day by day: a blog
August 31, 2007
[illustration source: plan59] When his wife and their children leave for a weekend with the grandparents, what does the considerate, well-behaved "new man" get up to in the evenings?
Oh, he keeps working as best he can. Then, he catches up on the latest items of outrage on "talkingpointsmemo", fondly tidies his older son's room (the telescope, the chewing gum wrappers, the books), microwaves himself a chicken burrito (the only savoury food his younger son eats), that sort of thing. Absent-mindedly, he waters about half of the sun-scorched plants she wanted him to. As he does, he remembers all the chances he missed, the things he never said.
Perhaps, as dusk falls, he will pour himself a middling glass of Cabernet by Charles Shaw ("two-buck-Chuck" at Trader Joe™'s), the wine they like, and can afford, to drink together. Maybe, too, with the aim of keeping his spirits high ("I'll never give up, not like my own dad..."), he will try to fight his way back into "boxing" contention against the younger generation with a half-hour's woozy, private practice on the Wii™. After all, they can't use it while they're away, can they? It will be fun.
Then, to the orchestral accompaniment of a thousand crickets' wings stridulating their calling song in the trees, he will "turn in" or "retire", heading for an early night in the immovable, Art Nouveau-style "California King", made from black walnut. Tonight this bed is a blazing longship drifting across the fjord. As he lies there, England is dead, like his ideas.... He hears a voice, as plaintive as that of someone wailing from a dripping dungeon deep in the castle's foundations. From the darkness it bleats and gibbers over and over: "How much longer to go?"
At about 2.30am he knows he will wake in a sweat, convinced he is suffocating in a pillow made from his grief. Who is holding that pillow firmly over his face? He has no idea. And, when it happens, he is certain only that who or what he is mourning for will also escape him.
August 29, 2007
There are plenty of decent people who pay no heed to coincidences, but I am not one of them. Perhaps it "comes with the territory". It is hard for me to believe that anyone who is serious about poetry, which relies so much on linguistic coincidences, could be indifferent to the world's plethora of visual and dramatic rhymes.
One afternoon while we were in Truckee earlier this month, I watched a beautiful, bright-eyed Steller's Jay standing on the ground at the edge of the hotel carpark. Head tilting from side to side, it seemed to ponder whether to shriek at me, pick back up the seed it had been holding in its beak before I wandered over, hop towards me in case I might have any better snacks to feed it, or just fly off. It was all the same to me, because I enjoy simply meeting these sparky, cocky, dark blue creatures.
Steller's Jays give the impression that they are both cunning and indiscriminate about what they will consume: "If you have it, I will eat it!" And their their bodies reinforce this idea. Their distinctive crest even makes them look like they are wearing a kind of very soft bottle-opener on top of their heads. The crest functions as a subliminal suggestion to people not to forget to leave uncovered or open all food and drink before leaving the picnic unattended in the backyard.
Outside the cities, Steller's Jays are plentiful in California, and easy to spot, because they are the only crested species of this bird-genus which lives to the west of the Rockies. Voracious, bold, mercurial, they can make many types of call. One is the faked cry of a Red-tailed Hawk, which they like to emit loudly as they approach a feeding area. The lesser, dimmer competitors for scraps take wing immediately. I've wondered whether, amongst their catalogue of noises, an imitation of a low and wicked human chuckle is one which ornithologists, on hands and knees with their furry microphones extended, have not yet been able to record.
In the end, squawking dismissively, my carpark friend flew off. But, true to character, first it made sure to do all the other things it had been contemplating: shriek at me, pick up its seed, and, with its beak still full, hop over with an expectant glint in its eye.
I went back inside to find the rest of the family. While we all pottered aimlessly around in the room, out of habit I started my laptop and, after voyaging through hotel portal upon virtual portal, like the endlessly recessing doors which open up one after another in front of you in a dream, I collected my emails. The first was from the chair of our Department, Ramón Saldívar, regretfully informing us that our colleague Jay Fliegelman had died.
I stared out at the blank, three o'clock, Western sky and felt my heart sinking. I logged off, recalling as I did that when I had typed in my own Stanford username a minute or so earlier, "jayf", Jay's own weirdly memorable computer ID, had already become already obsolete.
Now that he was gone, his uncommon use of his first name and the initial letter of his last name ("jayf") for his "official" email address seemed a more open-handed posture to the world than just using the last name ("fliegelman") would have been, or than the the predictable gesture of taking the initial letter of your first name and the whole of your last name ("njenkins") is. Why does the mind dwell on trivia like this in the face of disaster? It was the tremor of a start at assessing the new reality....
A late but in no way epigonic figure in the line of Jewish scholars who did so much in the last half-century to define influential conceptions about a specifically "American" literature, Jay had been sick in one way or another for most of his life. In fact, he might have felt that from start to finish he achieved the whole of his truly remarkable career as a scholar, collector and teacher on borrowed time. His recent work on Early American "Objects", and in particular on the period's books, seemed hauntingly underwritten by a sensitivity to the fragility and contingency of existence for both things and for people.
Recently, Jay's medical problems had become terribly acute, as the tortoise of the body finally began to catch up with the zestful, seemingly irrepressible, hare of his wonderful, leaping mind. When the department dispersed for the summer, I think we had all silently known that Jay was not likely to return for the fall. Still, the news of his passing was a shock, as the news, however expected, of the death of any person whom you have known, always more or less subtly is.
Extraordinarily intelligent, erudite, witty and inventive, Jay had what obituarists might call a "complex character". Both generous and needy (sometimes both at once), he was a heart-warming person who could also, on occasion be a touch upsetting,a touch mercurial. I suppose that, as with everyone else, he and I had a few run-ins over the years, as well as many laughs and some illuminating exchanges in which my role was as often as not that of the pleased-to-be-dazzled listener. I will remember in particular one conversation about the Star-Spangled Banner which he and I, two anti-chefs, had as we loitered next to the departmental microwave. Afterwards, it felt as though someone had switched on a powerfully directional floodlight inside my mind, one which allowed me to see the song/poem in an utterly transformed way.
I have thought about Jay often, and with gratitude, since he died. In truth, in life, he and I were more colleagues than friends. He was "senior" and I am "junior", he was as committed to upholding the idea of American Studies as I am quixotically determined to take the adjective out of that phrase, though I recall him "reminding" me once, as he accelerated through what looked suspiciously like a red light on Palm Drive, and shifted up from a point about Derrida's theory of the gift to an excursus on the visual culture of the Americas, that the first printed book to be produced on either the Northern or Southern continent was published in Mexico City. In life, sporadic stuff — departmental fire-fights as well as the occasional flash of guile or competitiveness, probably on both sides — got in the way of trust. The crackle of accidental static got too loud for either of us to listen carefully enough to the other's quieter, essential melody.
The primary fact about any death is of course the painful, once-and-for-all extinguishing of a unique human presence. It is a blow which strikes hardest at the very centre, and which in this instance falls on his widow, the scholar Christine Guth. That impact ripples outwards with decreasing though still palpable force through concentric circles of family, close associates, protégés, mentors, colleagues, acquaintances, students, and, in Jay's case, readers.
Even the remoter survivors must cope with a sadness which derives from a badly-designed feature in our brain's hard-wiring. That is the sadness which comes from only being allowed to know what we really feel about someone after they have gone. When the memory-volume is finished, you turn melancholically back through its pages and whatever your eye lights on is invariably the truth of your feelings, isolated and clarified for the first time. As I remember Jay now, what comes back for me anyway, and what I "re-read" again and again in the Jay-Book seen by my mind's eye, are those many passages of bewildering erudition, poetic insight, antic humour, learned speculation.
The day after we came home, I went in to campus to collect my mail. What greeted me as I walked towards the back of Margaret Jacks Hall was a building entirely swathed in black fabric. The mundane explanation for this is that the trim on our office windows is being repainted (black as well). Stanford's fastidious, and expensive, attention to detail in the maintenance of its infrastructure being what it is, the contractors have wrapped a vast, exquisite-looking drop-cloth vertically around the sandstone façade. Inside, the mood feels slow, sombre — as if someone had dropped a dark sheet over our birdcage to quieten us down. But whatever the practical reasons for, and the internal effects of, this measure are, externally the building has never looked more striking.
In the wake of Jay's death, we have what resembles nothing so much as a structure shrouded, Christo-like, in the cloth of mourning. And what more fitting memorial to Jay Fliegelman could there be than a huge American object which speaks mutely but clearly to us of its losses? A coincidence? Sure. But Jay would have been the last to deny us the chance to think about it for a while as a type of funereal fiction in netting and stone, the sort which tempts us to believe, as someone forgotten once said, that a coincidence is "a small miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous."
August 28, 2007
[Giorgio de Chirico, Nostalgia for the Infinite, 1913-14?, MoMA, New York] We're not in contact very often; in fact we hardly ever speak at all. But I've known her longer than anyone else. And she is always there at the back of my mind. Anyway, here is a part of what she told me when she sent me a message last week (don't worry about the details, they don't matter):
"The first time, it all took place on the street we live on now. There was a large white pickup driving slowly down the street,. It was moving in a roughly south-easterly direction, would-be innocently cruising the homes the way that burglars do when they're trying to pick out a likely-looking place to rob. I stood there and watched it as it was about to pass our house. The pickup was towing a long, open-topped trailer behind it. The trailer [needless word repetition! she isn't much of a writer...] made from a steel frame, with rough wooden planks for the floor, and a kind of low, orange, metal mesh enclosing the sides. There were things huddled in the trailer but I couldn't see what they were. Then there was a roar and what sounded like a mad, collective shrieking. A huge pink pig, or boar maybe, suddenly appeared from around the far side of the truck. It looked back and forth. It was terrified; its boggling eyes told you that. Then it seemed to step deliberately into the truck's path. The men in the truck seemed almost like robots, remote-controlled. They just stared straight ahead and kept driving at the same, easy pace. The pig went under the wheels of the truck. The truck bounced slightly, as if it were going over a speedbump, but it kept moving. After it had passed over the pig and rolled off down the road and round the corner, the animal, alone now, staggered to its feet, as if it had somehow survived being crushed. Then, for a moment, while it continued to stand there, looking shocked, blinking, its body slowly began to separate into three parts -- head and shoulders, the front legs and a huge lateral section of the torso, and then the back legs, backside and tail. I remember red, greys, and something yellow which spilled out. You see, the wheels of the truck and trailer had made three deep cuts through the pig's body, as if the tyres were rolling cleavers. It sort of hung in bits in the air for a second. Then the animal's body fell apart as it collapsed onto the floor, like one of those chocolate oranges which splits into segments when you tap its center on a table top. While the pig toppled over and open, I remember seeing its shocked, pink eyes. I know from the eyes that it was still alive. As if we were both taking part in an unfamiliar ceremony, they seemed to be asking me nervously: 'What happens next?'
"The next time, it was a few days later. It was the same street. Our quiet little suburban street with the gently sloping roofs, the lawns, the palm tree, the hydrangeas. This time I was in a vehicle which was driving slowly up and down the road. It was that white truck. I was the passenger in the car and someone else was at the wheel. I don't know who. There was no one else around. In front of every house on the left-hand side of the block (our side, the even side), there was something very odd. There were these huge, uneven, shimmering mounds; four, five, sometimes six feet high. They covered up entirely the flowerbeds, the driveways, the grass. They stretched from the start of the front yards all the way to the garage doors and the doors, gates, entries. Occasionally even a fence dividing one house from another had been partially covered. Everything on the other side of the street looked OK, normal. At the end of the block the car I was in made a lazy U-turn and we drove slowly back down the road. This time the barricaded houses, including ours, were all on the right side and I could see better them better. The mounds were actually these heaps of animal carcases, glistening as they lay there rotting in the sun. It was like a mass burial site. There were hundreds of them. What on earth were they? At first, I took them for deep-sea fish, piled up on the lawns like stacks of silver logs. Then I noticed the bodies had a greyish kind of fur (that was what was catching the sunlight) and snouts with a delicate black line around the underside of the chin, and sharp front teeth protruding. Sort of like beavers have. Except that then I understood in fact all these corpses were the bodies of giant rats. I had never seen anything like it before. It only bothered me in a sort of theoretical way. I wasn't revolted, just slightly disconcerted that a "rule" or "bylaw" had been broken. Scores and scores of these creatures had been slaughtered. They must have been poisoned because I could not see a speck or drip of blood anywhere. Just a panorama of inert, meaningless deadness. Somebody had taken a terrible revenge on us (I don't know what we had done to them) by piling hundreds of these stinking bodies in front of our houses, ours included. It would have taken a bulldozer to clear a path to our front door. And who knows what we would have found when we got there? I didn't get out when we passed our house. We just kept moving. And it was the same everywhere: nothing but a small mountain range of dead rats."
Well, that's it. I don't know what it means and I have no idea what to say to her in response. I feel guilty about that. It's almost as though I did this to her. Except that of course I didn't. Although my parents never actually told me this, I feel I was brought up to, when in doubt, do nothing. In other words, do nothing in most situations. I think I'm going to wait and see if she gets in touch again....
August 24, 2007
In "traces" I commented on what seems to have been the relative indifference of early photographers — and in this case, specifically Daguerre — on the question of whether or not their images reproduced superficial "realities" accurately. Or, as the historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen puts it when he discusses Daguerre's own appraisal of the significance of his invention, "Detail he claimed for photography, but reality he left to others."
This non-positivistic attitude was mirrored in the reactions of Parisians who saw the earliest photographs. There are plentiful, wondering references from early commentators on the magical depth and breadth of detail which a specially-coated photographic plate was able to capture. But they showed little articulated interest in whether or not the image as a whole was "truthful" or "realistic".
This becomes especially clear in light of the fact that, as direct positives, all daguerreotypes showed laterally-reversed (or, in modern publishing jargon, "flopped") images. Everything in a daguerreotype was, literally, the wrong way round: left was right and right was left. Pioneers of the new process rapidly invented a way around this problem by placing a reversing prism in front of the lens, but the drawback of this was an even greater and technically riskier exposure time. Daguerre himself used no reversing prism.
The "unrealistic", reversed nature of the early images seems to have drawn little comment, and it was no bar to enthusiasm and curiosity over the pictures which Daguerre produced, as, for example, extremely dark or cloudy images would have been. This lack of concern may stem in part from the shiny, mirror-like surface of the daguerreotype plate. Viewers were used to compensating for the analogous reversal when looking in a mirror and they simply, and probably subliminally, performed the same cognitive adjustment when looking at a daguerreotype.
Moreover, the subject of the early daguerreotypes were primarily of two types. Since the long exposure times make it so difficult to make portraits of humans, the first type was a picture of an immobile and generic object, such as a vase, a statue, or a fountain, in which it was not necessary for the viewer to know in advance the particular object caught in the image in order to recognize that the object was a vase, statue or fountain. These were images in which the fact that the photograph was of a specific object was less important than that it belonged to a particular class of objects, such as the "statue class".
As such, recognition of the object as belonging to the generalized category of "classical statues" was enough to trigger the desired set of cultural associations for, say, classical statuary — "noble", "pagan", "static", "hard", "culturally prestigious", and so on.
For obvious reasons, the other subject favoured by early photographers was that of buildings. In this case, the issue was different. No pictured buildings needed to belong to a generalized "building" category. The building in the image might easily be irrelevant in both a specific and a general sense because the subject of the photograph was above all the visual "effects" of luminosity and shade which Daguerre had become so expert at manipulating from his years of work painting scenery for the theatre and from producing subtle "effects" of light and darkness in his own, semi-theatrical Diorama in rue Sanson. The point in this kind of photograph was the light and not the brick off which the light happened to be glinting. or mean
Or, conversely, in another kind of picture, a specific building was of primary importance and was indeed the main subject of the photograph. In this case, Daguerre and the other early photographers could rely on their viewers, who were well-educated, bourgeois and mondain, to recognize the particular street or the building which they were looking at without needing to be told anything about it. Presumably, in such cases the mind of the contemporary Parisian spectator was unbothered by the strict non-verisimilitude produced by the daguerreotype's lateral reversal of reality because the contemporary mind, long socialized into familiarity with the main Parisian streets and buildings, rapidly and flexibly reinterpreted this reversed image to correspond to the brain's already existing cognitive map of, for example, the Place de la Concorde, Notre Dame or the Pont Neuf (to mention only three familiar Parisian landmarks of which he took photographs).
Such people (the early commentators in the French photographic world were overwhelmingly male) were liberated to admire the aesthetics of the photograph, its appeal to the viewer's capacity for the apprehension of sensuous beauty, because the informational value of the picture was nugatory. Thus, in the case of the photograph I am discussing, they already knew boulevard du Temple well, they knew the corner of the street in question. They had perhaps even had their own boots polished by the same boot-black whose crabbed body appears in a blur in the Daguerre photograph. The photographer could thus expect to draw on a fund of knowledge about this particular coin and he knew what kinds of ideas it would evoke in his viewer.
We, though, have no such knowledge. For that reason, we have to work ourselves back painfully slowly into a knowledge of some of the cultural and geographical assumptions about the metropolis which would have seemed like second nature to a Parisian in 1838. Today, therefore, I have two very simple aims in view. I need to reverse laterally, as it were, the contemporary Parisian indifference to geographical specificity. By doing so I want, first, simply to explain where on the boulevard du Temple the place we observe represented in the photograph actually was. And second I will use that information to prove that the photograph was actually taken early in the morning as contemporary observers agreed.
These might seem, indeed they are, three very humble and superficial tasks, but they are nonetheless essential staging posts we must pass before we can move any further in understanding the deeper meanings of Daguerre's image.
Daguerre took his picture from the Diorama building, on rue Sanson, at the edge of the place du Château-d'Eau. Below is a lithograph of the square (or "placette" as it is sometimes called in French). The picture shows in the right foreground the fountain, guarded by 8 sculpted lions, which gave the square its name and into which Daguerre's Diorama building projected. The fountain, conceived on Napoleon's personal instruction by Pierre-Simon Girard, the director of Paris's water supply (hence its name the "fontaine de Girard"), was completed in 1811 and removed during the Haussmannization of the area in 1867. This picture represents the view facing roughly east from the end of rue du Bondy, showing the place du Château-d'Eau and the south-western side of the Diorama building.
Daguerre seems to have taken his photograph from a window (here obscured) on the south-eastern side of the same edifice, or from a south-east facing window in his house adjoining on the rue des Marais. Seen from this perspective, the boulevard du Temple begins to run south-east from across the square, roughly in the space between the right side of the fountain's pedestal and the termination of the white-coloured apartment buildings on the extreme right of the picture.
