Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Piranesi II

Photoshopped to remove blemishes and adjust the contrast, this is a newspaper photograph of the zeppelin LZ126 departing from Friedrichshafen, Baden-Württemburg, Germany, on October 12, 1924, bound across the Atlantic to Lakehurst, New Jersey. There, a few days later, she will be commissioned as USS Los Angeles: the third of five zeppelins flown by the U.S. Navy between 1921 and 1935. A kind of lucky niece of the Titanic, the Los Angeles was the only one of the five Navy zeppelins that didn't come to its end as a twisted hulk bearing doomed men as it fell, motors still roaring, through an atmosphere more fatally energetic than had been calculated. The Los Angeles was also the only one one of the five to have been designed and built in Germany.

Thirteen years after that first flight, then, decommissioned but still on display, the Los Angeles was a designated vehicle of national hubris on the morning in 1937 when the Hindenburg in its own turn approached Lakehurst, swastika flag on its tail glowing darkly under thunderclouds. Nostalgic for Technicolor, we try to imagine the few seconds passing while the flag's red evaporated before colorless hydrogen flame. But this image from 1924 is black and white, and all happy beginning. If we think we see irony in its darkness, we're committing a retroactive imputation. As of 1924, the glow we see around the great airship's empennage is a dawn, both figurative and literal. The silhouettes of hatted German men and women in the foreground are all innocence.

Nevertheless, as Henri Focillon says, there can be a relation between blackness and time. In "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet," sec. 4, Wallace Stevens quotes the observation from Focillon's study of Piranesi, quarryman of the dark.
Twenty years later, Piranesi returned to these etchings [the Prisons], and on taking them up again, he poured into them shadow after shadow, until one might say that he excavated this astonishing darkness not from the brazen plates, but from the living rock of some subterranean world. (Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose [Library of America, 1997], 672-73)
Piranesi's twenty years, as described by Focillon, were the maturing time of an artist. But the darkness we see in this picture is a couple of other things. It's the innocent mechanical literality of photography, of course: the aspect of a photographic image which floods the visual field with no help from anything except the facts of the subject and the light and the history of the photographed event wie es eigentlich gewesen. Beyond that, though, is a darkness imposed by an irony we find ourselves submitting to almost under protest. That is the darkness of poetry.

It is an irony which originates in an ancient and, I'd guess, universal metaphor about light and dark, the known and the unknown. "Dark," says the metaphor's vehicle, and its tenor completes the thought with "Little do they know." In the case of Piranesi's Prisons, specifically, the added darkness of the later states amounts to a lengthening of our sentence. We must now undertake an extra term of the hard labor of looking into the dark. But Piranesi the artist started innocent, and his first sentences were light.

As to us viewers from retrospect, we were almost born to dark. Having learned to read before we learned to see, we think we know what this image's silhouettes of the human don't reveal of themselves: their faces and their motives. We guess at those, but we luxuriate in the certainty of their darkness. "Little do they know," we think. And then we think, "I wish I didn't know."

Strange doom, imposed on us by our inability to tear our eyes away from the image produced by an all-seeing instrument innocently meant to stop history for a fraction of a second and record it as nothing but unmeaning light.