Sunday, December 27, 2009

Image against the exotic

To its American readers, National Geographic communicates translations of body language. It domesticates the exotic for us with comfortable frissons which (it assures us) come to us from the exotic. An exotic himself -- a little Mexican boy in an American school, reading a schoolbook in the presence of the Geographic -- Richard Rodriguez spent his first year as a reader paraphrasing the Geographic's composite language back and forth between its images and its translation into English words until he broke from image in order to write himself into words. Firmly in the words' lexicon now as he remembers his childhood lessons in remedial reading, Rodriguez finds himself seated again before a book full of words, learning body language's tale of a lost Eden of the wordless senses.

At the end of each school day, for nearly six months, I would meet with [a very old nun] in the tiny room that served as the school's library but was actually only a storeroom for used textbooks and a vast collection of National Geographics. Everything about our sessions pleased me: the smallness of the room; the noise of the janitor's broom hitting the edge of the long hallway outside the door; the green of the sun, lighting the wall; and the old woman's face blurred white with a beard. . . .

One day the nun concluded a session by asking me why I was so reluctant to read by myself. I tried to explain; said something about the way written words made me feel all alone -- almost, I wanted to add but didn't, as when I spoke to myself in a room just emptied of furniture. She studied my face as I spoke; she seemed to be watching more than listening. In an uneventful voice she replied that I had nothing to fear. Didn't I realize that reading would open up whole new worlds? A book could open doors for me. It could introduce me to people and show me places I never imagined existed. She gestured toward the bookshelves. (Bare-breasted African women danced, and the shiny hubcaps of automobiles on the back covers of the Geographic gleamed in my mind.)

-- Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982; rpt. New York: Dial, 1985) 64-65. Print.

In his next paragraph, Rodriguez tells the story of overcoming what he calls "my fear of the silence" and becoming a prodigious but strictly pragmatic reader, one who read not for his senses' sake but solely for words and the extra credit they could bring him. The nun and the Geographic were banished from memory now, and Rodriguez was launched on his journey toward text and away from color and sound and heat. That's a success story.

But the journey away from color and sound and heat must engender some sense of loss, and the sense of loss often articulates itself as nostalgia. On his blog at

for instance, the poet Pierre Joris is currently serializing the sense and text memoir of another poet, Robert Kelly, who recalls his childhood in Brooklyn sixty years ago this way.

On Sutter Avenue plenty of such nutrition was ready to be found:  the noisy greasy corner printing shops, Drukerey I could make out in the window, working from the German I was beginning to know in school, ‘printer,’ where men in undervests read clean paper with their inky hands, men with hats on always, printing the curvy thick Jewish letters that seemed as rich as foods, as deeply familiar as the veins that twisted down my wrist.  Hebrew letters:  I was amazed that I couldn’t read them, because they seemed to familiar, as if they were modeled on the inside of my own body, of every human body, organ and tube and channel and drop of seed.

They stood in doorways and looked at the sheets fresh-printed.  Little boys with velvet yarmulkes and velvety eyes and dangling peyos would carry big loads of fresh print along the street to the binder, another shop not far away, and there’d be the books and pamphlets piled high in the reading rooms, overflowing the doorways of what I took to be synagogues, what did I know, men in big black hats, and every now and then an elder great one wearing a big shtreiml, a fur-trimmed hat and long black shiny coat and high white stockings.  A stick he’d carry, and walk like a man from our own history, as if Benjamin Franklin had come alive as a rabbi now, and all our American sagacity were just one gesture of the timeless wisdom of these strange Jews.

Bare breasts, velvety eyes, or curvy thick Jewish letters secreted in the body like drops of seed: a general term for this class of emotive description is "exoticism." The trope had a history long before Kelly and Rodriguez encountered it, of course. Two years into the Hitlerzeit, for instance, Thomas Wolfe made use of it in his autobiographical novel Of Time and the River to articulate his sense of teaching college English to Jews in the exoticized city of New York.

Their dark flesh had in it the quality of a merciless tide which not only overwhelmed and devoured but withdrew with a powerful sucking glut all rich deposits of the earth it fed upon: they had the absorptive quality of a sponge, the power of a magnet, the end of each class left him sapped, gutted, drained, and with a sense of sterility, loss, and defeat, and in addition to this exhaustion of the mind and spirit, there was added a terrible weariness and frustration of the flesh: the potent young Jewesses, thick, hot, and heavy with a female odor, swarmed around him in a sensual tide, they leaned above him as he sat there at his table, pressing deliberately the crisp nozzles of their melon-heavy breasts against his shoulder; slowly, erotically, they moved their bellies in to him, or rubbed the heavy contours of their thighs against his legs; they looked at him with moist red lips through which their wet red tongues lolled wickedly, and they sat upon the front rows of the class in garments cut with too extreme a style of provocation and indecency, staring up at him with eyes of round lewd innocence, cocking their legs with a shameless and unwitting air, so that they exposed the banded silken ruffle of their garters and the ripe heavy flesh of their underlegs.

