Friday, December 31, 2010

White, ascending

Thirty-three years ago, at the time I moved to Oahu, the only part of the island where I could routinely see cattle egrets was Kawainui Marsh. Now they're all over the island, or almost. As of October 2009, when I took this picture about a block south of my house, that spot seemed to be the northern limit of their spread up Kamiloiki Valley. I'd see them pacing off the soccer field there, walking behind the lawnmower in dignified single file.

Click to enlarge.

But on the morning of December 31, 2010, a flash of light reflected into my bedroom window. Startled, I looked up just in time to see a cloud of snow soar up the side of the house, take shape as bird, and rise away toward the east. 

I took it as a found symbol for the new year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"How fragile a thing is chic!"

Of course progress is dignified. We used to transport ourselves in a silly, old-fashioned way, says progress, but now both of the wheels on our bicycle are the same size, as is only proper. Using that moral fact to advertise refrigerators in 1931, the Electrolux Corporation summons us to recall the apposite moment in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King when the dying Arthur surveys the universe and his and our place in it.

Click to enlarge.

This advertisement appeared on page 58 of The New Yorker for September 12, 1931. On the next page begins Morris Markey’s article “DO-X,” the narrative of a flight in one of the 1930s’ great fantasy vehicles.

Wikipedia provides us with the fantasy in synopsis. With the idea of crossing the Atlantic by air on a regular schedule, the German engineer Claude Dornier conceived and then constructed an enormous twelve-engined seaplane, the Dornier Do-X. However, it entered service in 1929, the first year of the Great Depression. Only three years later it was retired, and the two other Do-X's that followed it down the assembly line vanished from history almost without a trace. Perhaps the best way to visualize any of them now is by way of a boy’s introductory tutorial to the dreams he will begin experiencing at puberty.  The number in the upper right corner of this image refers to a suitable age for the boy. Numbers preceded by dollar signs will follow at a later stage of development.

But for nine months, from August 1931 to May 1932, that first Do-X was moored in New York, at what is now LaGuardia Airport, and there it was available to the senses of  adults as it lifted them into the air for what must have been, for most of them, the first flight of their lives. It was one of those excursion flights that The New Yorker’s Morris Markey helped his readers realize, and in the magazine his words are surrounded by images harmonizing with the psychic economy of the era that was then giving place to new.

Earlier in the magazine, for instance, a reader would have seen an advertisement for the Pitcairn Autogiro, a tiny short-takeoff-and-landing airplane which was one of the precursors of the helicopter. Crafted as carefully as the autogiro itself, its advertisement comes to us incorporating a parenthetical concession (“after the necessary training”), a chiasmus in conclusion, and an evoked setting entirely suitable for reading The New Yorker. To The New Yorker, the copywriter for Pitcairn Aircraft has confided:

Its ability to climb steeply and to take off and land in small areas, make it the craft that is practical, after the necessary training, for the personal use of sportsmen and business men. Many country estates have room in which the Pitcairn Autogiro can take off and land. From such homes, one may start upon a day’s sport or business trip, without first making the journey to a large airport. Polo fields, golf clubs and many other areas become available for landing an Autogiro, to save time and trouble for those who take to the air to save their time.  (35)

Now, the year when the refrigerator’s quotation from Tennyson and the autogiro’s Gettysburg cadences entered read consciousness was 1931, the long sickening moment when the banks finally collapsed and it became obvious that the Great Depression was now a fact from which there would be no awakening into the light of dream. Some of The New Yorker’s advertisers took note of that change in the psychic weather, and one of them reacted with a verb expressing resignation and endurance: "to see [something] through."

But within the covers of the magazine, that early observation was still an exception. It and Morris Markey's article about the Do-X are about the skeleton beneath the skin, but as of September 1931 most of the rest of The New Yorker still understood reality to be a mode of presenting oneself as surface. It is that preoccupation with the external, perhaps, which makes us notice as exceptional the moment when Markey passes through the door of the Do-X and into its penetralia.

