Friday, May 28, 2010


Click to enlarge.

During his great period, Edward Weston returned over and over to a view of the face from below, at an angle. That's the pose of some of Weston's greatest images of the human, such as "Tina Modotti with Tear" ( and "Galván Shooting."

The power behind each of these images was great enough to stop and redirect its subject's progress through time. The instant when the shutter of Edward Weston's camera opened and then closed was as definitive a change as the signing of a surrender. In that fraction of a second, Tina Modotti and Manuel Hernández Galván became ceded imagery. From now on, so far as history is concerned, they will be part of that which was taken over by Edward Weston and remade. Aes perennius, their lives have been replaced by shadow and angle and undying light. From now on, things will be different for them.

USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945

But what of Weston's image of his friend Robinson Jeffers? If our reaction to one of  Weston's seizures of power eventuates in words, what will happen to us when we read Weston's conquest of the face of a poet?

In 1933, when Weston seized the image at the top of this page, Jeffers wasn't just a poet; he was universally believed to be a poet. His long lines in their vaguely classical prosody told stories of rocks and hawks and incest and violent death close to the elements along the California coast, and his admirers were fond of dropping the name of Aeschylus. That claim on history was to die during the Second World War, embarrassed to death by Jeffers's lofty pronouncements that it didn't matter in the slightest who won, because all of us are doomed! doomed, I say! But Weston's 1933 image is of a face at the moment when it seemed in contact with the same power that was helping Weston see.

In words, Jeffers's medium, Weston once tried to think about that power after an unpleasant encounter with the lionized sculptor Jo Davidson. Passing judgment afterwards, Weston awarded himself a laurel made of words: the title "portrait photographer." But when he thought about what those words had cost him, his grammar broke down. The subject "Twenty years of pleasing others" was so awful that Weston couldn't bear to see it through to conclusion in a predicate.

Davidson was jealous of my work, his aggressiveness was a defense. My portraits of Jeffers made his bust of Jeffers look weak. That's the whole story. He had to keep his exalted position on a shaky pedestal. Now I know my portraits, and I realize they seldom reach the importance that my other work has, not even when I make them for myself -- with intention. In the first place my professional routine worries me, so I throw my best creative effort into trees, rocks, peppers, to escape the other: I admit, too, that twenty years of pleasing others,-- probably I have made near to five thousand portraits, always trying to please the sitter, for a price, this must often tinge my conception when I work for myself,-- habit! This is my 'out.' But I do know when I rise above habit, often enough to place me far ahead of Davidson, often enough to have me considered by some very fine minds, the best portrait photographer in America which means the world so far as I know from reproductions.
-- The Daybooks of Edward Weston. II. California. Ed. Nancy Newhall (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973) 161 (May 19, 1930).

Still, all you have to do to understand Weston's missing words is place a pair of wordless images side by side: Weston's portrait and Nat Farbman's 1948 Life magazine photograph of Jeffers with the Davidson bust.

This photograph shows Robinson Jeffers diminished because postwar. But the change hasn't remade his face into a tragic mask; it has only lent it to a professor at his retirement party, posing between his tribute bust by a commercial artist and the manuscript of his speech of acceptance. Weston's photograph has no props except the poet's own hand, and it's different in another way too. Weston has used his repertoire of studio techniques -- the rapt upward gaze, the pin spotlight aimed at the eyes -- as an extension not of his subject's face but of his own hand. Weston's Jeffers isn't posing; he has been posed. "I am nothing but a photograph," says the image, without words but as clearly as as words could speak if they spoke the language of the sun -- "but to be nothing but a photograph is the quiet destination of my short noisy transit through language. As I'm about to show you, a poet's words are only a way of bringing you closer to the poet's image. To read a poet's words is only the first stage of reading the poet. Reading is only another way of seeing." 

That is: a view of a face seen by Edward Weston reduces to a grammar. It is the most minimal of grammars: a single word, an adjective in transition to a pronoun without a referent and out of time. It strives only to say: this.

Robinson Jeffers, a poet of the sole self, never learned how to write that referentless language. Wallace Stevens, a poet of poetry, did learn at the end of "The Man on the Dump," where the poet he has envisioned into existence realizes that he has been searching all along only for the definite article: "the the."

