Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When contexts vanish, part 2

I was calling your attention to a pair of nineteenth-century girls posed for a tintype photographer in skirts and hats marked with the word "SLAVE." The girls were also garlanded with chains, and one of them was posing in a pioneer attitude. The girls were self-captioned with signs connecting them to an external context, I said, but that context is probably gone forever. What's left of the girls now is only their picture, and we're reduced to seeing that picture only in formal terms.

Of course a part of the curriculum of art education has always been the discipline of formalized seeing, but most of us don't see only formally and don't want to. It is not mere sentimentality to want to see through a family photograph to the real person that its array of pigments evokes. But we can't do that sentimental kind of seeing through unless we have a pre-existing idea of what lies behind the image. About an image posted to the Web by an online anonymity we can meaningfully say, "I love this picture because it reminds me of my dog," but the girls in the tintypes can't provide us with a dog to imagine -- or a pageant either, or a political rally, or anything to love. Whatever the tintypes that we see now may have meant to the girls and the people who made up their world in their lifetime, to us they can mean nothing more than light and shade, color and volume, form and formalism. The girls' chains might as well be shackling them for eternity to the surfaces of their tintypes, those little slips of blackened metal coated with a silver halide emulsion in which reflection from the photoreduced areas of elemental silver creates the illusion of white flesh and steely chain. The only context those images have is themselves.

Well, the comical impossibility of an auto-generated context ("I am a slave. You can tell because I'm labeled 'Slave'") was dealt with long ago by Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Snout explains that he's carrying a stone and some mortar to show us that he's a wall, we laugh because we realize that a metonymic label claiming to represent reality by association ("I am a wall. You can tell because walls are made of stone, and I'm carrying a stone") is always too small to cover the entire area it's supposed to represent. The man holding a stone is still a man; the white girls in the tintype studio are still white girls in a tintype studio. Metonymy hasn't effected the transformations it tells us it has effected. It hasn't changed its subjects' relations to us. Metonymy solemnly tells us, "Before Snout picked up the stone he was a man, but now he's a wall" -- and we laugh at metonymy, because we can see better.

But we also laugh because this particular failed transformation is reassuring. The play performed by Snout and the rude mechanicals originates in the horror story that is Ovid's Metamorphoses, a vast parable which says that transformation does occur, and we are powerless before it. You are not what you think you are, say the Metamorphoses; sooner or later, gradually or suddenly, you will become something other. The happy ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream, like the happy endings of other comedies (think of almost any sports movie, for instance), is simply an arbitrary assertion that the ceaselessness of change will now cease. At the end of the sports movie, the game has been won, finally and forever; at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, and Theseus and Hippolyta have entered the great unchange of happily ever after. And the laughable falsity of the tragic play within the play convinces us, by contrast, that the comic outer play must be true. But Ovid pokes his head around the closing curtain to remind us that the most fantastic words in any fairy tale are The End.

I once experienced both the metonymy and the realization of change's endless unmeaning, simultaneously. It was the loneliest instant of my life in language.

The time was midmorning on a February day in 1966; the place was the break room in Building 400 of the Greenfield, Indiana, laboratories of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co., my employer. The macrotext was the Indianapolis Star, a newspaper whose conservative editorial views (Don't let the communists fluoridate our water!) permeated every page. The microtext that day was an article about an event in Bloomington, sixty miles south of where I sat reading. There in Bloomington, said the article, a man had recently delivered a poetry reading on the campus of Indiana University. The man who read the poems was never named; instead, the article referred to him only as "a 'poet.'" The scornful journalist thought his readers should know that the "poet" had begun the reading by announcing, "This is my wife, Peter."

I read the article. With some excitement, I thought: "I know who that poet is!" Then I thought: "I bet I'm the only person in the plant who does know." And then: "Or care."

On the frozen flatlands of Indiana, I experienced desolation.

I had been able to place an item of data into a context and give it meaning, but the meaning was incommunicable. Strictly speaking, the knowledge I had created had no meaning -- at least, no meaning for anybody in Greenfield, Indiana. In Greenfield, at the time, you could spend the night in the Hoosier Poet Motel, which was named after one of Ezra Pound's favorite poets, the Greenfield native James Whitcomb Riley. The site of one of Riley's most beloved poems, "The Old Swimmin' Hole," was still preserved in a Greenfield park. But it was full of rats, and I was alone.

In due time I left Greenfield for Bloomington, and eventually I read Ginsberg's own poem about the reading: "Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington" (The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971 [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1972] 27). It isn't a very good poem, but for me it brings back memories of the drive east from Indiana on US 40 in the days before Interstate 70, with the crossing from Ohio into West Virginia at Wheeling: "Across Ohio River, noon / old wire bridge, auto graveyards." I enjoy that part because I can read through it to a sentiment of my own, as if I were looking at a picture of somebody else's cute puppydog.

But the process of evocation worked differently a few lines earlier. There, the poem describes the ride past "Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals' tower walls / asleep in early morning dark outside Indianapolis / Street lamps lit humped along downtown Greenfield" -- a ride made more interesting by the "Ho! Dimethyl Triptamine flashing circle vibrations" with which the poet was keeping himself busy at the time. When I read that, I protested to the book in my hand, "But Allen, all we made there was vaccines!" That little truth constituted the "Little did he know" moment that characterizes dramatic irony, but on the only stage where it ever will be performed there was no one but me. Mr. Ginsberg wasn't in the audience, and neither was anyone else. I had brought a context into existence, but it was a context doomed to go to the grave unremembered as soon as I do. Looking now at the tintypes of the girls costumed in their slave word, I realize that they and I are in the same historical situation of muteness before the event.

Still, I do draw pleasure from the tintypes. Maybe I don't really need any contexts beyond language itself. Cute puppydog, as formal as a Picasso!