We climbed from the edge of the tender to the surface of the lower stub wing which thrust out bluntly from the hull at the waterline. Its surface curved gently, and it served the purpose of a deck. On the deck stood the ship’s master, Fritz Hammer, to greet us. He bowed and shook hands with quaint German courtesy, and two or three of his officers led us to the main entranceway.  (59)

From the door, Markey entered the Do-X’s quiet, luxurious passenger compartment. From there he ascended to the airplane’s upper deck, where the pilot sat behind vast clear windows, bathed in light, “in a broad, deep chair, with an immense wheel in his hands . . . in a blue uniform with an immaculate white officer’s cap” (62). But then:

The engineer touched my arm. He was an American, for the twelve engines are of American manufacture. He beckoned me to follow him, and in a moment I had gone aft through the chartroom into the engine-room. The sight was stunning. We were now within the hollow body of the wing itself, and here was the essence of the Teutonic machinal, a thing out of some dark and iron romance. 
[. . .]
I peered down the dark tunnel that the wing made as its hollow vastness reached out to ride upon the air. And there, on either side, were crouched gnomelike figures in brown clothing with brown leather helmets pulled down tight over their heads. They looked upward in the dim light, some of them fifty feet out from the body of the ship, peering through little openings at the engines above them.  (62)

In 1931 it took a crew of seventeen -- some of them tall and in white hats, others dwarfish and in brown -- to force the Do-X across the surface of Flushing Bay and into the air. The same year saw publication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with its image in the text of a dwarf Epsilon elevator man locked in his cage and its cover illustration of a globe-circling airplane.

And two years after that, in the first year of the Third Reich, the German post office would issue a series of charity surcharge stamps depicting the heroes of Richard Wagner, who had turned a mythology of blond heroes and dark dwarfs into a music. "The DO-X climbed very steeply then," Morris Markey noted right after his takeoff in 1931. "Steeply and very rapidly, with the engines moaning like the continuous song of a single 'cello note" (61).

But Markey's own prose does nothing with its startling phrase "the Teutonic machinal." In Markey's hands, it isn't yet anything more than a cliché left over from the Great War. As of 1931, likewise, most of Markey's New Yorker colleagues still wrote words whose feet were on Fifth Avenue's ground. Reading those words, I try to translate them as survivals from a different place and time. There aren't many instances left that can still be read, but perhaps one is the text remaining on page 65. After the bombs fell on Europe, those words survived in all their magnificent silliness because they declined to turn away from the mirror and look up at the new thing arriving from above.

How good it was to believe that changing the old order was only a matter of replacing one mode with another as the seasons changed on solid, unchanging earth. How good it was to look into a mirror and know that nothing outside its frame really existed. How good it might be to believe that a model airplane is nothing but a toy: something that exists and is believed in only during a stage of development, and only for a time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In memoriam: the author of a poem called "In Memoriam James Joyce"

Scowling out from a review of his correspondence with a fellow Scottish nationalist poet, the photograph of Hugh MacDiarmid comes before us saying, "Clothes make the man." The bard poses for the camera in the full garb of a national poet, with his stockings pulled up, his sporran tidily centered, his tie tied, and every hair on his massive head decisively oiled into place. In one hand he holds the emblem of a man of letters, a pipe; in the other he holds the emblem of a man of the Scottish soil: a mess of fish, caught without getting a drop of water on the dry-clean-only costume. The effect is of Marie Antoinette modeling a statue of Kim Il Sung: heroism tastefully restraining itself from the vulgarity of verisimilitude.

Click to enlarge.

But the photograph's proportions are wrong. Perhaps because the camera may have been aimed downhill at MacDiarmid, his height appears to be less than six times the length of his head. Those are the proportions of a child's body, not an adult's.

However, a Photoshop edit can increase the ratio to about 7, and with a smaller head and longer legs the poet begins to look more like a man.

But a heroic poet deserves to be looked at through eyes made heroic by a visit to the optometrist, like the one who fits Dorothy with green glasses in the Emerald City. So let's change the proportions horizontally as well as vertically.

