A satisfaction

                                                  It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

— Wallace Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry.” The satisfying tangible blue is a small currycomb, marketed for cats and dogs under the name of Furminator.

Partial spectrum

There is no more sound. The archived document doesn’t include sound’s range of frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum. There is no more color, there is no more third dimension. The document’s way of being seen is only planar. There is no more motion, which means that the document can be seen in only one state of time, without a before or after.

There is still a Czar.

In the archive, a fraction of a second in time has been preserved as a record whose dimensions don’t include time. There, Stevensian order is reversed. In the archive, seem is finale of be.

Source: “A captain, Russian navy,” photographed in Newport News, Virginia, during the International Columbian Naval Rendezvous of 1893. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994010286/PP/. Photoshopped.

The poem by Wallace Stevens is “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”

 

Instantaneous in Hoboken

For now, the image is still there, floating in hazy light.

Big, luxurious, and the fastest ship in the world when it entered Atlantic service in 1900, the German liner Deutschland proved unpopular with passengers because its high-speed propellers made its decks shake. After ten years it was rebuilt as a slower, more comfortable cruise ship, rechristened with a less ambitious name, and sent on to oblivion. But here and for now, with its course away from memory not yet plotted, it lies in the river flowing past Hoboken, only momentarily still beneath moving clouds.

At the time, photographs like this one were called snapshots, and before then they were called instantaneouses. This instantaneous is breaking down now in craquelure, but it hasn’t yet ceased to put on display a large floating jewel, glittering with instant icons. This icon, see! represents the doctrine of three men painting a mainmast. This one represents the ship’s name in the squared-off, fraktur-inflected Bodoni of a German font. The iconic Deutschland is a free-standing word, generating connotation after connotation in a historical dialect that (its quiet blaze in the shade still signals) will never go extinct. And yes: by way of confirmation, aft of the word a little scow tidies up for a visit from history itself, preparing the palimpsest for a manual of what you will soon be required to see.

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See, therefore. The icons (click to enlarge) will now perform their miracle. Someone inside Deutschland is at work with a shovel in a room full of ashes.

*

Elsewhere in Hoboken, light has different properties. The evidence at the river’s edge showed a clarity diffused outward under full control, originating in the dark within a hull and then moving outward to take dominion over all the light in the air. But along this sidewalk, seeing has been swaddled in blur from the beginning. For the moment, a little library is moored like a ship on the concrete, but its language can’t be read the way the word Deutschland is read because it doesn’t seem to belong in its composition. Deutschland is its ship. The sleek dark hull and its elegantly complementary wordform are equally at home in their sustaining water. But the sidewalk of Hoboken supports only a piece of indoor furniture and a jacket missing a button, and those are icons of a religion that isn’t alluded to in words like “Big Christmas number.” The jacket with its missing button is doctrine from the spoken language of the human and the social, as opposed to the written subdialect of words as such. And the words “Big Christmas number” tacked to a desk outside in the cold can’t be spoken in the same social accent as the name of a ship harmonized in gold on steel.

This instantaneous happens to be mounted on a card bearing more words, and that addition does spell out the instantaneous’s prehistory. But it isn’t continuous with the history in the photograph because its language isn’t photographic. It hasn’t originated in the image; it is only an afterword composed in the language of the photographer. Outside the image frame, separated from it by the confines that define and circumscribe the language of caption, the words of this third language try to mimic a voice — the voice of the photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine — in the act of saying:

Little girl, apparently 6 yrs. old – but didn’t know her name or age – tending stand at Washington and 3rd St. for older sister (#3234). Saloon on corner. 3 P.M. Location: Hoboken, New Jersey.

But in this translation the words telling of a saloon can only be heard and read, not seen in the way a river is seen. Because the saloon lies outside the image, it and the truths of its connotations can only be spoken of through the mediation of language, not known immediately as an icon’s truth is known. Outside the image frame, the words of the translation can only tell us a story of a Christmas when nothing descended from heaven to take form as a name.

And within the frame are no words to flood the image’s mouth and say, “This is my name. After six years I will be able to remember it.” Without the possibility of words, the image is not an icon; it is an instantaneous. The instantaneous is an image that has assumed its form without development through time. It had no mother tongue.

Sources:

Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994010706/PP/
(1905; Detroit Publishing Company Collection) and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004003797/PP/
(1912; National Child Labor Committee Collection).
Both images photoshopped.

An old-fashioned nationalist

In January 2015, the cyclical history of Martin Heidegger’s post-World War II rehabs and relapses entered a new phase when the chairman of the Martin Heidegger Society resigned his position, stating, “As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this.” (http://dailynous.com/2015/01/19/germanys-heidegger-society-chair-resigns/)

The phrase Schwarze Hefte (“black notebooks”) refers to a group of previously unpublished manuscripts which are only now appearing in print, on a schedule dictated by Heidegger. The notebooks are bound in black oilcloth, and in the first instance that’s all the word schwarze means. But of course it also has moral connotations. The black notebooks seem to make clear, if anything in Heidegger’s ambit is clear, that racism was one of the fundamental, constitutive parts of his thought.