                That's the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That's the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed.

Vision came to the man on his way down through the dump's strata of meaning. A counterpart to that advent, Edward Weston's way of reading a face was a way of seeing upward. And perhaps a Weston way of reading in our own time, post-Weston, would involve us in looking at the shape of words from below, reading upward from language's roots in the soil of the human and toward the space in light where an image comes to be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Missing words


On page 39 of the April 29, 2010, issue of The New York Review of Books, sixteen people have filled little boxes with prose advertising their self-published books. Reading from box to box, we realize something about beginners in narrative: they don't always understand that all of the space between writer and reader has to be filled with meaning. A psychotherapeutic book for children, for example, is consolingly titled I'm Not Weird, I Have SPD, but the copywriter has forgotten to define "SPD" for us. (Wikipedia suggests schizoid personality disorder, semantic pragmatic disorder, or sensory processing disorder.) And the entire copy for a book called Murder With a French Accent reads, "Microbiologist Alex Kertész has developed a commercially valuable strain of bacteria in his laboratory at the University of Jerusalem." Because we've just read the title's Agatha Christie formula, we're expecting the formula to be completed with a second sentence about Alex -- a sentence beginning "But . . . ". But the rest of Alex's box is empty.

Two boxes, two simple problems, one simple solution: take Creative Writing 100. The exercises will help you spot and fill the gaps in your prose. 

But how can we read the words of this third advertisement?

A dark cloud follows [protagonist's name]. She lives in a neighborhood that is rough and dangerous. She works at jobs where she is discriminated against.

Well, we could refer one more time to the Creative Writing 100 textbook. We could suggest reversing the order of sentences 2 and 3, to make something bad (discrimination) lead dramatically to something worse (danger). While we're in the rearranged sentence 3, we could cross out the two words "rough and" to focus on the more significant "dangerous." And of course we could point out that the paragraph as a whole is only exposition: the part of the story that comes before the plot begins. 

But I deleted the protagonist's name for a reason beyond any textbook's help: it is an anagram of the author's name. Letter by letter, the author tried to make herself over into a work of art, but the change failed to go to completion. To edit its prose residue, half-born as it is and still discolored with a life's blood, would be to edit what's left of a life. The words of that life aren't interesting, but neither was the life before its words. The words, as they are, are at least new. They're all that the life has now, because it has surrendered its prior silence. In such a situation, the logic of language says: some silences disappear without replacement; some words are always missing.


Same issue of the New York Review, pages 42-45: the mathematician John Allen Paulos reviews Masha Gessen's Perfect Rigor, a biography of the Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman, who between 2002 and 2003 proved one of the most serenely Olympian generalizations of all time, the Poincaré Conjecture. As I understand it from Paulos's explanation, the Conjecture is an assertion about the way space arranges itself into  meaning, and Perelman's proof establishes a universal geometry of that meaning. Humbly, here on our little planet, the academic discipline of mathematics has tried to tell Perelman it understands the magnitude of that achievement by offering him its two highest honors: the Fields Medal, usually considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and the million-dollar prize offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute. But Perelman is an eccentric man, and he has refused to accept either tribute. Instead, he has withdrawn from communication. When the news of the Clay prize was delivered to him, Paulos writes, "He reportedly said through the closed door of his spartan apartment, 'I have all I want'" (45).

Paulos now stands outside that closed door, addressing words first to us readers of the New York Review and then, he hopes, to Perelman. To us, Paulos explains:

Some might argue that monetary awards for mathematical work are inappropriate, or that the Poincaré Conjecture is of little practical value and not worth the one-million-dollar prize. The aesthetic and epistemic value of the proof is priceless, however, and it may eventually yield more earthly consequences as well. As for the size of the award -- how many no-name hacks are there on Wall Street who make a million dollars or more not just once but every year, and contribute exactly what?

