Monday, April 11, 2011

Blogger, you're now an archive

For now, at least, I'll be maintaining this blog as an archive, because transferring picture files from one blog program to another turns out to be a hard job. I'll keep checking the archive, too, and trying to repair whatever damage Blogger inflicts in the way of lost formatting. But (for now, at least) all future posts to The Art Part will appear in WordPress at

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The origin of geometry

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Toward a future archaeology


"There is little here on family structure or inheritance, but much on sick, sad, short lives. Fleming reveals a society of slow-growing, late-maturing, undernourished people who did not reach full height until well into their twenties, and thus where the numerical dominance of the young placed an even greater burden on the -- few -- full-bodied adults; where one attraction of nucleated villages might be the lord's mill, which met the needs of a society short of adult, full-bodied women; where the seaborne Viking lifestyle did not mean bloodthirsty excitement, but 'bad knees, arthritic shoulders, malformed arms and wrenched wrists'; where an eighth-century twenty-year-old woman died, well fed if not prosperous, horribly disfigured by leprosy, yet not, apparently, ostracized by her community. The town life that drives the book's overall story was an unhealthy, bug- and germ-infested environment, and the much-vaunted rise of the Old English state was supported by ritualized, horrific executions. The coin that enabled taxation, and the aggressive landlords who exploited the opportunities it provided, drove a society of ever deeper inequalities; the only time the stature of the population improved between 400 and 1070 was in the wake of the collapse of Roman power."

-- Pauline Stafford, "Good Teeth, Bad Knees." Review of Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070, by Robin Fleming. TLS 25 March 2011: 13.


"At this time, Alabama has the lowest property taxes of any state in the nation. There was a recent increase that raised howls from large landowners, but the rates are still low. Property taxes could be elevated by one-third, and Alabama would remain at the bottom in the nation. Low property taxes translate into meager allocations for schools. The state is just beginning to recognize what this means. An editorial in the Montgomery newspaper told about a man from the state economic-development department who went to Cleveland to talk with a large industrial firm about relocating in Alabama. The official trotted out the glories of cheap labor and low taxes, lures that worked well in the not-so-distant past. The industrialists told the Alabamian that what they looked at most in areas they might move to was the educational system. In today's world, they need educated workers, not muscles. The old days are gone. If they just want low-cost labor, they can go to places overseas that even Alabama can't compete with. Company officials expressed disbelief at Alabama's taxes -- they even snickered. They asked how the schools could be funded with such ridiculous rates."

--Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men": James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South (1989; New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004) 150-51.


Maharidge and Williamson's "at this time" is 1986, when the writer and the photographer retraced the path that James Agee and Walker Evans had taken through rural Alabama fifty years earlier. Fleming and Stafford's time is more than a thousand years ago. Yet which epoch seems more like ours now -- Maharidge's and Williamson's era of school-centered equality or Fleming and Stafford's era of inequality and decline?


And a thousand years from now, what will the archaeologists learn from our own excavated bodies?

Friday, April 1, 2011

War wardrobes

Visualize these words crawling up the screen while percussion and low strings fill the darkened room with martial sound.

Oppen . . . had fought and had been seriously wounded as an infantryman in World War II, perhaps the only enduring American poet to participate in ground combat since the Civil War.

The words' author is Eliot Weinberger, and their place on the page is a preface (p. xiv) to George Oppen's New Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2008). They sound solemn. They aim to find a place in the history of his country and his language for a poet who is only now, years after his death, beginning to be recognized.

But they refuse to enter into an honest reading. They meet a reader's elementary objections by squirming away into technicalities. It's both true and well known, for instance, that Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger were emotionally scarred for life by their experience as infantrymen in World War II, but neither Vonnegut nor Salinger was a poet.

It's true too that the poets John Ciardi, James Dickey, and Howard Nemerov flew combat missions and the poet Frank O'Hara served on a destroyer that earned sixteen battle stars, but that wasn't ground combat.

However, the poets Kenneth Koch, Anthony Hecht, and Louis Simpson did participate in ground combat, and wrote about it. Simpson was wounded twice. In World War I, the poet-infantrymen Joyce Kilmer and Alan Seeger were killed. After a century, do they endure? Perhaps they do, at least as quoted lines that have made it into folk anonymity: Kilmer's "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree"; Seeger's "I have a rendezvous with death / At midnight in some flaming town."

Yet the verse by Oppen that follows Weinberger's evasive prose is as honestly rigorous in its demand on the mind as an accurately perceived shape is in its demand on the eye. It's as scrupulously opposite as it's possible to be from Weinberger's decorative fabulation because it serves a different purpose. If it were modeled on body as it's modeled on language, we'd say it wears its clothes differently. Look:

Great Photographs from Daguerre to the
Great Depression (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008),
image 033. Click to enlarge.

Taken just days after the surrender at Appomattox, this photograph by Mathew Brady shows General Robert E. Lee with his son General Custis Lee (left), aide-de-camp to President Davis, and his own aide-de-camp, Lieutanant Colonel Walter Taylor. From its periphery inward, this is a picture of defeat. Colonel Taylor's uniform seems to have been borrowed from somebody else, or perhaps inherited from the dead or found in a nearly empty supply depot. In any case, it is several unsoldierly sizes too large. And perhaps the photographer asked the two aides to move in close and flank the seated figure, but it still seems strange that Custis Lee is almost standing on his father's tiny foot, and his father doesn't seem to notice.

