Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world

The fat man appears to be airborne over the ship's deck, hovering with arms stiffly extended forward and down like landing gear. His cushiony, shock-absorbing hands appear to be huge, but perhaps that's an illusion produced by foreshortening. In his image, outlined by a rectangular frame of decayed photographic emulsion, he is strongly foreshortened at every point.

 "W. N. McMillan." G. G. Bain collection, Library of Congress.  
Click to enlarge.

At and around the man's hands, further decay has accentuated the contrast between the image's light and dark areas. The decay has done an artist's job: it has shaped an outline.


An outline is usually a line of demarcation which an artist lays down between his creation and the rest of the universe. Here, however, outline is an index of decay. The universe has invaded the physiology of this image like a virus and set it to manufacturing a counterfeit of the artist’s death-defying gesture of separation from time.

And the optics of photographic image-making have bloated the man into an incipient sphere: a fruit rounding as it ripens toward decay.

The rounding has been preserved in its incipience, however. It comes to us educationally, preserved through natural history as if it and we had been destined from the beginning to face each other from opposite sides of a vitrine.

Surrounded by the Library of Congress’s explanatory words, the image is a fat mute struldbrug surrounded by volubly signifying youthfulness. The words singing in the surround are a choir of still unravished brides.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ver novum

Advertisement for a 1956 Chevrolet Two-Ten
Click to enlarge.

The snow is gone now. A few dead leaves still lie in the gutter, blown about by the speeding Chevrolet, but the grass is beginning to turn green. Seen through the swept-back windshield of his car, the driver grips his big steering wheel and leans forward as if he were racing. Elsewhere in the picture, stylized whooshes of dust fly backward from the car and the police motorcycle speeding ahead of it, escorting from the lead. Accurate representations of readily observable phenomena, the whooshes signify that the driver's body language is accurate. He is racing.

Sitting calmly upright even though he is exposed to the wind, the motorcycle policeman is old. Watching from the sidewalk as the fast little parade races past them is a couple with a leashed dog. Their carefully layered clothes and the leash on the dog signify cautious middle age. But the Chevrolet's grinning, beefy driver is young. In the passenger seat beside him is a woman, also young, habited in a kerchief and a fully buttoned coat. 

Her clothing signifies stillness, demureness, and buttons fully buttoned wherever on her body they may happen to be. Her eyes are modestly downcast. Her happy half-smile, lips fully closed, signifies, "I have a secret -- but if you love me, you'll know what it is and I won't have to tell you."

Birth has been translated from biology to drama, and its playwright and set designer are at work on a comedy of manners. The middle-aged couple have a dog and a leash in symmetry with the young couple who are about to have a baby and a baby carriage. The motorcycle patrolmen is old because in comedy it's the job of a kindly old man to help the juvenile and the ingenue overcome the disorder of Act 1 and drive on to establish their continuity with the wise past. So we all know: in Act 3 the sign on the vacant lot will have given way to another suburban house, and the freshly exposed earth on the hill in the background will be covered with more houses, each with its garage. 

Half a century ago, for reasons that don't seem very comprehensible now, people who read books found vehicular comedies like this oh terribly upsetting, especially when they were engineered out of money and hard steel but marketed as if they were the unstable fabric of a dream. A journalist whose name actually was John Keats wrote a book about the awfulness of it all and called it The Insolent Chariots (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958), and at the end of "For The Union Dead" (1964) Robert Lowell bellowed,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Lowell's histrionic elegy was for the moral greatness of Robert Gould Shaw and the artistic greatness of the sculptor who memorialized his part in a war against servility. That war can't be continued now, says Lowell. It can't even be spoken of, because its moral language has been replaced by the silent impulses of the animal in us and in our society. We are now in labor with silence, waiting with downcast eyes for time to deliver us.

But the young man's budget-model car in the painting is the pale yellow-green of new grass on a spring morning, and Samuel Johnson said this about the happy ending into which Nahum Tate delivered King Lear.

A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.

In the present case the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity.

It seems to have turned out that Tate's excellencies weren't equal to Shakespeare's after all. On the other hand, I used to teach Robert Lowell a lot more than I do now. And what do you drive through the empyrean, Dr. Johnson: a professormobile like my own pure and moral 2005 Nissan Sentra, or something more cheery?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When contexts vanish, part 2

I was calling your attention to a pair of nineteenth-century girls posed for a tintype photographer in skirts and hats marked with the word "SLAVE." The girls were also garlanded with chains, and one of them was posing in a pioneer attitude. The girls were self-captioned with signs connecting them to an external context, I said, but that context is probably gone forever. What's left of the girls now is only their picture, and we're reduced to seeing that picture only in formal terms.