Or, with the distortion-revealing words erased and the contrast made dramatic:

MacDiarmid's fish are still fish, but Photoshop has transferred them to the public viewing area of their aquarium. Now at the front of their image and proportionally larger than they ever were in what's called real life, they have become what the Milton of Areopagitica thought of when he thought of the idea embodied in a good book: something "embalmed and treasured up to a life beyond life." Holding the Photoshop technician's great spoil in his large new place, the bard triumphantly enters a new domain of literature: the domain whose tenancy he holds on art's terms, not his own. There, the dead fish are part of an array of symbols, and the national bard who shares his emblem with them is a MacDiarmid avant ses lettres: a visible notion of the Celt as such, like James Joyce's Citizen.

The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero. From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex europaeus). The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the fieldlark might easily have lodged her nest. The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.

One more of the intentions latent in a poet's costumed pose may now have been fulfilled. In this iteration the poet is seen saying, among other things, "Pity the national bard of a vegetarian culture."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New chapbook

A small collection of my photographs, 11 Blue, is now online at The link is clickable on the Issuu shelf at the bottom of this page.

Saturday, November 6, 2010



As I drink my tea, I look at the bottle from which it has come flowing toward my mouth. The bottle assures me that I am beautiful, and furthermore that my beauty has a history. Its legitimacy and reason for being originated in the mouth of the Duchess of Bedford, and the Duchess of Bedford must have been a beautiful woman who wore a hat.

Click to enlarge.


The catalog of the art dealer Phillips de Pury opens in my computer, adding icons in the center of the screen to the icons already on permanent display in the margins.

Some of the central icons display as thumbnails: little pictorial allusions to history's way of knowing. Oh, of course: those are the Arbus twins. But the online publisher has opened the catalog to a larger icon, one whose caption we may have to depend on for information. It hasn't been immer schon internalized in the form of ironic connoisseurship, as the Arbus image may have been. Outside the aura of certainty which gives the glow to an iconic name like Arbus, we drift toward the photograph's caption space, and there with some relief we spot a flock of speaking words. The words fly toward us to say that the photographer was named Lillian Bassman, and in 1949 she created an image and gave it a name of its own with some other names inside it: "Fantasy on the dance floor: Barbara Mullen, dress by Christian Dior, Paris."

The photograph forces us to read those words on its own terms. Beyond the word "model," I don't know who Barbara Mullen is, or was -- but the image is peremptory in its insistence that I do know, I must. Fashion photography exists to teach us the lovely deadly fiction that cloth and color and pose are eternally real, real for the only length of time that can be significant: the instant it takes to see and catch our breath and then forget again. For that long and only that long, there was Barbara Mullen. But forever there will be (in ascending order) shoulder fingers mouth nose hat.


Hat, encore:

Casper Emerson, Jr., 1918. From 
60 Great Patriotic Posters, ed. Mary Carolyn Waldrep
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 014.

"The body dies, the body's beauty lives," chants Wallace Stevens. The war ended, the war will never end. See how the hat shapes evanescent life into eternal geometry.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Art news: Wyndham Lewis goes shopping for a car with Ezra Pound

Click to enlarge.

Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters, ed. Carol Belanger Grafton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 032

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hommage à Andre Gide


we learn that art students are still learning philosophy from Gide and the Marquis de Sade.


we learn that Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot five years ago, was much more seriously wounded than was reported at the time -- in fact, almost killed then, and still suffering now from his injuries, including a quite possibly shortened lifespan.

One more thing we learn from the article is this:

Cheney never has apologized, publicly or privately.

Let's hear it for performance art and the acte gratuit!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Update: familiarizing the defamilar

On January 2, at

I blogged about a painting by a Nazi artist of a soldier in Hitler's SS Wiking Division. Now, at a time when many polls are predicting a shift to Republican control following next month's congressional elections in the United States, comes the news that the hobby of one Republican candidate is dressing up as a soldier in Hitler's SS Wiking Division. The link is here (with thanks to Susan Schultz)

and here (second from right) is the candidate.

Progress is being made in international history. It's making the transition from subtitles to dubbed speech, and one of these days I suppose it may become America's native language.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


First floor men's room, Physical Science Building, University of Hawaii at Manoa, September 29, 2010:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Koechelverzeichnisnummer 581

In the skylighted lobby of the Hawaii State Library on September 25, 2010, a chamber music ensemble was performing.

