Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Topiary defamiliarization

From the New York Public Library's collection, this stereopticon slide from 1897, "Gates Ajar, Como Park, St. Paul, Minn., U.S.A.," is a translation of a literary allusion into the language of flowers. What we see in this horticultural display is, yes, a pair of gates ajar, but what we're supposed to be reminding ourselves of is a text -- specifically, a book devoted, in the sad years following the Civil War, to a vision of heaven. 

 Click to enlarge.

The book is Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's 1868 novel The Gates Ajar:  a plotless, actionless New England tale in which virtually nothing occurs except a single long didactic conversation. However, the conversation is an éducation passionelle in the nature of love, and it seems to have given readers the sense of listening in on a revelation of cosmic order. From a wise aunt, the book's young heroine learns in this conversation that heaven will not be the icy abstraction envisioned by Calvin but, instead, a pleasant continuation of life in a nice American home, complete with a piano in the parlor and, for the children, a cookie jar in the kitchen. Dante too was wrong about heaven, the book implies, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti was right: even in the presence of God, we'll still remember the people we loved in this fallen world. Elizabeth Phelps's own fiancé had been killed at Antietam, and when she spoke to her readers about such things she seemed to them to be speaking with authority. "The angel said unto me 'Write!'" she declared, "and I wrote." For many years after 1868, The Gates Ajar remained a best seller.

And so the horticulturists of Como Park got busy on the simile, "This garden is like being in heaven." With seeds and hoses, they tended a plot of their earth into a parallel-text translation of a book made of paper and ink, just as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps had tended her readers' inchoate feelings into a translation made of words. 

And now, thanks to the photographers of the Keystone View Company, the garden and its name live on after their originating text and its originating notion of heaven have lapsed into silence and forgetful death. As it leaves the earth of St. Paul behind and heads into its future, the photographic record of a moment in text is on its way toward pure wordless form. The log of its journey has only one entry written in words. One day in 1897, it notes, instruments (gardening tools; a camera) recorded a momentary flash of wordy light in the sky over some silent flowers.

Source: James D. Hart, The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste (1950; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963) 120-21.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Four more for Whitman

From the New York Public Library, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org, here are four more stereo images of ferries in New York harbor, all dating from shortly after Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (1856). Each original stereopticon card is followed by a version that's viewable in stereo with a pair of red and blue lenses. Click any image to enlarge it.

 Ferry Boat on the East River, ca. 1860

New York Harbor, ca. 1865

South Ferry, ca. 1865

Three Ferry Boats, 1870

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Whitman teaching aid: Brooklyn Ferry in 3D

First published in 1865 by Edward and H. T. Anthony in their collection Anthony's Instantaneous Views, this stereopticon card is downloadable from the museum of photography at George Eastman House, http://geh.org. It bears the luminous title
"Ferry Boat Running to Atlantic Street, Brooklyn."

Click to enlarge.

When I teach Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, students are impressed by the news that Whitman was back in Brooklyn in 1865, and so he might (who knows?) have been on this boat at the very instant one of the Anthony brothers framed his view and then squeezed the shutter release bulb. 

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

However, you'll need a stereo viewer to make the picture reach off the page and grab you the way Whitman does. So here (with thanks to Georges Rosset for his freeware program Z-Anaglyph) is a convenient, Net-friendly, anaglyphic version. To enter the depths of the image, just commandeer the nearest kid's red-and-blue cellophane glasses.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Allegory of the art world; or, All that glitters is not gold

Loading dock, Department of Art
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Click to enlarge.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Expiration date, Bloomsday

On July 16, 2010, closing arguments were heard in the federal case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a challenge to a California law reversing a previous statute which had permitted gay marriage. The transcript is downloadable from the Equal Rights Foundation at http://www.equalrightsfoundation.org/legal-filings/hearing-transcripts/perry-trial-closing-arguments-transcript/

 Click to enlarge.

For the defense, attorney Charles J. Cooper argued that marriage has what he called a procreative purpose. "Purpose" is a tricky word to define, of course, but Cooper attempted what amounted to a common sense deduction from historical consensus. Marriage, said Cooper, has always been understood to be exclusively heterosexual.