(Other images of the Diorama and of the Château d'Eau include an engraving reproduced in Helmut and Alison Gernsheim's L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype, plate 16, which shows a view of the Diorama from the rue Sanson, looking north through the fountain towards Daguerre's building, and some very early photographs taken by the remarkable Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey of the fountain and its lions, frozen solid and shrouded in a thick mantle of ice, during the winter of 1841-42.)
To obtain an accurate documentary record of the site Daguerre was documenting from the Diorama building with his camera, we must reverse the daguerreotype itself. On the left below is the original orientation of the image. Next to it, on the right, is the flopped image, which gives us a more accurate account of the view Daguerre himself would have had from his window in the Diorama building.
If we now concentrate on the right-hand image, the one with the literally "correct" orientation, and consult any one of numerous maps from the period, it becomes clear that Daguerre's image shows what was then the very top of the boulevard du Temple. This part of the boulevard is now buried underneath the place de la République; Haussmann's modifications shortened the boulevard du Temple by about 122 metres, or roughly one fifth of its original length. In the flopped daguerreotype, the boulevard leads away, as it did in actuality, south-east. (The small street just visible to the left of the large white building in the foreground is rue des Fosses des Temples, which meandered along roughly parallel to the boulevard itself.)
Below I reproduce a map of the area drawn in 1834 — that is, only four years before Daguerre took his photograph. On it I have marked, the Diorama, the approximate location of the humans present in Daguerre's image, as well as the institutions which had established and fixed the boulevards reputation: the famous cluster of "petits théâtres", which were allowed to stage popular entertainments which did not threaten the monopoly of institutions such as The Comédie Française on French classical theatre. I have also noted some of the famous cafés on the southern side of the street. It should be noted that the whole area was filled with taverns, inns and more or less salubrious cafés . Almost every theatre had its own café attached.
I will return in a later post to discuss the theatres on the side of the boulevard on which the boot-black and the pedestrian are situated. For now, though, a few notes on the theatres hidden by the slight convex curvature of the building line on the northern side of the street will be enough to give a flavour of the area.
The "G" referred to in the map's notes is an abbreviation for the guide-book, Galignani's New Paris Guide..., [no trans.] (Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1838), from which I have taken a few illustrative comments. Buildings or establishments noted within square brackets and without pointers to a particular spot on the boulevard indicate where certain non-theatrical edifices on the boulevard stood in relation to the theatres. Finally, I should note that the full image, accessible by clicking on the thumbnail is, for the sake of legibility, quite large, and may require you to scroll around in your browser window to view all details.
The spot on which the boot-black and the other figures (see "traces") are standing in the daguerreotype can be seen from another angle in the image reproduced below, an engraving made a little later in the century. The area once occupied for a few minutes in 1838 by Daguerre's figures is marked in red.
In conclusion, I return to those long shadows cast by the trees, buildings and people in Daguerre's photograph. The roughly north-westerly to south-easterly direction of the boulevard, which Daguerre is photographing from the north-western end, means that the sun's light, source of life, time and photography alike, must be washing across Paris from the east, making shadows that point in the general direction of the west, and hence that the photograph was indeed taken early in the morning as the boulevard was coming to life.
A man stops to have his shoes shined at the corner of rue du Temple and boulevard du Temple before he heads to his business. A boot-black stoops to the man's shoes and begins polishing and buffing. Unseen by them, a figure at a high window to the north of them carefully uncovers the lens on his invention and allows light to penetrate the darkness of the device.... What do these details of place and time tell us about Daguerre's image? "We'll be right back."
August 23, 2007
Goodbye to the chipmunk blinking at me yesterday morning on the Best Western™’s monogrammed stub bin;
goodbye to the tiny, rigid, blue and yellow lizard (a sagebrush lizard?) in the hallway, which my wife and sons captured two nights ago in a foam cup and carried to the freedom of the Great Outdoors;
goodbye to the water-striders’ of Donner Lagoon with the larger-than-life globular shadows of their spindly feet;
goodbye to the great, brown, no bullshit crawfish sitting impassively beneath us on the floor of the Lagoon;
goodbye to the white-winged predator birds (some kind of eagle?) wheeling together last Saturday on Squaw Valley’s thermals;
goodbye to the dried-up creekbeds silent like cobbles as, astride Trudy, the old Belgian workhorse, I babbled to the camcorder while we plodded through the Tahoe National Forest;
goodbye to the horrified mouse dashing to safety behind the trashcan at the 7-11 on Palisades Drive;
goodbye to the overlooked plants and flowers which entranced me by entracing my wife;
goodbye to SpongeBob whom I will not see again until my next hotel;
goodbye to the great brown bear which (I hope) watched us from the trees, while we noticed nothing;
goodbye to all this town's sad ghosts, human and animal alike, all still so here;
and hello, hello, once again, to work, to school, to money — the familiar worms in our family’s apple.
One of the pleasures I find in driving through unfamiliar countryside in the United States is the unfailing Adventure of the Place-Names. In that vacant, tranquil, thoughtless state I find I slip into on a long drive, just encountering this succession of odd, romantically threadbare, illogically jumbled speech-worlds at the side of the road, as town after town slides by, makes me happy.
Sometimes, what is pleasurable is that for America there just does not seem to be enough language to go round. In my early years in the States, I remember the thrill of finding in Southern California a trail which passed along "No Name Ridge".
Here are some examples of place-names which I saw on maps or on signs as we powered the Buick over the Donner Pass and glided down from the heights of the Sierra Nevada into California’s blistering Central Valley:
Ophir (California) [a port mentioned in the Bible and supposedly famous for its wealth]
I also saw a sign for "Ice House Road" (in Pollock Pines, near Loon Lake, to the west of Lake Tahoe). An odd coincidence, that. "Ice House Road" was also the name of the country street, little more than a steep lane really, winding through stands of beech, birch and larch and leading up to Crockmore House, the house where Frederick and Florence Holmes lived outside Henley.
Oh, relax, Nick. Was there ever a place, or a person, without its "twin" or double somewhere else?
August 22, 2007
It is gratifying that Chris Rovee has expertly followed up with me again, this time commenting on a post he originally inspired, "Morse's Vision", in which I discussed Samuel F. B. Morse's description of his meetings with L. J. M. Daguerre in Paris in 1839.
Morse was particularly taken with what is now one of the best-known of the Frenchman's own daguerreotypes, the image usually called Boulevard du Temple. The striking impact of the photograph on Morse had much to do with the way in which Daguerre's method required a long exposure time to achieve a fully-detailed print on the silver-coated mirror surface of the photographic plate. (There is an interesting account by Geoffrey Hopkins of the actual techniques involved in the "Daguerreian Process", published in the Scientific American of 22 January 1887.) As a result, Daguerre, Morse wrote, created an image in which the "Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed." Morse explained that the individual's "feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot-black, and the other on the ground."
To put it at its gentlest, I am no expert on the historiography of early photography. However, based on a cursory examination of some of the available literature, it seems to me that most art-historians second Morse in finding only a single figure captured, even if imperfectly, on the plate of Boulevard du Temple — the "individual who was having his boots brushed." As if to butrress that assertion, the passive voice in which Morse cast this sentence contrives to suggest that this cleaning process was happening without the intervention or actions of another person. The "individual" stood still and his boots were magically polished and brushed by invisible, or by linguistically occluded, hands. Thus it was that, as a free gift which came accidentally with the boot-blacking, this nameless "individual" became what writers on the subject have routinely called "the first person" ever to be photographed. (Mary Warner Marien's reading of the image in her excellent Photography: A Cultural History and Geoffrey Batchen's in Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography are important exceptions to this myopic account of Daguerre's photograph.)
While writing "Morse's Vision" I had wondered myself about the accuracy of this notion that only one person is represented, but in my post I deferred lazily to the consensus opinion. However, Chris Rovee asks me: "do you really think the boot-black isn't visible?" Chris, along with Warner Marien and Batchen, is right. He has prompted me to re-examine and to contemplate this photograph with the kind of scruple that, amazingly enough, I had not exercised before. After doing that, it is clear that Boulevard du Temple possesses a number of complexities or ambiguities which have received little accounting from me, and perhaps from others, so far. Because this is the case, at least for a while it feels to me like the right time to get positivistic (dreaded word!) about Daguerre's image.
Among the principle group of issues which need an answer are important questions about the number of human presences (or absences) in the photograph, the time of day when the photograph was taken, the place which it was taken from, the nature of the social space on the main street captured in the image, the boulevard du Temple (part of the boundary between the 3rd and 11th arondissements), and the interpretive context in which Daguerre intended this photograph to be seen. In actuality, all these questions are interrelated but, for the sake of clarity, I am going to split them up. So, why not begin with a simple and yet apparently irresoluble problem? — the number of humans actually shown in the photograph.
Walter Benjamin insisted that, paradoxically, the "cult value" of the aura staged a last, elegiac moment of resistance to capitalist "exhibition value" in the first photographs, the products of the medium which was destined to destroy it. The "portrait is central to early photography. In the cult of remembrance of dead or absent loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time." By 1847, less than a decade after Daguerre's invention was first unveiled to the public, photography had become a popular middle-class craze all over Europe and the United States with portraits studios in such places as Paris taking upwards of 3,000 portraits a year.
But this vogue had been enabled by a rapid series of technical developments in the years after 1839. These included much faster exposure times, the reduction in size of photographic equipment, and improvements in accelerated chemical processing of the captured image. Photographers had been trying to take portrait images around September 1839. The first, and only very partially successful, image in which a person is the specific target of the camera's gaze was shown by Alfred Donné in October 1939. But, then, and for some time afterwards, the process involved an extreme physical trial on the subject's part. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, amongst the great historians of early photography, comment: "During 1840 it was still necessary to pose for several minutes in sunshine — a very long time to keep motionless — and the ferocious expression of the few intrepid people who submitted to themselves to such experiments bore witness to their resolution and ordeal." In fact, contra Benjamin, the earliest photography, such as the images made by Daguerre himself, had enormous difficulty in recording human presence at all, still less the details of a specific human face.
The Daguerrian image which I discussed in "Morse's Vision" and which I show again here, was evidently taken either in the early morning or the late afternoon when sunlight was flooding at a gentle angle laterally into the city from either the east or the west, and when the shadows cast by the trees and houses on the boulevard du Temple are correspondingly quite long.
According to the Gernsheims in L. J. M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype, Daguerre took the images from his laboratory-eyrie in the 350-seat Diorama Building, which stood at 4, rue Sanson, at the intersection with the rue des Marais, and which from the back looked out roughly southwards, high over the rooftops, towards boulevard du Temple.
The maps above mark the former and actual location of the Diorama in blue and the location of boulevard du Temple in red. The map on the left above, showing the "Emplacement du diorama", is taken from Georges Potonniée, Daguerre: Peintre et décorateur (Paris, 1935). It is reproduced in R. Derek Wood, "Daguerre and His Diorama in the 1830s: Some Financial Announcements" (1997- ). The buildings in this area of Paris was almost completely razed, while old streets were destroyed and new ones built during the Haussmannizing of the district and the creation of place de la République between 1854-79. Wood notes that the site of the Diorama in present-day Paris is roughly at "the south side of rue Léon Jouhaux just off the north corner of place de la République". This is shown in the map on the right above, courtesy of Google Earth.
The Gernsheims say that from that vantagepoint Daguerre captured a number of images of the boulevard du Temple, at least one showing it in the morning, one at noon, and one in the evening. Others images of the boulevard du Temple included some showing blurred images of horses in the street. Morse saw some, or perhaps all, of these now lost pictures.
I will come back on another occasion to the exact time of day shown in the photograph we are considering. But for today's task, the purpose of determining how many people are shown in the best-known Boulevard du Temple image, it is sufficient for now to note that the picture of the man having his shoes blacked was taken when the shadows were long, and hence either relatively early or late in the day.
Another, brighter image of the same spot (reproduced here), shows the shadows cast by the boulevard's trees as considerably reduced in size. This image must therefore have been made around noon when the sun was more or less directly overhead. It shows no-one at all, or almost no-one at all, on the street. In reality of course many people must have been passing back and forth for the several minutes when light made its way into Daguerre's camera, but very few stayed still long enough for their presence to be captured legibly on the photographic plate.
This second, noon-time picture does clarify some of the visual enigmas of the first. What is there in the first image is not present in the same place in the second. It shows, for example, that the boot-black had two boxes close to one another on the pavement (see enlargement on right). Customers could rest their feet on these cube-like boxes while he performed his services for them (see enlargement on left). It is quite possible that the second box may have belonged to a companion worker. Why would one shoe-black need two boxes? Here is John Sanderson's exactly contemporaneous, and superlatively condescending, description of a Parisian shoe-black (in French, a "cireur de bottes") in his The American in Paris, published in 1838:
Let me introduce you to this shoe-black. He has, as you see, a little box, a brush or two in it, and blacking, and a fixture on the top for a foot; this is his fond de boutique, his stock in trade. He brushes off the mud to the soles of your feet, and shews you your own features in your boots for three sous.
The second image which Daguerre made of the corner of boulevard du Temple at its intersection with a side street, rue des Fosses du Temple (as I will explain later), thus elicidates exactly what we are looking at in the first picture: the composite shape registered by the camera is made up from a customer, a boot-blacker, two wooden boxes and a tree sapling. In the enlargement below, I have outlined the shape of the boot-black's crouched figure in purple.
All of this makes coherent, logical sense. A man stops for a shoe-shine in the early morning before heading to his daily round or later in the afternoon after the city has left its patina of mud and dust on his feet. At midday, when the sun is overhead, the temperature is at its hottest, the day is already half-done, and the wealthier people, the cireur de bottes's clientele, in the area are inside being served lunch. As such, business is slack for the boot-black, who has retired into the shadows, probably to eat, stay cool and to wait for a customer. Daguerre's incomparably beautiful, waxing and waning shadows are like a social and economic sundial telling the time of the street's financial day.
(Incidentally, the fullness of the foliage on most of the trees, the starkness of the shadows on the pavement, the shops' extended awnings, and the apparent brightness of the day all seem to suggest that these images cannot have been taken in the late winter or early spring of 1839. Daguerre showed at least some of the Boulevard du Temple pictures to Morse on 8 March 1839 when for some months Paris cannot have looked quite so summery. This indicates that the photographs were probably made in the summer of 1838, not, as is usually assumed, 1839.)
As far as Chris's and my discussion of the best-known image of the boulevard du Temple taken by Daguerre is concerned, my conclusion is that the image does not show an isolated bourgeois subject, who has remained visible and legible while all the traces of labour on which he relies for his social standing, in this instance the presence of a labourer who stoops to shine the bourgeois' shoes, have failed to register and hence have become "invisible" to history.
Instead, if one actually pushes past one indifference and pursues the image's ghosts, one sees the image of one semi-destitute man or child hunched immobile over the raised foot and straight torso of another, wealthier, more "upright" person. The cognitive erasure of the street labourer's bent back in subsequent critical discussions of this photograph is a result not simply of photography's technical limitations at the period but of the class-based perspectives held by many among the early makers of, and the audience for, photography.
In the context in which my conversation with Chris about this picture has arisen, the subject of a microscopic attentiveness is therefore not to be circumscribed solely as one of the essential markers of modern poetics. It is also the prerequisite for restoring to art and history alike a sense of social reality. It would take until Atget's turn-of-the-century images of Parisian rag-pickers and the publication of the first installment of Georg Sander's Antlitz der Zeit series in 1929 that the worker's back could truly unbend before the photographer's lens. Then, at least, the disadvantaged figure in the photograph could be allowed a face, if not yet given a name.
But if, looking again, at the boulevard du Templeimage, we can be almost certain that there are at least two people registered on Daguerre's silver-coated plate, we might also be tempted to go even further. At the risk of beginning to sound like a parody re-enactment of Antonioni's Blow-up, enlargements of the photograph, even of the relatively crude kind which I am able to make on the trusty Rosinante of my ancient laptop, suggest there may be one more person, or perhaps even two more people, hidden in the image.
If one looks to the right of the pedestrian and boot-black cluster, on the same stretch of pavement one can discern a curious, large lumpy shape, also stationed by a sapling (see enlargement on left). It looks as if it is constituted from several dark objects as well as from something bright white. A cloth? A sheet of paper? A map? A poster? This second, composite shape is of very similar dimensions to the pedestrian and boot-black grouping. Likewise, the "shape"'s outline is composed of straight lines and curves as is the case with the more obvious grouping. And, again, as is true of the boot-black and customer, in the daguerreotype made at around mid-day, this second "shape" is not present (see enlargement on right).
No definitive assertions seem possible, especially since the complete images themselves are so relatively tiny. The Boulevard du Temple image was captured as a "whole-plate" size. That means that the entire image was roughly 6.5 inches high and 8.5 inches wide. The details within the image which we are talking about here thus occupied tiny fractions of an inch of the original, and only, plate. (Again, more about the plate's physical history on another occasion.) But, allowing for the visual ambiguities attendant on examining an image of such a small scale, it is hard to know what else the "lumpy shape" on the street to the right of the customer and boot-black might be except at least one other figure (see enlargement outlined in purple above). The "thing" must be able to move because it is not present in the other, noon-time photograph. It was thus present when other humans were standing or crouching still enough to be impressed on Daguerre's camera plate, and yet mobile enough to be absent when the other figures were absent too. In particular, the human-sized shape to the left side of the white sheet, the shape which has inward-bending curves where one would expect shoulders on a human, and a ball-like protuberance where one would expect a head, seems hard to decipher as anything but a seated person. As for the other, right-hand side of the shape — perhaps another human presence bending forwards to examine something or to read it?
My claim is that Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple image, one of the best-known and most admired pictures in the history of early photography shows not one person, as many have assumed, and not two, as a few discerning critics have noticed, but three people and perhaps even four — a populated micro-world into which we can, and should peer, even though it is only like looking through a glass darkly.
What difference does that make to our interpretation of the photograph? To use an old-fashioned expression, "Stay tuned", or a new-fangled, and much less truthful, one — "We'll be right back."
August 21, 2007
[image: Vija Celmins, Night Sky, #5, 1992, MoMA, NY] Never mind the landscape for a moment, the night sky is so beautiful out here. You can pick thousands, perhaps millions, more stars above you than you can through the gluey-haze of the nigh sky in the suburbs. The Milky Way, that vast visual cliché which hardly anyone who decries it has ever observed, is actually visible, and looks miraculous, from Truckee! The Donner Party, shivering in their lean-tos, must have stared up at it frequently.