In this image, does Robert E. Lee see anything?

His gaze seems shuttered, closed down. But in "The Lighthouses" (New Collected Poems 256-57) George Oppen saw the way Mathew Brady's lens did:

clarity plain glass ray
of darkness ray of light

Such words clothe an armature of clarity purified to the brink of invisibility.

Whereas Weinberger's words are brightly colored, and their color serves a double purpose of textual decoration and extratextual function, like this.

The First World War in Posters, ed. Joseph Darracott
(New York: Dover, 1974), image 42.

Oppen wrote 

We are able to live
Only because some things have been said
Not repeated

("The Students Gather," 296-97)

but Marianne's gesture motivates us toward death, every time it's repeated. It worked for Delacroix and now it works for the propaganda artist Georges Scott. Pour le drapeau, undrape! And the more wordy drapery you had on to begin with, the better. We don't even need to see; all we have to do is wordlessly imagine how it would feel to attain that patriotic nipple.

By cutting it back as far as he could, Oppen reduced the integument of verbality to the minimum amount needed to make sense impression consciously perceptible. It is, literally, the bare minimum. But Weinberger's descending crinoline cries to us, "I cover outlines, but see how moral that makes me. I'm about to kill you. Souscrivez!"


Acknowledgment and technical note: 

This post owes much of its information to the biographical appendix in Harvey Shapiro's anthology Poets of World War II (New York: Library of America, 2003), with its frontispiece photograph of radio gunner Shapiro beside his B-17. 

As reproduced in The First World War in Posters, Scott's "Pour le drapeau" is brown and faded. Above, I've tried to restore it with Photoshop to something like its 1917 state. The reproduction in the book looks like this.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Time to switch to WordPress (one more in a continuing series)

I've kept writing this blog with Blogger partly (mostly) out of inertia, and partly because WordPress doesn't have a feature like Blogger's slide show.

But the slide show works only part-time these days, and as of March 29 Blogger has lost one more format feature: curly single and double quotation marks. Those are the default formats in Windows Live Writer, where I started writing my Blogger posts last year after Blogger began losing the spaces between my paragraphs. But in Blogger they've now started showing only as empty boxes.

If you see one of those in one of my posts, please let me know. I'm replacing them, one punctuation mark at a time, but the progress is slow and the prospect of future readability grows ever more uncertain.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Homage before Rembrandt

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Conservatives do learn

According to the March 24 New York Times, Governor Paul LePage of Maine has ordered the removal from Maine's Department of Labor building of a mural depicting Maine's workers. According to the article, "A spokeswoman said Mr. LePage, a Republican, ordered the mural removed after several business officials complained about it and after the governor received an anonymous fax saying it was reminiscent of 'communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.'" The link is here, with a picture of the mural.

And here's your portrait of a thinker whose ideas about aesthetics interestingly anticipated Governor LePage's.

Click to enlarge. The patronymic initial is wrong; it should be A, not O. With that correction, the transliterated name under the portrait is A. A. Zhdanov.

And about Zhdanov, who was the chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet from 1938 to 1947 and the most important Socialist Realist aesthetician, Maynard Solomon writes:

Zhdanov's and Radek's 1934 call for Socialist Realism coincided precisely with cancellation of the liberal abortion and divorce laws, with passage of strict laws against homosexuality and with the arrest of a large number of homosexuals among the intelligentsia, accused of conspiracy with the Roehm Nazis.  (Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary [1973; Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979] 239)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Words seen: prose vs. image

In my March 14 post "Heritage and heirloom" I quoted this passage from a justification of slavery written on the eve of the Civil War by the Southern economist J. D. B. DeBow.
The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms, and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.  (93)

On March 17 this image appeared in Edward Rothstein's "Not Forgotten," a New York Times article about Civil War museums. . Click to enlarge.

Which words work better at communicating a notion of slavery as concept -- DeBow's purist prose, chaste black on a chaste white page, or this soiled trace on an empty bag?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

White surface

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

DeBow appendix: how to understand Faulkner and the Tea Party

At I quoted the economist J. D. B. DeBow writing in defense of slavery in 1860. The passage I quoted there was written from an economic point of view, but DeBow's essay "The Non-Slaveholders of the South" also encompasses theology and social psychology. Here, for its educational interest, is some of the social psychology.
The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro's vote shall weigh equally with his own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the school-house, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a "scoundrel." No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst his brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.  (92-93)
Helps you understand why so many Republicans are so furious, doesn't it? Their world has been pulled out from under them. President Obama is black. Emily Dickinson, who suffered panic attacks at the sight of a black servant, explained:

Elder, Today, A session wiser,
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is,
I find Myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces --

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the Site of the Kingdom of Heaven --

(Fr1072, "A loss of something ever felt I")


After 26 years at my current address, I've just discovered a stand of Hong Kong orchid trees at the playground one block down the street. So:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Heritage and heirloom

Ruth Wisse of Harvard has a problem: in 1988 she coined a nine-word phrase which turned out to be a work of literature.

Professor Wisse has not been happy with that development. In a memoir at

she hints (though she doesn't quite say) that the phrase was foisted on her by an editor, and she calls one critic "tacky" for quoting it back at her. She bitterly adds: ". . . Google tosses up this quotation as Sea World caretakers throw food to their fish. On the two occasions when I was being considered for a government assignment, this was the only action or statement of mine that I was asked to justify or explain."