Or, at any rate, always until recently. 

That is, not always. 

Having made that fatal error in logic, Cooper immediately tried to escape into rhetoric -- specifically, into personal appeal, metaphor, and the varied rhythmic repetition that classical rhetoric calls epimone. "Your Honor," he cried, "at the heart, at the very heart --" 

But rhetoric was downed with no progress. Let's replay the collision.

Obviously, the answer to the judge's question is that homosexual conduct now is in the marriage conversation. But Cooper had another defense, one based on the linguistics of the social compact itself. Because of the movement for same-sex marriage, said Cooper, words about marriage have lost their power to signify. 

For society itself, the result may be tragic. Mr. Cooper's own repeating words toll the dirge: "In the minds of many, yes, your Honor. In the minds of many." Mr. Cooper, at least, experiences distress.

But July 16 was Bloomsday -- the cheeriest day of the year for language. So for Bloomsday, 2010, diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pose (2): armor, X-ray


With a silent text in front of us, is there any way we can listen for the sound of laughter on the other side of the door between the past and us? Perhaps not. Reading a letter that Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend Elizabeth Holland on about January 20, 1856, I realize that I can't know what I'm hearing when I listen for meaning among its cooing ladylike words.

I cannot tell you how we moved. I had rather not remember. I believe my "effects" were brought in a bandbox, and the "deathless me," on foot, not many moments after. I took at the time a memorandum of my several senses, and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes -- but it was lost in the mêlée, and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.
Such wits as I reserved, are so badly shattered that repair is useless -- and still I can't help laughing at my own catastrophe. I supposed we were going to make a "transit," as heavenly bodies did -- but we came budget by budget, as our fellows do, till we fulfilled the pantomime contained in the word "moved." It is a kind of gone-to-Kansas feeling, and if I sat in a long wagon, with my family tied behind, I should suppose without doubt I was a party of emigrants!
 (Letters, no. 182; hereafter cited by letter number, not page number, as L.)

At the instant those lines make me laugh, I may think that I've been granted the privilege of listening in on an event of comic intimacy between Miss Dickinson and her friend Mrs. Holland. But what happens to the loving communion when the poet's voice says "catastrophe" and defines her term by speaking of herself as a disembodied soul remembering her own funeral?

The lexicon I share with Dickinson's biography won't help me translate those tones. Cryptically but in the unambiguous language of numbers, biography reports that Dickinson wrote this letter a full two months after her family had made a move from one house in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, to another -- a matter of six blocks. Translating the numbers 2 and 6 into my own language, I can't help simultaneously translating the laugh matrix in which they're embedded, and realizing that (in my translation, at least) I'm not getting the joke. "Dickinson was a young woman of 25 when she wrote that letter," I think. "And two months ought to be enough time to unpack from a move and get on with things. And six blocks aren't a long distance. I don't understand. "

Responding to my distress, biography enters the library with a bilingual jokebook and tries to help me by transferring the numbers from the lobe of the brain where I think historically to the lobe where I think psychiatrically. Dickinson was a recluse for most of her life, says psychiatry, with symptoms that first manifested themselves in her teens and grew steadily more peremptory. Toward the end she explained to a man she had invited to call on her but then refused to admit: "I had hoped to see you, but have no grace to talk, and my own Words so chill and burn me, that the temperature of other Minds is too new an Awe --" (L798, early 1883; about three years of life remaining). Down through the posthumous years of Dickinson scholarship, psychiatrists have pushed that biographical corpus into one or another of their own language categories: agoraphobia, panic attack syndrome, epilepsy. And as to the laughter, the humorist herself explained: "Mirth is the mail of Anguish" (Fr181, "A wounded deer leaps highest").


However, at her moment of greatest creativity, Dickinson also wrote a little technical study of that armor. Encouraged by Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay "Letter to a Young Contributor" in the April, 1862, Atlantic Monthly, Dickinson had introduced herself on April 15 in a letter which began, "Mr Higginson, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" (L260). The envelope also enclosed four poems, and the correspondence that followed would last the rest of Dickinson's life and eventuate after her death in the first published volume of her verse. 