It is early evening now in the Sierras. Everything terrestrial is very slowly, subtly darkening and losing its outline. A middle-aged white guy running to fat, as anyone can see, lies in the Best Western™ pool in Truckee. He is floating on his back at the shallow end. What looms for him in his "Western" body's future? Heart disease? Cancer? Alzheimer's? His head is resting on the hard, curved lip just above water-level at the pool's edge. The light is still good enough for one to observe that there is a dark, blurry halo on the concrete where his hair is. (So he has been swimming already, we know at least that.)
The little, bony bump at the base of the back of the human head, called the "inion", "the most prominent projection of the occipital bone at the lower rear part of the skull" (it is also commonly known as the "external occipital protuberance"), to which the ligamentum nuchae and the trapezius muscle attach, is gently pressed by the weight of his brain and cranium against the pool surround's damp concrete, thus anchoring, via the flexible mediation of the vertebrae, muscles, ligaments, arteries, skin and nerves in his neck, his whole suspended body in place on the surface of the rippling water. He is looking upwards fixedly into the sky.
This guy must be a conceited, self-absorbed bastard: his two children, wielding with purple, tubular "floaties" and day-glo green vests, are cavorting around in the pool near him, occasionally looking round anxiously and calling "Dad! Dad! Come and watch this!" He replies "Co-ming! Just a mo-ment" without moving his head. And of course he never comes. I wonder what he is thinking. Whatever it is, he needs to wake up.
As for myself, there's a whole dimension of the story of Frederick Holmes's murder of Florence Holmes and of three others before carrying out his own suicide which I have so far only hinted at. You could say, I suppose, if you wanted to be ironic or mocking, that I have kept silent about it.
Partly it has to do with an epistemological issue: how much can I really know about an event that happened 99 years ago and have read about only in the two rather full reports which the Times printed on the discovery of the crime and on the subsequent inquest? Thomas Nagel wrote an essay pondering whether it was possible to know what is what like to be a bat. How much can I know about what is like to be a deranged man, probably driven mad by a confluence of financial reversals, crushing social pressures, and (not to be underestimated) the impact on his mind of intense, chronic, bodily pain? Why did he do it? Did he realize what he was doing? What else remains unknown, and what unknowable, about the events that morning?
Then there is a cultural issue for me to reckon with. I first learned only on 9 August 2007 about an event which took place on 8 February 1908. That was before my grandmother (let alone my mother, let alone I...) was born. It was my mother — fresh to the knowledge herself — who told me less than two weeks ago the sketchy set of details about what had occurred so many decades earlier. She had heard the narrative a few months ago, not from her mother (Frederick and Florence Holmes's granddaughter), who is dead, but from a man whom I have never met, a man who is, in the jargon of genealogy, my first cousin once removed. This man, whom I will call "Jeremy", is (shall we say?) a recently retired Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy. He is the author of a number of books on "attachment theory", a psychoanalytic speciality which stems from the work of such seminal figures as Anna Freud and John Bowlby. Attachment theory focusses on the consummate importance of understanding the patient's earliest relationships as an infant with adults, especially with the mother. I am not sure how well my mother knows "Jeremy" but "Jeremy" had certainly met her before, just as he had also met both of her brothers. "Jeremy" has apparently known about the Holmes murders/suicide for several decades. But until now it he seems that he has chosen not to divulge the details to anyone outside his immediate family. Thus, as far as I, my siblings and my parents are concerned, a deep silence has completely covered this terrible episode in my family's history for nearly a century. It feels a little like discovering that for years you have been unwittingly living in a house which is built on a toxic swamp.
My grandmother appears never to have mentioned the tragedy to her three children. One of them, one of my two maternal uncles, who died before "Jeremy" broke cover, has thus gone to his grave without knowing something defining about his mother's life. Unless, that is, Alec knew and he never mentioned it....
Now "Jeremy", retired and now perhaps looking around for a sexy project, just as some retirees look for a new hobby, has seized on the idea of some kind of freelance "exorcism event" or "cleansing ceremony" intended to "mark... the 100 years since the Frederick Holmes debacle" (I quote here from his treacly blog). The exact form which this mooted "exorcism event" or "cleansing ceremony" would take has, it would seem, varied over in "Jeremy"'s mind over the last few months, sometimes being conceived by him as a quasi-religious ritual in an isolated Henley wood and sometimes merely as a pleasant family lunch in that unbearably smug town.
Based on the parts of "Jeremy"'s blog which I have waded through, I feel that his plan comes painfully close to becoming a narcissistic appropriation of someone else's tragedy. Whose "exorcism" is it exactly? To me, it looks like with the misguided use of ancient history to assuage the perfectly understandable feelings of guilt and regret which an aging person suddenly with much time on their hands, looking back on their life, is bound to grapple with. As such, I am angrily repulsed by the whole exercise; it seems a scheme at once repugnant, ineffectual and silly.
But beyond my irritation over the foibles of one probably harmless individual, something larger seems involved: a confrontation with the astoundingly powerful, and to me sinister, culture of silence and repression which still governs so much conduct and understanding in England. But then I would see it as "powerful" and "sinister", wouldn't I? Because I was born into it, because it is dyed into so much of my own behaviour. I wish that Socrates had not said, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance." (Or at least it seems that he said that because in The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Diogenes Laertius claims Socrates said it.) I wish the old Greek philosopher had not rushed in to claim that idea because it would be a strikingly appropriate motto for inscription on the gate or portal of just about any house or blocks of flats in England.
Ultimately, the epistemological and the cultural issues blend into one another. I know so little about what happened in 1908 because patterns of "oral transmission" in England, even within families, are so patchy, so intricately circuitous, so fragile, so randomized, so marred by lacunae which were themselves long hidden.
There is one other, even murkier aspect of this knowledge which I have hardly even broached to myself yet. Where do I fit in? What does it matter to me? How much of that "silence", always hinting at whatever it was that it was that it occluded — in the way that a veil increases my fascination with the face behind it — am I carrying? Even the Bible is divided on this problem:
"the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, | Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." Exodus, 34.6-7
"The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." Ezekiel, 18.20
The passage from Ezekiel comes later in the Old Testament than the passage from Exodus, and perhaps therefore hints at being slightly closer to the still-not-revealed truth of the Christian dispensation. Perhaps...
"Dad, come on, Dad! It's getting really cold!" Suddenly, I hear shouts near me in the pool, and I feel an ache in the back of my head. Oh, where was I? I see the stars have started to come out.
August 20, 2007
"Hey, humanist, tell me something I don't know!"
"1) In 2006, the rate of growth in the GDP of India’s economy (9.2%) was almost three times as great as that of the United States’s (3.2%).
"2) At Christmas 1941 Chester Kallman wrote out for Auden on the small card which accompanied his present some dialogue from The Magic Flute. He chose the moment in the opera where Pamina insists on joining Tamino in the trials of Fire and Water, vowing to stand by him and be a faithful, steadfast partner: 'Tamino: "Hier sind die Schreckspforten | Die Noth und Tod mir draen." | Pamina: "Ich wird an aller Orten | An deiner Seite sein."' The quotation must have touched Auden deeply. In an undated letter, written from Swarthmore in 1944 or 1945, when their mood of their relationship had degenerated even further, he pleaded with Kallman to come and visit him, explaining: 'I need your interest and your help more than you know (or allow yourself to know). I've never forgotten what you wrote on a card with my Christmas Present in 1941. (quote from Pamina). I believe you meant it, hence my appeal.'
"3) There is no current scientific consensus about exactly why ice is slippery. The effects of friction on ice's surface? A ultra-thin, slidey layer of water on ice's surface? No-one has established a dominant explanation. Moreover, scientists now believe that there are at least 12 different types of ice, each with a different molecular structure. Some of these types of ice do not occur on earth.
"4) At the nanoscopic scale, 'a number of physical properties change when compared to macroscopic systems. One example is the increase in surface area to volume of materials.... Materials reduced to the nanoscale can suddenly show very different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale, enabling unique applications. For instance, opaque substances become transparent (copper); inert materials become catalysts (platinum); stable materials turn combustible (aluminum); solids turn into liquids at room temperature (gold); insulators become conductors (silicon). A material such as gold, which is chemically inert at normal scales, can serve as a potent chemical catalyst at nanoscales. Much of the fascination with nanotechnology stems from these unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale.'"
5) "A third of the world's population (that is, around two billion people) still 'don't have affordable access to light after the sun goes down' — SunNight Solar".
August 19, 2007
[image: Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838?] The Romanticist Christopher Rovee, my friend and colleague, has established "day by day"'s first feedback loop.
Chris read my recent entry on "Smallness" and modern poetry's parallel fascination with the small and the minute. For this fascination there was a spatial manifestation — a concern with tiny objects and with circumscribed poetic forms — as well as a temporal manifestation — brevity of duration and terseness of language. (The double sense of the written word "minute" captures this duality. It means both a unit of time and a description of the amount of space an object occupies.) In response Chris was kind enough to send me the text of Samuel F. B. Morse's account of his meetings with Louis Daguerre on 7 and 8 March 1839 in Paris. In it, the appeal of the small, or even microscopic, scale to the speculative, creative mind is already apparent much earlier than the 20th century.
Daguerre and his collaborator Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (who died in 1833) had been working for a decade on a more efficient photographic procedure. On behalf of the Académie des sciences, the politician and scientist François Arago had announced the perfected daguerreotype method in early January 1839. Excited write-ups of Daguerre's achievements soon began appearing across Europe as well as in the US press. The first of the latter was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser of 23 February 1839. Morse's article was printed in the New-York Observer of 20th April in the same year. It was originally written as a letter to his brothers Sidney and Richard Morse, who were the paper's editors. In the first part of his report, which I cite here, Samuel Morse describes his visit to Daguerre's "Diorama" building at the corner of rue Sanson and rue des Marais on 7 March, where he was shown examples of Daguerre's work.
Morse was especially taken with Daguerre's famous image, Boulevard du Temple, a view of the northern end of the street whose remains, post-Haussmann, now lie underneath roughly the middle of the place de la République:The exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it. For example: In a view up the street, a distant sign would be perceived, and the eye could just discern that there were lines of letters upon it, but so minute as not to be read with the naked eye. By the assistance of a powerful lens, which magnified 50 times, applied to the delineation, every letter was clearly and distinctly legible, and also were the minutest breaks and lines in the walls of the buildings, and the pavements of the street. The effect of the lens upon the picture was in a great degree like that of the telescope in nature.
Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot-black, and the other on the ground. Consequently, his boots and legs are well defined, but he is without body or head because these were in motion.
Morse also included in his newspaper essay descriptions of some other works by Daguerre. Again, it was the daguerreotype's revelatory access to the invisibly small which stirred him:One of Mr. D's plates is an impression of a spider. The spider was not bigger than the head of a large pin, but the image, magnified by the solar microscope to the size of the palm of the hand, having been impressed on the plate, and examined through a lens, was further magnified, and showed a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist. You perceive how this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore, as much beyond the microscope as the microscope is beyond the naked eye....
Reading these words reminded me simultaneously of the spider which I unfortunately but very deliberately drowned in the shower a few days ago and of "Zeitgeist", a recent essay by another treasured friend-colleague-scholar of Romanticism, Denise Gigante (European Romantic Review, April 2007). "Zeitgeist" does not mention Morse, being concerned primarily with the correlation between organicist scientific theories of life and Romantic poetry. But Gigante's observations there are acutely relevant to an understanding of Morse's encounter with Daguerre.
She argues in her essay that there was an epistemic shift in the scientific idea of "life" occurring at the very time when Morse met Daguerre in Paris: "cell theory... transformed biological investigation in the 1830s." Previously, scientists had defined life in terms of "larger systems composed of fibers and atoms, but these basic units were considered mere subdivisions of organic matter, not independent units of life." However, in 1839, the very same year in which Morse encountered Daguerre and his work, the German zoologist Theodor Schwann published his Microscopial Researches in Berlin. There Schwann drastically rescaled the conception of what life is by announcing that the single cell was the basic living unit. Gigante again: "Schwann explicitly likened the cell to a person: 'Each cell is, within certain limits, an Individual, an independent Whole.'" Suddenly the essence of life itself was reframed on a, literally, microscopic scale. Morse's wonder over the "the minutest breaks and lines in the walls of the buildings" and his quasi-religious reverence, as he contemplated the picture of the pinhead sized spider, over "a minuteness of organization hitherto not seen to exist" are firmly bound up with his awareness of contemporary science's new, minute, optically disclosed field of focus. To gaze at an image of something very small was to contemplate something close to the basis of life itself. For its first audience the images obtained with a camera, as Walter Benjamin said in his most famous essay on film and photography, brought "to light entirely new structures of matter."
Morse and Daguerre met again the next day on 8 March 1839, when Daguerre visited Morse's lodgings to inspect the American's electro-magnetic telegraph. (Morse was in Paris to seek a French patent on the device.) Himself no stranger to adversity, Morse ended his essay about Daguerre on a traditional sic transit gloria mundi note, commenting that there was:a melancholy close to my account of this ingenious discovery. M. Daguerre appointed yesterday at noon to see my telegraph. He came, and passed move than an hour with me, expressing himself highly gratified at its operation. But while he was thus employed, the great building of the Diorama, with his own house, all his beautiful works, his valuable notes and papers, the labor of years of experiment, were, unknown to him, at that moment becoming the prey of the flames.
On 8 March 1839, Daguerre's Diorama and his adjacent studio and house at the corner of the rue Sanson and the rue des Marais caught fire, destroying many of his scientific and technical writings, as well as much of his own work in the new photographic medium. (As a result, very few daguerreotypes made by Daguerre himself survive.) Daguerre arrived back from seeing Morse just in time to direct the firefighters to abandon the Diorama and to try and save above all else his studio, the experimental and intellectual nucleus of his work, on the 5th floor of No. 5 rue des Marais, his home next door.
The long exposure time necessary for the early daguerreotypes (anywhere from five to 60 or more minutes according to Daguerre's assistant, Hubert) meant that the early photograph was not able to capture contingency and flux of the everyday in the ways with which we have now come to associate at least the popular, snapshot uses of the medium. Early photography could not assimilate, at least within a single image, the "moment" at all. It could only be "impressed by" whatever was relatively lasting, static and, at least figuratively, fundamental, like buildings, walls and trees. Hence, the eerie cleaning-out of people in Daguerre's image of a bustling street as well as the uncanny fidelity of its reproduction of even the tiniest cracks and irregularities in the walls. Morse remarked, only the outline of a single, semi-surreal looking figure is captured because this man happened to be standing still having his boots shined: "his boots and legs are well defined, but he is without body or head because these were in motion." At least as far as Morse was concerned, the boot-shiner who was doing this for him was evidently moving swiftly back and forth around his customer and had thus disappeared from the image. If true, it is a striking encapsulation of life and the occluded place of labour in the modern metropolis to think that absolutely no one else aside from this leisured stroller, on what was, in reality, a street filled with humans, stood still for about 10 minutes. Mobility in the city was, and is, almost compulsory, and, seen through the lens of Daguerre's new device, mobility is a path towards total vanishing, towards death.
In his role as a businessman, a scientist and inventor (he was a trained painter too), Morse was more concerned with the conquest of distance. His first official message sent by telegraph (the sententious and grandiose "what God hath wrought") was transmitted in May 1844 between the Capitol and Baltimore. But his earlier article on Daguerre's work illustrates that he clearly recognized the burgeoning fascination and wonder of smallness in metropolitan culture: "this discovery is, therefore, about to open a new field of research in the depths of microscopic Nature. We are soon to see if the minute has discoverable limits. The naturalist is to have a new kingdom to explore." In April 1839, after returning to the United States, Morse received from Daguerre a copy of the pamphlet in which the process of making a photograph was described. Morse experimented with the technique, and, from a window in New York University, captured a postcard-size snapshot of the Church of the Messiah on Broadway, one of the first photographs taken in the United States. (The daguerreotype made of Morse in 1845 is often attributed to Daguerre.)
Morse was fully in the mainstream of educated reaction in his emphasis on the "exquisite minuteness of the delineation" which Daguerre's process achieved. Daguerre himself announced in early January 1839 that "without any knowledge of chemistry and physics, it will be possible to take in a few minutes the most detailed views, the most picturesque scenery." François Arago, the Director of the Paris Observatory and a member of the Chamber of Deputies, was Daguerre's principal political supporter in Daguerre's ultimately successful campaign to sell his photographic process to the French State in return for, amongst other things, a pension. On 9 January 1839, Arago made a statement about Daguerre's work at the Académie des Sciences: "the image is reproduced down to the most minute details with unbelievable exactitude and finesse." And an excited commentator in Le Commerce on 13 January 18939, marvelled that Daguerre was able to prove how far beyond the skills of a draughtsman the views produced by his invention went:M. Daguerre answers by putting a magnifying glass into our hand, whereupon we perceive the smallest folds of a piece of drapery and the lines of a landscape invisible to the naked eye. With the aid of a spy-glass we bring the distance near. In the mass of bui8ldings, of accessories, of imperceptible lines which compose a view of Paris taken from the Pont des Arts, we distinguish the smallest details; we count the paving-stones; we seep the dampness cause by the rain; we read the inscription on a shop-sign.
Citing Daguerre's own descriptions from 1838 of the "sharpness of the image, delicate gradation of the tones, and above all, the perfection of the details," Geoffrey Batchen is right to say that Daguerre seemed relatively indifferent to whether or not his procedure captured realistic views. Instead he was intent on something else, something smaller and more phantasmagoric: "Detail he claimed for photography, but reality he left to others." It was as if photography were capable of producing a visual analogue of the contemporary redefinition of life as a matter of tiny cellular units.
Soon the traditionally auratic images of the "great" person or event — of the epical military action, of the large-scale public event, of the looming grandeur of a heroic personage — would be an apolitical fascination with the humblest spider's body, with the tiny amoebic cell, with the anonymous citizen. After watching the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade, an assemblage of British Army cavalry units commanded by Lord Raglan at Balaklava in 1854, Marshal Canrobert commented: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre." In Finnegans Wake, Joyce debunked that chestnut and caught the modern preference for the small over the large when he reformulated the Marshal's remark: "Say mangraphique, may say nay por daguerre!"