Paulos continues in that pragmatic register for one more sentence. Then, however, he turns away from us massed readers, pivots toward the closed door, lowers his voice, and pleads: "Reconsider your decision, Grisha." The name hangs there, suspended just above the page's bottom margin. It is the essay's final word, and the only one that is silent. Grisha Perelman is apparently on nickname terms with Paulos, and I suppose he may yet respond to the sound of Paulos's uttering voice. But here on its page of the New York Review the voice itself can't speak directly to him. It has been formalized. It is a work of written art.  Behind his door, Perelman the man stands in relation to Paulos the writer primarily as Catiline stood to Cicero: not as a hearer but as a grammatical object.

Cesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Catiline,
from Wikimedia Commons
Click to enlarge.

We readers of the New York Review are the hearers. Designated recipients of Paulos's rhetoric, we communicate in the written language that calls Perelman's name. Unfortunately, however, in the silent geometric language that Perelman has translated into his own silence, we happen to be no-names. Like the artless writers who wasted their money on a vanity press, we don't know how to fill the space between our voices and Perelman's with meaning.


Masha Gessen, Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Paulos's review, "He Conquered the Conjecture," is online at

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

He must be wicked to deserve such pain

1: the natural history of a page

William Bartram's Travels is to be read capaciously. The first American science book, it made fundamental contributions to botany, zoology, geography, and (in its concluding chapters about the indigenous tribes of the Southeast) history and anthropology. But it was also read and loved by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and its imagery can be tracked, line by line, through "Kubla Khan" and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

That energy can't be represented externally to the text, of course -- not even in words. Because it faithfully obeys eighteenth-century typographical convention, the title page of Bartram's Travels is primarily an image, not a text at all. An utterance not of a writer but of a printer, it can claim only to be a representation in words of what an explorer equipped with words will encounter once he leaves it behind and ventures into the interior.

Facsimile from the 1928 edition,
rpt. New York: Dover, 1955
Click to enlarge.

Those words promise us a single verbal experience, singly intelligible: the idea of exploration. We do explore, too. We have our Silent upon a peak in Darien moments as Bartram guides us word by descriptive word through forests of magnolia filled with the song of the now extinct Carolina parakeet. But from time to time Bartram stops walking, and then his words change and something very bad begins.

At those moments, the words on the pages of Travels cease being explorations -- that is, settings forth from a beginning toward an end -- but writhing knots of instants of the terrible. The sentences are as paratactic as Hemingway's, and for the same reason: all they are capable of uttering is perception, one tiny terrified word at a time.

This passage occurs on page 115. One paragraph later, the massed alligators go on the attack and Bartram is forced to defend himself with a club. Two pages later, he has been reduced to a sense of victory.

Bartram's word fusee is the French fusil, musket. Two pages after the battle between the alligators, the attack on an alligator by a man is in a different language. The vocabulary has become technical, the sentences have become long, and the gentle Quaker Bartram has been brought down to self-justifying cliché ("I resolved he should pay for his temerity"). He has achieved literature, but now he is nothing but a writer. He eats his supper, resumes his walk, and sinks back, like the corpse of an alligator, into his surrounding medium: words.

2: but now digitally:

What you're looking at here is an image surrounded not exactly by words but by word technology. The words at the very top and bottom of the frame, for instance, signify that the image came to me via the web and my computer. If you have the vocabulary to read that sentence of mine in off-the-page detail, you'll have deduced that the other words farther inside the frame arrived as a PDF which I converted to a JPEG with Photoshop. At the same time, in a slightly older historical register, you'll have understood that both the words and their cyberform originated with Luceo, a site that offers computer-equipped readers the products of a politically engaged photojournalism. Over the web, Luceo has let us know that it transmitted to us the work product of Matt Eich, a photographer now documenting the labor of men on the Louisiana coast who live by killing alligators.

I took delivery of my image of a Louisiana alligator's death on May 17, 2010. On the previous day, as the largest oil spill in American history seemed headed for the Louisiana coast, cybertechnology had disseminated an image of the Republican theologian Brit Hume promising Fox News and its viewers that neither the alligators nor the men who kill them would come to any harm, because -- well, because.

[JUAN] WILLIAMS: But I think it will damage the environment in the gulf and damage tourism and damage fishing. I don’t think there's any question this is in excess of anything we've previously asked the ocean to absorb.
HUME: We’ll see if it is. We’ll see if it is. The ocean absorbs a lot, Juan, an awful lot. The ocean absorbs a lot.
WILLIAMS: I think Rush Limbaugh went down this road, "The ocean can handle it." I think we have to take some responsibility for the environment and be responsible to people who live in the area, vacation in that area, fish in that area. It's just wrong to think, "You know what? Dump it on the ocean and let the ocean handle it."
HUME: Who said that? Who is saying that? No one's making that argument.