 Click to enlarge.

One of the original Carnegie Libraries, the Hawaii State Library was built about a hundred years ago, and in downtown Honolulu its gracious proportions complement the cheerfully vulgar Iolani Palace next door. There's no need to romanticize the time when kings and queens ruled Hawaii and Andrew Carnegie's steelworkers paid with their lives for Andrew Carnegie's benefactions, but as of 2010 the State Library is a good.

However, the economics of the America outside the library's door still look pre-2010. The State Library's large lawn is now one of Honolulu's many Hoovervilles, and some of the homeless men who live there (they are mostly men) climb the library's steps and walk in the door of the lobby. Here, perhaps, was one.

The music was Mozart's clarinet quintet. It was singing to the man in the audience, and he was conducting.  Under the flags of Hawaii and the United States, a part of him had reached home.

The concert ended and I returned to my own home. As I passed, under brilliant sunlight, through one of Honolulu's prosperous neighborhoods, my eye was caught by a flash of moving color. It was a large American flag, waving in the tradewind from a white van parked in a driveway.

The van was covered with writing. I didn't stop to read it all, but I could take in two of the largest words:


Behind closed doors with Mozart, appearances were deceiving. Actually, in America at large it is 2010, and the era of the Carnegie Libraries will soon be over.

I hope the old white man in his dashiki doesn't suffer much.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prose: description vs. profound thought

Consider these two samples of prose, each related to this year’s World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.

1. “For the U.S. visitor, the comparisons start from the moment one departs Beijing’s South Station, a giant space-age building, and boards the bullet train to Tianjin. It takes just 25 minutes to make the 75-mile trip. In Tianjin, one arrives at another ultramodern train station – where, unlike New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, all the escalators actually work. From there you drive to the Tianjin Meijiang Convention Center, a building so gigantic and well appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C., it would be a tourist site. Your hosts inform you: ‘It was built in nine months.’”

2. “ . . . that ‘can-do,’ ‘get-it-done,’ ‘everyone-pull-together,’ ‘whatever-it-takes’ attitude that built our highways, dams, and put a man on the moon.”

The first verb in the sequence “departs Beijing’s South Station . . . and boards the bullet train” seems wrong. (Shouldn’t it be “enters,” not “departs”?) Otherwise, though, our first sample of Tianjin prose is as well laid out and enjoyably speedy as the bullet train itself.

But oh boy, that second sample . . .

In 2½ lines, four clichés set off by shamefaced quotation marks, followed by a shameless fifth (“put a man on the moon”). The author also thinks a verb, “put,” can be the next item in the noun series “highways, dams, and. . . .”

Well, the author is Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman’s prose has been notorious enough down the years to acquire Wikipedia citations, including a link to an article called “Someone Take Away Thomas Friedman’s Computer Before He Types Another Sentence.”

But here’s something funny: the author of the nice, efficient first sample is also Thomas L. Friedman. The difference between that prose and the prose of sample 2 seems to be only a difference in the quality and degree of their truthfulness. William Blake, poet and artist, understood that telling the truth can only follow from first seeing the truth in detail, the finer the better – as in “75 miles in 25 minutes.” In plate 55 of his Jerusalem, he summarized his findings this way.

He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer:
For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power,
The Infinite alone resides in Definite & Determinate Identity
Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falshood continually
On Circumcision: not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion

Are you listening, virgins of the New York Times editorial page?

Source: Thomas L. Friedman, “Too Many Hamburgers?” New York Times national edition 22 September 2010: A23. Print.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lingua franca

Printed in black and white, the windblown ironwood tree against a cloudy sky reminded me a little of a Chinese ink drawing. So I called up Google Translate, asked it for a translation of "ironwood," and pasted the characters into my picture. I thought they might remind viewers of the poems that Chinese collectors used to write on the classics that fell into their hands.

 Click to enlarge.

But it turned out that my effort was nothing but body Engrish.

Do an image search for "Engrish" and you'll make all kinds of funny discoveries, such as

But thanks to my neighbors George and Esther Quek, I've learned that the mysterious west is just as mysterious as the mysterious east. Google's four-character translation of "ironwood" turns out to be a personified transliteration: Ian Wood.


