part of a social context current as of 1885, and because I didn’t know my 1885 I derived an experience out of keeping with the intention. I saw a picture, but I was meant to see an illustration.

That failure of mine wasn’t just a failure of history; it was also a failure of grammar. I should have recalled that when an image bears a title that is explicitly allusive, like “The Minotaur,” that title is a predication: a statement of doing, being, or occurring. Some of those predications are even independent clauses, uttering their allusions as if they possessed stand-alone significance. Millais’s “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,” for instance, shows us a Ferdinand, an Ariel, and a luring: object, subject, and verb. The sentence encodes an explicit intention. It means to translate a Shakespearean stage direction into body language.

Even if the image’s title is only a noun phrase, literary context can provide an understood verb to complete the predication. In the nature of language, we can’t see Hunt’s “Lady of Shalott” crying, “The curse is come upon me,” but we can see that her web is floating wide and her mirror is crack’d from side to side. The lady’s words can’t be illustrated, but the poet’s words can. Tennyson’s poem is still ubiquitous in print, too, so the lady is still employed as a cover girl by The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Victorian volumeFrom there she reminds us of our duty to understand what she’s saying.

But copies of The Pall Mall Gazette from the Victorian era have lost their ubiquity. Because the world stopped being Victorian before I was born, I couldn’t understand a priori that when Watts painted his Minotaur he was obeying the rules of at least three grammars: one grounded in classical mythology, another grounded in the classrooms of Eton and Oxford, and a third grounded upon the street grid of Dickens’s London. Unable to access any of those grammars except the first, I could only see Watts’s image as an image. It is actually an illustration, but until I read the words of a curator’s annotation I couldn’t know that because I didn’t know what it was an illustration of.

That is, I’d made the anachronistic mistake of failing to read a Victorian image by the rules of language. Watts painted his language picture in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t until five years after Queen Victoria’s death that Pablo Picasso first saw language as a blemish on his working surfaces. In 1906, on the canvas Picasso was preparing to receive a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein, language had left its preemptive mark: the illustrative word of. In 1906, Picasso erased it. Modeling the face of his portrait not on Miss Stein but on an African mask where the representation was built up from a simple array of geometric shapes on a disc, Picasso achieved, for the first time in history, a picture that renounced any claim to be a picture of — of Gertrude Stein or of anyone or anything else. Thenceforth, forever, if an image took dominion over a space, it took dominion on its own terms, not language’s. If an image’s title happened to look like a predication, that appearance too was a part of the image. No grammar can slip you through the mesh of Marcel Duchamp’s wire cage full of little marble cubes, the one titled “Why Not Sneeze?” There is nothing in that cage but more cage. Wonderfully, Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee turned out not to have had to be anything but a parallelogram.

But the parallelogram you see here isn’t a Stevens. It’s still an illustration, still the artifact of a journalistic, pre-Picasso way of seeing. It still retains an of: an of whose shape is an exception to the rule of parallelogram. The exception has taken the form of a date written by fiat into the parallelogram: 1944. Nineteen forty-four was the year when Jews in France began taking off the yellow fiat star that Gertrude Stein had never been forced to wear. In parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, that same year, a painter wrote an unanswerable question on a billboard. It will have to be history, not poetry, that teaches us to read it.

The Tennessee billboard bearing that question was in Oak Ridge, where minutes did count in 1944 but words didn’t happen to be the normative way of counting. In 1944 Oak Ridge was in a special language district, under the seal of silence. Secretly, a large-scale deconstruction avant la lettre was under way there: a tinkering with the grammar of the periodic table with the intention of producing a nuclear bomb. Oak Ridge’s work of fission, current within nature’s labyrinth as of 1944, remains current within the labyrinth today. But today we can tour the labyrinth and then move on to the art museum, talking as we go. The souvenir we pick up there may be museological, too: an experience to put on a bookshelf with our other words. The next time we pull them down and read them, they will be unstoppably on their way into a past. Looking back at them as they recede, realizing that even from the past they will still call to us, we may conclude that poets, even after Stein and Stevens, won’t find it as easy as painters did after Picasso to erase the incriminating word of. Perhaps the unsayable things of 1944 or 1885 will always recur: unforgotten, unforgettable, but still unsayable. From any new poem something will always have just escaped and returned to the library where the old words are.  Fugitive but secure there, it will claim to be the permanent property of a grammar not yet released to understanding. From the labyrinth it will still call out:

“I am not guilty of what you see around you. I have become absent from that now. I am only an image. I am only an image of.”

Images by Watts, Millais, and Hunt from 120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009).

Image of the Oak Ridge billboard from “The Secret City,” The Atlantic 25 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/06/the-secret-city/100326/  Caption in the online article: “A billboard in Oak Ridge, photographed during WW II, on January 21, 1944.”

For the composition of Picasso’s “Portrait of Miss Gertrude Stein,” see Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; rpt. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1984).