In my "Smallness" post last week, I had been thinking about the cultural and scientific prestige of the small, and implicitly of the vogue for the artistic gesture of reduction or subtraction, as phenomena which began towards the end of the 19th century. Post-Rovee and post-Gigante, I see that this was wrong, at least in part. Almost while the sounds of the thundering hooves, the explosions and the screams of Raglan's wounded and dying men were still echoing in the Ukraine, in Bethlem pschiatric hospital the insanely violent but percipient Richard Dadd would be obsessively producing images, such as The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, begun in 1855, of a numinous, miniaturized world. But Dadd was very unusual. Perhaps he had to be insane in order to be prophetic?
The dominant scale of the later 19th century’s canonical painting, opera, poetry, fiction, and orchestral music remained titanic, its bourgeois preference was for endlessness, for prolixity, for enormity, just as its taste in sonority was for the oceanic and the deafening. Like Lewis Carroll (an enthusiastic photographer of course), Dadd and by extension Daguerre were precursors (licensed in Dadd's case by his insanity), able to ignore the dominant spatial protocols of his age's art.
Carroll and Dadd seem to belong spiritually to an epoch governed by different values — to the century of Satie and Webern, the early Pound, H. D., Quasimodo, Cornell, Beckett, Bishop and many others. These latter figures emanated from a period, now probably ended, in which, at least artistically, smallness was not equated with insignificance or ephemerality. The cult of the small came first in science and photography and only later in art.
The ideas and examples proffered by Rovee and Gigante about technical and zoological inquiry in the early 19th century illuminate a great deal. This, for instance: if it is true that, as the old saying goes, life follows art, it is equally true that art follows science... by a number of decades. And what does that say about modernity except that, in this era, science was and is the power which defines everything?
Thanks, Chris and Denise!
[For further thoughts on Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple, see my post "traces".]
August 18, 2007
1) Abcission Layer (interior landscaping): a "thin plate of cells which forms at the point of abscission", which is the "controlled shedding of part of a plant e.g. separation of leaves from the stem."
2) Aspirin (finance) [stands for "Australian Stock Price Riskless Indexed Notes"]: "Zero-coupon four-year bonds repayable at face value plus the percentage increase by which the Australian stock index of all ordinaries (common stocks) rises above a predefined level during the given period."
3) Astrology (cultural studies): "a substitute for sexual pleasure of a passive nature.... Communion with the stars is an almost unrecognised and therefore tolerable substitute of the forbidden relation with an omnipotent father figure." (definition by T. W. Adorno)
4) Blend (solo singing): the smoothness (or not) of the transition between the head voice and the chest voice.
5) Bright Work (maritime): the metallic or wooden fixtures of a ship buffed to a high, glossy shine by the sedulous, repetitive polishing on the part of the vessel's crew.
6) Bump Keys (crime): tools for use in picking a pin tumbler lock.
7) Campers (hotels and restaurants): people who continue to sit at a table and prolong their discussion long after finishing their food and paying their bill (also known as Whalers).
8) Caseous (pathology): "having a consistency like that of cottage cheese".
9) Cloud Suck (hanggliding): phenomenon "where pilots can get sucked into clouds as the lift increases strongly near the cloud."
10) Cockled (bibliophilia): adjective used to describe paper in a book which is wrinkled, wavy or puckered as a result of exposure to water or to very humid conditions.
11) Duck's Egg (education): Victorian schoolboy slang for the result of a game which one loses by a score of one to zero.
12) Functional Food (food processing industry): food which is "beneficial to one's health by contributing nutritional value beyond the expected level of nutrients. These foods can make treatment and risk reduction claims, in addition to providing nutritional information."
13) Gehinnom (religion): name for Hell in Rabbinic literature (with strong connotations of fire or burning). No one except a very aggravated sinner can be consigned to Gehinnom for more than 12 months.
14) Handy (consumer gadgets): German noun meaning a cellphone.
15) Hot Manure (horticulture): natural waste from animals such as horses, elephants and giraffes which can damage plants if applied to a garden while still fresh.
16) Kill Box (military): term used during Operation Desert Storm (1991) to define a "30-mile by 30-mile geographic designation within the Kuwait theater of operations in which autonomous strike operations were conducted."
17) Limbus (physiology): visible borderline between the cornea and the white globe of the human eye.
18) Notions (needlepoint): the basic tools for a sewing job, such as scissors, needle, thread.
19) Prairie Dogging (late capitalism): "Something loud happens in a cube farm, and people's heads pop up over the walls to see what's going on."
20) Primo Slide (skateboarding): tipping the skateboard which you are riding onto its side, standing on the board's other edge (also called a "rail stand") and contriving to make the board slide along as you balance on it.
21) Rail (squash): "shot hit close to and parallel to the sidewalls &mdash: that is, down the line or alley; a power drive hit for length."
22) Red-lining (finance): "Illegal discrimination in making loans, insurance coverage, or other financial services available to people or property in certain areas because of poor economic conditions, high levels of fraudulent transaction, or frequent defaults."
23) Rod Pocket (curtains): a "hem made by folding the fabric down, tucking under the excess and stitching along the tuck under. Each end is left open for inserting a rod."
24) Sintir (musicology): "a three stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people of Morocco. It is approximately the size of a guitar, with a body a carved from a log and covered on the playing side with camel. The neck is a simple stick with one short and two long goat strings that produce a percussive sound similar to a pizzicato cello or double bass. So this is an instrument that includes equal parts camel, goat and man."
25) Soaking (ceramics): "holding the kiln at final firing temperature for a period of time. This is usually done to mature the clay and give the glaze opportunity to flow and heal imperfections".
26) Tideline (bibliophilia): the narrow, irregular stain in circular form produced on a page from the "accumulation of chemicals at the edge of a liquid spot", such as one made by a drop of coffee, wine or grease.
27) Transducer (engineering): "device that produces an electrical output that is proportional to a mechanical input."
28) Vamp (clothing): late medieval term for the front part of a shoe, terminating roughly at the front of the ankle.
29) White Balance (technologically-mediated representations of reality): "The colo[u]r of light reflected from an object varies with the light source. The human brain is able to adapt to changes in the colo[u]r of the light source, with the result that white objects appear white whether seen in shade, direct sunlight or under incandescent lighting. Unlike the film used in film cameras, digital cameras [sic] can mimic this adjustment by processing images according to the colo[u]r of the light source. This is known as white balance."
30) ZIF (computing) [stands for Zero Insertion Force]: "a type of chip socket [in] which an arm or release device is used to lock the chip in place."
31) chunking (Formula 1 motor-racing, subscategory: tyre technology): "when small bits of rubber, often referred to as marbles, get stuck to the tyre and form larger chunks. These then harden on the surface, and can eventually damage the tyre underneath.... 'It was delamination caused by excessive "chunking",' [Hirode] Hamashima told autosport.com. 'The "chunking" got hardened as [Hamilton] braked for Turn Nine. It seems that there was an (unexplained) extra force applied to where the chunk was, and this delaminated the tyre.'"
August 17, 2007
[illustration source: Albert Bierstadt, View of Donner Lake, California, 1871-72] A vast sun over my shoulder, a cloudless sky, delicate shades of lichen breaking down over centuries the rocks they live on, the dry debris of shattered pines. Here and there, a few tufts of yellowed plant, a cigarette butt, something rusted, a tiny piece of green glass....
I am crouching, blasted by hot summer winds, on a bare ledge somewhere near the summit of Donner Peak in the Sierra Nevada, just about 7,900 feet above sea level. I sent my older son Hugo back a bit from the rock's edge because there is a sheer drop there of hundreds of feet down into a thick stand of tress. I am feeling a bit exposed, a bit vertiginous… Around me to the left (north) and right (south) there are even higher mountain tops. Not far off, I-80 slices across Donner Pass and if I turn my head in that direction I can see a steady-flowing stream of powerful SUVs surging up the ascent, weaving in and out of a more sporadic trickle of RVs, articulated trucks and Lexuses. I turn my head back and I sit, gazing down from the west almost 2,000 feet onto the sunny glitter of Donner Lake. Occasionally, as the wind drops for a moment, I can hear the scurry of a tiny sagebrush lizard’s tail as it darts across a nearby boulder. Far below me, an ant-like jetskier incises a small, white "V" into the dark blue water. This place is extreme, even in the height of summer.
When I was a 10 year-old, standing in school assemblies, bored as we mumbled out the day’s hymn, I remember thinking it was incomprehensible that I would ever turn into a forty year-old, like, well, like one of those sad sack teachers. Similarly, like most children I knew, I was almost intravenously connected to the family TV and thus to its steady drip-feed of American programming. But the idea that I myself would ever live in the United States, let alone would become an American, never crossed my mind. Too remote, too impossible. And for what reason? Life seemed so stable, so local, so enclosing in childhood.
Here I am in middle-age, though, in the far West, hunkered momentarily on a windy mountain-top one blazingly bright afternoon, looking down on one of the primal sites of American frontier myth. The eastern end of Donner Lake, then known as Truckee Lake (and also Alder Creek, six miles off), is where the Donner Party of settlers camped in the winter of 1846-47, after they had been prevented by snow from crossing the Sierra Nevada and reaching the safety of California before winter set in. In essence, the settlers arrived too late in the year to reach exactly the high, sun-baked spot where I am crouching now in the summer of 2007. My family — hot, tired and, in the children’s cases, er, "plaintive" — is waiting for me a little further back in the shade of some statically writhing pine trees. I must go.
The Sierra Nevada's brutally asymmetrical formation means that the highest peaks, and the most rapid changes in elevation are almost all on the eastern side of the range. After, or in the old days if, you reach the range's crest from the east, it is lengthily but relatively gently sloping run downhill all the way to Sacramento. So for settlers coming from the east, the final challenge, crossing the Sierras, was the most difficult, dangerous and maddening task of all. The first crossing of the country by a settler party with wagons, a journey which necessarily included surmounting the Sierra, was made as late as 1844. It was as if God were, to these often intensely religious people, playing the role of a drill instructor with a clipboard and a wry smile, waiting for them near the end of an almighty obstacle course:OK, very good. You got this far. You have somehow survived predators of all kinds, human and microbial on my vast Plains. And not all did survive. Some whom you knew well, you saw die slowly or suddenly, turn back, give up or go mad. You have not killed each other. Though half crazed with thirst, you have managed to heave your wagons and animals across the deserts of Utah and Nevada. I confess that I wasn't expecting you to manage that. Very well, then. Let's see how you shape up to the Sierra. If you get over them, you pass the test. Now, if there are no further questions, go! I will see some of you on the other side.
It is not surprising that California became known as the "Golden State". There is the notion of the state's vast mineral wealth inhering within the epithet of course. And of its temperateness (in certain parts). But the "Golden State" has a druggy connotation to it as well. A high percentage of the settlers who made it all the way must have in delirious, semi-psychotic or delusional states by the time when they first saw the Central Valley spreading out before them in the west. How many contemporary Navy SEALS would pass the wagon-train test, I wonder?
The "Donner Party" was an ill-planned, fractious, over-loaded, and badly-delayed collection of families of German, Irish and English extraction, totaling some 87 people, which had coalesced as various settlers crossed the Great Plains and the Rockies in the spring and summer of 1846. The Party had left Fort Bridger, Wyoming, on 31 July 1846. They made poor choices about their route from then on, and arrived exhausted at the eastern end of Donner Lake (then known as Truckee Lake) in early November 1846 only to be prevented by a gigantic snowstorm from attempting the final and most difficult crossing of all: the numbing trek across the Sierra Nevada. During the winter of 1846-47, the Donner settlers who remained in their camps at the eastern end of Donner Lake and at Alder Creek (after other members of the party had stumbled off on amateurishly-constructed snowshoes to try and fetch help) hunted for what food they could catch, trap or pick. Increasingly, though, they supplemented this scanty fare with the intensively-mined carcasses of their pack animals, then of their pets (the Donners themselves ate the family dog). Then they made a gluey soup out of hides and blankets. Finally, as winter wore on, some of them succumbed to the ultimate transgression of consuming human flesh (with the rather twee proviso that "no one would partake of his or her own relative's body").
The Donner Pioneer Statue in the beautiful State Park stretching out below my feet is (plinth and sculpture together) exactly 22-feet high, the same height as the snows covering this area during the winter of 1846-47 when the ragged, emaciated members of the Donner Party were struggling to survive on that spot. Dedicated in June 1918 by the Native Daughters and Native Sons of the Golden West, the monument was designed by the San Francisco artist John MacQuarrie (1871-1944).
MacQuarrie specialized in a sub-Saint-Gaudens version of the sonorous "heroic" note; he also did the McKinley statue in Golden Gate Park, the Bear Flag Monument in Sonoma as well as the murals in the Southern Pacific Terminals and Grand Central Station in Houston, Texas. The central, leading and largest figure in his Donner Pioneer Statue shows a rugged, bearded man, evoking the steady, Protestant spirits of the group’s leaders George and Jacob Donner and James Reed. The figure' right hand is raised to shield his eyes from the westwards-travelling sun as he stands resolute before the adversity which faces him, his brood and his followers. A bending, bare-breasted woman suckling a baby and hurrying to keep up with her man is partially sheltered by the leader's boldly and confidently upright body. This message of male hardiness is subtly naturalized by its geometric "rhyme" with the numerous, tall, straight pines which surround the site of the statue. The wording on the plaque, sounding the aggressively pro-masculine note again, reads: "VIRILE TO RISK AND FIND; KINDLY WITHAL AND A READY HELP. FACING THE BRUNT OF FATE; INDOMITABLE, — UNAFRAID."
But if Jared Diamond is right in his calm, lucid analysis of the type of person who was mostly likely to live through the conditions to which the Donner Party was exposed here in the winter of 1846-47, then the prototypical survivor was a girl or woman between the ages of 5 and 39, either married or a daughter or sister travelling with her family. 40 "pioneers" and two Native Americans, who had later on been sent to help them, died out of a total group of 87 people. The overall casualty rate for both sexes was thus some 47%, far worse than the front-line killing ratios would be during the Civil War or during World War One. But the men in the party were far more likely to die than the women, for reasons which had very little to do with idealistic self-sacrifice. The mortality rate for men was 57% compared with 29% for women. And of the men who survived, some only did so by acting truly disgracefully. The last person hauled babbling out of the Donner Lake settlement by soldiers on 17 April 1847 was a polylingual German immigrant Lewis Keseberg whom rescuers found:alone, surrounded by indescribable filth and mutilated corpses. George Donner’s body lay with his skull split open to permit the extraction of his brains. Three frozen ox legs lay in plain view almost uneaten beside a kettle of cut-up human flesh. Near Keseberg sat two kettles of blood and a large pan full of fresh human liver and lungs. He alleged that his four companions had died natural deaths, but he was frank about having eaten them. As to why he had not eaten ox leg instead, he explained that it was too dry: human liver and lungs tasted better, and human brains made a good soup. As for Tamsen Donner, Keseberg noted that she tasted the best, being well endowed with fat. In a bundle held by Keseberg the rescuers found silk, jewelry, pistols, and money that had belonged to George Donner.*
After Keseberg was safely in Sutter's Fort in the spring of 1847, several of the other survivors accused him of murder and grave robbing. There was not enough evidence to prosecute (as if this were all taking place within a rather cerebral whodunit, Keseberg had eaten most of the witnesses who could have talked about his guilt or innocence), and he sued for slander. He won his case but the jury awarded him only a single dollar.
Slowly, the memory of the Donner Party's fate has become rather an impediment to the area's commercial upswing. Smart young San Franciscans gliding downwards towards their après-ski activities as the sun falls do not want to be reminded of the 22-feet of horror which the weather once inflicted here on elderly, festering, badly-equipped pioneers. Diners, teasing open their braised Cornish hens with an orange glaze in Truckee's forthcoming bistros, will not want even to risk experiencing a brief, subliminal flash of terror as if Tamsen Donner's weary face were again and again falling apart under the application of their knifes and forks. A new, more pluralistic museum is now planned for the area. Its name will be the "High Sierra Crossings Museum", and it will be designed to illustrate a much broader, more variegated history than that of the Donner Party alone. As the superintendent for the Sierra district of the California State Parks has put it, "People have been crossing Donner Pass for thousands of years and camping at the lake. After the Donner Party, the pass was the main route for wagons, and then the railroad and now the highway."*
The wind, dusty and hot, is still whipping round this peak and me. I have no idea how long I have been here. I must go: Siri, Hugo and Owen are waiting for me. I realize that, as I have been staring down from this high ledge into the dark history which was acted out in this corner of a summer paradise, what I have had undeclared on my mind the whole time is some knowledge which I do not know how to react to. The knowledge is that in the lush heart of England, nearly 100 years ago, my deranged great-great-grandfather destroyed my great-great-grandmother and three other people before annulling himself as well. It lies like something hard, alien, indigestible in my mind. I feel I can think about it only indirectly, in terms of something else. Is that what "reflecting on a subject" means? In the west, I am still looking east, backwards, from the heat into the recalled or imagined cold. Another blue lizard scurries by. I must go.
August 16, 2007
The densely-forested mountains outside Truckee are glowing a kind of gilded green in this morning's sunlight. Occasionally, you see the trees skirt round a heavy, vertical brown strip, like a scar, incised through the thick integument of pines somewhere near a summit. It's a ski-run healing in the peace of summertime.
While the others were still asleep earlier today, I lay in one of our king-size beds thinking, without knowing particularly why, about Andy Warhol's silkscreened quadruple Sigmund Freud. Warhol overlaid Max Halberstadt's famous black-and-white photograph of the austere, patriarchal Freud of 1922 with the psychedelic candy colours of consumerist, egocentonic America.
[Interruption in writing this up: the boys are watching SpongeBob on their already well-beloved Samsung™. I had to stop typing and chuckle with them over SpongeBob's squelchy-voiced request to a night-school teacher: "Mrs. Pop, can I be excused for the rest of my life?" Siri lies on the striped bedcovers crocheting a chic, downtown-type scarf. She looks up occasionally with a sceptical squint at the preoccupied male inhabitants of this room. I imagine she is thinking "What have I wrought?" The phrase "kicking your butt" reverberates four times from the TV set. Siri sighs; the boys are legless; I sit in my chair laughing.]
I have also been looking again at a battered copy of The Interpretation of Dreams. The "Chelsea" edition of the book, edited in the 1950s by Erikson, contains some interesting appendices. These appendices print material — especially notes of, and examples from, case-studies — which Freud omitted from his published work. I had never seen any of this writing before. It is very fragmentary, but some of the passages, though elliptical, are nonetheless fascinating.
