Sunday, June 21, 2009

No shades of gray

Caprices en blanc et noir, one of Debussy's last compositions, is a suite for two pianos whose title seems to be a formal contemplation of the piano as such: a music conceived as a dance for fingers moving in pure abstraction across keys white and black. As Debussy wrote in retrospect to his friend Robert Godet, "These pieces draw their color, their emotion, simply from the piano, like the 'grays' of Velasquez, if I may so suggest?" (February 4, 1916; translated at - Debussy EN BLANC ET NOIR - FP.pdf)

But Debussy wrote the music before he wrote those Olympian words; in 1915, when the German trenches were burrowing deep into the blood-soaked soil of France. The music itself is a war song. Moved by his country's suffering, Debussy attached patriotic epigraphs to the beginning of each section of the composition, dedicated the whole to fallen friends, and shortened its title to En blanc et noir. Musically, En blanc et noir is less daring than Debussy's great innovations of the 1890s; as Glenn Watkins says, it is "a straightforward admixture of well-known anthems, snippets, and discordant accompaniment" (Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003] 93). But the musical reactionary Camille Saint-Saëns picked up the political significance of the name change and understood it to be part of another war being waged in tandem with the Great War: the war that the French political Right was then waging against modernism. "I advise you to look at the pieces for two pianos, Noir et Blanc . . ." he wrote to Gabriel Fauré, inverting Debussy's title into a no-shades-of-gray battle cry. "It is unbelievable, and we must at all costs bar the door of the Institute to a gentleman capable of such atrocities, fit to be placed beside cubist paintings" (Watkins 93).

Reading those words across the chasm of a century, we probably have trouble making the connection that Saint-Saëns made. Saint-Saëns interpreted Debussy's music as a manifesto, and manifestos are hard to read when their historical context has faded away. When the manifestos are made of words, their words become incomprehensible, and of course the manifesto Saint-Saëns thought he was reading wasn't even made of words. Even a mixed-media manifesto like this one resists our effort to think of it as an artifact with its own context.

The Daguerreian Annual 2000 (Pittsburgh:
The Daguerreian Society, 2000) 167. Like
most daguerreotypes, this one is a mirror image.
Home page:

The photograph depicts an unknown woman holding a copy of the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, the first to include the sexually explicit "A Woman Waits for Me." As Ed Folsom points out, that poem's title in 1856 was even more explicit: "Poem of Procreation." ("The Sesquicentennial of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: A Daguerreotype of a Woman Reader." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24, no. 1 [Summer 2006] 33-34.) Because we know that in his own time the scandalous Whitman was championed by some woman writers, we may consider ourselves entitled to think that this woman is another of the brave sisterhood who agreed with Fanny Fern's cry of praise for Whitman's radical innocence: "I confess that I extract no poison from these Leaves -- to me they have brought only healing. Let him who can do so, shroud the eyes of the nursing babe lest it should see its mother's breast." (New York Ledger, May 10, 1856. In Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon [New York: Norton, 2002] 799.) But that thought of ours and Ed Folsom's is probably unwarranted, because we can never know how to read the body language of this image of a book.

The face of the woman holding the book is inscrutable, for one thing. Expression was hard to capture by the daguerreotype process, because its very long exposure times made smiles almost impossible to hold. More significant, perhaps, is that the woman is holding her copy of Leaves of Grass upside down. Does that represent only a mistake in her pose? (Daguerreotypes were expensive, and the budget rarely included a line for retakes.) Is the book being held upside down as a sign of protest, like the Hawaiian flags flown by native nationalists in my state? If it is a sign of protest, what is being protested -- Whitman or his hostile critics? Does the book even belong to the woman, or might it represent something like a practical joke played by the photographer on an illiterate customer?

We could go on forever with this mise en abîme. Once we start looking at the picture, we have to go on, whether we want to or not. But what if we were to cut the process short by thinking in a non-verbal way of this mix of words entangled in a non-verbal context? What if, for instance, we were to consider the entire mixed-media image as a unified fashion statement, this way?

Unknown photographer, Daguerreotype of a
, c. 1845. Great Photographs from
Daguerre to the Great Depression
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), CD-ROM image 006.

Like the 1856 image, this is a picture of a person holding a document. But unlike the copy of Leaves of Grass, the document in this picture is a vaunt of unreadability. Cut off at one corner and held at the bottom of the image, it functions only as a compositional element to carry the image of the table toward the center and contrast with the man's dark-colored pantaloons. Taking advantage of the grain-free nature of the daguerreotype image by clicking to enlarge, we can see that this document appears to be a newspaper; in fact, a copy of Le Figaro. That narrows the image's geography of provenance considerably. But the only geography that still matters for this image is the anonymous human one within its frame. There, the newspaper's purpose isn't to be read but to delimit. It prolongs the portrait's elegant division down the middle, where the brilliant checked pattern of the jacket snuggles a checked vest and a checked cravat like the banks of a fully dammed, fully controlled, fully fashionable strait. Above that arrangement, any man's face would look significant. Yes, we think, as we look: this person I understand.

Thinking that, we may then wish to continue our experiment in looking with a non-anonymous portrait. Holding the fashion plate's tweedy textures in memory as a control, we proceed to Bill Brandt's portrait of Dylan Thomas.

Brandt took this photograph in 1941, at the time when he was also taking his great night scenes of London under its wartime blackout. Here the ambient darkness has been brought indoors, where it becomes a black-on-black abstraction of leather, tweed, beer, and the alcoholic Thomas's pouched eyes, reddened nose, and blotched skin. That ensemble too can be read as a fashion statement -- a statement whose theme is something like "no light, but rather darkness visible." It was the text that Dylan Thomas carried to the United States after the war and performed until it killed him at the age of 39.

But it probably isn't there to be seen in the texts of Thomas's poems, any more than patriotism is there to be heard in Debussy's En blanc et noir. Saint-Saëns, trying to see cubism by looking at Debussy's score, was likewise reading deep instead of stopping at the surface, which is probably the only location where we can hope to find whatever meaning that work of art has. Of course, the literary part of Thomas's poems and the aural part of Debussy's music are probably all we are legitimately warranted in caring about. They're what their creators wanted to survive. Still, sometimes the ephemeral and epiphenomenal survive too.

In those decorative incidentals -- for fascinating instance, Brandt's blacks and the cheerful plaid that immortalized some nobody in 1845 -- the surface is all there is to be seen. And after all, as the blank face of the woman with the book of immortal poems is there to remind us, sometimes the shades of gray are no longer available. If we're to retrieve any remaining coherence from the wreckage of meaning after that loss, it may have to be the fragmented, illusory pleasure of unambiguous black and white.