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."