Saturday, November 28, 2009

Chronopathetic, part 2


Jerome Rothenberg continues the retrospective project of posting his oeuvre as a blog. This particular entry reprints a collectively written poets' manifesto from 1968 which explains, among much else,

that Black Power is an ideal vision of African Divinity resurrected to save the white rational races from suffocating the entire planet in dung colored gas—We ask return to true tribal structure in which men use society rather than be used. ([Joel] Oppenheimer)

Forty years on, the word "tribal" evokes Waziristan and South Carolina. But you know the line about those who do not remember history. The first 21st-century comment reprinted below the manifesto comes from someone who lists his occupation, in 1968 language, as "Head." The comment begins:

As a poet of some merit, I have come to believe, the universe has only existed to give birth to the poem / stucture called

'a cup of coffee'.

But the second comment is a spam from a florist who delivers a wide range of flowers, cakes, and gifts. Fun bit of rationality for the 21st century: the florist and his delivery area are in India.

Eastward the course of empire takes its way.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Benjamin: I take back the chronopathos

That's what I get for trusting the Web. The photograph of Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale that I blogged about on November 22 was taken in 1937, not 1932, and Susan Sontag describes it and its context in the title essay of her Under the Sign of Saturn.

And of course the general weakness of my speculation about history is that it's just as easy to sigh, "Ah, the tragic irony of it all" about 1937 as 1932. You might, for instance, enjoy the sensation of placing your hand over your heart when you recall that in Paris in June, 1937, Prime Minister Blum's Popular Front fell. Just a year and a half earlier, Blum had been dragged from his car and beaten almost to death by followers of T. S. Eliot's culture hero Charles Maurras. Somewhere, some time, the world is always awakening from the pleasant dream called Library. But the moment of awakening will be more serviceable to the day that follows if we accurately know something about the night before, such as its date.

And of course we'll always need the dream called Library to help us understand why Gisèle Freund's photograph of Benjamin has a significance beyond its formal properties as an image. It's Library that makes us realize, with shock and sadness, that Freund's photograph of Walter Benjamin is a photograph of !Walter Benjamin!

But the curve of Benjamin's back and the fierce yet distracted look on his face as he gazes down toward a library's catalog slip -- regardless of the year, regardless of the stage to which history's nightmare had progressed at the moment when Benjamin's image entered Freund's camera, that is all photography.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Professormobile: the politics of rust

From the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa:

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Photography: setting as tragic intimation

Gisèle Freund's photograph of Walter Benjamin at work seems to be a study in the physical context of mind. Crammed into a corner of his image, Benjamin appears to have been, for the instant that Freund's shutter remained open, a functional part of a library; that is, an institution which exists to detect the airy traces of words and build around them a sense of shelter and permanence.

But the library where Benjamin busied himself, looking away from Freund's remorselessly disinterested lens toward a cataloged reference to some words elsewhere in the building, was the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the year when he sat among its words on his plain wooden chair was 1932. That year, France's President Doumer was assassinated at the opening of a book fair. The next year, the government of Germany would fall before the bookish Adolf Hitler. Books and their libraries, perhaps, provide us readers only with an illusion of order. They offer us grammar and syntax and dictionaries and firm wooden furniture and bright, flicker-free lighting and an exhilarating sense of exegi monumentum aere perennius, but all it took was a flick of the switch to extinguish Walter Benjamin.

Yet the library into which Benjamin so lovably inserted himself for that fraction of a second in 1932 looks real, looks lasting, looks as permanent as the Edwardian decor we see now in photographs taken, shortly before sailing time, in the salons of the Titanic. That, we can say now, is tragic. Can we go on to say that the camera, because of its mechanical disinterestedness, possesses a unique ability to insert itself into the stuff of history and potentiate us readers' sense of tragedy in history's aftermaths? Can we say that photography's most disturbing property is the mute accent it assumes when it speaks tragedy's key stage direction, "Little did he know"? When her camera took into itself an instant of the light of 1932, Gisèle Freund erected a barrier of dumb wordless irony along the camera's image plane between a wordless image of some words and us wordy talkers about them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Edward Weston and digital photography

On November 17, I formally opened my photo exhibit in the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Kuykendall Gallery with this 9-minute talk about one thing I share with the great Edward Weston: a desire to perceive form with a minimum of technical intermediation between my eye and the reality. Here's a link to the video.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The year of Ulysses: reading right to left

For literature in English, 1922 was one of the great years. It was the year of The Waste Land and The Enormous Room, tombeaux over the century that conceived the Titanic and the Congress of Vienna but forgot to edit the builders' language for hubris. But it was also a year when language was rethought in other ways, from the refurbished Dickensian satire of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt to the babbitized proto-Newspeak of Reader's Digest. All of these texts shaped and were shaped by the history that brought forth the year 1922, and the greatest of them all, Ulysses, demolished and rebuilt an edifice of culture that had been standing since the moment Odysseus shaped his bed from a tree rooted in the ever-enduring earth.

But that year Ulysses was not alone. In fact, another book from the great year, The Jews, by the Edwardian man of letters Hilaire Belloc, was even more daring than Ulysses in one respect, for Belloc was attempting to translate another ancient story into the language of 1922 with no command of any language but the language of 1922. He understood, too, that that effort had to eventuate in tragedy. Addressing readers whom he sometimes called "the white race" and sometimes called simply "us," Belloc brought them up against the full horror of historical unrepresentability this way.
(Click to enlarge.)

Yes: helplessly unable to navigate the impassable gulf, isolated on its barren shore by the presence of a Jew on the other side, the white race has been forced by that presence to acknowledge that it will never know itself. Because it can't know the Jew, it can't know at all. It is in danger of failing mind's primal duty.

Fortunately, however, history has equipped the white race with a reliable phrasebook: Belloc's The Jews. What has made the book invaluable to the white race was one of history's fortunate accidents -- an accident that happened to befall Hilaire Belloc in his own home. There, speaking English even as she dwelt under her master's alien roof, was a Jewish informant, communicating Jewish intelligence. The informant was, in fact, as Belloc says, one of his best friends. But it wasn't mere best-friendship that enabled Belloc to communicate with the informant. No; Belloc could communicate because (but how?) he too knew the secret Jewish code. And now, thanks to Belloc's heroic cryptography, you too, white reader, can know it. Only read from the back of The Jews to the front the ways Jews do, and you'll spot the spy lurking in the dedication, fiendishly disguised as Belloc's prose.
But don't stop there! Read on, sinking ever deeper into the dark backward and abysm, and there on the book's very title page, invisible to any but Miss Ruby Goldsmith, the members of her race, and the uncanny Hilaire Belloc, is a pair of words meant to be read, uncannily, from right to left, end to beginning. Transliterated from left to right into the chirality of the white race, the two Hebrew words say shalom l'Yisroel. In translation, that means "peace to Israel."
But as of 1922 Belloc's readers knew how untranslatable that word "peace" was, and how full of blood irony. If they didn't know it at the beginning of The Jews, they knew it by the end. After all, there at the end, on Belloc's title page, it's in a language that doesn't even sound white.


"(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)"

And as Joyce's stage direction here at the end of the "Circe" episode tells us, Mr. Bloom's cry to his dead child is also inaudible.