The sound of Hume's voice came through speakers in the same house as a monitor displaying a dying alligator. Words and images recombined in the ether: a kernel of written words dissolving into image, and an ever-expanding shell of spoken echo and unutterable religious faith in its digital surround. At the center of that composite work of art, we'd like to think, would be a Hemingwayesque minimalism of life and death, as there is in Bartram's prose. But before we can reach the center of the alligator's web page, we have to do business with a distracting gift shop of other images in several price ranges: a tattoo, a pistol, and then at last, off camera itself, a camera with a fast lens, a high-speed shutter, and a sensor capable of handling high ISO. At its own center, the image by Matt Eich is richly overlaid with price points, but few of them will be visible to the only man actually within the image -- the man with the pistol. At that, within the image he is less a man than a thin leathery purse containing little but synecdoche: an arm, a firearm, and the hieroglyph of a tattoo. Technologists call the JPEG format "lossy," and the rest of the man has indeed been lost: suspended by the trading rules of social construction and photographic composition.

And of course the alligator is completely out of the money. For now, until the oil arrives, we bipeds are in full control of the object of aesthetic contemplation to which we've reduced him: splash and spasm and blood, in transit from life to an economic artifact.  That's why he looks not like prey but like a victim.


The subject line of this post refers to another animal out of the money: the blind, starving horse in stanzas 13 and 14 of "'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'" We don't price that horse as we do the alligator, but we do desperately want to know what market controls his value. We can't know, however. Browning's nightmare poem is a quest narrative set in a forest of symbols which speak an unknown tongue. Among those symbols, whatever the hero sees he can see only involuntarily. He can't control the images that approach his eyes; he has lost the connection between perception of and assertion about. That's why his attempt to speak of the horse can only throw him back on the universal rationalization for our own ignorant suffering: "We must be wicked."

In the final sentence of Badenheim 1939 Aharon Appelfeld crystallized that rationalization into an image actually made of words.

An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. "Get in!" yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog -- they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr. Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: "If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go."
-- Trans. Dalya Bilu. 1980; rpt. New York: Washington Square Press, 1981. 175.

The passage is easy enough to read, because a history with pistols in it has taught us. Its lesson says: formulas such as "the following" and "it must mean" don't mean -- not here at this stop on this rail line; not any more, ever again. Verbal artifacts of a universe as orderly and conventionalized as an eighteenth-century title page or a nineteenth-century railroad map, "the following" and "it must mean" are governed by a grammar that no longer applies. They are words in a dead language. And the man who speaks them is about to be stripped of his skin.


But see how pretty the skin is? Let's time the arrival of the oil.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

Incredulities (2): homage to Sarah Silverman


Lawsy, Massa John. Click to enlarge.


Sing to me yet once again, o bards, of the truth of conservative views.


And of the slim pantherlike women

singing, "Hang on, Sloopy; Sloopy, hang on."


The poem and the song are as one in the dramatic arc which carries them from sympathy to release, from Dickens to Hugh Hefner. To console him among the shades, let us imagine Mr. Fletcher reclined in enthralled eternal anticipation as Sarah Silverman prepares to sing La Juive.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton, forensic theologians

In an op-ed, "God Talk," New York Times 3 May 2009, Stanley Fish approvingly writes:

When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of "the telescope and the microscope" religion "no longer offers an explanation of anything important," [Terry] Eagleton replies, "But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov."

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

And yes indeed, Eagleton certainly does like that turn of speech. He's been liking it for years. Here he is, for instance, writing about Richard Dawkins four years ago.

On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, [Dawkins] is predictably silent. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.

-- "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching," London Review of Books 19 October 2006

By way of footnote to this wordplay, a small logical distinction.