In particular, I was struck by notes which Freud made in the last years of the 19th century about the dreams of a patient who worked in Vienna as a lawyer and who briefly consulted Freud. This man, whom Freud refers to in his notes only as "A", was extremely anxious. Of middling age (no more details on that), "A" worked at a large firm in the city, dealing mainly with contract law. He was of an invariably pleasant and well-educated demeanour, though he seems sometimes to have struck a few acquaintances as subtly unctuous, or alternatively almost mocking in his attitude to other people. This odd manner was repeated in his dealings with Freud. There were also underlying hints in "A"'s self-presentation of aggression and of strong ambivalence about the emotional compromises entailed by the highly formalized and protocol-laden type of work which he had chosen as a career. He consulted Freud because he was uncertain, or, better, "ambivalent", about his professional future. He was considered very promising by the law firm's senior partners but there were also various doubts about him. These doubts were coming to a head when "A" was seeing Freud because the firm's senior lawyers were then considering whether to make "A" a partner ("ein Mitglied") in their business.
Freud notes the details of a dream recounted to him by "A". In the dream "A", after various struggles and compromises between the law firm's senior partners (many of these disputes concerned matters far beyond those immediately at hand in the case of "A"), "A" has recently been promoted to partner-level. (It bears repeating that at the time of the dream "A" had in fact not yet been promoted. We do not know if in real life he ever was.) In a bohemian café much frequented by Viennese writers, including the well-known playwright and art critic Hermann Bahr, the dreamer was sipping coffee and writing a few meagre sentences in a notebook. By chance another partner from his law firm was also in the café. The person in question was an elderly male had been a brilliant success in his chosen field, tort law, and was highly regarded. In his notes Freud calls this man "B". "B" had at one time been very supportive of "A" and had treated him kindly, cultivating him as a protégé. But lately "B" had become frustrated by "A"'s multiple failings (which "A" had been free and eager, perhaps too free and eager, to confess both to "B" and to Freud).
In the dream, the older lawyer approached "A"'s table. He was alone. "B", from whose finely-tailored sleeves "A" noticed a pair of manicured, distinctly feminine-looking hands protrude, did not sit down but instead stood lowering over him. "Look at you!" "B" suddenly screamed. "You do nothing! You should be erased! I have created a monster!" There were murmurs, and many of the café's other, variously distinguished or talented patrons turned their heads to observe this surprising confrontation.
"A" was transfixed by this public and all-too-searching accusation from the older lawyer. He was unable to speak for several moments and remained sitting, looking up agog at "B". But finally he responded, panicked, plaintive, but not without a strain of anger as well: "No, no. Not a 'monster'! A friend!" As he blurted out the word "friend" with great emphasis, "A" awoke, experiencing a great surge of tearful emotion subtly tinged with currents of a petulant ressentiment.
Freud's remarks on the dream were brief and mainly technical. At the end of his notes, though, he wrote: "Wrecked by the prospect of success". In the margins of the second-hand copy of The Interpretation of Dreams which I own, a former reader of these pages has written in the margin next to Freud's enigmatic phrase about "the prospect of success": "Oedipus? Pygmalion? Bartleby?" These seem to me characteristically fashionable 1950s or 1960s questions, though not without continuing relevance. Then, underneath on the same page, in another script, there is the further question, rather sophomorically phrased perhaps, but again relevant: "The changing relations between the generations at the time?" I suppose these two sets of comments mean that my book must in fact be at least "third-hand".
Anyway, these relatively intense and numerous notations in the margins of this particular page of the book suggest either that many readers across time have responded unusually strongly to something in "A"'s dream or that they have felt unease or scorn over Freud's own epitaphic summation of "A"'s problems. Indeed, shortly after having this dream and recounting it to Freud, "A" disappeared from view. There was not even a formal note explaining why he was discontinuing the analysis. An appointment was cancelled. Thereafter, the analyst simply never saw "A" or heard from him. As far as I know, Freud correspondingly ceased immediately to ponder the case and never referred to it again. It is only thanks to Erikson's excavations that we know about "A", his encounters with Freud, and his "café dream" at all.
I am not sure what I myself feel about "A"'s dream. But I admit that it does stay with me. What to say that is germane? Perhaps, before I leave the book somewhere for its next owner to find, I should merely write in the margin, SpongeBob's "Can I be excused for the rest of my life?"? But, no, that would be dumb. I think again of Warhol's silkscreen. Seen through the lens of knowledge about "A"'s suffering, the reds, pinks and yellows of the "Freud" in the lower right quadrant of the picture seem to cast an icily contemptuous aura over this great doctor, and the cigar which he is holding in his right hand no longer seems just like a cigar but also, as if in a dream, like a pistol whose hammer Freud has just cocked with his right thumb. Anyway, enough — it is time for us to head out for coffee.
August 15, 2007
We arrived for a short holiday in Truckee, near the Nevada border, at about 4 o’clock this afternoon. Truckee is famous for its association with the disaster which overtook the Donner Party of settlers on the eastern shores of nearby Donner Lake (as it is now known) in the winter of 1846-47.
Truckee first began to flourish in 1868. Following five years of intense politicking, surveying, draining, dynamiting and massive amounts of human muscle, largely supplied by thousands of Chinese labourers, the Central Pacific Railroad, presided over by former Governor Leland Stanford, succeeded in constructing a huge tunnel at Donner Pass. This largest and most brutally difficult engineering feat of the whole project completed the "conquest" of the Sierra Nevada, and finished the CPRR's line from Sacramento, California, to Ogden, Utah, on the western end of the Rockies.
One of the company's trains first chugged through the "Summit Tunnel" at Donner Pass in June 1868. Less than a year later, Stanford, using a "silver ceremonial spike maul" drove the "golden spike" into a predrilled hole in a railroad sleeper in the Salt Lake Valley at Promontory, Utah, thus symbolically completing the First Transcontinental Railroad by linking together the CPPR's system and the Union Pacific's line. (The golden spike was swiftly removed after the dignitaries had retired that day and someone hammered home a regular, iron spike in its place. The golden spike in now in the Stanford Museum.)
In the 1910s and 1920s Truckee briefly became a fashionable winter resort for celebrities and movie people — in 1924 Charlie Chaplin tried to film much of The Gold Rush (1925) around Truckee, substituting the scenery of the Sierra Nevada for the film's purported setting in Alaska. Eventually most of the footage had to be reshot on carefully constructed Klondike sets back in Hollywood. But you sense, driving along Donner Pass Road, Truckee's main street, that for almost 70 years the town stagnated, the ramshackle buildings and grimy stores contrasting with the the unspoiled (that is, "worthless", unexploitable) magnificence of the surrounding landscape.
Now, though, Truckee is changing rapidly. Because of its proximity to the north shore of Lake Tahoe, and to ski adjacent resorts such as Northstar and Squaw Valley, Truckee is a booming townlet these days. Owners of ancient, grease-encrusted Truckee diners are feverishly trying to figure out how to get their new espresso machines working. The town jail is now a "museum". There is much ghastly and/but expensive "Western" art on display in various new galleries while in other storefront windows headless and armless torsos display the latest in shape-concealing fashions for the affluent middle-aged vacationers. A stampede of moccasins and name-brand sport-boots tread down the groping, voiceless ghosts of Truckee's lonely history.
Condos and fancy second- or third-homes are being thrown up all round our decidedly homey motel, the Best Western™ Truckee Inn, just outside the main strip of town. As soon as we got to the hotel room, Hugo and Owen dived competitively for the TV remote. "Ah, like father, like sons", I thought with a mixture of pride and sadness, as I stood gawping while Siri attempted to disentangle the battling limbs of our offspring.
It has only been about 3 years since I could enter a hotel room anywhere in the world without immediately and gleefully zapping on the magic, glowing box I found awaiting me there. Thanks to rigourous efforts at self-improvement, my responses have recently become just slightly less automatic. But I still cannot hear the staticky whisper of a hotel TV turning itself on without an excited quickening of the heart.
Like many people, I find, or construct, my past through the lens of memorable images. As I wearily dumped bag after bag (towels, medicines, sprays, clothes, coffee-making stuff, wine, shoes, hats, books, clothes, snacks, camcorder, DVDS and clothes) on the floor of the Best Western™'s ultra tough, in-room carpet, I remembered one of my life's iconic paintings, Robert Rauschenberg's Exile (1962). As if something clicked in my head, I could suddenly see it clearly in my mind's eye, an eye that is shaped like a rectangle with gently softened corners.
A black and white, uncentered quilt of images, a constellation of blurred, weightless icons: Cubism spectralized for the Age of The Networks! I can gaze at Exile for hours, daydreaming like the Velázquez Venus (top left) gazing blankly at herself or at me in a small, box-like mirror. "Began silkscreen paintings to escape familiarity of objects & collage", Rauschenberg wrote. He made 79 of these great silkscreen works, every one of them a prophetic visual codification.
I feel my eyes migrating between spidery skeins of paint and smudged geometries; between a colourless spectrum of image-worlds — the Rokeby Venus, a pair of keys, a mosquito, an elderly car, a glass. The picture drives into my mind like a sword slowly sinking in all the way up to the hilt. What is it that penetrates so far into me? It has to do with the crazily eclectic nature of the painting's nostalgia, with the flickering surface, the endless foregrounding of detail, the substanceless veils of light. It has to do with an entire English childhood whiled away in front of a black and white television set. Exile gives me a liberating feeling of distance from all that even as it prolongs the exquisite greyness of the memories, the spell.
"Nick! Help me!" Siri pleaded. The fused, four-legged, four-armed entity was still locked, roaring, in battle with itself over the TV's remote. Smiling, I waded in. "Easy guys", I boomed in my faux-American paterfamilias voice. "We didn't come here to watch TV. Now, let's take turns."
August 14, 2007
[illustration source: Anders Nilsson and Hirohito Ogasawara] Nietzsche's now-familiar call at the end of The Antichrist for a moral revolution, a "transvaluation of all values", is a counterpoint to modern science's inexorable "transvaluation of sizes". The continuous drive of physics ever deeper and further into the realms of the small, the tiny, the only microscopically discernible and then even the subatomic has changed our attitudes to the relative prestige of the large and the small.
For a century and more now, the small has no longer been identified with the trivial. It was the West's phenomenal mastery of microworlds, brought about through the advancing disciplines of physics (guns), biology (germs) and chemistry (steel), that led to its long, political and economic dominance over global history. In modern history, rich men and rich countries have been those that can, figuratively speaking, pass through the eye of the minutest needle.
Modern poetry is rarely contextualized within a scientific frame. But it is clear that the trajectory of scientific inquiry has been a shaping factor for the values of modern, Western culture as a whole. And one of the most obvious formal characteristics of poetry written during the last 120 years or so, is that much of it is comparatively tiny. One need not actually read poems to see that. One can simply look at them. Pound spoke up for an art aligned with a civilization like that of Japan's, where "a work of art is not estimated by its acreage." But here he was displacing his intuitive understanding of the microphilic exoticism of avant-garde science in his own culture onto what he imagined an ancient "Oriental" culture to be like.
Modern poetry, defiantly unconcerned with "acreage", is not only small in terms of its typical physical dimensions. It is also full of accurately registered and carefully examined small things, from (to take examples from two early 20th century poems set below ground) Pound's faces like "Petals on a wet black bough" to Millay's single-column newspaper advertisements for "Where to store furs and how to treat the hair." Tininess is pervasive as well in Moore, Hardy, Eliot, and H. D. In fact, it is almost impossible to think of a modern Anglo-American poet whose work does not dwell within the culture (and cult) of smallness. If anything, this moral-cum-aesthetic appreciation (and the formal emulation) of the tiny is a more distinctive feature of Anglo-American poetry than of the modern poetry written in other languages.
Robert Frost's work, too, is replete with tiny details. The most obvious instance is the "Design" sonnet. But there is also the small object on the floor of the well in "For Once Then, Something": "What was that whiteness? | Truth? A pebble of quartz?" And that momentary glimpse of a far-off "something" in "A Cliff Dwelling" (from Steeple Bush). There, in a mirage of golden sand and sky, Frost's speaker claims to have seen a vision of the foot of a Native American vanishing into a cave "halfway up the limestone wall": "I see the callus on his sole | The disappearing last of him."
The signifying legitimacy of such small details in (small) modern poems is best seen not simply in a literary-historical context, a result of the early 20th century, avant-garde determination to purge poetry of the 19th century's love of prolixity, gigantism and endlessness. The receptiveness of poets and audiences in the 1910s and 1920s to an art of the reduced and the small is predicated on a general awareness that modern, that is, scientific, value had been "transvalued". The revelatory was now commensurate with the microscopic scale. Modern poetry is therefore a question not only of articulating Paterian "moments" but also of eliciting in words the immense power of the minute.
Much research on the subject remains to be done, as Fondatore would say.
August 13, 2007
I remember being involved in only a few "serious" fights during my time at school. It seems to me that I was on the losing end of all of them, though being pummelled felt to me far less humiliating than refusing to get into something physical in the first place. (Though that was probably my default option when I had any choice in the matter.) Most of the times that I got into a rumble the damage was very minor indeed.
Once, during the lunch-break, I was playing table-tennis against a very fat boy. Our rolled up jackets placed in the middle of a large desk formed the "net". It was an easy match; I was more preoccupied with showing off my limited range of trick-shots than with worrying about the monotonously hopeless, looping pat-returns he made to me. I remember that from behind and below my end of the table I top-spun the ball diagnonally across to his backhand, the weaker of his two weak sides. He didn't get anywhere near it, but lurched instead into a pile of chairs, compressing them into a weird cross between a Calder-like mobile and a bombed pagoda.
I had watched a Marx Brothers film on the box the night before. "Keep your medals on, fat-boy!" I shouted exulting (I was fat myself), recycling in its entirety a Groucho taunt as my red-faced opponent picked himself out of the wreckage. He started chasing me round the table. We ran round it a few times before I decided that he had decided he was never going to catch me that way and that his next move would be with a mighty heave to shove the table corner forwards into my balls as I was passing. Fearing that possibility, I stopped and turned to face him. The words "medals" and "fat" had unlocked secret reserves of fury inside him. Within a few seconds I was bent double over the table, while he hammered on the back of my head with his fists. My forehead bounced up and down off the wooden surface like the ball a tennis player weighs up against the ground before serving.
All the while, I could hear the helpless, gleeful laughter of the other boys in the room who were delighting in this welcome interlude before French dictée began. "This isn't as bad as it could be" is what I remember thinking in between the thuds which my skull made on the desk. Then I caught sight through the classroom window of the slender, nervous French master, a man with a lank moustache which drooped round his mouth like an upside-down smile. He was fiddling with his tie knot before, in the role of a fearless poilu, he charged officiously into the maelstrom.
My best moment (so far) in a fight came when I was around 17 years old. One of my closer friends and I, dazed with boredom, were winding each other up outside the chemistry labs. "Your mum's a whore." "No she's not." "Then tell her to give me my money back!" That's an old one of course; I think Roddy Doyle even uses it in one of his books about kids in Dublin. At my school in the Kent surburbs, every adolescent schoolboy who was a "good bloke", including me, seemed to spend most of his time either playing games skillfully or behaving like an malevolent idiot. That day there must have been a herd of about 100 boys standing glumly around outside this large brick building, waiting to be let in and so to get the chance to scald each other's arms with heated test tubes or have inhalation-endurance contests with the gas taps in the back row of class.
Suddenly, surprisingly, William flipped from verbal- into combat-mode. I had no idea what I had said. "Hey, come on," I wanted to shout. "I was only joking." But he was incensed. Ignited. Boiling. He didn't want to know, and was coming at me with a series of heavy fist-blows and kicks to my legs, shoulders and sides. They were probably moves loosely adapted from watching multiple sessions of Keith Carradine in action on TV. Even his pale purple chemistry notebook became a weapon.
"What do I do now?" I asked myself as a few more body-blows hammered home. I tried to punch back effectively but there were two crucial differences between us, one physical and one psychological. William was taller, leaner and stronger than I was, and he really wanted to do me some serious damage. He extended his right leg until it reached waist-height, then brought it slamming down against the ground. The momentum carried him forward and as it did he extended his right arm. His fist, with the weight of his whole body behind it, crunched squarely into my left eye socket.
I have read that when racing drivers crash, and even when their injuries are serious, the threatened body's surge of adrenaline means that they feel no pain at first. The pain comes later and seems as though it will last forever. I saw William's straight-right coming at me. But when it landed on my face I felt nothing except a vaguely satisfied sensation, the kind you get when a ball rebounds from the sweet spot in the centre of a club or racket. I went down like a dropped marionette, its face a fixed, inane grin as it collapses onto the floor. My limbs boomed as each one separately hit the paving stones. Then I recall hearing a distant roar of pleasure and approval reverberating from the assembled multitude. And then — what? The feeling was of a kind of No-Time, long and instantaneous, of a darkness which was different from the absence of light, of an empty, contentless space right in the middle of my baseline somatic existence. I belonged nowhere and was no-one. I was just an inert human body.
I don't know how long I lay there. Perhaps ten or twenty seconds? Then I started to come round. There was the far-off sound of cheering and jeering. The world seemed to be rotating slowly in an anti-clockwise direction. Everything was black. I remember thinking "Why should I bother to get up?" Then I heard William asking nervously, "Are you OK?" My jaw had no working muscles in it and so I felt no anxiety about not answering. Then came the exultant thought: "I've done it! I've been knocked out! I've gone there!" It was at that point that the rasp of an adult's voice broke in on my reverie. I opened my right eye; the left one didn't seem to be obeying neural commands. One of the chemistry masters told me to stop being "a fool" and to get up. William was crouched at my side. He helped me gently to my feet and volunteered, in the tones of a concerned onlooker, to escort me to the sickroom. Later we sat in the dining hall, eating lunch together quietly and mutually apologizing as, he informed me, my left eye began to swell and darken.
Looking back now on these two tiny incidents, I notice that their narratives illustrate some of my basic, reptilian brain-stem suppositions about the world. That words are dangerously powerful. That I must be the master of words. That even the tiniest spark of aggression is likely to blossom into a conflagration. That your victim can become your conqueror in no time at all and vice versa. That the code of honour still being socialized into males when I was a boy demanded that almost every confrontation end in some kind of violence, symbolic or actual and that, as a result, I still instinctively assume that this is how events will play out. That it is morally and emotionally better to lose than to flee, back down or merely observe (though the other, dumber person always has to "start the whole thing"). Is it "morally and emotionally better" to win than to lose? That is a difficult question, which makes me uneasy, and I do not know the answer. That in the crunch words will start conflicts but cannot end them. And, finally, that bookish people like me, being cowards, tend to think of truth in terms of a clenched fist.