Population study, October 28: With this post, "The Art Part" went viral, albeit with only a low-grade infection. If you've googled "Engrish" since September 21, you've wound up here -- and people google for "Engrish" from all over the world.

So let me take commercial advantage and offer this free book about my summer's work with shape and color.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time automatically updates. That's what makes it time.

Since earlier this year, I've been blogging about the September 18 primary election in Hawaii, where I live.  The candidate certain to win the Republican nomination for governor, I've written, was a fanatically reactionary Catholic whose anti-gay rhetoric has been strongly supported by the Catholic bishop of Honolulu. Of the two possible Democratic candidates, one was an old-fashioned secular liberal but the other was a fanatically reactionary Mormon whose anti-gay rhetoric has been strongly supported by Hawaii's influential Mormon leadership.

I blogged because (as a conservative might say) I felt my marriage coming under threat. My marriage is heterosexual but interracial, Hawaii is really the only state where interracial marriage is accepted as normal, and as waves of bigotry flooded Hawaii's green land this summer I found myself thinking back to my pre-Hawaii years in the midwest, where the standard witticism addressed to a man with an East Asian wife is, "Does it slant? Haw haw!" Struggling to keep my head above the flood of red-state language, I thought I could feel Hawaii's tolerance washing away beneath me. If my only choice in November is between a Republican bigot and a Democratic bigot, I thought, I might as well be back in Indiana.

But two cheerful things happened during the weekend of September 18-19. For one thing, the anti-gay bigot lost in the Democratic primary, and lost by a humiliatingly large margin.

And then I caught up with a distant past by watching, for the first time, a once notorious movie, Elia Kazan's Baby Doll.

Baby Doll's notoriety stemmed from its lurid advertising in the print media:
Click to enlarge.

In fact, however, the film was only an adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, which in turn was only an adaptation of Chaucer's Miller’s Tale: a comedy about an old man, his young wife, and a young wooer who sets right their violation of nature's simple law. The film itself is a lot closer to a G rating than Chaucer's original, if only because in 1956, when the film was made, Hollywood's production code forced Kazan and his screenwriters to be coy about how and by whom Baby Doll's virginity would eventually be terminated.

But this past weekend, Eisenhower-era repectability wasn't the only anachronism reaching up from the grave to grasp at the electronics of my home. Baby Doll takes place in rural Mississippi, Kazan shot it on location and used locals as extras, and in its time onscreen the word "nigger" fills the air of half a century ago as unremarkably as nitrogen. In a University of Hawaii classroom in 2010, a professor of film studies would have to explain to her class that no, that word doesn't make Baby Doll racist, or if it does it will have to make everything else in 1956 America appear racist in exactly the same way. As a social depiction, such a standardized image just won't be interesting. If the term "racist" is to communicate any distinctions, the professor could say, it will have to mean certain things but not others. Within the meanings of "racism," "nigger" will have to be read as a word whose own multiple meanings have changed in the last half-century.

And now, just outside the Hawaii classroom, a political campaign with a bigoted subtext has failed. Such campaigns have succeeded here in the past, but the new reading that was performed on September 18, 2010, shows us that our interpretations of political language can change. Of course there's no guarantee that the changes will be lasting, and of course, in the nature of change, they can't be permanent. Still: for now the change is on us, and our language is a little more interesting than it was yesterday.

A note about language

Ever downward in the tradition of the folksy epistle: James Russell Lowell to James Whitcomb Riley to Ezra Pound (a Riley fan) to Charles Olson to Clark Coolidge to this bulletin to the Buffalo poetics list from Jim Andrews:

i have a course in mind. here's some of the reading. the course would be called 'language and poetry after godel and turing'. the course would explore computational poetics. there's some yammerin bout manovitch et all concerning poetics of new media. ya ya. but get down to the really revolutionary changes in thought.