Eagleton wants you to think that religion and chemical warfare are a matter of either-or, but of course they aren't. Some congregations don't make use of chemical weapons, but others do. The Inquisition isn't militarily active just now, but in 1985 the Rajneesh cult carried out a biological warfare attack on the town of The Dalles, Oregon. In 1993, the first Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center included an attempt to fill the buildings with cyanide gas. And about the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Wikipedia writes:

On the morning of 20 March 1995, Aum members released sarin in a co-ordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim as many as 5,000 people were injured by the sarin. It is difficult to obtain exact numbers since many victims are reluctant to come forward. . . . Over the next week, the full scale of Aum's activities was revealed for the first time. At the cult's headquarters in Kamikuishiki on the foot of Mount Fuji, police found explosives, chemical weapons and biological warfare agents, such as anthrax and Ebola cultures, and a Russian MIL Mi-17 military helicopter. The Ebola virus was delivered from Zaire in 1994. There were stockpiles of chemicals that could be used for producing enough sarin to kill four million people. Police also found laboratories to manufacture drugs such as LSD, methamphetamine, and a crude form of truth serum, a safe containing millions of dollars in cash and gold, and cells, many still containing prisoners.

The depressing thing is, both Fish and Eagleton know all this. They know, too, what they're doing with language. They're transubstantiating truth into rhetoric.

Correction: In my original post, I dated Fish's article 3 May 2010. See comments below.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The New Yorker and its stories: how time doesn't change

What happens to reading when the visual context of the words politely insists on keeping its distance from the text?

For me, that question arose when I looked at the shape taken on the page by Philip Roth's short story "Defender of the Faith." Because "Defender of the Faith" was published in 1959, when the post-World War II integration of Jews into American society was still a remarkable new phenomenon, Jewish reviewers were horror-struck when Roth made a present to America of a gallery of Jewish characters conforming to anti-Semitic stereotypes. And if you've read some Jewish-American literature of the 1950s, the horror is understandable.

"Defender of the Faith" takes place during World War II, and its narrator is a Jewish infantry sergeant who would have felt right at home in the narrative world of Leon Uris, specialist in bestsellers about tough, square-jawed Jewish heroes. The sergeant's world, however, isn't Uris country. It's a basic training facility in Missouri during the late spring and early summer of 1945, when the war against Hirohito was still on but the war against Hitler was over. Into this world comes another Jew -- a Jew who is much easier to visualize than the heroic Sergeant Nathan Marx. Scheming, whining, lying, sanctimonious, and cowardly, Private Sheldon Grossbart becomes Sergeant Marx's antagonist in a series of maudlin Jewish embarrassments whose detail creates before our horrified eyes a villain right out of Fagin's den. Furthermore and worse, this villain isn't even a criminal. He can't be sent away to prison and out of sight; he is a source of shanda in place. By shaming his fellow Jews, he endangers them -- all of them, including the reviewers observing him from their vantage points in an uncertain future.

In 1959 the reviewers encountered Private Grossbart in Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, among a whole rogue's gallery of other Jewish villains. But Private Grossbart's scandalous words actually weren't Jewish at all. They originated in the genteel vocabulary of the March 13, 1959, issue of The New Yorker, where "Defender of the Faith" was first published. Because I've been thinking about text in its visual surroundings, it occurred to me that a magazine famous for its fastidiously decorous prose and its unembarrassed advertisements for luxury might make Private Grossbart's language seem interestingly out of place.

But really, it didn't. In The New Yorker, "Defender of the Faith" was fig-leafed by advertising for consumer goods, as I'd expected, but the Adamic gesture was so frank and so tasteful that it left me without a single irony to wield. The advertising news from 1959 turned out to be only an enjoyably browsable archive of information about a once living, now dead world. Ah yes: there's the obsolete piece of office equipment, the dictaphone, and the once important but now vanished magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and the luxury shoe boutique in the once wealthy city of Detroit. A small puff of little do they know irony arose from the page as I looked and recalled, but it was gone in a moment. I had stalked "Defender of the Faith" carefully to its hiding place in an image surround, but all there was to see was a thoughtful demonstration that times change. To the visuals of irony, The New Yorker had nothing to contribute.

But 51 years later, look at the story's words!

 Click to enlarge.

