That remains to be unseen

The photograph in the New York Public Library no longer gives up much to the eye. It has faded year by year for more than ninety years now, and most of its remaining significance has been transferred for preservation to a catalog text housed in a database.

nypl-digitalcollections-510d47d9-3d61-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-wThere, offsite, words written about this gray blur say that it represents the maiden flight of the British dirigible R38 on June 23, 1921. Exactly two months after that beginning (the words go on to say) R38 broke in half in the air and exploded, killing 44 of the 49 men on board. That was the first of the twentieth century’s great zeppelin disasters. But the photograph can’t teach you the story of the disaster, because a picture represents a moment before the story began. To see it as a picture, in pictorial terms of light and volume, is to experience it as if perception were still waiting for a knowledge yet to come.

On June 23, 1921, for example, someone without words saw a floating body in the pictorial act of being huge and beautiful and took a camera to it. After that, someone with words took a grease pencil to the photograph of the huge and beautiful and made a decision about what portion of it should remain on the page and be designated historical record.” The historical record, it turned out, was reserved solely for the portion of the image devoted to the light and air that clothed the moment of huge and beautiful. On the ground far below, in a zone designated by the grease pencil for erasure from the page, there happened to be two women wearing the not yet short skirts of the early 1920s. With them all along in that part of the image has been a dark smudge on the grass which conceivably could be a historical trace of R38’s shadow. Considering how few shadows destiny allotted to R38, that might be worth at least a sentimental thought from history. However, the grease pencil hasn’t marked any dark on this corpus. In here, exterior to R38’s demarcating rectangle, the only dark lies in the erasure zone. There, excluded from the part of the image that will be written up in the language called history, the dark evokes only questions that language can’t answer. (How did the air of June 23, 1921, feel in the moment when a moving shadow passed through it?) By demarcating R38 from the rest of its image field, the grease pencil made a distinction between significance and insignificance definable by fiat. It’s the distinction between what remains to be seen and what remains to be unseen.

But this particular photograph, marked for cutting but not cut, hasn’t yet excluded the part that remains to be unseen. Still present in their margin despite the fiat against them, two women in hats and skirts have kept looking toward a part of the sky from which the written story of huge and beautiful hasn’t yet barred their gaze. Bound for the history books, the fading image cut off within its rectangle proceeds toward unfading immortality under the power of words. Meanwhile, outside the rectangle, a possible shadow has been cut free from history to play on the grass.

You will never see the women’s faces. Ever after, the women will be turned away from you, rapt by the history passing them by up there. They won’t look down at the possible shadow before them, either. But something dark is close to them, and you are looking.

Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The first trail [sic] of the dirigible ZR2 at Cardington England.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. Photoshopped.

R38 was built for the U.S. Navy, where it was to be designated ZR2, and its crash occurred during what was to have been the last of its test flights before commissioning. You can see the American markings on its hull and tail.

Like the dyer’s hand

Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.

So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.

Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.

Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.

Source: Hoover Institution Poster Collection (, item no. RU/SU 365. Photoshopped.

Shadowing Domesday lines

Under fluorescent light on Philip Larkin’s desk in the library at the University of Hull lies a black-and-white photograph. Looking in, Larkin notices a midden of tiny broken English things. These he takes to be metonyms for a larger England which is about to be broken. In the image, under the famous cloudless sky of summer 1914, are men standing in lines to enlist for what is about to become the Great War. Observing the behavior of the shadows cast by the lines, Larkin writes out a forecast: in an amazingly short time from this illuminated moment, the sun will shine down on one more thing: the title of the poem Larkin is now about to write, “MCMXIV.” Then the word will be inscribed in the stone of a war memorial. But for now, in the photograph, it is not yet even a word. It is only a pre-verbal, pre-stone dust that nobody yet understands to be subject to future inscription:

. . . the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns . . .

A farthing was a copper coin worth one fourth of England’s old pre-decimal penny — that is, 1/960 of a pound. A sovereign was a one-pound coin made of gold. Long before England’s currency went decimal in 1965, both coins had disappeared from circulation — the farthing because its purchasing power had diminished to nothing, the sovereign because the gold it was made of had become worth more than the shrunken fiat pound. Larkin’s term for the vanished years of farthing and sovereign is “innocence.”