From the point of view of literary history, such indignation seems strange. Few writers achieve immortality, after all, and you'd think the ones who do achieve it would be grateful for any portion they receive, even if it's only nine words' worth. Not many English majors now, I suppose, can tell you anything about the short-lived Victorian poet Ernest Dowson, yet two tiny phrases written by Dowson have reached immortal anonymity as the titles of famous movies: "days of wine and roses" and "gone with the wind." And that's enough, isn't it?

Well, Wisse's annoyance turns out to have a simple explanation. When she coined her phrase, Wisse thought she was writing politics, not language. It wasn't entirely her fault that she failed to think through the effect of connotation and the effect of rhyme when, in the reactionary Jewish magazine Commentary, she called the Arabs of Palestine "people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery." A professor of Yiddish literature, she was under no professional obligation to have heard of "A Modest Proposal." Nevertheless, the scorn she was trying to direct at the Palestinians ricocheted back at her cause and her.

The trajectory is easy to analyze. In English, the verb "breed" is ordinarily applied to animals, not people. When it's applied to people, it's ordinarily intended as a scornful metaphor. But there's nothing metaphoric about the misery of the Gaza Strip, and when blood is shed there it's the real thing. Thanks to the power of rhyme, however, Wisse's metaphor "breed" took control of her two non-metaphors, "bleed" and "misery," and reduced them to metaphors themselves. Ever since, the result has been that we perceive Wisse as a woman who thinks of Palestinian human beings only as words. In Wisse's language, the Palestinians are a mere political construction, and their life's blood is a mere red abstraction.

But what might happen when, in the fullness of historical time, an abstraction like that one reverts to its primitive, non-metaphorical sense?

Consider, for example, the word "heritage" as it occurs in the American conservative lexicon. It's a favorite there. An important conservative think tank, for instance, is the Heritage Foundation, and Southern conservatives in particular are fond of dressing up in Confederate gray and extolling their states' rights' heritage. But how would they react if that heritage were suddenly to appear before them in the form of a human being?

In the years before the Civil War, it could. In December 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the Southern economist J. D. B. DeBow discussed the process this way in an essay called "The Non-Slaveholders of the South."

The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can, in general, be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave to what owned a slave ten years ago. The universal disposition is to purchase. It is the first use for savings, and the negro purchased is the last possession to be parted with. If a woman, her children become heir-looms, and make the nucleus of an estate. It is within my knowledge, that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established, from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.  (93)

Of course there's a difference between a heritage and a warehouse full of heirlooms. An heirloom is a tangible, non-metaphoric thing, but a heritage is an idea. A heritage is to an inheritance approximately as a home is to a house. Still, that heritage represented by the antique hanging on the wall and the reenactor capering across his battlefield outside the picture window was once something living and suffering. In that stage it was what DeBow called an heirloom, but just now we're out of practice with the original sense of that word. To us an heirloom is a thing, but to DeBow and the men and women of his cause it had a more expansive meaning. In the days when their heritage held to that meaning, you could put your hand on your heirloom, feel its blood pulse, and then send it out to breed.

Work cited

DeBow, J. D. B. "The Non-Slaveholders of the South." 1860. The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Ed. Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean. New York: Library of America, 2011. 85-97.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The time term

The Kyodo/Reuters image in the MSNBC photoblog at is captioned, "People take shelter as a ceiling collapses in a bookstore during an earthquake in Sendai, northeastern Japan March 11, 2011." Above the words, dissected out of the passage of time by a flash of light, a snowcloud of debris has leaped down into the middle of the air like a dancer. Now, for this instant, it seems to have been there forever, like a dancer.

Image removed for copyright reasons.

Behind the cloud, a man and a woman mime their single instinct as a man and a woman. The woman's body has rotated itself in front of the man's, and her head, cradled by the man's hand, wants to bury itself in the man's shoulder. But the woman also needs to see what is approaching from behind, and so she half-turns her head, glancing out of herself in the instant that she turns away from us to the shelter she has made for herself, of herself.

Image (a detail of the one above) removed for copyright reasons.

It could be a frame from a ballet. Posed and given a context in media culture, a glance over the shoulder can begin belonging to a repertoire of indices that conventionally symbolize femininity.

Or, set into the linear sequence that is language's subdual of perception to time, a gesture enacted by the body might become a lyric poem. "My heart leaps up," cries the heart, pulsing to itself as it leaps word by freeze-framed word through the double beat of iambic movement into a reader's wordy imagination.

The man and the woman in Japan have been pictured in a bookstore but not provided with words. They have no rhythm to pace them into and then back out of their instant before the shutter. An accurate verbal description of that instant will have to omit all the instants before and after, and so it can never be more than a lyric. But language does have a technology for bringing the pulse of time into description. It is the way of epic: Pound's "poem including history."

Consider, for instance, the episode in book 18 of The Odyssey where Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, sits at the feet of the suitors before his own fireside. The suitors mock and deride, but one of them, Amphinomos, takes pity on the wretched old man. He gives him food and sincerely wishes him a change of fortune, and so Odysseus speaks some words which the young man's gesture over bread and wine has made to seem destined.