August 12, 2007
Example 1) "I was walking along without both of you. And I stepped on a can. And when I did big sparks came flying out of the can."
Example 2) "We were at Monterey Bay Acquarium. We were at the Tidepools. We were in kayaks. There was a monster in the pool. And it came up and tried to eat us. I used my rower-thingy to spear it in the eye."
[blank] always wins in his dreams, don't you, honey."
[exact contents to be determined. Put filler here. And anyway, with him around, what reason is there to care?]
August 11, 2007
[illustration source: Tashrih bi al-Taswir, by Mansur, 14th century CE] 1) My sister, Kate, and I were sitting outside a Starbucks™ in Mountain View, talking. Behind us was the store, in front, the mini-mall's carpark and a gas station. To the left ran a stream of cars, on the right stood a shuttered supermarket covered with posters written in Chinese. A young guy in a truck drew up within a foot and a half of my toes. He swung out of the cab. A brown baseball cap emblazoned with a sign for "Ollie's Hay". Shades. Cropped ginger hair. And a Lenin beard, and a blue T-shirt, and jeans and flip-flops. We heard the electronic squeak-swish of his doors locking and the clack-clack of his shoes as he strolled past us and opened the door to the coffeeshop. A little while later, while he was still in the store, the truck's engine started. Then I heard the locks clunking open. I stared at the vehicle and listened carefully. Yes, the engine was definitely running, but there was no-one in the cabin. Just then, the guy came back, cup in hand, hopped into the driver's seat, reversed, and then put it into first and squealed away. My sister and I had been talking about our great-great-grandfather's recently-revealed murders and suicide. "Did he have a remote control starter on that thing?" I interjected. Kate paused for a moment to think. "Yes," she said, "yes, I think he did." We smiled at each other, and she waved her hand in the air, as if to say "Oh! These young people!"
2) Instinctively, I flinch whenever I hear the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter's blades thudding above the Stanford campus. It almost always means one thing: a very sick child being whisked down to, or up from, the roof of the university's children's hospital. When you have young children, the world can feel serrated. The night that Hugo was born, they put us all briefly in the ward where premature babies are kept alive with light, heaters and oxygen. A fearsome-looking biker, still in his leathers, and his wife in a gown were there too. They looked like they were in their mid-40s. (How old they then seemed to us.) It was 3 o'clock in the morning. They were watching a pair of glowing tanks, in each of which tiny fingers the size of a rolled-up stamp were waving helplessly in the air. Uncertain about whether to say anything or not, we just nodded grimly at the couple as I helped Siri to a chair. She was exhausted and silent. Hugo was beside us, inside another glowing tank, wearing a white woollen hat. The doctor had said it was "only a precaution", and so it turned out. But at that moment I wanted to sob into my palms. That was when the biker-guy came over, laid his hand on my shoulder, and very gently held out a Polaroid™ camera to me. "In case you want a picture," he said. I looked up at him and then at his wife, who was smiling at us sadly. "Thank you," I said, straightening my back and taking the camera slowly from him as if it were something alive. "Thank you very much."
3) "Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening...." Scared, I remember that I snapped the book shut.
4) Kate, two and a bit years younger than me, works as a physiotherapist. She sucked some iced coffee up her straw and listened patiently as I discoursed to her on Saturday afternoon about the Holmes horror and about our family history. I gestured towards the largely empty carpark. "He was so mad and so meticulous. After he shot her, he smoothed the sheets on our great-great grandmother's bed." I looked round. She was looking thoughtful. "Sometimes people find the world such an unbearable place, and so painful," Kate said, "that they think it must be unbearable for everyone and they want to ease the suffering of the people they love. So they take them away, too." I nodded mutely. Inwardly I felt so dumb and abashed that I feared I would not be able to prevent my head from sinking onto my chest. if she did, how would she know that I hadn't fainted?
5) Manfully trying to disregard the areas of softness and sag on my naked, vulnerable flesh, I stepped carefully into the bathtub almost like a pensioner venturing out on the year's first ice. I gave the cheery, Pixar™ plastic curtain one quick flick. It glided across the opening. Hidden behind a shoal of grinning "Nemos" and pouting "Dorys" I felt safe, steady on my feet. I saw plenty of lemons on the tree outside our bathroom window. At the bottom of the bathtub a small brown spider was standing completely immobile. "Tonight," I whispered with a hoarse smirk, "Luca Brassi sleeps with the fishes," and I turned on the water. There was a soft roaring all around me, drops began cascading off my hair and face, and, as I turned up the flow, that spider's life started to end as it was engulfed by a sudden, vast tide of steaming water. It whirled once around the plughole, moving its legs vainly, before disappearing into the rusty, occluded depths of the drain. I looked up and started to sing in the shower.
August 10, 2007
[illustration source] I can't help it; I am still feeling shocked by the knowledge of the murders I tried to describe yesterday. I know that I have to turn away from the subject, or to pause, because I have no good sense of what exactly the revelation that my great-great-grandfather murdered my great-great-grandmother, my great-great aunt and two of their servants and then killed himself means to me. To have learned unexpectedly and simultaneously about the existence of all these people and about their horrific deaths has overwhelmed me.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot Prince Myshkin gives a famous, speculative account of the terrified focus on insignificant details which bears up a man who is about to be guillotined: "the brain, tremendously alive and active, must, I suppose, be working hard, hard, hard, like an engine going at full speed. I imagine all sorts of thoughts all unfinished and absurd, too, perhaps, quite irrelevant thoughts — must constantly be throbbing through his brain: 'That man is looking at me — he has a wart on his forehead — one of the buttons on the executioner's coat is rusty….'" My own contact with these deaths — utterly distant and yet eerily intimate and familial — makes me want to annotate something tiny, something soothing, something "irrelevant". I will write about the dunlin, a bird which is a species of sandpiper I think.
We see lots of dunlins at the Baylands on the southwestern edge of San Francisco Bay. They nest on the arctic tundra and then winter here or in Europe. Dunlins are quite small creatures &mdash: many of them about 8 inches or less in length. I love most shorebirds (except that no-one who loves most shorebirds can really love that bully of many varieties, the gull...). With dunlins, there are three things which I especially enjoy. I like the Celtic tinge to their name, which comes from "dunling", meaning a brownish little bird. "Donn" means "brown" in Gaelic (think also of "dun" in modern English). Overtime, the vestigial "g" has dropped off. So, just as there is "huntin', shootin' and fishin'", there is also now the dunlin.
I also like very much the extraordinary, dense flocks dunlins make as they fly together, almost wing-tip to wing-tip, whirling, jetting, swooping, and banking, as if all these singular birds had fused together and beome a single giant, animate cloud. Standing dunlin seem to prefer their own company, sticking together in clumps and groups on the ground. Indeed, they are are socially exclusive birds, and usually try to fly only with their own kind. Perhaps their amazing, acrobatic tight-knittedness in the air would be destroyed by having other, more sluggish, heavier or less agile kinds of bird interspersed amongst them as they rotate or skim through the sky en masse.
Finally, I like the way they peck judiciously and intermittently at the mudflats and marsh earth for food. Dunlin eat insects, small worms, and tiny invertebrates (molluscs or crustaceans) which they find on the water surface or shallowly buried in, or burrowed into, the mud. A dunlin will tenderly but determinedly push its beak a little way into the soft mud, as if it were easing a surgical instrument into a recent wound. Then this scholarly, reflective bird gently withdraws its beak, and looks up as if it had lost interest in eating. But, suddenly, it pushes its needle-like beak back into the mud and draws a minuscule creature up its beak and into its mouth. The name for that probe-withdraw-probe reflex is "stitching", as if the beak were a needle winding a thread into and out of and into a piece of fabric.
Perhaps, in our own ways, we all psychically "stitch" a bit like the drumlin. All I know is, I have never before felt so much love for this shy, sporadically predatory bird as I do today of all days.
August 09, 2007
My mother is staying with us at the moment. We were having breakfast together today. I had slept very badly (a premonition?) and was, as is my normal practice, in a surly mood. It was a largely silent convening of the generations. I stared into the mid-kitchen distance with a bovine-like gaze of morning-induced befuddlement, poised to spoon some "Cheerios"™ into my mouth. Then, quite suddenly, my mother mentioned an event which I'd never heard anything about before.
So, in my own words not hers, "Why not say what happened?" Here is the narrative, in as much detail and accuracy as I have been able to piece it together since then. I took some of it from her, my "Marlow" as it were, and have added in whatever else I could find or my imagination suggested. I believe nothing is untrue. It is a tale from deep in the "golden years" of Edwardian England, when the British Empire was at its zenith. 1908, when the events which I am about to mention took place, was the year of Beatrix Potter's The Testing of Jemina Puddle-Duck, E. M. Forster's A Room with a View, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale. It was the year when the greatest composer of Empire, Edward Elgar, the genius of glittering brass and soft strains of melancholy, attended the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in the great provincial city and musical centre, Manchester. (It was also the year when my grandmother, Joy Moore, who taught me to love poetry, was born.)
Frederick H. Holmes was born in Maidstone in 1850, one of 13 children of Amelia Holmes and her husband John, a brewer. (It was perhaps because they were so many that, after Frederick's death in 1908, not even Leonard Holmes, his brother, seems to have known with certainty the exact date of his sibling's birth.) There is a family legend that Frederick was born Jewish and poor in an enormously stratified, largely unregulated and unequal society. Religion and money mattered as determinants of life-stories in the way in which our religion, money, still does.
The lack-of-money part, at least, must be untrue. And the Jewish part seems to me very unlikely too. Frederick's father was a wealthy brewer, who sent his eldest son, John Garraway Holmes to Oxford, where he got a BA at University College in 1862. Over the next 20 years, John the younger held various curacies before becoming the vicar of St. Philip the Apostle in Sydenham. However his younger brother, Frederick Holmes, the second son, did not get a special education and after school went straight into the beer business, working first at the Steyning Brewery in Sussex. In this line he seems to have prospered remarkably well.
In 1876 Frederick married Florence Joy, the daughter of a Maidstone surgeon and magistrate. Florence was five years younger than Frederick. Throughout the greater part of their lives together Frederick and Florence were thought to have a particularly close, companionate marriage. Between 1877 and about 1894 they had six children. There were two daughters, one of whom, Winifred, was living at home with her parents in 1908, the other of whom was working as a nurse in London, while of their four sons, one was a clergyman in Brighton, one was living in Canada, and two were still away at boarding school. Indeed, W. L. Wainwright, a doctor who treated them all, described Mr. and Mrs. Holmes and their children as "the happiest family he knew."
Frederick's business interests made him wealthy enough to own West Hill House, in the middle of the expensive and socially prestigious town of Henley-on-Thames in the south-eastern corner of Oxfordshire near the borders with Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. Perhaps from genuine spiritually, perhaps the better to assimilate socially, he must have adopted an active Anglicanism as he rose through late Victorian society because he served for many years as churchwarden at Henley Parish Church. Henley was a small town then: in 1891 there were only 5288 people living in the town and the surrounding area. Florence and Frederick must soon have known everyone in the area who "counted".
Frederick also liked the fashionable upper-middle class sports of the period and no doubt he enjoyed as much if not more the sense of integration into the social networks of the upper classes which these games, if one played them in the right places and with the right people, conferred. He was a member of the Henley Rowing Club as well as of the Leander Club (one of the oldest and snootiest rowing clubs in the country). He judged rowing competitions and was also "keen" on the chic game of golf (then played without tees and with clubs that had wooden, rather than metal, shafts). An owner of the brewing firm of Holmes & Harper, Frederick was in his last years managing director of the New Westminster Brewery Company.
In the late Victorian era, Frederick suffered a number of very serious business reversals and financial losses. As the impact of these accumulated, the Holmeses were forced to abandon West Hill House. By 1901 they had moved into the countryside just outside Henley, to a place referred to as "Crockmore" (probably Crockmore House) in Fawley, Buckinghamshire, about three miles outside town. The Thames forms a slowly-moving link between this tiny village and Henley itself. The "tranquil dignity" of this waterway flows nearby Crockmore House, marking the eastern boundary of the ancient parish of Fawley. The main crops in this highly arable landscape are wheat and barley, although at the turn of the 20th century, when Frederick and Florence were living there, the gently sloping and swelling terrain was also quite heavily wooded.
In the Proceedings of the Geologists' Association (the 18th volume in the series, published in 1904), we are lucky enough to find an account, probably from the pen of Miss F. C. Foley, B.Sc., of "An Excursion to Henley on Thames", made on 7 May 1904, and lead by H. J. Osborne White, F.R.S. ("the Director"). In spite of the "threatening aspect of the sky during the earlier part of the day this excursion was fairly well attended about twenty members and friends of the Association gathering at Henley Station shortly after one o'clock." At one point towards the end of their jaunt, the Geologists' Association group, no doubt nodding and smiling earnestly, walked very near Frederick and Florence's home, indeed probably on their land. Miss Foley's record gives us a usable, blurred but linguistically remarkable, idea of the area as it then was:The party then proceeded northward by a picturesque road along the bottom of a small wooded valley up to the open surface of the chalk upland at Crockmore Farm and thence by Fawley to Fawley Green. Near the last named place a good view was obtained south and south westward across the sharply incised valley of the Thames and the wooded lowland of the London basin to the distant chalk hills near Basingstoke The Director drew attention to the circuitous course of the river through the Chalk in this district a course which carries the stream nearly twenty miles to the north of the axis of the London basin syncline in the meridian of Fawley and having pointed out the topographical evidences of its high antiquity and its probable connection with certain other peculiarities in the path of the Kennet Thames he briefly discussed its origin. The northward curve by Henley and Marlow was viewed as a feature arising out of a deflection of the stream from an earlier route more in accordance with the existing structure of the London Basin and the conditions under which the abandonment of the hypothetical consequent path would have been likely to occur and the possible date of the change considered and as an inheritance from a course marked out when the tectonic slopes of the region were different or less pronounced. The data were too scanty to allow of any satisfactory conclusion being arrived at but the balance of the evidence seemed to the speaker to be in favour of an antecedent origin.
In spite of their evacuation to Crockmore, a somewhat less splendid and less well-appointed residence than West Hill House, Frederick and Florence Holmes remained pillars of the local Henley gentry. Frederick owned a number of sporting guns as well as Webley revolver with a .455 calibre barrel, the standard service pistol for the British Army from 1877 until almost a century later. He was fond of going out into the Fawley fields with his distinguished neighbour, William Mackenzie of the splendid Fawley Court, who was a former high sheriff of Oxfordshire. There Frederick and "Mack" shot animals and birds in the countryside around their houses. Frederick remained a committed member of the local Conservative Association, and the Holmeses were still well enough off to employ a gardener, Henry Barefield, a coachman, Robert Brackstone, a cook, Lizzie Hayes, and a maid, 17 year-old Ethel Morris. (Still, in 1861, when Frederick was 10, his father and mother John and Amelia Holmes had employed five live-in servants at their house in Maidstone.)
In the early years of the new century a lonely little boy, aged four going on five in February 1908, was living in Henley with his mother and sisters. The boy's father was in India, and the family had been in Henley since 1904, latterly renting a house named "The Nutshell" in Western Road. (That means that "The Nutshell" was less than three and a half miles away from Frederick and Florence's home at Crockmore.) Later, after the boy had grown up and had changed his name, he remembered a moment from his early childhood in Henley:I am walking along a street in our little town with my mother and a wealthy local brewer, who is also a magistrate. The tarred fence is covered with chalk drawings, some of which I have made myself. The magistrate stops, points disapprovingly with his stick and says, "We are going to catch the boys who draw on these walls, and we are going to order them Six Strokes of the Birch Rod." (It was all in capitals in my mind.) My knees knock together, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and at the earliest possible moment I sneak away to spread the dreadful intelligence. In a little while, all the way down the fence, there is a long line of terror-stricken children, all spitting on their handkerchiefs and trying to rub out the drawings.
How many wealthy local brewers who were also solidly-planted pillars of the community did the small town of Henley have then? The man has been identified as a "Mr. Simmons". But I can't stop myself wondering if that is somehow wrong, and wondering if this is really the combustible and anxious Frederick on a Henley Street suddenly flicking back the curtain in his mind's window for a moment in order to give this impressionable child a glimpse into the dark interior? Then again, perhaps it actually was Simmons, but might as well have been Frederick? Perhaps many of the Edwardian burgesses of this small town on the Thames, and of this small island through which the Thames meanders, carried primed emotional bombs hidden away behind their largely imperturbable and confident exteriors?
In the normal course of things Brackstone drove Frederick in a carriage from Crockmore to Henley Station in the morning. There he would catch the train for London and his businesses. Then, either, as was usually the case, on the evening of that same day, or, more infrequently, one or two nights later, Brackstone would drive Frederick back from Henley to Crockmore.
So, in spite of anxiety over, and the necessary retrenchments occasioned by, their financial losses, Frederick and Florence maintained a façade of durable prosperity and material comfort in the early years of the new century. But, as he aged and experienced business disappointments, Frederick Holmes also began to degenerate physically. In the last six months of 1907 and the earliest part of 1908 he was consulting W. J. Sussmann, a specialist and surgeon in Henley, after complaining of "great sickness and diarrhoea" as well as "gastric pains." Frederick was in fact undergoing the earliest phase of cirrhosis of his liver, caused not by drink (although a brewer, Frederick did not consume very much alcohol himself), but by gastric indigestion. In addition, he was very worried about the state of his eyesight which by 1907 was failing. It was believed that this was a result of his years of heavy smoking.
Then the falls started. In very early 1908, when he was around 57 or 58, he tumbled "backwards down a bank he was building at the bottom of the garden." He told Wainwright, who examined him afterwards: "I am a deal too heavy a man to fall on my back." At around the same time Frederick informed his brother that he was suffering from "depression through influenza and pains in his head." (His skull had been very seriously fractured when he had a hunting accident some years before.) Around now, he seems also to have fallen over while he was out shooting one day with Mackenzie.
All in all, January 1908 was an absolutely bloody month for Frederick. He was feeling seriously ill and he also sustained yet more financial losses. He had to sell off "his last horse". (This probably meant the final horse which he owned to ride himself, and not the horses uses to pull the trap or carriage and his own heavy-set body to the station each day.) But, perhaps this was more a symbolic than a practical loss? Between his bad eyesight, his failing sense of balance, and his agonized stomach, Frederick probably had little inclination for any more riding, whether he owned horses or not.