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word . . .

Or, in prose: on the sunny day they signed up to die for the British Empire, the men of 1914 had their pockets full of soon-to-be-lost value. They lived before the loss began, poor innocent men, and the British Empire died with them, and now not all the antique shops in England can keep the Pakis out of Larkin’s neighborhood. For most of its length, “MCMXIV” expresses an idea, and that really is all the idea amounts to. As George Orwell remarks in “Inside the Whale” about A. E. Housman’s tragic young men in their emotionally similar situation: “Hard cheese, old chap!”

Nevertheless, all sentimentality discounted, on the other side of the brooks too broad for leaping there does lie a world different from ours. There everything in the present is seen at eye level, and the past isn’t seen but experienced by intuition. This sovereign landscape is pastoral, and its weather hints at pastoral’s delicate foreboding irony: the quality of both knowing and seeming not to know that it is a mere literary fashion.

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence . . .

The earth-father of these Larkin lines is Wordsworth, and Larkin has obviously done the responsible thing and read Wordsworth’s report about the detection of splendor in the grass. But it’s hard to sense the grass-hazed coordinates of poetry’s specifics from on high, and during the Great War the coordinates of vision began acquiring a vertical axis. Here, then, is a counterimage to the one in “MCMXIV.” We see it from altitude, the War’s new sightline.

Onto the old world, says altitude, I have superimposed a new ruin: the aluminum frame of a German zeppelin bomber, all that remained after the zeppelin’s lifting gas burned off and recombined with its originating air. For the moment, the frame’s unburned streamlines are still contained within the rectilinear subframes of a pastoral landscape. In the poetry of Larkin and Housman and Edward Thomas and Hardy, these straight lines are taken to be metaphors for a natural order which incorporates human order into itself and makes the two orders one. Under the rules governing that genre, the only world there is is a world at ground level, seen from the height of a man. But the new ruin has begun to change that way of seeing. It descended on the land from above, and we see it now from above.

In ancient tragedy, only the gods see from above. The new image comes to us demonstrating that that’s no longer true. The original shadows of Domesday, level with the earth they were drawn on, have now been supplemented by lines surveyed from a higher angle. “MCMXIV” reads the new lines as an ironic antipastoral: not yet a new way of reading tragically, but a start.

For the start, poems like “MCMXIV” need more light, better distributed. Something verbal needs to be done, for instance, with the instance of light that penetrated for the first time into the skeleton of an airship. But time has been allotted for that to occur. After all, says the somber forecast from 1914, the new light is going to keep falling forever. With every declining sun in the century since a camera in the air first detected a fallen flightform, the lengthening, darkening, ever more almost-readable shapes of its roundness on the earth have shown us promises of more.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Shadow: for the solstices

The prose says: over the bay in San Diego in late December 1910 or early January 1911, a race was flown between the pioneer aviators Eugene Ely (who made the first flights in history from shipboard) and Hugh Robinson (who invented the tailhook that Ely used and then went on to formulate the concept of dive bombing).

Look up.

The prose says: on June 26, 1911, over what was then the German kingdom of Württemburg, in the service of DELAG, the world’s first airline, the zeppelin Schwaben flew past the railroad track down which was steaming the Offenburg-Freiburg Express.

Look down.

The prose says, “It was sure great.”

The solstitial light says something that can’t be said in words.

Note in prose: DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG, “German Airship Transport Corporation”) began operating on a regular schedule between cities in Germany in 1909.


San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, R. H. Macdonald album AL-75, image 00011.

“Wettrennen zwischen Schnellzug und Luftschiff,”

Both images photoshopped for contrast and sharpness.

Dreamform and archetype


(Data for the waking mind:

(On October 19, 1924, the newly constructed zeppelin LZ126 leaves Friedrichshafen, Germany, bound across the Atlantic to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it will be commissioned in the U.S. Navy as USS Los Angeles and then become the subject of the “Cape Hatteras” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge. Image postprocessed from a newspaper photograph.)