Look at them there paratactic sentences. Look at that there lower-case, signifying lostness in deep thought while chewin on a slab o cod from Gloucester. But remember: Gresham's baneful law does not contemplate exceptions. The bad does drive out the good, always. I've visited Riley's Old Swimmin' Hole in Greenfield, Indiana, and I'm here to tell you it's full of rats. Consider them a visitation from the actual: the blessed event called nemesis, or poetic justice.

And then dream of language rodents swarming the prose of Stanley Fish, George Will, and the late Stephen Jay Gould: three arch-snobs who talk bout baseball to show that they're really jes faux.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Vanishing point

Clattering past the intersection of 63rd Street and Halstead in the summer of 1929, the Chicago elevated train transports its riders no higher than the second story. Black and white is its milieu. On the cover of the 1993 University of Illinois Press reprint of James T. Farrell’s naturalist trilogy Studs Lonigan (1932, 1934, 1935), the words provide a splash of color, but that's an anachronism. In its original, this book was monochrome.

Click to enlarge.
He seemed to be choking.
“Mother, it’s getting dark,” he called feebly.
He gasped. There was a rattle in his throat. He turned livid, his eyes dilated widely, became blank, and he went limp. And in the mind of Studs Lonigan, through an all-increasing blackness, streaks of white light filtered weakly and recessively like an electric light slowly going out. And there was nothing in the mind of Studs Lonigan but this feeble streaking of light in an all-encompassing blackness, and then, nothing.  (856)

Once upon a time, says the fable, a young Chicagoan named Studs wasted his life and then died of pneumonia. As he lay dying, Communists were marching through the streets of his city, singing, "A better world's in birth" (835). That juxtaposition of bodies on a page constructed out of words, says naturalist theory, is called symbolism. Symbolism is a system of notation intended to make visible naturalism's idea of God -- that is, a metaphor which naturalism called "the Forces." But outside the library, the optics of Chicago seem to promise that if you take the doctor’s advice and avoid congestion, you can soar on perspective right over the symbol, ascending through layers of beauty from black iron to an empty heaven the color of Chicago’s pearly, lake-reflected light.

 The original of this facsimile poster was captioned,
"Rapid Transit Lines, Fast . . . Reliable."

And it isn't only in Chicago that black pours forth light. In Rome, one evening early in the Fascist era, sounds poured from a black phonograph and filled a room with white arms, white dresses, and a receding perspective of white bodies beginning to learn from the music how to step out of themselves and become airborne. We have the pictorial evidence before us still. Composed into a single motion by their music, the bodies will dance forever. In pure motion around themselves, dancing the force of their song just out of our hearing, they seem to ask us only the simple question that the urn posed for Keats: Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

I found the little advertisement tucked inside an old book. For some eighty years the turntable spun in the darkness between words. In the light it's spinning still. Clamorosi successi!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned.

William Carlos Williams, "The Descent"
Click to enlarge.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Black velvet art and political milieu

Double portrait: the daughter of a musician whose own portrait is traditionally painted on black velvet. One image of the woman is gowned, with chevelure incorporating a horse's tail, the stuff of violin bows. The other image is nude. Its most conspicuous feature is the pelvis.

During the period of the musician's greatness, demotic English delineated him by reminding its speakers that pelvis was a rhyme for his name. Now that he lies unmoving in his tomb, his daughter's consort prepares to ride away in defense of the dynasty.

In his absence, the portrait is to be seen in the vicinity of yachts and roulette wheels. At a further distance, in ring formation, are Communist soldiers, biding their time. Soon, when a treaty expires, the ring will contract, the soldiers will make their entrance,  the roulette wheels will stop spinning, and the yachts, if their owners are lucky, will steam away.

But for now the double image is intact, on canvas and in its viewers' fantasies. As of August 13, 2010, one particular circle of those viewers read of the image in a publication whose editors knew they were sharing an irony. Around their image of the image of the lady and her knight, the ironic editors built a tombeau of words quarried from a part of the world where men still lie in ambush among Crusader castles, fantasizing. The castles are ruinous, unlike the one in the portrait, but somebody keeps inscribing new inspirational texts on the ancient stones, such as, "His reputation in some circles as Vice-President Cheney's éminence grise is overstated, but he did join the call for military action."