February 1908, too, opened very badly. Frederick came back from London for the last time on Wednesday, 5 February 1908, and Brackstone drove him home from Henley. They made the journey in complete silence. On Thursday afternoon Frederick ran into his gardener at Crockmore, but Barefield noticed nothing untoward about his employer's appearance. He seemed his usual "rational" self. That evening though, William Mackenzie's son saw their neighbour. Roderick Mackenzie was disturbed by Frederick's appearance, and told his father's friend that he looked "awfully seedy." Frederick replied tersely that "I have had the worst attack of diarrhoea I have ever had in my life." Frederick's long-suffering body had by now surely begun its insidious but inevitable insurrection against his mind. Bodily pain in the end leads to mental disorder. By Friday morning he was laid up in bed with a combination of flu and diarrhoea. Florence Holmes summoned Dr. Sussmann. Sussmann examined Frederick, and, suspecting a combination of influenza and continuing gastric troubles, he counselled Frederick to rest.
In spite of Frederick's illnesses, Frederick and Florence shared the same bed, as usual, that Friday night. With Frederick's sufferings, it must have been hard to sleep. Eventually, though, Florence, at least, did drop off. At some point in the night, probably between 4 and 5 am, Frederick got up from his wife's side and dressed himself. Then, in the bedroom, with Florence slumbering only a few feet away, he loaded six bullets into his Webley pistol, "a cartridge and handgun combination with relatively mild recoil, but with good penetration and excellent stopping power."* He probably owned the "Mark IV" version of the Webley, popularly known as "the Boer War model" because so many British Army officers had purchased them before shipping out to Africa in 1899. (Military tradition demanded that officers equip themselves with uniforms and weapons at their own expense.) Frederick, a gun-fancier, cannot have fought in Africa, but perhaps he bought the revolver around that period as a gesture of patriotic tough-mindedness. In the bedroom, in the still physically competent-hands of an utterly deranged man, the pistol's loaded cylinder clicked back into place.
Having loaded the Webley on the early morning of 8 February 1908, Frederick Holmes first came up to his wife Florence and shot her twice, once in the right temple and once in the right side of the torso near her shoulder blade. One bullet entered her brain, the other her heart. She had remained unaware of his stealthy approach and she died instantaneously. When her body was found the next morning, she looked at first as if she were merely peacefully asleep in her own bed. Having killed his wife, Frederick straightened the bedclothes a bit, perhaps replaced a pillow, and then closed the door to the bedroom gently behind him. Did he choose night-time for his attack because he knew where all his victims would be in the early hours? because he knew that they would not struggle? and probably would feel no pain? Perhaps he solved the problem of the gun making too much noise by converting the bedding into a set of ad-hoc silencers?
Frederick went next to his daughter Winifred's bedroom where she too was asleep. Again he quietly approached his sleeping target. He shot his daughter under the right eye. She too died without awakening. Frederick once more quietly closed the door of the bedroom he had just been in, as though he were only a solicitous Edwardian patriarch doing a cautionary round, making sure that all was well with each of his female charges and then leaving them to rest. For one last time, Frederick, though in one sense out of his mind, was, in another, completely in control of his world.
His wife and daughter dead, he climbed to the attic where the family's servants were sleeping in the a single small room, though in separate beds. Again, neither woman woke up when Frederick entered. Lizzie Hayes (who must have cooked whatever dinner he had been able to eat, or drink, the evening before) was lying on her right side as Frederick walked across the room. He shot her in the left temple. She died at once. Finally, he turned to the 17 year-old, Ethel Morris, and fired a bullet into her head just below her left ear. Ethel's was the only body which appeared to have struggled after the shot slammed into her head. However, Dr. Wainwright, who later examined the bodies for the South Bucks coroner, palliatively suggested that this might have been due to "convulsive movements" of the corpse taking place after Ethel had died.
At some point after these events had unfolded, Frederick re-entered his and his dead wife's bedroom where he ejected the spent cartridges and replenished his pistol at the dressing table. Having used five bullets, he now loaded five fresh ones into the gun's cylinder, filling it to capacity again. Then he descended the stairs of his darkened house and, as if leaving the bodies behind, walked outside into the brisk, early morning air. As he did, he must have heard the birds singing and seen the sun coming up. Perhaps these rustic sights and noises seem to a man in his situation like the signs of the Furies closing in? Fawley would by now (if it had not long since) have felt to Frederick like one of the dark places of the earth. After all, by his actions he had made it so.
At about 20 past seven on Saturday morning, Henry Barefield, the 29 year-old gardener, discovered Crockmore House silent, seemingly deserted, and all locked up. The milkman wanted to deliver his milk and be off. Barefield climbed through the pantry window and called to the servants. There was no answer. Barefield opened the kitchen door; the milkman made his delivery and departed. As was his duty and custom, Barefield made a fire in the kitchen and he then went to do some work in the stables. After that he walked home and had his breakfast. Barefield came back at nine o'clock, and again called and whistled for the servants. Sensing that something was wrong, he went up to the servants' bedroom in the attic. What he saw there terrified him. He ran home, stammered out the news to his mother and summoned some neighbours. Together, they went back to Crockmore and began the sickening process of discovering yet more corpses. One of these panicked Fawley residents, in all likelihood the youngest, must have set off for the police while the others remained behind in the ghostly, desecrated house.
By mid-day on Saturday, all the women's bodies had been examined by doctors. But Frederick himself was still missing. It was not until 2 o'clock that they found his corpse at some distance from the house. "Charles Roland, a foreman at the Mackenzie estate adjoining, and two keepers, Evans and Wakes, who were searching the plantation, came across the body lying face downwards among the long grass and weeds. Blood was on the grass, near at hand was the weapon, and a brief examination showed that he had shot himself through the heart." The men carried the body about a mile back to Crockmore, where it was placed in a ground floor room.
The formal inquest, held on Tuesday, 11 February 1908, conjectured that Frederick, who not long before had told his doctor that he was "a deal too heavy a man to fall on my back", had wandered (or hurried — we shall never know) through Crockmore's grounds to the top of a slope on his property. There he had shot himself in the left breast, and had then "rolled right down the steep hill to the place where he was found."
Was this the same bank where he had ignominiously toppled over the month before? Did he realize that after shooting himself he was likely to fall down the hill? If so, was this choice the symbolic enactment of the social "fall" he was now completing, back down into the dankness and obscurity of the world from which, as a poor Jewish boy, he had once brightly emerged into the sunlight of Protestant high society? Frederick would have gone to the gallows if he had ever been convicted of his crimes. Was the lethal tumble down the hill a tacit acknowledgement that he deserved to make the "drop"? Or was he simply doing something both more prosaic and, at a profound level, more poetic — ensuring that his body lay hidden for long enough that attention would focus first on his female victims' bodies and on their tragedy rather than on his own corpse? He had, after all, taken the "gentleman's way out" after committing his terrible actions on those who had trusted him. Or was he merely completely unhinged, delusional, thoughtless as he lurched erratically, breathlessly through the dewy grass to the place of his suicide?
The inquest noted that a diary was found in Frederick and Florence's bedroom, on the table near to the emptied cartridges which had once contained the bullets Frederick fired into the four women. He had left the cartridges there when he came back into the bedroom to reload the gun for his own suicide. Evidently, he did not intend to play Russian roulette when his own end was at stake. In the diary the police found entries for the 25th and 30th of January 1908 which they believed read "Shoot mad" and "Shooting mad", respectively. However, Roderick Mackenzie, a witness at the inquest who had testified about Frederick's comment to him on the preceding Thursday night about the terrible attack of diarrhoea, knew his older neighbour's handwriting. Roderick suggested that the words in the diary should be deciphered as "Shoot Mack" and "Shooting Mack" (not "mad" and "madly"), indicating, perhaps, simply that Frederick Holmes and William Mackenzie had been out with their guns on those days, looking for fowl or rabbits to kill.
The jury at the inquest closed the case by finding that "Mrs. Holmes, her daughter, and the two servants were murdered by Mr. Holmes, who afterwards committed suicide while temporarily insane." One cannot help wondering where Frederick's body was buried? Surely not in the churchyard next to Florence's and Winifred's? And where were Lizzie Hayes and Ethel Morris laid to rest? Money and class exercise their influence even over such eternal matters as these. I think it is very unlikely that they were buried alongside the Holmes women whom they had served and with whom they had been killed.
All flesh is grass... bloody grass, like the stuff found near Frederick's body. Everything passes away. So it was that in 1913 the Webley Company introduced the new Mark V model of their pistol. The British Army designated it as standard issue in December of the same year. Then, on "May 24th 1915, the Webley Mk VI was adopted as the standard sidearm for British and Commonwealth troops and remained so for the duration of World War I, being issued to officers, airmen, naval crews, boarding parties, trench raiders, machine-gun teams, and tank crews. The Mk VI proved to be a very reliable and hardy weapon, well suited to the mud and adverse conditions of trench warfare, and several accessories were developed for the Mk VI, including a bayonet (made from a converted French Pritchard bayonet), a speedloader device ('Prideaux Device'), and a stock allowing for the revolver to be converted into a carbine."* The Webley, the same instrument of death which Frederick used to kill his wife, daughter and servants and then himself, would soon be blowing fresh holes in hundreds of thousands of people's flesh all over the world. And many more men's bodies would soon be lying in entrails, bone and mud next to their Webleys. All grass is bloody flesh.
So it also was that Frederick's New Westminster Brewery Company was absorbed by the Lion Brewing Company in July 1914, just in time for a surge in demand for beer as soldiers farewelled their loved-ones and as millions of men in uniform found that drink was one of the few luxuries which they could spend their measly service pay on. All cash is grass.
So it is, too, that today Crockmore House is chiefly known because of its association with the contemporary minimalist British gardener Christopher Bradley-Hole, a follower of Piet Oudolf, the Dutch garden designer and cynosure of the "New Perennial" or "New Wave Planting" movement. Practitioners of this style typically use large swaths of perennials and grasses in their designs, emphasizing the texture and structure of organic, rapidly-growing and rapidly-regenerating plants rather than trading on the vulgar appeal of pretty colours and gorgeous scents. In the words of two (rather sceptical) gardening critics from the Daily Telegraph, Bradley-Hole's "prairie garden" at Crockmore House combines "Modernist rigour with a sea of exuberant planting in a gridded garden of great panache", thus creating "a modernist, New England framework of grassy dunes and sun-bleached wood". Bradley-Hole, the poet in plants of Crockmore, maintains that shrubs "represent permanence, literally putting down roots; you have to wait for them, they tie you down. Grasses and perennials are instant; they represent change and youth; they are liberating; they are modern." In synergy with this brittle but lucrative modishness, the architectural firm of Compton Lacey in Berkshire has recently completed an expensive-looking, po-mo refurbishing of the Crockmore Farm buildings transforming them into a home fit for, well, fit for a wealthy person. All grass is cash.... All grass is grass.
And so it is that today, 9 August 2007, I happened to learn over breakfast about the fates of Frederick and Florence Holmes, lately of Crockmore House, Buckinghamshire. These two people, whom I had never even heard of before today, were my great-great grandparents.... At the moment, though I tell myself that this is utter nonsense, I cannot help feeling that from now on their presences will always, however faintly, laterally be with me. They will be there, for example, in what might to anyone else look like the dancing gleams cast by sunlight filtering through our acacia tree or like the limbs of that Monterey Cypress heaving in a winter storm, or what might sound like an old chair creaking or a car backfiring in the street. For me, such things will be different. I am haunted. All bloody flesh is bloody grass.
August 08, 2007
After you reach the age of 40, is there anywhere where you feel truly "at home"? Now I take my bearings and sense of belonging almost completely from family and close friends. Oh yes, and from books. All places and ways of doing things seem subtly foreign to me. The world I grew up in no longer exists. And, against my will, I can feel myself becoming a smiling, temporal exile in the world of the present. It's just that it's happening so much faster than I expected.
August 07, 2007
This afternoon, I was doing some digging in search of a few tiny, dramatizing details for my book. I was trying, for instance, to ascertain whether any of the uniforms worn by the first British troops to arrive in France in 1914 were coloured khaki by German dyes. Answer: yes, they almost certainly were. The pre-war German dyeing industry accounted for almost 80% of the dyes used on British textiles, including army uniforms.
As I was looking around, I came across these two passages, both from books written by Philip Gibbs (1877-1962), one of the period's most famous war correspondents on the Allies' side.I gave homage to them because of the perfect cut and equipment of their uniforms, so neat and simple, and workmanlike for the job of war. Only Englishmen could look so well in these clothes. And even in these French towns I saw the influence of English school life and of all our social traditions standing clear-cut against the temperament of another nation with different habits and ideals. They were confident without any demonstrative sign that they were superior beings destined by God, or the force of fate, to hold the fullest meaning of civilization. They were splendidly secure in this faith, not making a brag of it, not alluding to it, but taking it for granted, just as they had taken for granted their duty to come out to France and die if that were destined. And studying them, at café tables, at the base, or in their depots, I acknowledged that, broadly, they were right. In spite of an extraordinary ignorance of art and letters (speaking of the great majority), in spite of ideas stereotyped by the machinery of their schools and universities, so that one might know precisely their attitude to such questions as social reform, internationalism, Home Rule for Ireland, or the Suffragettes — any big problem demanding freedom of thought and unconventionality of discussion — it was impossible to resist the conviction that these officers of the British army have qualities, supreme of their kind, which give a mastery to men.
from Gibbs, The Soul of the War (London: Heinemann, 1915)All was not right with the spirit of the men who came back. Something was wrong. They put on civilian clothes again, looked to their mothers and wives very much like the young men who had gone to business in the peaceful days before the August of ’14. But they had not come back the same men. Something had altered in them. They were subject to queer moods, queer tempers, fits of profound depression alternating with a restless desire for pleasure. Many of them were easily moved to passion when they lost control of themselves. Many were bitter in their speech, violent in opinion, frightening.
from Gibbs, Realities of War (London: Heinemann, 1920)
Gibbs was knighted in the same year in which he published Realities of War. It would be pathetically easy to mock the tone of the first extract here and to nod condescendingly at the assertions of the second. But how many writers today are ever lucky or determined enough to move this far ideologically and emotionally this fast?
Most people's opinions are conventional most of the time; I know mine are. For all Gibbs's ultra-conventional ideas and his simple prose (look at the difference between his descanting, periodic flows in 1914 /15 and the much shorter and more nervously-expressive post-war sentences), doesn't the distance he travelled in just five years make him, in all honesty, a writer whose career trajectory one can only have a faint hope of paralleling? Would you rather become a better writer? Or (what is not the same thing) a different one?
August 06, 2007
The Hungarian Grand Prix took place yesterday at the Hungaroring. It was a debacle for the reputations of Fernando Alonso and of his team, McLaren-Mercedes. It was also a subtle kind of catastrophe for Lewis Hamilton, Alonso's team-mate and the race-winner. There are three possibilities. 1) You know what happened, in which case you don't need to be told again. 2) You don't care what happened, in which case you don't want to be told now. 3) You have just come out of a long trance, in which case you probably need to read a few of the post-practice and race reports to find out in detail about how the race weekend played itself out. Whichever possibility fits your own circumstances best, you certainly don't need an F1-loving literary critic to walk you through his own opinions about the ins-and-outs of the ways in which the Hungarian GP evolved. It is enough to say that in the aftermath of Hungary, Lewis Hamilton's ever-present "Mr Nice" smile looks greedier and meaner than before, while "Mr Ethical" Alonso suddenly seems like someone struggling against a competitor who, amazingly, in his first season in Formula One, has panicked and unbalanced the World Champion in a way that Schumacher never did.
The comments earlier this season of Pat Symonds, the Director of Engineering at Renault, who guided Alonso to two world championships with the team (in 2005 and 2006), about Alonso's susceptibility to self-doubt when he is beaten by his teammate suddenly look extremely pertinent. After defeats in battle by competitors from outside his own team, Alonso has always been able to bounce back and emerge the war's victor. But it seems that by reason of some curious psychological frailty, he is less easily able to do this against a teammate.
An old-fashioned patriarchalism is manifesting itself too. Alonso's only reward for doing what no one else was able to do, dethroning Schumacher, may look to him at the moment not like a few years of dominance but merely his own shockingly sudden dethroning by an even younger man. J. G. Frazer's account in The Golden Bough of the rites of succession to the sacred guardianship of Diana's sanctuary at Nemi gives as decent an account of the underlying dynamic as any: "Down to the decline of Rome a custom was observed there which seems to transport us at once from civilisation to savagery. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary."
In general, it always seems interesting to me to watch someone dealing with adversity. The potential loser is a more complex and sympathetic figure than the likely winner. In this instance, though, I find no pleasure at all in watching what may (it is still too early to tell) be happening. I still haven't lost my faith in Alonso's ability to emerge on top. But I feel some of that faith ebbing disconcertingly away. Perhaps one response would be that this is a universal and necessary process: iconic, two-dimensional heroes gradually must mutate into three-dimensional humans. That is true. But, however "enlightened" and "reasonable" one might consider oneself, at a pre-rational level in the mind, old illusions (or delusions) die painfully and slowly, like a terminally ill patient who nonetheless clings desperately and in agony to the life which is trying to shut itself down.
In this instance, I'm not at all sure that I really want to witness someone still so young and successful arduously becoming more "human" and mortal. Amongst other things, it must mean that, as a man in his forties, I need to grow up really, really fast. And, now that we're on the subject, fellow devotee of something or other, how about you?
August 05, 2007
[illustration source] In this week's New Yorker the investigative journalist Jane Mayer has published an essay called "The Black Sites" which, on any number of counts, is an important, powerful and demoralizing piece of work. It is a recurrent habit of decadent cultures to focus attention on the corruption of their enemies abroad as a way of avoiding the more infinitely difficult and infinitely more useful task of confronting the corruption which threatens those cultures from within. In the case of contemporary America, Jane Mayer's essay strives to reverse that trend.
Mayer sets out to describe the torture regime operative inside the CIA's eponymous "black sites". These are the small, secret, terrifying places of confinement and violent interrogation, such as the "Dark Prison" and the "Salt Pit" in Afghanistan, and an unnamed edifice in Poland which was/is "a far more high-tech facility than the prisons in Afghanistan" and is even more effective than they are at breaking down the basic cognitive structures of a captive's mind. (In the last sentence, I initially wrote that the Polish prison was "'a far more high-tech facility...' but which is even more effective at breaking down...". However that "but" implied that modernity and human brutality to other humans are antithetical phenomena, whereas even the palest idiot now knows that that is no longer the case.)