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, 1961

Odysseus's foretelling becomes a tributary of Homer's own words as they rush toward the completion of their event in the future perfect tense. The grammar is a tide gathering itself into a fullness of absolute knowledge. Its tidal force is the power of words to create that wonderful illusion. Lift me out of the wordless world, drop me into a dictionary, and I can believe I'm one more wordy component of the dictionary's illusion of omniscience. It's an illusion made of time, and it works by rhythm, sequencing itself word by word into grammar and then syntax and then verse. But if you close the book's cover in my face and lock me and my camera out of the rhythm, in the still instant before the shutter clicks and retrospect and words begin, I'll be able to see only what the camera sees: what Stevens's Snow Man would understand (if he had words) as "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Anaglyph and asymptote: San Francisco, 1906, color


the amazing news is that six color stereopticon slides of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake have been found. The blogpost reproduces three of the slides, and I've converted one to an anaglyph, viewable in 3D with a pair of red-and-blue glasses.

Click to enlarge. The anaglyph is color-balanced (not very well) and interpolated, and for me the stereo effect is strongest when I fixate on the utility pole along the image's left margin.

The image itself is blotched and blurry, and it depicts only the ruins of some uninteresting buildings. If it fascinates us nevertheless, that may be because it has brought us a step closer than previous photographs to one of the limits that separate us from the past. Color, a twentieth-century supplement to a nineteenth-century technology, has added one more image to the metaphor of something growing into our transient lives from a larger life that will never change. A tree, say. Maybe a tree like Whitman's live oak, uttering itself to us in green leaves.

We might enjoy believing that we can feel its trunk now, and think that at any moment we'll also be able to see through the dark bark beneath which light pulses upward. But that outer limit will never become transparent. Image's colored core will always remain just behind it, in a dark where it will be 1906 forever. To admit our mortal light to that darkness would bring it to its end.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

For Wisconsin: the air we breathe, first class and steerage

You wonder: but how can the Republicans oppose the Environmental Protection Agency? You think: no matter how rich you are, you still have to breathe the same air as everybody else.

You're naive.

In The New Yorker for January 31, 1983, p. 61, William F. Buckley, the father of modern American conservatism, explains to posterity that in his limousine there actually are separate atmospheres: one for the chauffeur to breathe and the other for Mr. Buckley.

Click to enlarge.

The chauffeur is, of course, devoted to Mr. Buckley, and Mr. Buckley loves the chauffeur right back. In fifteen years, the chauffeur has not once acted uppity.

On the previous page, The New Yorker has foreshadowed Buckley's theme of the devoted servant with an advertisement for the Park Lane, a Helmsley hotel. Most of the advertisement is taken up by a thank-you note from Leona Helmsley, the president of Helmsley Hotels. According to the letter, a Mrs. John Distler had left a $58,000 pin in her room at the Park Lane. The Park Lane's employees found the pin and called Mr. Distler before he was even aware that it was missing, and Mr. Distler wrote back to thank them. Oh no, Mrs. Helmsley riposted to Mr. Distler; we keep our hotel open only because we are so devoted to you, and in any case the only fault was ours. 

Under "Leona Helmsley," Wikipedia fills out the cultural context and establishes the utter truth of Mrs. Helmsley's profession of devotion. Ten years after writing her letter to Mr. Distler, Mrs. Helmsley went to prison -- in the first instance for tax evasion, but also, no doubt, for having told a housekeeper who went on to testify against her, "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." Wikipedia's typography goes on to add:

"Queen of Mean"

  • "Lawyer Alan Dershowitz said he once had breakfast with Leona at one of the Helmsley hotels and the waiter brought him a cup of tea with a tiny bit of water spilled on the saucer. Alan says Leona grabbed the cup from him and smashed it on the floor, then demanded that the waiter get down on his hands and knees and beg for his job."[42]

Devotion doesn't come cheap, but vissi d'arte. Remember that the next time you breathe, little person.

Monday, March 7, 2011

An artifact for Wisconsin: were America's teachers ever respected?

The "Room for Debate" feature in the online New York Times for March 6

is headed "Why Blame the Teachers?", and its establishing shot looks like this.

Click to enlarge.

Look at the affectionate hearts on the picket sign. Look at the sad face on the man in the black wool cap. What this image shows us is the population of an imagined past: a domain perhaps like the one that A. E. Housman imagined in "Into My Heart an Air That Kills"; a world full of love for us teachers.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

But what was it like in real life, off the page of the kind of memory that's always a poem?

By way of a start on an answer to that question, here below is a small documentary trace. The pages come from August B. Hollingshead's Elmtown's Youth: The Impact of Social Classes on Adolescents (New York: John Wiley, 1949), a sociological study based on field work conducted between May 1941 and December 1942 -- that is, right at the end of the Great Depression, just at the moment the United States entered World War II (viii). 

Because of a wartime delay, Elmtown's Youth wasn't published until the beginning of the television era, when its Depression landscapes must have seemed a vista of the distant past. But it may be that Depression-era Elmtown is a society on its way again toward resembling ours in 2011: a society divided between the very rich and everybody else. As of 1941, Hollingshead's "Elmtown" (actually Peru, Indiana, a manufacturing center surrounded by farmland) was home to an American community living in an ordinary mix of poverty and prosperity. In one other respect, however, it was extraordinary: this drab little midwestern town was also home to a rentier class which was wealthy indeed. (The immensely rich Cole Porter was a Peru boy.) It was the rentiers who ran the town and its underfunded school system, and it was the rentiers who set the norms for teachers to live by.

So here's your artifact of the life that that society ordained for its teachers.