Higginson's reply is lost, but it seems to have misinterpreted what was in fact an ultimatum from Dickinson to him: read me and surrender to my words. At any rate, Higginson did make the mistake of trying to respond with an unsupported conversational offensive. "You asked how old I was?" replied Dickinson to Higginson on April 25, and we can see a lady's delicately raised eyebrow in the curved punctuation mark that disarms its appended declarative sentence by reducing it to a merely rhetorical question. Then comes the deflecting counterattack: "I made no verse -- but one or two -- until this winter -- Sir --" (L261). It's charming and witty, and the final monosyllable "Sir" makes the sentence into a ballad-meter distich like "Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me." Higginson had written to Dickinson as if her request were a human one from a woman to a man, and Dickinson countered with creative writing. 

It wasn't mere non-fiction, either. In the register of fact, Dickinson's first surviving poem dates from 1850, when she was nineteen years old, and the last dates from 1886, the year of her death; but more than three fifths of the 1,789 poems in the Franklin edition were composed in the eight years between 1858 and 1865. Franklin's estimate is that in 1862 alone Dickinson was to write 227 poems, including many of her greatest. But as of April 25, 1862, she was not yet ready to reveal the size and value of her treasure to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Instead, she made herself tiny inside her armor and babytalked through the beaver: "My size felt small -- to me -- I read your Chapters in the Atlantic -- and experienced honor for you -- I was sure you would not reject a confiding question --"

It was a joke that Higginson was in no position to get. Unable to navigate it in the dark, he followed up his defeated request for factual biography with a request for a connection to the humble truth of sight in a friendly parlor; that is, a photograph for his album. Once again, however, Dickinson deployed literature and rescued herself from capture. "Could you believe me -- without?" she coyly pleaded in L268. "I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur -- and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves -- Would this do just as well?" Again, as in the first battle, a feint has thrown off a clumsy frontal assault. This time, however, Dickinson adds the element of camouflage. As David Cody has recently demonstrated (37-38), all three of the similes that seem to comprise the self-portrait in this letter originate in passages by the manically descriptive short story writer Harriet Prescott Spofford -- a writer Higginson knew well because she was a contributor to the Atlantic herself and one of his many literary protégées. Stalking what he hoped would be a photograph of Emily Dickinson, Higginson walked into his own pitfall and found there only some other lady's mirror. It wasn't a portrait, even in words; it was only a joky verbal allusion. Meanwhile, Dickinson's actual words remained within the cryptic language of their poetry: an anguish in the dark, invisible even as its protective armor flashed in the sun and dazzled the gaze of the stalker.


Emily Dickinson's brother understood the tactic. To her journal, his lover Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson's first editor, explained:

As to the letters. . . . Those to Mr. Higginson are not of a private nature, and as to the "innocent and confiding" nature of them, Austin smiles. He says Emily definitely posed in those letters, he knows her thoroughly, through and through, as no one else ever did. (Sewall 538)

From the perspective of an artist who forces poses on others, Edward Weston analyzed that defense in the same way. Here he is as he begins approaching Robinson Jeffers (http://jonathan-morse.blogspot.com/2010/05/tycoon-classic-studio-pose.html).

[I found] him unexpectedly conscious, not nervous as some are in front of a camera,-- that tendency can be usually overcome, but Jeffers really posed, tried to appear as he thought he should be seen. I caught him looking out of the corner of his eye at me, and then would come a definite attempt to assume a pose,-- throwing back the head, feeling the part he was to play. This was disconcerting.
I am inclined to think there is much "bunk" talk about Jeffers,-- about his way of work, unconscious of what he is doing. Any great man, artist, is quite aware,-- conscious of his unconscious, if that means anything, if my words make clear my thought. And so Jeffers. (Daybook 15 May 1929, II.123)

Conscious of his unconscious and interested in making it available to consumers, the poser arranges his face to create the effect of what-it-looks-like-to-be-a-poet. Emily Dickinson did the same thing with words, in the borrowed wardrobe of another writer's similes, and when the time came for her to pose in the flesh, she did so with theatrical enthusiasm.