With its training completed, Sergeant Marx's company has received its orders. One soldier is to report to a safe assignment in New Jersey; all the others are to go straight into combat. Marx knows Grossbart's moves by now, and he knows too that the clerk who types the duty rosters is a Jew. In a flash of insight, he calls his counterpart in the headquarters company and explains that there's a Private Grossbart who is so deeply patriotic that he is pleading to be sent to the Pacific. Manipulative at last as Grossbart, Marx adds: "He's a Jewish kid, so I thought I could help him out" (78). The suspicion that prompted him to pick up the telephone turns out to be justified; Grossbart has indeed schemed his way into the New Jersey assignment. But Marx's counterscheme in defense of Jewish faith gets the roster changed, and Grossbart is on his way to the islands where men die.

If "Defender of the Faith" were a war story with an O. Henry plot twist, or a Conradian tale of conflict between a local loyalty and a universal ethical demand, Private Grossbart's exit would come on the last page. But "Defender of the Faith" is a New Yorker story, and New Yorker formula requires one more plot element here. Accordingly, a confrontation scene between Grossbart and Marx is written in. Then comes the ending.

On the text's right is the comfortably lightweight suit. Below the text is the amusing typo from the dear old Cape. In the middle is the concluding epiphany. The story's ostensible subjects are war and peace, life and death, Jews and Jews and Jews and Jews. But its words are New Yorker words only, as comfy and standardized as a nice old Brooks Brothers suit.

And we learn: sometimes the context of an author's words is only more words. The 1959 reviewers' horror wasn't required after all. As of 1959, Philip Roth wasn't yet an author; he was only a producer of New Yorker product. File that, please, on the dictabelt.

"It must B": a message for Susan Schultz

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The first time as tragedy, the second time as "Funny, you don't look . . ."

A traditional motif in European church art has been the opposed figures of the Old and New Testaments, typically represented by allegorical personifications of Synagogue and Church. In the statuary at Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, the figure of Church is triumphantly erect and the figure of Synagogue is abject and blind, with broken staff and cast-down crown.

Click to enlarge.

And sometimes these paired ideas take on a verbal quality that goes beyond mere pictorialism. In this early fifteenth-century wood carving from the cathedral in Erfurt, for example, the composition's major axis is not vertical, as in Gothic architecture, but horizontal, as in writing. The figures are not static and physically separated, as they are at Notre Dame; they are in motion in a story. They are not just pictures; they are characters.

Within their story, these characters display the equivalent of the western's black hats and white hats. The hat worn by the figure of Synagogue, for instance, is the helmet-shaped badge of shame prescribed for Jews in medieval Germany, and Synagogue herself is carved in much deeper, more realistic relief than Church. Church has a bland generic face and rides a bland generic St. George horse, but Synagogue's face under her helmet is a grimace out of remembered nightmare and her mount is an image that emerges directly from the German dictionary: the Judensau, reserved in German folk art and folk speech specifically for Jews. There is stylized narrative movement in the image, too: movement from left to right, the direction taken by the good guys in the battle scene of almost every movie you've seen.

All of which is a way of saying that in 2010 we read this picture as part of a still living language, in ways we probably can't read the stonework stills from the silent movie that is Notre Dame. But of course, no matter what we read, we read in translation, and translation sometimes approaches us behind the treacherous smile of a faux ami. How do you think you are going to read this next image, for instance?

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 26, 2009.
Photograph by Jamm Aquino.


No, the bearded man in tallis and yamaka actually isn't Jewish. We know that not because of his East Asian face but because of his red shirt: the uniform worn by a band of Christians demonstrating at the Hawaii state capital against a proposed bill allowing gay civil unions. At the contact zone between Republican politics and evangelical Christianity, the Christian doctrine of supersession sometimes assumes a textile realism in the form of Jewish ritual garments -- and that, and nothing else, is what you're reading here.

As to the man in the blue shirt, it might be fun if we could make a correct guess about his religion. Of course we're unlikely to find out, but on the other hand we actually don't even need to learn that part of the story, the part that assures us, "The End." After all, even in the mere ongoing presence of images that can be read only provisionally, the world becomes a comic book where one of the funniest punch lines of them all is, as we say, immer schon available for the reading. That's the one that begins, "Funny, you don't look. . . ."