And what do you think, fellow teachers: in the hedge fund era, does this oldie from seventy years ago remind you of anything in your current lives? Is what was once extraordinary becoming ordinary for you and those who will follow you?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rabbi ben Ezra in the hedge fund era

No, says the lead article in the special "Retirement" section of the March 3 New York Times, you probably can't afford to retire. You didn't save enough, and it's too late to start now. But (chirps another article), now is the ideal time to start that brand new career! Have you considered, for example, becoming a pet sitter?

Also, adds a third article, college towns tend to be nice places to live, and they're not expensive. Does the author of that article have Princeton in mind, or perhaps Palo Alto?

Well, no. The specific suggestion is Oxford, Mississippi.

Seldom has the case for euthanasia been presented more convincingly.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Life imitates art, and the ironic effect is far too easy

The image, via

dates from about 1910 and was taken in Louisiana at what is now the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. With one word deleted for now, the photograph's original title was "Sternwheeler ______ at Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River."

Think 1960s. Think Easy Rider. Think a guy with a guitar and a battered fedora on the back of his head and an old lady (that's what we called them then; we're talking about a 19-year-old behind the counter in a radiator shop) supporting him. Think, "Ah, sophomore year."

Then look at the prison stripes. Then fill in the blank by looking at the name on the boat.

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Click to enlarge.


As of early 2011, the Huffington Post, an aggregation of blogs, is in the business news for its success with search engine optimization based on content-farmed articles. The notorious example from the beginning of the year was an article written to fill space below the title "What Time Is the Super Bowl?" Lots of people googled that query, lots of people were duly delivered to the article, and the Huffington Post wound up with lots of monetizable clicks.

Well, on Sunday, February 27, readers of Gannett newspapers saw this cover on their magazine section.

Click to enlarge.

Haec fabula docet: Gutenberg technology has caught up with the sensibility of the Net. I can't wait to see what's going to happen to the sex article (upper left corner of the cover) in the next issue of Cosmopolitan.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Moment of exposure

William P. Gottlieb, 1947 or 1948,
Portrait of George Weidler.
Gottlieb Jazz Photos, Library of Congress.
Click to enlarge.

As the music pressed forward and its pulse began to be felt, darkness gathered its force into as bright a fist as it could and pressed back. Orpheus was born in a darkness terrified into giving up its hoarded light.

Now, at a later time, Orpheus is ascending toward the light again. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A house in an old photograph

A summer afternoon, for instance: light dimmed by its passage under the roof of a porch, then admitted to the room through a curtained window. Those who live in the house can't be seen from this angle, but for the present fraction of a second they're all alive. Don't worry. Shadows of green-leaved branches move to assure you that this light suspended in warm air isn't just a picture.

The picture itself is just out of camera range. It is a picture of people known to have lived here, and it's nailed to a wall where it seemed meant to be. We know that because just on the other side of the wall there was nothing but green leaf and moving shadow. That was where somebody set down a tripod and uncapped a lens.  

But when mind's lens opens, it opens in this room, among unpredicted little adjustments of the light as a breeze moves the leaves and flows past them through the windows. Here, inside, the light is in motion. All that it falls on as it moves is becoming what was. It is what the lens will have failed to register as it stilled the shade.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Synecdoche: how a dark age arrives

From the admirable site Detroitfunk, this slide show of a public library abandoned with the books still on their shelves.

Do you think there's a chance that you may remember some of these images? Then consider dedicating that memory to the spirit of Constantine Cavafy, the poet of dying civilization. Here, from the online Cavafy archive, is one of his elegies.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

For Wisconsin: how they do it in Galt's Gulch

I was just settling into my seat when the flight attendant approached with a request: in order to let a mother sit with her small child, would I mind moving to another seat? Of course I didn't mind. The flight attendant thanked me, led me to my new seat, and then rewarded me with a free headset.

I was grateful because the flight was United 1, nine nonstop hours from Chicago to Honolulu, and I was looking forward to the distraction. The man in the seat in front of mine was looking forward to the distraction, too, because when the flight attendant came back with her armload of rental headsets, he laid out his four dollars for one. I noticed the transaction because the man's face seemed familiar but I couldn't place it. Maybe, I thought, I'd seen him on campus.

So I asked: "Excuse me, do you teach at the University of Hawaii?"

"No!" the man all but shouted. He wasn't smiling, either. Anything but.

Oh well. Some time into the flight I remembered that I'd seen the man's face not in person but on TV. He was the new chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, and some of the media coverage had focused on his background. In a heavily Democratic state with a strong union presence, the new Republican chairman was a "labor consultant" -- that is, a professional union buster.

Meanwhile, my free headset didn't work, and the flight attendant was on the speaker, apologizing. The sound system wasn't working in the center seats, she announced. In that section, headset rental money would be refunded at the end of the flight.

The Republican chairman handed his headset across the aisle to his wife. There in her starboard section the sound did work, and she listened all the way from Illinois to Hawaii.

Then, as the airplane was on final approach to HNL, she handed the headset back to her husband. The flight attendant came down the aisle, reclaiming headsets and making refunds.

And he took the money.

Maybe I would have done the same. I don't suppose all Democrats are more virtuous than all Republicans. But I still remember that particular Republican's entitled scowl.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

We're past Jon Stewart. We need a Swift.

Economic news from a Wisconsin teacher:

And some related literature:,19188/

Danse macabre, pas de six;

or, how we learn to perform the deadly body language of economics.