Thus, to all his weariness of mind, the terror and torment of his spirit, a thousand erotic images of an aroused but baffled and maddened sensuality were added: they swarmed around him like the embodiment of all the frustrate hunger, desire, and fury he had come to know in the city, with a terrible wordless evocation of men starving in the heart of a great plantation, of men dying of thirst within sight of a shining spring, with a damnable mockery, a nightmare vision of proud, potent and hermetic flesh, of voluptuous forms in hell, for ever near, for ever palpable, but never to be known, owned, or touched.

The girls, the proud and potent Jewesses with their amber flesh, schooled to a goal of marriage, skilled in all the teasings of erotic trickery, with their lustful caution and their hot virginity pressed in around him in a drowning sensual tide: with looks of vacant innocence and with swift counter-glances of dark mockery, they pressed upon him, breathing, soft and warm and full, as they cajoled, teased, seduced with look or gesture. . . .

The Jewish women were as old as nature and as round as the earth: they had a curve in them. They had gone to the wailing walls of death and love for seven thousand years, the strong convulsive faces of the Jews were ripe with grief and wisdom, and the curve of the soul of the Jewish women was still unbroken. Female, fertile, yolky, fruitful as the earth, and ready for the plow, they offered to the famished wanderer, the alien, the exile, the baffled and infuriated man, escape and surcease of the handsome barren women, the hard varnished sawdust dolls, the arrogant and sterile women, false in look and promise as a hot-house peach, who walked the street and had no curves or fruitfulness in them. The Jewish women waited with rich yolky cries for him, and the news they brought him; the wisdom that they gave to him was that he need not strangle like a mad dog in a barren dark, nor perish, famished, unassuaged, within the wilderness beside a rusted lance -- but that there was still good earth for the plow to cleave and furrow, deep cellars for the grain, a sheath for the shining sword, rich pockets of spiced fertility for all the maddened lunges of desire.

-- Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in his Youth (New York: Scribner, 1935) 483-84. E-text from Project Gutenberg Australia.

Now, something to note about this passage is that it comes to us much less from its author's life than from literary history. There are picture books about Thomas Wolfe which show us images of Asheville, North Carolina, wie es eigentlich (the picture books assure us) gewesen in the days when Wolfe walked the town's streets. But Wolfe's novels themselves owe as much to texts written by James Joyce and Otto Weininger as they do to any actual life lived by the "real" Thomas Wolfe. Likewise, Kelly's memoir is illustrated with photographs, but not photographs taken by Kelly. Instead, Kelly or Joris went to museums of New York history for some generic photodocumentation of the streets of Brooklyn, circa 1950. After all, for both Kelly and Wolfe the exotic was a memory; that is, not a documentable datum but a fiction of the senses.

Jacob Riis's ostensibly non-fictional book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) is another such fiction. However, because it also contains some non-fictional content in the form of photographs, it can be read as a bilingual dictionary of the exotic: Word to Image and Image to Word. Here on p. 104, for instance, is a visual setting rendered in words -- and here in the setting is a word right out of The Arabian Nights: "houri."

Click to enlarge.

And yet there are no houris in the photographs with which Riis documented his study -- either among the photoengravings in the original edition or among the many additional images from the Riis archive in the 1971 Dover reprint. After all, "houri" isn't a word that can actually be associated with any visualizable image from the streets of New York. As of 1890, its provenance was the composite vocabulary of writers like Byron and Beckford and Sir Richard Burton, as perhaps illustrated by the fanciful Baudelairean pornographer Félicien Rops. Made a part of the nineteenth century's lexicon of the senses by those writers, the word "houri" may have influenced Riis the writer. But in the nature of documentable things it couldn't influence Riis the photographer. So How the Other Half Lives reads now like two books, imperfectly translated into each other's language: one in dated nineteenth-century prose, the other in images that can never die.

For readers of that incompletely integrated doubleness, this disjunction between the images and the text that doesn't quite interpret them makes for an interesting disconnect. It's as if the part of us that reads and the part of us that sees have been severed by the book's double nature. And of course there's nothing unique to How the Other Half Lives about that effect.

Pierre Joris, for example, is now on record as an endorser of a petition sponsored by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel at

As is the nature of such texts, this petition is in the imperative mood but with no clear indication of who is issuing the command. The command itself, too, is a metaphor. "Stand up," it orders us, "against Israel's ongoing scholasticide and . . . support the non-violent call for academic boycott, divestment, and sanction." Stand up against -- means what, precisely? Scholasticide would be what -- the murder of scholars, of scholarship, of scholasticism? And what would a violent call sound like? In its immediate context, the petition presumably means only that if an Israeli poet presents himself before Pierre Joris's blog in curvy thick Jewish letters as rich as foods, Joris won't publish him.

Well, no matter. The petition originates in the same wordy zone of the brain as velvety eyes or melon-heavy breasts equipped with crisp nozzles. It is a trace in words of the exotic, and the exotic itself is a trace of a fictive memory. But when photography goes in search of that memory, all it sees is in the present tense -- and there, the houris have always already vanished.