Thursday, July 2, 2009

Invisible empires: photography vs. narrative

Speaking of the kind of man who would write the word "wherein" in a love letter: at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006, the future Justice Alito told a joke. That isn't the kind of thing aspirants to the Supreme Court customarily do, but Judge Alito thought he had found a formula to neutralize comedy's subversive power, and he uttered that formula before he began uttering the joke. Unsmiling before the committee, Judge Alito judiciously intoned:
During the previous weeks, an old story about a lawyer who argued a case before the Supreme Court has come to my mind, and I thought I might begin this afternoon by sharing that story.
The story goes as follows.
("U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Judge Samuel Alito's Nomination to the Supreme Court, Part II of II."
Edith Wharton was having none of Judge Alito's silly self-referentiality in 1905. After all, one of the characters in her new novel, The House of Mirth, thought he had a moral duty to be boring, and no doubt he said "as follows" too. So when an editor asked Wharton to spell out the purport of The House of Mirth with an educational epigraph from the sardonic Book of Ecclesiastes on its title page -- "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" -- she said no. Spiritedly, she wrote back to the editor: "Even when I sank to the depth of letting the illustrations [from the serial publication in Scribner's Magazine] be put in the book -- & oh, I wish I hadn't now! -- I never contemplated a text on the title page. . . . I think the title explains itself amply as the tale progresses." ("The Edith Wharton Society: Illustrations from the first edition of The House of Mirth."

Spelling things out for the uneducated, then, is a vulgarity at the Alito level, and illustrations like the ones Wharton submitted to aren't much better. After all, they do little more than spell out the significance of the text for people who can't read very well. How would you feel, reader, if you were a vulnerable young woman and the married man who is your only source of money were to tell you, "You don't seem to remember my existence nowadays"? Don't worry, you don't have to think about your answer or grope for words. An artist has done the thinking for you, and it turns out that words aren't even required. All you have to do is click the picture to enlarge it.

Of course, for readers who read not for the words but for what they think is the real thing ("the message") referred to by the words, illustrations are all to the good. For such readers, words are simply a means of pointing to the message, and pictures are simply another. As part of its communication system, Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s message novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: A. Wessels, 1907) was illustrated in narrative style like The House of Mirth, and, so far as I know, Dixon never objected. In The Clansman, both the pictures and the words function as Peirceian indices, directing our attention toward a non-verbal significance in the way the word "this" does. But to the necessary extent that they illustrate Dixon's words instead of that non-verbal significance, Arthur I. Keller's pictures in the book are what Michel Serres would call a parasite. (In French, Serres's language, parasite translates to "static.") In this illustration, for instance, the formal design and the verbal caption are in competition. The words tell us not to feel pity for the bound and blindfolded man whose fingertips, as they touch his face, are still trying to do their innocent work of communicating a sense of himself to himself. But the pictorial static interferes.

But Keller's language pictures vanished into the archive at the instant when they were superseded by an art which triumphantly used and then superseded language: D.W. Griffith's apotheosis of some pure images from The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation. By the time Hollywood made its second great film in honor of the Klan, Gone With the Wind, the triumph of the image was so complete that the idea of the Klan could be communicated with perfect fidelity even though the word "Klan" was never spoken. The real, the enduring Invisible Empire, it turns out, isn't the Klan; it's the command that it holds over us by means of a few hours' worth of moving pictures.

Vice versa, if narrative is doing its job in the empire next door, it doesn't need narrative illustration. Consider, for example, this opening paragraph from a 1941 newspaper article.
In carefree, rollicking mood, several thousand Negro Odd Fellows and their families set forth yesterday morning for their annual excursion up the Hudson River. A delay in boarding the boat, caused by suspicion of counterfeit tickets, quickly transformed the crowd into a shouting, screaming, shoving mob. When police reserves finally quelled the disorder more than two hours later, three Negro women lay dead on the pier, and at least forty other persons had been injured.

-- "3 Women Are Killed in Riot on Harlem Excursion Pier." New York Times 18 August 1941: 1+.
As published, the article actually is accompanied by two photographs. But try this experiment yourself: read the photographs' captions -- "The pier at 132nd Street and the Hudson River, scene of riot caused by the attempt of thousands of persons to make their way to the vessel. Passengers are shown filing past smashed lunch boxes after order had been restored," and "A hysterical woman who had just viewed the body of one of the victims" -- and then ask: "Now that I know what they say, do I need to actually see the pictures?" If you aren't sure, narrative -- that word "say" -- has done its work.

But now consider this image. This image too may have accompanied a newspaper article. In the collection of the International Center of Photography (, accession no. 1020.1993) it bears a date -- August 18, 1941 -- and a title: "1250 decided to continue the trip." With the help of those two pieces of data, I was able to go back to the newspaper archive and reconstruct a forgotten piece of history. But the picture itself stands aloof from history. As a picture, it has no story to tell. It led me to a source where I learned something about the linguistic history of the word "Negro," but on the page, bearing only the photographer's inscription "No. 7," it is at one with the moving pictures Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind: all pure wordless form.

The picture was taken by Weegee, New York's great tabloid photographer of crime scenes in the 1930s and '40s. Glaringly lit by flash, with leering children cavorting around rich, dark puddles of blood, these scenes are a witches' sabbath out of Goya. But they are an abstract witches' sabbath. Their forms have flown free of the events the pictures ostensibly chronicle. The article in the Times will inform me that the boat in Weegee's picture was named State of Delaware, and it will give names as well to the three dead women: Marion Warrell of 214 West 63rd Street, Rose Grant of 454 Lenox Avenue, and Martha Murraine of 1700 Madison Avenue. For quite possibly the first time since 1941, someone has remembered them. It's possible that no one will remember them again, ever.

But the permanent and undying angle that Weegee's energetically puffing version of the boat makes as it leaves the pier, and the two policemen who remain behind, dark above their dark shadows on sun-soaked, orderly wooden planking. . . .