And I don't know how to see any of this. The picture itself was once as simple as black velvet. It presumably was painted into existence to be a marital aid within the knight’s palace and/or a moral guide for his peasantry outside. Now, however, it’s visible only in two other ways: close up, behind militaria, or from a distance, at the far end of an irony. Either way, the woman of the double portrait -- one image formed of human flesh and horseflesh, the other built of stone -- has become an illustration of someone else's text and a mummy in someone else’s tomb. In either view, she's only the subplot of a work of narrative art. On her own terms, as mere pure image, it's hard to tell whether she's even there on the canvas.

For what your effort will be worth, however, click to enlarge.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On a scale of 1 to 10, pink

Our fantasies are conservative. They have to be, because they originate in the master fantasy of infancy: the fantasy that we and our world are unchanging. In infancy we aren't capable of thinking otherwise. Changing moment by moment, we live our way into the changing world, but all we know of our changing selves is what we were before the latest version of the world caught us up and changed us again.

Of course that way of knowing is irrational, and every once in a while some rational person tries to help us notice what we actually are. "Where id was, there shall ego be," said Sigmund Freud, and in 1957 the manufacturer of Lionel electric trains made a generous attempt to expand its market by liberating parents from the enslaving infantile fantasy of boy toys for boys, girl toys for girls. Lionel reset its injection molders to bring forth a girl train --

Click to enlarge.

and comedy promptly undid the result. By girls and boys and fathers and mothers, unanimously, the Lady Lionel was laughed right into rarity. According to one collector, "There are stories of hardware stores actually painting these ugly pink trains black just to try to get part of their money back on them" ( Comedy assures us that trains always have been black and always will be, and under the protection of that comforting promise we continue growing from unconsciousness into more unconsciousness.

The same oblivion was protecting adults in 1955 and 1956, when the Chrysler Corporation made its own effort to market a boy toy as if it could become a girl toy. The Dodge La Femme made its entrance in pink (for 1955) or lavender (for 1956), and in its first year it came accessorized with a matching pink purse, pink raincoat, and pink umbrella.

Of course the fashion didn't take. For women the pink remained on the car's surface, changing nothing because for most women a car has little presence in fantasy, where color works its infantile magic. For men, on the other hand, the pink penetrated into fantasy all too deep. Nineteen fifty-five wasn't only the year of La Femme; it was also the year of Rebel Without a Cause and The Shrike: a movie about a failed father who wears a frilly apron to wash the dishes, and a movie about a psychiatrist who liberates a failed husband by exorcising his wife with the magic word "castration." If the father of a one-car family were on his way to work in 1955, he wouldn't be driving a car marked with this bleeding stigma.

So La Femme is now a collector's item even rarer than the Lady Lionel train. Except under extraordinary circumstances, it is as vanished from consciousness now as last night's bad dream.

But now consider this even older image as it blazons its still living threat and promise across the page.

The image was seen in 1951 by Weegee, who added the title and the button some fifteen years later. According to Holland Cotter's article in the New York Times,

the photograph's factual history denotes only a couple waiting in line to attend a movie called Colt .45, and the picture of the weapon is nothing but a pass promising free admission to the entertainment. Nineteen fifty-one, we think when our eyes are closed and we're receptive to fantasy: a more innocent time, a happier time. History, sad dead grownup history, would only spoil the dream if it reminded us of what's called real life during the Truman-McCarthy era, three years before Brown v. Board of Education. History would make that sad story even sadder if it were to go still deeper into memory and remind us of what this particular boy toy was actually used for. And so, generally, we don't listen to history.

But Weegee looked at it. After a while he noticed that the color of this particular history was black, and that that color changed everything -- at least for the palette of the future's dreams. This particular artwork was never seen by a viewership until 2006: long after Weegee's own death, long after the slogan "Black power" itself had become history. Nevertheless, the blackness that Weegee saw is still with us. It floods the whole visual field, blurring the distinction between who in this fantasy picture is faceless boy and who is faceless girl. All that remains now of what they once were is the black: a single-color theme designed by the couturier Jude for what he called (in verse 13, King James version) "wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever."

"Forever": now there’s a collectible that will never go rare, turn pink, and disappear.