Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Immediate to God": souvenirs, words, and the wordless

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The little artifact is about 58 mm high and adorned with a tarnished brass plaque reading


If we take this to the web, we can adorn it with footnotes. The battleship Queen Elizabeth, says Wikipedia, was commissioned in 1915 and scrapped in 1948 after service in both World Wars. She was rebuilt in 1926-27 and again in 1937-41, and the truncated history on the little brass plaque presumably dates it to one of those changes of form. But here she is in 1915: the only dreadnought at the Dardanelles.

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And the brass plaque touches our fingertips and tells us: "This little toy barrel is hereby a part of history. The words I bear are a manual of instruction, teaching you how to remember what a bit of wood once could have been."


Across a Turnerian waterscape of smoke and ice, the car ferry Michigan Central approaches its dock some time about 1900. The owner of the blog Shorpy (http://www.shorpy.com/node/7051) has photoshopped the image and brought out all the beauty that lay latent in it between 1900 and now.

Click to enlarge.

And Shorpy's readers have gratefully responded. In the years before there was a tunnel, this boat carried rail traffic across the Detroit River between Detroit, Michigan, USA, and Windsor, Ontario, Canada -- but on which side of the border, one reader asks, was the picture taken? Replying, other readers leap into the comment stream with helpful armloads of annotation. One identifies the large structure on the river's near bank as an industrial building which stood for many years in Detroit; another identifies the church on the opposite bank and notes that it is still extant in Windsor. And a hobbyist with a magnifying glass observes that the boxcar on the left is equipped with a modern knuckle coupling but the boxcar in the middle still has one of the dangerous link-and-pin couplers outlawed by the Safety Appliance Act of 1893.

We love to hear ourselves say such things. It's as if our words leave our mouths and return to us on tiny brass plaques, tokens of ourselves which we attach to what we have been allowed to see. Here in an image are immortal volume and immortal hue, and here is the ephemeral wordy lesson we have been vouchsafed to teach ourselves about it.

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it . . .

But the ice and the smoke and the momentary forms they created for a single wordless instant once, one long-ago winter day -- what could we possibly say about those? How can we approach them without ridiculously seeming to stalk the impalpable with tackhammers and brads and strips of brass? And now, after all, aren't they and their unified form the only thing that matters? Among the water and the ice, hasn't the man smoking a pipe been entirely absorbed into the formalism of the design, all classical composition and glass plate and silver halide crystals faithfully modeling the ice he seems to be looking at, as we are looking at him?

In 1854, in his lecture series Eras of Modern History, Leopold von Ranke paused for a moment before the writing of his histories of men in an effort to understand. "Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott," he finally said: "Every era is immediate to God." Then, as he had to, he turned his back on the phenomena, sat down at his desk, and began mediating in words.

[Source: Leopold von Ranke, Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte, ed. Hans Herzfeld (Schloss Laupheim: Ulrich Steiner, 1955), 30. Cited in Peter A. Lawless, "The Nomad Past: German Histories, Italian Journeys, and the Visible Texture of Time" (dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009) 117.]