Salem, Massachusetts, ca. 1906:
"Boston and Maine Railroad depot, Riley Plaza"
Click to enlarge.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New chapbook

On the Issuu shelf at the bottom of the screen, you should now see a link to my latest (January-February 2011 only) photo chapbook, "in silence." For me, the "Click to read in full screen" command works only with Internet Explorer, not Firefox or Chrome.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

For Sir Thomas Wyatt

Then shalt thou know beauty but lent,
And wish and want as I have done. 

Click to enlarge.

Monday, February 14, 2011



Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters
ed. Carol Belanger Grafton. Image 056.
Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.
Click to enlarge.

In its forest, the limousine is an unmoving primeval whiteness. Adam and Eve have been here all along in the background, and there is no road for the machine to have arrived on. The only motion in this world comes from quick nervous hatchings of black and dark green laid down on the canvas as if God were Paul Cézanne. If Adam and Eve ever step into the Voisin's white cabin, they will blush and change and begin speaking. They will have become a dictionary containing only the word "connoisseur." If you have the godlike power to have purchased me, says the Voisin to us who stare from outside the forest, you don't just recognize Cézanne's oeuvre; you are a part of Cézanne's oeuvre. If you can purchase me, you are a museum and a scripture.


Jacques Henri Lartigue, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, 1911.
Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression,
image 106. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008

The woman is a tilted cylinder bustling through space and transmuting it to time. She is the force that tilts the plane across which her dogs and somebody's car and somebody else's carriage go sliding as if gravity had been pulled out from under them. Floating her upward until she bumps into the top of the image frame, it's her hat that makes the magic. For fun, she borrowed it from Hermes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Click to enlarge.

Pour Magritte

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Saturday, February 12, 2011


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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Emily Dickinson, non-Spanish photographer

Better than most artists of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson understood the daring of surrender to somebody else’s way of seeing. When her correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked for her photograph, she replied:

Could you believe me -- without? 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?

In the era before color film, that must have done wonderfully. And Dickinson went on, generalizing and theorizing her refusal of dead representation in favor of the tints and pulses of life.

It often alarms Father -- He says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest -- but has no Mold of me, but I noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor -- You will think no caprice of me --  (Letters, no. 268 [July 1862])

But in 2010, David Cody discovered something about this passage that must have disconcerted Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson's passage of self-description, with all its bright color and happy play, is in fact paraphrased, all but plagiarized, from the work of a novelist that Dickinson knew Higginson knew: Higginson's own protégée Harriet Prescott Spofford. For all we know, Dickinson may have meant the gesture as a bit of coy knowingness, a way of assuring a prominent man of letters that he could trust her not to embarrass him.

Trying to read at that level, we're disconcerted in a different way. Higginson may or may not have understood Dickinson's code of hints and allusions, but a century and a half later we can only read mute and open-mouthed in the unknowable anthropology of the dead. But we can't help reading according to other anthropologies as well -- for instance, the anthropology of Spanish photography that Gertrude Stein learned from Pablo Picasso.

Picasso at this period often used to say that Spaniards cannot recognise people from their photographs. So the photographers made two photographs, a man with a beard and a man smooth shaven and when the men left home to do their military service they sent one of these two types of photographs to their family and the family always found it very resembling.  (14)

To the soldiers' artless families, a photograph wasn't a depiction; it was a representation by fiat. Because it was a photograph, it was taken to represent whatever it is that photographs represent. The families didn't think they needed to look at it; all that was required, they thought, was to know that it was a photograph and therefore just like every other photograph. For Picasso, the struggle was to break away from that categorical way of seeing and realize on canvas that (as Stein put it in a magnificent tautology), "One sees what one sees" (15).

With a photograph the learning can probably come easily; with a painting, an image that's more intimately a part of the artist's invisible secret self, it will probably come harder. But when the fiat representation is a corpus of words, communicating itself simultaneously in and through and as words . . . ?

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862 wasn't the first person before whom Dickinson opened that abyss, either. As Marianne Noble discovered in 2000, one of Dickinson's most searingly passionate letters -- letter 93 from June 1852, the so-called "man of noon" letter to her future sister-in-law about the death-dealing joys of marital love -- is yet another paraphrase. It comes from one of the sentimental novels that the two 21-year-olds liked to share. They didn't need to articulate anything we might think of as personal, those two -- not when they had a Hallmark book handy to open the chocolate box of emotion for them. So when I read David Cody's article, it reopened a question that had been puzzling me for years: what in the world went wrong when Dickinson wrote letter 179, and could it be that it was one more fiction?

Written to Dickinson's friend Elizabeth Holland on March 18, 1855, this letter ostensibly describes the three weeks that Dickinson spent in Washington while her father was finishing his single term in the House of Representatives. I say "ostensibly" because in fact only a single paragraph is geographically specific below the level of a municipality's name (Washington, Springfield), and that paragraph --

well, here it is, in its entirety.

I will not tell you what I saw -- the elegance, the grandeur; you will not care to know the value of the diamonds my Lord and Lady wore, but if you haven't been to the sweet Mount Vernon, then I will tell you how on one soft spring day we glided down the Potomac in a painted boat, and jumped upon the shore -- how hand in hand we stole along up a tangled pathway till we reached the tomb of General George Washington, how we paused beside it, and no one spoke a word, then hand in hand, walked on again, not less wise or sad for that marble story; how we went within the door -- raised the latch he lifted when he last went home -– thank the Ones in Light that he's since passed in through a brighter wicket! Oh, I could spend a long day, if it did not weary you, telling of Mount Vernon -- and I will sometime if we live and meet again, and God grant we shall!