She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said "These are my introduction" in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice -- & added under her breath Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say -- but she talked soon & thenceforward continuously -- & deferentially -- sometimes stopping to ask me to talk instead of her -- but readily recommencing. (L342a: Higginson to his wife, evening of August 16, 1870)

"Pay attention!" pose commands its audience. "I said, 'Enough about me!'" The imperative paradox is part of a body language left over from the pre-Freudian age, when insight into our own motives may have been a rarer part of the vocabulary than it is now. However, the language of pose still remains current. It helps us get the paired jokes of the poems of Emily Dickinson and the aquiline visage of Robinson Jeffers, poet of hawks, as he aligned it for the camera of Edward Weston.


Yet just over a century ago, science seemed on the brink of seeing with complete clarity through pose. The meanings that had lain in us, in darkness, from the instant we were conceived, now seemed ready for delivery into a different area of the spectrum, one that could let us see the invisible as it took on motion and became perceptible across time. Now, it appeared, we could see sub specie aeternitatis. Freud taught us that hope, and so did a new prosthesis for the eye.

After all, the evidence was there for everyone to see -- evidence like this image of Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen looking within. As his X-ray apparatus begins to enclose its object, her body unconsciously breathes as bodies have always done. Then, however, for the first time in history, Professor Röntgen intervenes behind it with his fluoroscopic plate and begins exploring the dark place where breath itself begins to form. Once we have made our own way into that dark, poetry will no longer have to be. Nothing will remain that is not penetrable. Now and forever after, insight will be armor-piercing.

Frau Chauchat had again lightly crossed one leg over the other, and now the slender outline of the whole leg was visible under the blue fabric of her skirt. She was of only average height, which Hans Castorp found very agreeable, just the right size. But she had relatively long legs and was not at all broad in the hips. She was not leaning back now, but was bent forward, her forearms folded and resting on the thigh of the crossed leg, her back rounded and her shoulders hunched so that the bones of her neck stuck out -- you could almost see her spinal column under the close-fitting sweater. Her breasts, which were not voluptuous and high-set like Marusya's but the small breasts of a young girl, were pressed together from both sides. Suddenly Hans Castorp realized that she was also here waiting to be X-rayed. The director was painting her, interpreting her external appearance with color and oils on canvas. But there in the twilight, he would turn rays on her that would expose the inside of her body. And at the thought, Hans Castorp turned his head to one side, and his face darkened with the shadow of respectability and assumed a look of discretion and propriety that seemed appropriate to such a vision. (210)

This last instant before the penetration has found Thomas Mann's comic hero in the waiting room of a tuberculosis sanatorium. Just a moment from now, the buzzing apparatus in the next room seems to promise, there will be nothing to know about us that can't be fully seen. Life after X-ray will be nothing but unmediated perception happily ever after, and it will have only one genre: the entirely unironic comedy of nakedness, both external and internal. Because there will no longer be secrets, there will no longer be any need for the concealments of costume or makeup, plot or characterization. Still enclosed in the not yet transparent mail of her skin as she waits, Frau Chauchat seems to promise Hans a return (any moment now, after the briefest of exposures!) to an Eden that was always there, waiting for him: a no longer invisible paradise where the light falls from the sky forever on a bodyscape shadowless and unposed. 

In the end, of course, the shadows of irony don't lift. Hans descends the magic mountain, covers his head in radiopaque steel, and takes his place in the uniform ranks of those about to die. His armor will never become transparent to his own sight, let alone anyone else's. He and we won't even be permitted to know whether he will live on after his embodying book's last paragraph. Whether we know it or not, we'll never be able to laugh at the dark jokes concealed within that opacity, and so our life in language will continue needing poetry.

And when we arrive at the library, we'll see that Emily Dickinson will have been there herself all along, repairing the armor. In her letter about the unseeable horror at the heart of a six-block move, she was at work preparing time for the epoch following Röntgen and Freud and the brief moment when we thought they could show us how to see and how to read. Let us imagine Dickinson, then, at her field forge amid bloodshed, laughing at us as she hammers home her words: the nineteenth century's couturière of armor.

