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.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Deacon’s Masterpiece,"

which is a poem about faith and its enabling logic.

Step 1:

New York Times, August 5, 2010:
To the Editor:

Re "California's Ban on Gay Marriage Is Struck Down" (front page, Aug. 5):
I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that a federal district court judge, Vaughn R. Walker, has overturned California's Proposition 8.
It's sad that certain judges, including Judge Walker, apparently disregard divine and natural law when making a decision on important moral matters that affect the common good. Same-sex "marriage" is contrary to divine and natural law and thus should be prohibited by human law as well.

Matt C. Abbott
Chicago, Aug. 5, 2010
The writer is a Catholic columnist at

Step 2: any recent news item involving altar boys and settlements out of court.

Step 3:

Step 4:
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,--
All at once, and nothing first,--
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

DC-4: for Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White, 1939: "Aerial view of a DC-4 passenger plane flying over midtown Manhattan." From the Life magazine photo archive. Click to enlarge.



Calumet City, Illinois, January 1943, by Jack Delano: "Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. switchman demonstrating signal with a fusee, used at twilight and dawn when visibility is poor. This signal means stop." Click to enlarge.


Teaching aid for an election year

July 29, 2010: Interviewed by Greta Van Susteren of Fox News,

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina discusses his proposal to update the Fourteenth Amendment. Senator Graham represents a state whose heritage is proudly agrarian,

and when he explains his proposed edit, his vocabulary becomes the technical language of agricultural economics.

Here's a parallel economic proposal that I sometimes use toward the end of freshman comp, when we talk about what to expect in sophomore lit and I introduce the concept of irony.

Click to enlarge the lower right corner of the text.

Swift published "A Modest Proposal" in 1729, and even in the twenty-first century I get some interesting reactions from freshmen who have read the projector's phrase "a child just dropt from its dam" for the first time, and then looked up the agricultural terms "dam" and "drop." Senator Graham's additional example wasn't really necessary; our classroom dictionary had already shown us what those words mean, and some events are hard to repeat except in the mode of "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Still, it's the thought that counts. So thanks for "drop," Senator Graham, from a grateful constituency: me, my class, and (if I may speak on his behalf) the late Captain Gulliver.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Grammar: sentenced to life

Paradigm 1: one sentence, two commas

Honolulu Star-Advertiser 7 August 2010: A3
Click to enlarge.

In the sentence I've marked in red, the paired commas set off the relative clause "which were administered . . . " and turn it into a parenthetical digression: "The so-called black sites and enhanced interrogation methods (which, by the way, were administered on the basis of guidance from the Department of Justice) are a thing of the past." The sentence's entire meaning depends on those commas, plus the not always enforced distinction between restrictive modifiers beginning with "that" and non-restrictive modifiers beginning with "which." But if a court chooses to read in a less pedantic way than I've been writing, it might just as easily understand the clause to be whispering, "The so-called black sites and enhanced interrogation methods which were administered on the basis of guidance from the Department of Justice [sotto voce] (as opposed to those which weren't) [normal voice] are a thing of the past."

I'm sounding not only pedantic but also cynical and paranoid. Still, the August 6 New York Times, page A1, carries excerpts from a 911 call in which a man notifies the police that he has just murdered eight people with a brace of pistols which he calls "two of my favorites." In a state where language is well regulated, perhaps guns would be too. But one reason those eight people are dead now is that America's legislatures and courts play the eighteenth-century commas of the Second Amendment as if they were the rules of a game. My bridge-playing colleagues in the break room at Eli Lilly & Co. used to explain, "When I said, 'Three no trump,' that meant I had the seven of diamonds, shithead!" With exactly the same passion, attorneys for the owners of America's shooting irons rise from their seats to claim under oath that they have located the essential unambiguity at the core of a sentence that reads:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Paradigm 2: one page, no commas

Gertrude Stein: Writings and Lectures 1909-1945,
ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971

Paradigm 3: by way of trying to explain 
the difference

Beauty is truth, truth beauty.

We can't know what Gertrude Stein would have written about the torture contractors of the black sites. Personally, she thought Hitler was just great. But these commaless sentences of hers, all rigorous unambiguity, do tell some truth by contrast about (for instance) the torture memos of John C. Yoo. Textual history reveals that Yoo shopped through his black library of dictionaries for one definitional language to enable the torturers in one dungeon, and another and perhaps contradictory definitional language to enable the torturers in another. But Stein's sentences, stripped of punctuation and reduced to nothing but words, chastened themselves to a single voice.

A choir of one, that voice now sings to us from the history of its page, helping us learn from its still living sound that sentences never become things of the past. Their truths or their lies live on as grammar: grammar, rigorous judge, sentencing speech from within to life.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ver novum, chapter 2


The women are stowed in the aft hold,

Click to enlarge.

and on the flight deck, Commander Walter Mitty smiles as he confidently grips a wheel shaped like the squared-off control yoke of something hypersonic. He is steering the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser through the stars.


The Turnpike Cruiser's model year was 1957. In 1956 Diane Arbus had left fashion work and set out on her journey toward becoming Diane Arbus. In 1958 Robert Frank was to publish The Americans. Its introduction was to be written by Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road.


Quiz: of these three narratives of the human undergoing change -- Arbus's, Frank's, and Mercury's -- which are loved by people who have been trained by literature and art to be miserly with their love? Which are scornfully reduced to mere taxonomies? 

And in how many different tones can the phrase "Oh, typically American" be uttered?