About this letter, Alfred Habegger's judgment is representative of the Dickinson specialists' consensus: "Making allowance for the simple tone she often took with the Hollands, it is dismaying to reflect that this unobserving and insipid prose issued from the pen of a great poet" (329). Yes, there are some familiar Dickinson tropes here, notably the withdrawal from communication disguised as an expression of solicitude ("if it did not weary you"). Betsy Erkkila has also read the paragraph as a political statement: "a version of national pastoral" (135). But what about the city, what about Mount Vernon? What about Emily Dickinson's language?

In Washington, most of Dickinson's walks, perhaps all, had been confined to the hallways of her hotel (Habegger 329). Within a year of the trip, her reclusiveness had become capable of inflicting traumatic distress.
So (it occurred to me) what if Dickinson's Mount Vernon letter is unobserving because it's really a Spanish photograph? What if Emily didn't take the trip to Mount Vernon at all but remained in the hotel and then wrote her letter as a work of fiction, basing it on (say) a guidebook?

The hypothesis isn't provable, of course. It occurred to me many years ago, and I've never been able to do anything with it. Now, however, technology has caught up, and on a rainy Sunday afternoon I sat down in front of my computer, let myself into Google Books, and began reading Washington guidebooks from the 1850s. By the end of the afternoon, I'd laid my suspicion of Dickinson in 1855 to rest.

The history behind her letter turns out to have been simple. By 1855, Mount Vernon was dilapidated, with the summer house and slave quarters in ruins and the main building's piazza propped up with ships' masts. Inside, most of its rooms were empty, and one of them had had to be shut because tourists kept chipping pieces out of its marble fireplace. From the house, a rotting plank walkway led to the tomb of George and Martha Washington, but (then as now) that consisted only of a little brick mausoleum with the two sarcophagi visible through a locked iron gate. "The interior of this chamber is plastered, and the plaster is falling down in pieces," noted the English traveler William Ferguson (174). "Decay everywhere. It is festooned inside with hornet's nests, and swallows have also built in it abundantly. Placards are stuck up all round requesting visitors not to break the trees."

Amid the desolation, all an American tourist could do was wax patriotic, and this the contemporary American writers of guidebooks proceeded to do. "The garden is very large and seems in fine order," reported the New York Times's Minnie Myrtle, "but other parts of the grounds look sadly neglected." Having conceded the point, Minnie then gratefully changed the subject and concluded:

That Washington was perfect, I am not at all anxious to prove, but I wish to believe, and wish all the sons and daughters of America to believe, that he was free from every stain of immorality, as he certainly was.

But the British writers were less diplomatic. "By the end of half an hour," wrote William Ferguson at the end of a five-page tirade against slovenly slaves and a slovenly Mr. Washington, the current proprietor, "we were glad to be off. We came with veneration strongly excited. Disgust took its place; and we left, breathing hard words in reference to the present state of matters at Mount Vernon" (175).

And Emily Dickinson, travel writer? This evening, letter 179 looks to me like nothing more suspicious than a well-mannered attempt to say nice things about what must have been a disappointment. The great writer couldn't say anything more because there was nothing more to say.

But on a blog I can add one more thing: I couldn't have allayed my suspicion without Google Books. Without it, learning what I learned in a single afternoon would have cost me weeks or months of library and interlibrary work, and perhaps a special trip to the Library of Congress. Inside the new medium, however, I and some books were equalized in the part of the electromagnetic spectrum which is shared out between a computer's scanning range and a person's reading range. It's not that the sharing is a gesture in the direction of democratic reading; it's just that to a computer all data are equally part of a Spanish photograph, equally available to all forms of data processing. To the fastidiously withdrawn Emily Dickinson, however, they weren't. She did her best to fit her reading of Mount Vernon into Minnie Myrtle's American generic form, but she was too honest a viewer of the world ("One sees what one sees") to be able to succeed.

And as to her mysterious letters collaged out of other people's words -- without recourse to the idea of the Spanish photograph, they're even more mysterious. They play at being Minnie letters, but they don't play by any published rules yet discovered. They're one more reason to keep reading Dickinson, at any frequency the spectrum can offer. Thanks, Google!

Works Cited

Cody, David. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Emily Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" Emily Dickinson Journal 19, no. 1 (2010): 30-59.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958. Citation by letter number, not page number.

Erkkila, Betsy. "Dickinson and the Art of Politics." A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, ed. Vivian R. Pollak (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 133-74.

Ferguson, William. America by River and Rail; or, Notes by the Way on the New World and Its People. London: James Nisbet, 1856.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

Myrtle, Minnie. "Traveling. A Day at Mount Vernon." New York Times 16 May 1855: n.p. Facsimile at

Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Cited in Habegger 277.

Stein, Gertrude. Picasso. 1938. New York: Dover, 1984.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Allegory: architecture for an America with a conceptual economy

New York Times Magazine 30 January 2011: 25
Click to enlarge.

Pieter Brueghel, Luxuria
"Sensuality weakens men's sinews and unmans their limbs."