Of course a part of the curriculum of art education has always been the discipline of formalized seeing, but most of us don't see only formally and don't want to. It is not mere sentimentality to want to see through a family photograph to the real person that its array of pigments evokes. But we can't do that sentimental kind of seeing through unless we have a pre-existing idea of what lies behind the image. About an image posted to the Web by an online anonymity we can meaningfully say, "I love this picture because it reminds me of my dog," but the girls in the tintypes can't provide us with a dog to imagine -- or a pageant either, or a political rally, or anything to love. Whatever the tintypes that we see now may have meant to the girls and the people who made up their world in their lifetime, to us they can mean nothing more than light and shade, color and volume, form and formalism. The girls' chains might as well be shackling them for eternity to the surfaces of their tintypes, those little slips of blackened metal coated with a silver halide emulsion in which reflection from the photoreduced areas of elemental silver creates the illusion of white flesh and steely chain. The only context those images have is themselves.

Well, the comical impossibility of an auto-generated context ("I am a slave. You can tell because I'm labeled 'Slave'") was dealt with long ago by Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Snout explains that he's carrying a stone and some mortar to show us that he's a wall, we laugh because we realize that a metonymic label claiming to represent reality by association ("I am a wall. You can tell because walls are made of stone, and I'm carrying a stone") is always too small to cover the entire area it's supposed to represent. The man holding a stone is still a man; the white girls in the tintype studio are still white girls in a tintype studio. Metonymy hasn't effected the transformations it tells us it has effected. It hasn't changed its subjects' relations to us. Metonymy solemnly tells us, "Before Snout picked up the stone he was a man, but now he's a wall" -- and we laugh at metonymy, because we can see better.

But we also laugh because this particular failed transformation is reassuring. The play performed by Snout and the rude mechanicals originates in the horror story that is Ovid's Metamorphoses, a vast parable which says that transformation does occur, and we are powerless before it. You are not what you think you are, say the Metamorphoses; sooner or later, gradually or suddenly, you will become something other. The happy ending of A Midsummer Night's Dream, like the happy endings of other comedies (think of almost any sports movie, for instance), is simply an arbitrary assertion that the ceaselessness of change will now cease. At the end of the sports movie, the game has been won, finally and forever; at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia and Lysander, Demetrius and Helena, and Theseus and Hippolyta have entered the great unchange of happily ever after. And the laughable falsity of the tragic play within the play convinces us, by contrast, that the comic outer play must be true. But Ovid pokes his head around the closing curtain to remind us that the most fantastic words in any fairy tale are The End.

I once experienced both the metonymy and the realization of change's endless unmeaning, simultaneously. It was the loneliest instant of my life in language.

The time was midmorning on a February day in 1966; the place was the break room in Building 400 of the Greenfield, Indiana, laboratories of the pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co., my employer. The macrotext was the Indianapolis Star, a newspaper whose conservative editorial views (Don't let the communists fluoridate our water!) permeated every page. The microtext that day was an article about an event in Bloomington, sixty miles south of where I sat reading. There in Bloomington, said the article, a man had recently delivered a poetry reading on the campus of Indiana University. The man who read the poems was never named; instead, the article referred to him only as "a 'poet.'" The scornful journalist thought his readers should know that the "poet" had begun the reading by announcing, "This is my wife, Peter."

I read the article. With some excitement, I thought: "I know who that poet is!" Then I thought: "I bet I'm the only person in the plant who does know." And then: "Or care."

On the frozen flatlands of Indiana, I experienced desolation.

I had been able to place an item of data into a context and give it meaning, but the meaning was incommunicable. Strictly speaking, the knowledge I had created had no meaning -- at least, no meaning for anybody in Greenfield, Indiana. In Greenfield, at the time, you could spend the night in the Hoosier Poet Motel, which was named after one of Ezra Pound's favorite poets, the Greenfield native James Whitcomb Riley. The site of one of Riley's most beloved poems, "The Old Swimmin' Hole," was still preserved in a Greenfield park. But it was full of rats, and I was alone.

In due time I left Greenfield for Bloomington, and eventually I read Ginsberg's own poem about the reading: "Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington" (The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971 [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1972] 27). It isn't a very good poem, but for me it brings back memories of the drive east from Indiana on US 40 in the days before Interstate 70, with the crossing from Ohio into West Virginia at Wheeling: "Across Ohio River, noon / old wire bridge, auto graveyards." I enjoy that part because I can read through it to a sentiment of my own, as if I were looking at a picture of somebody else's cute puppydog.

But the process of evocation worked differently a few lines earlier. There, the poem describes the ride past "Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals' tower walls / asleep in early morning dark outside Indianapolis / Street lamps lit humped along downtown Greenfield" -- a ride made more interesting by the "Ho! Dimethyl Triptamine flashing circle vibrations" with which the poet was keeping himself busy at the time. When I read that, I protested to the book in my hand, "But Allen, all we made there was vaccines!" That little truth constituted the "Little did he know" moment that characterizes dramatic irony, but on the only stage where it ever will be performed there was no one but me. Mr. Ginsberg wasn't in the audience, and neither was anyone else. I had brought a context into existence, but it was a context doomed to go to the grave unremembered as soon as I do. Looking now at the tintypes of the girls costumed in their slave word, I realize that they and I are in the same historical situation of muteness before the event.

Still, I do draw pleasure from the tintypes. Maybe I don't really need any contexts beyond language itself. Cute puppydog, as formal as a Picasso!