Works cited:

Cody, David. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" Emily Dickinson Journal 19.1 (2010): 30-59.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

---. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. 1924. Trans. John E. Woods. New York: Knopf, 1995. 

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 1974. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Weston, Edward. The Daybooks of Edward Weston. II: California. Ed. Nancy Newhall. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

Aspiration: things help us desire

Northwestern hemidemisphere, February 21, 1925: the first issue of The New Yorker.

 Click to enlarge.

Amid what was once a living pelt, tiny silken stitches. Amid words, Uppercase and italics. Around the image and the words that help us see it, a floral hedge of a border. Because the protective border and the enwrapping fur help us feel safe, we discover within ourselves a resource of life to expend on love. We experience that surplus life as warm and soft and comforting and full of intricate detail to fix our attention and hold us still while time slips past outside the border, overlooking us. For us, nothing is except this furry raptness. As the documentation emphasizes, it is an investment. When time stops, the interest goes to infinity.

Southeastern hemidemisphere, 2010: a rice steamer from Thailand.

Somebody had the desire, somebody pictured it and drew the picture, somebody spent all day every day printing the picture, over and over. I think a car would fill me full of happiness. Eighty-five years after The New Yorker and half a world away, the economics of dream continue trickling down.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

On behalf of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau

"But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay."

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, June 3, 2010



John Leland, "Abortion Foes Advance Cause at State Level," New York Times 2 June 2010:

Oklahoma passed seven laws, three over vetoes by the governor, including one requiring a woman to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before an abortion. The law requires that the ultrasound screen be visible to the woman, though she may avert her eyes. 


Term of art: "key Jewish persons"

On May 29, 2010, as she sailed with a self-styled "freedom flotilla" toward Gaza and a bloody confrontation with the Israeli navy, the American peace activist Ann Wright spoke with an interviewer who began the conversation by asking, "What happens if the Zionists were to attack this ship?"

The interview can be found online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppCxVDHPpcc. The interviewer's term "the Zionists" reflects usage in Palestine, where maps don't show Israel and the Jewish state itself is referred to as "the Zionist entity." The idea behind the usage seems to be that if Israel is nameless it doesn't exist, and its actual existence is therefore a distasteful anomaly in nature, to be addressed by periphrasis and euphemism.

Wright herself, however, follows American idiom and uses the term "Israelis." A retired State Department official, she follows State Department idiom, too, in deploring the bias toward Israel of successive American administrations. But at minute 2:04 of the video, a different idiom enters her language -- this one not Washington but red-state.

INTERVIEWER: How does the tail wag the dog?

WRIGHT: Well, the tail wags the dog because there are powerful influences in the United States, key Jewish persons with lots of money, who use that money and influence to influence our U.S. Congress, and to influence every U.S. president.

The idiom is "Jewish persons." In areas of the United States where Jews are few and religion is strong enough to permeate language, the word "Jew" has its traditional pejorative sense, but American meliorism has tried to heal that source of hurt feelings in a characteristically American way. Just as polite people in the United States say the phrase "the N-word" rather than utter the word "nigger," they say "Jewish person" rather than "Jew." Of course that clumsy attempt to change a referent into something that nice people don't think about doesn't work. I'm sure I'm not the only Jew who feels sad (as in, "Why am I here? A mistake must have been made") when the time comes for his interlocutor to assure him that her favorite, favorite song of all is White Christmas -- and White Christmas was composed by [dramatic pause] a JEWISH PERSON.

But it's the thought that counts.

In Wright's language, however, the thought is not benevolent. It's a thought that's currently expressed in such terms as "AIPAC," "Mearsheimer and Walt," and "Jewish lobby," and when it utters itself in such words it can accommodate a body of fact which can be factually discussed. But in Wright's sentence the squeamishly uttered euphemism "key, uh, Jewish, uh, persons" has an odd effect: by transporting the sentence's context from the State Department to, say, a front porch in Wright's native state of Arkansas, it transports us listeners too. Goodbye, world of Mearsheimer and Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; welcome back, world of Huckleberry Finn.