Sunday, January 23, 2011


For a few weeks in 1977, the man in the hat was a problem. From his table in Johnny’s Dining Room, the friendly, noisy Greek restaurant where I usually ate lunch during my years at Wayne State University, he’d fixate on one customer and then begin glaring. While he was glaring, he’d mutter to himself and make marks in a tiny notebook with a stubby pencil. If you were close enough, you could see what was being inscribed on the page there: first a square, then black mark upon black mark, over and over, as the square filled with black and overflowed deep into the lower layers of the paper. It was frightening, and it happened every day. Then Johnny told the man to leave and not come back.

Not long afterward, I sat down at Johnny’s counter carrying a copy of Lyndall Gordon’s new biography, Eliot’s Early Years. “Look at this,” I said to the waitress, and I showed her this illustration.

Click to enlarge.

"Oh my God!" screamed the waitress. She grabbed the book from my hand, rushed over to the other waitresses, and showed it to them. Then they all began screaming in Greek. The picture’s caption attests that this image depicts T. S. Eliot with his mother on the occasion of her visit to England in 1921, shortly before Eliot suffered the nervous collapse which issued in The Waste Land. But along Detroit’s Cass Corridor in 1977, there could be no doubt: this was the man in the hat.

Lyndall Gordon’s latest biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (Viking, 2010), is also full of evocative photographs, but these images perform their work of evocation in a different way. They come to us by design, inseparable from the words that surround them, and in their textualized form they have a moral purpose:  to sort the author’s cast of characters into good guys and bad guys.

This sorting takes place within a standard genre tale: one more “Secret of Emily Dickinson” Gothic. The gimmick this time is a guess that Dickinson may have been epileptic, and it’s supported by some perfunctory scholarship.1 That too, however, is Gothic. It’s all emotion and intuition and gaze. “Mary Bowles,” Gordon writes as she gazes at one of her book's halftones, “had a washed-out face and a thin plait tightly coiled, like a platter glued to the back of her head. A photograph exudes unhappiness, not a passing mood but a gutted self. Because she felt unloved and therefore unlovable, Mrs. Bowles was prickly in company” (100). From image to interpretation to psychoanalysis in three sentences flat, and nice people don’t mention the distorting effect on expression of nineteenth-century photography’s long exposure times. As to a twentieth-century photograph:

"Before Mattie died Cousin Gilbert had let her know that he was reading her books on Emily. As his thin lips stretched to a self-satisfied smile, the long slits of his eyes narrowed" (370, with photograph). Quiz time, reader: can you tell whether Cousin Gilbert will be one of the book’s good guys or bad guys?

Well, Lives Like Loaded Guns is a trivial book. It isn’t the first trivial book about Dickinson, and it isn’t likely to be the last. No harm done. But from a photographic point of view it’s an interesting survival of a way of seeing that was still current in Dickinson’s time: the physiognomic way, the way articulated most persuasively in Emerson’s “Fate.”

At the corner of the street you read the possibility of each passenger in the facial angle, in the complexion, in the depth of his eye. His parentage determines it. Men are what their mothers made them. You may as well ask a loom which weaves huckabuck why it does not make cashmere, as expect poetry from this engineer, or a chemical discovery from that jobber. Ask the digger in the ditch to explain Newton’s laws; the fine organs of his brain have been pinched by overwork and squalid poverty from father to son for a hundred years. When each comes forth from his mother’s womb, the gate of gifts closes behind him. Let him value his hands and feet, he has but one pair. So he has but one future, and that is already predetermined in his lobes and described in that little fatty face, pig-eye, and squat form. 

Emerson himself understood the limitations of that view. By the last paragraph of “Fate” he had worked his way through to saying, “Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity. . . . Why should we be afraid of Nature?” Nevertheless, the fear persists. It can’t be consoled by mere logic. It animated us eaters in Johnny’s Dining Room who hoped a glaring face wouldn’t look at us; it animates the advertisements which caution women to starve themselves, lest they lose love; and it animates the interpretations of faces in Lives Like Loaded Guns. The picture of Dorian Gray was a painting, not a photograph, but perhaps Wilde’s tale could only have been written in the nineteenth century, after photography had begun to call our attention to the uncrossable barrier between our unambiguous visual acquaintance with a photographed face and the guesswork of our sense of anything that lies behind it.

Live on, then, in T. S. Eliot’s photographed gaze, man in the hat. Lyndall Gordon thinks she knows what was going on in your brain as you drew and blackened your squares, but she and her readers are probably mistaken.

1 This isn’t a review, but for what it’s worth: the epilepsy thesis has been discredited in a pair of reviews by Norbert Hirschhorn and Polly Longsworth. In his review in The Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (22, no. 2 [Nov.-Dec. 2010]: 36), George Gleason identifies a number of inaccuracies. A few more, within a few pages of Gleason’s: Edward Dickinson’s congressional colleague was named Thomas Dawes Eliot, not Christopher Dawes Eliot (pp. 78-79); the hours between 3 AM and noon were Dickinson’s bedtime, not her writing time (81-82); and the Gilbert brothers’ gift of money for furnishing the Evergreens isn't likely to have been $6000, since that was the cost of the entire house (83, 89).

As to the prose style and the logic – speaking of Dickinson’s reclusiveness on p. 82, Gordon comments, “Other all-time poets have counselled invisibility,” and she goes on to cite Chaucer and Yeats. But Chaucer was a high-ranking civil servant who worked with two kings, and Yeats was “a sixty-year-old smiling public man.” That wasn’t exactly Dickinson’s problem. But no doubt she too was all-time.