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!