Well, the history of the Fascist years is filled with stories in the style of Henry James about eminent people shadowed by their past. The reputations of E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade, for instance, were at least a little tarnished by their association with the Iron Guard, Romania’s peculiarly nasty Fascist party. On the other hand, the Nazi section of Herbert von Karajan’s curriculum vitae did him no harm in after years. If anything, it only added more excitement to his bad-boy reputation. Until recently, at least, Heidegger’s reputation seemed to luxuriate in an ambiguity strong on both sides, as when he deplored the Holocaust as just another instance of the inauthenticity of plowing with tractors instead of horses like God intended. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem just now as if it will continue indulging Heidegger’s reluctance to resolve his dilemma. The dilemma itself seems to be little more than silliness on one horn and careerism on the other. But when the moral ambiguities of the Hitlerzeit were forced up against the moral ambiguities of the Cold War era, the human consequence was sometimes larger and more interesting.

In 1950, for instance, the German field marshal Erich von Manstein was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. This was soon reduced to twelve years, and in the event he served only three. Almost immediately after his release, he was recruited to build a new army for West Germany, to be deployed against the enemy in which he had always specialized, the Soviet Union. Thereafter and therefore, official history decreed the former Manstein and his Wehrmacht to have been strictly apolitical, wholeheartedly humane, and motivated only by the ancient military virtues of uprightness and chivalry.

Look, therefore, at this image of the former Manstein leading his Romanian armies against the Bolsheviks.

Postwar, you’re intended to see an apologetic in every element of the composition. Fluently dictating from a prescribed lexicon,  it tells you: Marshal Manstein, like his moral compeer Martin Heidegger, was (the phrase enters the mind prefabricated, a brick of cliché) an old-fashioned nationalist. You experience the whole history of the word “old” in his upright posture and stern, unflinching attentiveness to the world, in all of its evil and all of its tragic good. Within this image frame, nothing except the old-fashioned has been allowed to survive. If you try to read through or past or around the image to anything in its background (anything called history, for instance) you’ll probably fail. Standing firm and still within his car, Marshal Manstein is on his way to taking dominion everywhere.

That’s easy to prove. See for yourself: having experienced the image of Marshal Manstein, didn’t you flinch when you began experiencing this other image?

It was captured by the photographer Costică Acsinte (1897-1984), who between 1930 and 1960 operated a studio in a Romanian farm town named Slobozia. After the studio closed, his glass negatives were stored for decades under neglectful conditions until they were rediscovered by another photographer, Cezar Popescu, who is now preserving and cataloging them. His online archive is at http://colectiacosticaacsinte.eu/.

The paragraph you’ve just read is one way of accounting for the image’s history. Another way might be to open a book and start reading about Romania during the 1930s and ’40s, when the photograph was probably taken. A guide to Romanian officers’ uniforms could provide further detail, and in Slobozia there may, even now, survive someone who can attach a name and a war diary to the image of the young man pointing his pistol at someone not visible in this image at this time — someone who happens to be standing to the right of the photographer.

What expression is on the face of the person facing the muzzle of the officer’s automatic? The officer is backed by a set from The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, with flowers bordering a window and a door, but we’ll never learn who is about to walk forward from the camera’s vantage, speak the password that will make the officer reholster his gun, and enter the scene. Such an entrance would be an event. If the word could be spoken, the young man could relax his vigilance and begin speaking in his own turn. Until then, however, he can be nothing but a Manstein: a shape on photosensitive paper, serving a purpose off-camera.

His time on camera is short, too. Even as he waits for his event to begin, time is peeling his form away from its transparent backing. A break in the image’s continuity has already opened itself right across his eyes. He won’t be able to keep watch within the image frame much longer, and behind the image’s transparent support there seems to be nothing but dark. Still, the dark has a grammatical force of its own. Radiating forward to the image, it keeps it from communicating off camera. On camera, the officer’s uniform, a symbol written in a specialized code, may say “nationalism,” but it doesn’t seem able to translate the sentimental off-camera adjective “old-fashioned.” That which is old-fashioned is either thought to be dead or thought to be dying, and the historical record between Heidegger’s time and ours seems to show that the man with the pistol will live forever, just as he is imaged on camera here and now. The old-fashioned nationalist will never live to become old-fashioned because he isn’t going to die.

Sooner or later, too, we who still live in history may be able to imagine the pistol swinging in our direction. If that act of the imagination becomes possible, we will know that in this image Costică Acsinte achieved a work of art worthy of art’s terrible task of outliving.

Estampe XVI: blemish

In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.

On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.

Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.

Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.

However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.

You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.

The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.

You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.

Sources

“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994004837/PP/. Photoshopped.

“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1901/08/15/

Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.

Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”