Shadowy, largely occluded activities are carried out today in these infernal locations abroad, often by state-trained Americans whose work is sanctioned by the very top layer of our government and is enabled by the vast and methodologically sophisticated bureaucratic machine which this tiny group controls. As a recently naturalized citizen, I strongly oppose our practice of torture, but, as one of the many millions who have not protested nearly vehemently enough to stop this technocratic insanity, I also feel a degree of unwilling complicity with what is being done to "protect the homeland". A great moral cloud is spread over the entire United States at present.
These "dark" subjects and places generate in Jane Mayer's tautly-controlled language a proliferation of literal and metaphorical references to benightedness, shadows, darkness, blackness. For example, in describing the CIA's "dark sites", she writes about the "dark days" of the Cold War when the Agency learned that captives subjected to just a few hours "without light, odors, sound, or any fixed references of time and place" can be pitched into "very deep breakdowns". (These techniques were officially retired at some unspecified point in the last half-century, but they have now been called back into service, in the words of one historian, in a "perfected" format.) Mayer likewise writes about the "black outfits", the masks and "dark visors" of the American commandos and jailers who transport and interrogate "high-value" detainees. Those prisoners themselves are often blinkered behind "blacked-out goggles". Finally, to take one last instance of the recurrent language of darkness with which Mayer's essay is imbued, she cites an expert referring to the "line of darkness" which all torturers cross as they do their work: "You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you." (All italics in the preceding quotations are mine.)
Amongst the procedures being employed in the "dark sites" to coerce statements out of captives is sleep denial. Zealous secular investigators of the Early Modern period called it "tormentum insomniae, in the 1930s Stalin's NKVD referred to it as "the conveyor belt". Other terms for the technique have included "sweating", the "sweatbox" and "white nights". The 21st century Imperial bureaucrat, after advice from a cadre of lawyers, euphemistically labels it "sleep management". Mayer writes: "An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, 'It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.'" Or, as a CIA officer familiar with the results of the technique tells her, "sleep deprivation works.... Stuff comes out."
I dislike the idea that the worth of any writer should be judged solely by their "relevance" to present realities, least of all Auden, who has been so remorselessly cited as an authority on such a vast variety of subjects that many people have forgotten that Auden was by cast of mind a poet not a preacher. In fact, the more removed a writer is, or can be made to seem, from the reader's contemporary habitus and ideology, the better it is for their work. But, at least temporarily, it is hard to read an essay such as Mayer's and not to come back to the supposedly untopical and unpopular genre of poetry without seeing at least some works in a different light. Literature rarely illuminates history, but quite often history illuminates literature. So, today, after reading Mayer's piece about "sleep management", sleep deprivation and other matters, I went back to my work on Auden, and noticed for the first time, as if by applying a kind of reverse logic, that Auden in the early 1930s was enormously, touchingly, a poet of sleep and dreams.
It is a somewhat unconventional take on Auden's work. Heraclitus said that "the waking have one Cosmos, but the sleeping turn aside, each into a world of his own." Critics tend to think of Auden, whether in his earlier "socialist" incarnation or in his later "Christian" persona as a poet of argument and rationality, of a consensus about what counts as truth, and of what goes with those qualities — the shared experience of the public world, the "one Cosmos" that the waking have in common. But, so metamorphic is Auden that for every assertion one makes about his work, another counter-assertion seems to rise up. The poet of "waking" is thus also the poet of that primal "turning aside" into the incommensurable, private world of sleep.
What one could call, for the sake of convenience, this "sleep phase" in his writing begins right at the end of the previous decade, in December 1929, with Auden's praise (in an unpublished poem) of the "Associative plant-like growth of thought | In the luxuriant torpor of a noon-day doze." It then continues throughout the key early years of his career in the first part of the 1930s. "Dear Sleep", he wrote at the end of Canto One of the long poem "In the year of my youth when yoyos came in" (1932-33), addressing the personification of the sleep as "the secretary of that strange club | Where each is a member upon one condition, | That he forget his own importance." And there he begged "Sleep": "May my name from your register never be struck off." Then, in the same poem, within a dream-vision which Auden's speaker is having while he is asleep, he and a companion, Sampson,... fall asleep.
Elsewhere in the 1930s, Auden writes about how a "dream met me in middle night", within which he awakes — "I came | Round from the morphia" — in Ode I (1931) of The Orators and in the "Envoi" (1931) to Ode IV of the same work, about how, after "the boys are in bed: | Drowsing I droop like a dying flower, | But I'm going to sleep, not going to be dead." Part Two of "A Happy New Year" (1932) is staged in the somnolent, lights-out atmosphere of a dormitory wing in the same prep-school, while Part One involves Auden in recounting a waking-vision. And in April 1933 Auden wrote about falling "asleep in a deck-chair" and then having yet another visionary dream.
These sleep motifs could easily be traced on deeper into the "low, dishonest decade". Indeed, it is hard to think of a poet who has "done" sleep better than Auden. In his later career, some of his greatest passages are about losing or gaining consciousness. Think of his description of the sensations in the dying Yeats's head in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939), of the imagining of what Freud saw on his deathbed in "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" (1939) and of the descriptions of waking in "Prime" (1949) and "First Things First" (1956) or of falling asleep in "Nones" (1950) and "Compline" (1954).
Here is part of "Compline":
Nothing is with me now but a sound,
A heart's rhythm, a sense of stars
Leisurely walking around, and both
Talk a language of motion
I can measure but not read: maybe
My heart is confessing her part
In what happened to us from noon till three,
That constellations indeed
Sing of some hilarity beyond
All liking and happening,
But, knowing I neither know what they know
Nor what I ought to know, scorning
All vain fornications of fancy,
Now let me, blessing them both
For the sweetness of their cassations,
Accept our separations.
A stride from now will take me into dream,
Leave me, without a status,
Among its unwashed tribes of wishes
Who have no dances and no jokes
But a magic cult to propitiate
What happens from noon till three,
Odd rites which they hide from me — should I chance,
Say, on youths in an oak-wood
Insulting a white deer, bribes nor threats
Will get them to blab — and then,
Past untruth is one step to nothing,
For the end, for me as for cities,
Is total absence: what comes to be
Must go back into non-being
For the sake of the equity, the rhythm
Past measure or comprehending.
(Auden, Collected Poetry, ed. Edward Mendelson, rev. edn. (New York, 1991), pp. 640-41)
We learn how much to value something (or someone) not just conceptually but experientially by realizing how deeply we would suffer without it (or them). Without rest and sleep both the human mind and body tarnish and then rot with extraordinary rapidity. Jane Mayer quotes Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has written about the KGB's research into methods of inflicting great pain. The KGB found that "making a victim stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours can produce 'excruciating pain, as ankles double in size, skin becomes tense and intensely painful, blisters erupt oozing watery serum, heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.'"
Auden famously wrote that "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." That is the ending of "First Things First". But it now looks as if "water" is only one element of Auden's point. The poem, a highly physiological one I can see for the first time, begins with the transition out of another of life's necessities, sleep. It starts: "Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened | To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark". Dormancy is a wordless state, so the poem can only hint at its double truth: "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water [or sleep]." Auden's poem suggests that sleep, like water, is more crucial to life than love is, and that poetry relies far more on the former than the latter. This supposed poet of cerebrality and ludic wit turns out, on closer inspection (and thanks also to the indirect stimulus of Jane Mayer's essay), to be profoundly occupied by the sacred juncture of sleep, dream, and the first moments of waking.
If that much is true, while "enhanced interrogation techniques" are the norm who anywhere should be proud of having slept soundly?
August 04, 2007
The Age of Anxiety — it used to be the long poem by Auden (he wrote four in the 1940s alone) which I liked least. But now, having struggled with it a bit, I think it's slowly becoming just the opposite.... The qualities which hit me at the moment are the ingenuity and energy of the poem's lexicon. During a recent reading, perhaps at a bit more than a third of the way into the book, I began jotting down some of the words I was wondering whether I'd seen in any poetry written before 1944, the date when Auden started writing The Age of Anxiety.
A partial list of instances from the 20 pages or so when I was keeping a tally includes: "gadget", "gland", "fiscal", "commodity", "juke-box", "carpet-slippers", "statisticians", "dreck", "cocktail", "antiseptic", "jackass", "night-nurse", "galumph", "asterisk", and — since this matter-conscious, orally-fixated poem contains a significantly copious selection of modern euphemisms for the Place-Where- Everyone-Goes &mdash: "washroom", "men's room", "comfort station" and "pay-toilet". Auden's poetry is intensely alive to the prolific production of neologisms and periphrases in modern life.
Critics usually trace back the thudding alliterative measure in which Auden wrote the majority of the verse in The Age of Anxiety to an adaptation of the four-stress alliterating line of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems. But, as I read on, what the self-conscious emphasis on the initial letters of so very many words evoked at least equally strongly for me was the total, undifferentiating absorptiveness of the Ur-book, the dictionary, the only volume in which, at least ideally, all words of a particular language are registered. And the dictionary is the only volume where language is listed by a method which discriminates only on the basis of initial letter and not (again ideally, at least) by class, context, or by the gender or sexual preferences or ethnicity of users. Abbreviation, abbreviator, abbreviatory, abbreviature, abbrevy, abbrochement, ABC, ... anus, anvenum, anvil, anvilling, anxietude, anxiety, anxiferous, anxiogenic, anxious....
The dictionary, and Auden’s poetic refraction of it in The Age of Anxiety give us an inkling of, a glimpse at, the total langue of the English language instead of the parochial parole with which we happen to be (more or less depressingly) familiar.
While the mid-century world came close to dying from the disease of nationalism, Auden’s Christianity had moved him to a plane on which, as he put it in his introduction to Emile Cammaerts’s book The Flower of Grass in 1945 (ie, an essay written while he was also composing The Age of Anxiety), spiritually speaking "there is neither Jew nor German, East nor West, boy nor girl, smart nor dumb, boss nor worker, Bohemian nor bourgeois." It might well seem, based on a reading of The Age of Anxiety, that at the same time as his other-worldly beliefs were a way of distancing himself, and poetry, from of an insanely factional "real world" in which we are "Fanatics of the Egg or Knights sworn to | Die for the Dolphin, and our deeds wear | Heretic green or orthodox blue, | Safe and certain", Auden wanted his poetic language to aspire to a similar condition of non-judgmental weightlessness, unrooted in any particular place or speech community.
No impression of completeness is literally encyclopedic, no urge to a cosmopolitan universality is technically universal, but Auden's inclusion of a line and a half of Hebrew (Rosetta recitation of the Jewish prayer at the end of her last monologue) in his most ambitious long poem does stand in stark contrast to the severely circumscribed internationalism of high modernists such as Pound or Eliot who made room in poetry in English for shards of Chinese and Italian, Latin and Greek, but not, ever, for the language of the Jews. This morally striking moment is linguistically striking too. With a wonderful lack of respect for separate "traditions" Auden’s synthesizing brilliance folds the ancient Hebrew words perfectly into the alliterative form of Old English verse and puts them into the mouth of a department store buyer in mid-20th century Manhattan. The moment is, at one level, just the focussing and pinpointing of the poem's ubiquitously voracious desire for as much novel and modern diction, and through it for as much of the modern world, as it is practically possible for a poem of only 138 very small pages to bank up.
Poetry criticism, at least as an exercise in close reading (and will poetry reading ever again get "far" or "distant" from what is currently "close"?) has become almost completely focussed issues of shape and form. But the grammatical and syntactic structures of language as whole, which we could legitimately correlate with poetic "form", change relatively slowly. For example, an increasing paratacticism in sentence structure, often held to be one of the markers of modernist daring with language, has been a general characteristic of English usage since the 18th century.
Where linguistic modernity truly makes itself felt is not primarily in English's structure but in its lexicon. The world of late capitalism manufactures new kernels of language at an extraordinary fast rate. Take a sample of linguistic novelty, as recorded by the OED for 1947, the year when Auden published The Age of Anxiety. That year, according to the OED saw the first use in English of 319 notable new words or parts of words. Here is a small sampling:
affectless, apartheid, automaker, biocide, biotechnology, bikini, Biro, bop, Chicano, chloroflourocarbon, echograph, econometrician, ethnolinguistics, gamesmanship, honcho, ingressant [Auden is cited for his use of this word in The Age of Anxiety], jet stream, Kafkaesque, loner, look-alike, macromodel, market testing, mesofauna, microenvironmental, miniaturization, minimalistic, multipolarity, name-dropper, neo-Keynesian, new look, nuclide, overdesign, Oxfam, oxy-arc, Phenergan, phenylpropanolamine, photoinduction, physicalize, pi-meson, pixillation, press-up, programmed, pulser, rain-out, scorzalite, Scotch tape, self-hate, socializer, subminiature, subprogram, tectosilicate, thiopental, toxaphene, upbeat, vert [Auden is cited too for his use of this word in The Age of Anxiety], viraemia and zoophilic.
As if to trying to keep pace, at least at a symbolic level, with the rapidity of linguistic coining within American culture in the immediate post-war period, Auden tried very hard to make his forms in The Age of Anxiety neo-traditional but his diction anomalously, almost freakishly contemporary. The OED cites this one poem alone 64 times for novel lexical usages of the following words or parts of speech:
base, bedroom, blossom, book, bullet-head, bus, cabaletta, comfort, commute, deasil, dish, doodle, double-talk, egg, elevator, euphoric, Ferris, filter, fix, game, Ghuzz, G. I., green-house, Gupta, hepato-, hot, ingressant, jive, klieg, know-how, man, market, medicine man, momma, monadnock, orphaned, parachute, passport, pay-, peek, penthouse, personal, quiz, rain, right, run, salad, Schadenfreude, silk, soft-footed, Suburbia, teenager, Tethys, think, tick, time, Timurid, Torgut, treacly, trivia, tycoon, U, ur- and vert.
Exactly comparably, Pound is cited by the OED 64 times for significant usages in The Pisan Cantos (1948). By contrast, we learn something suggestive about the nature of W. C. Williams's level of linguistic innovation by noting that Part 1 of Paterson (1946) is only cited once by the OED, and about the nature of H. D.'s poetry by noting that The Walls Do Not Fall (1944) is not cited in the dictionary at all. Of course, these lop-sided figures partially reflect the prejudices and blind-spots of generations of OED contributors and editors. But the linguistic yields from Auden and Pound as opposed to Williams and H. D. cannot be explained away entirely on such grounds. Some writers are more linguistically "open" to the world than others, and this is an important and almost wholly facet of their work.
A study of lexical contemporaneity is only one crude measure of an author's claim to be considered a self-consciously "modern" poet. But the current preoccupation with purely, and often crudely, formalist definitions of avant-garde writing are no longer adequate. Lexical innovation (and anxiety) are just as much markers of poetic modernity as formal innovation (and anxiety) are. But critics and scholars have been obsessed with the latter for almost three-quarters of a century now, while largely neglecting diction. It is time for more work on the language in which a poem is written, just as it is time for poetry criticism to rethink and revive the study of that banished entity — content.
August 03, 2007
In this one, I was lying in a bed. The bed was in the corner of a vast white-washed room, and was one of many. The ceiling was covered with lacquered, hardwood planks. I thought that by now my prolonged staring meant that I knew every knot, stain, splinter and crack in the area directly over my bed. The windows on two sides of the room looked out, from my perspective, onto a row of evergreen treetops and, beyond that, an infinity of clouds. A man in an orderly's all-white uniform sat in the far centre of the room at a desk by the windows. His head was bowed. He had fair hair, and was wearing gold-rimmed glasses on which the sun occasionally flashed. He wrote steadily, unhesitatingly, with a fountain pen in a large ledger. I never saw him look up.
In each bed, there was a wounded man dressed in regulation issue striped pyjamas. I soon realized I was wearing the same pyjamas myself. In fact, only the different bandaging of each patient's wounds individuated us because we were all dressed the same way and all seemed to have exactly the same face.
There was a war on, a big war involving millions of soldiers and sailors. It was completely different from the kind of thing we had expected when we got into this. Hundreds of thousands of our troops had been killed or imprisoned. In fact, I think we were losing the war. I knew I must have been hurt too, or else I would not have been here. But I could not fathom where I had been or what had happened to me, or, indeed, whether I was in pain or not. (Incidentally, for some reason or another I associate this period with the fulfillment of my ambition to write in the style for which I have, I suppose, become quite well-known. For years I had been longing to offset my narratives of the most terrible, toxic and complex events with a tone of voice which is at all times lucid, temperate, Socratically mild and unruffled. Do you understand what I am getting at? Well, now it suddenly seemed perfectly easy to me.)
I was struck by the silence of the room. So many people, so little noise. The quiet amplified the impact of every tiny scrape or cough. Oddly, it reminded me of a time when I was a young boy and had visited the amphitheatre at Delphi with my parents and siblings. I climbed to the top of the huge, steep banks of stone seating and gazed down at my father, who looked tiny, standing in the middle of the ancient stage below. I watched as Dad took a piece of paper out of his pocket and slowly crumpled it up. Even though I was far away from him, I could hear the crunches and snaps of the paper as it buckled and folded up in his hands. Then he waved and beckoned at me, signalling me to come down and join him. I didn't at first, but just sat there for a while. After the sound of the crumpled paper had died away, I had an exacerbated sense of the hugeness and solidity, almost the tangibility, of the ensuing silence. I had the chilling sensation of being alone at the center of an unpopulated universe.
Now, the room we wounded men were in felt equally silent, so much so that I could distinctly hear the mouse-like scratching of the orderly's fountain pen as it crossed back and forth over the sheets of the book. I suppose that made me think, perhaps wrongly, that at least here I wasn't quite alone. You know how eerily quiet sickrooms, and medical environments in general, usually are. Suddenly, there was a loud "nrggh, nrggh, nrggh" coming from the bed next to mine. I looked over. The man in that bed was lying on his left side, with his back turned towards me. His head was bent over so his chin must have been pressed hard against his chest. He didn't seem to be moving, but he kept making that same sound more and more loudly. There was also something that sounded like sticky bubbles popping. Have you ever heard melted chocolate boiling?
Next, I heard the orderly pressing an ivory-tipped button under the top surface of his desk. How did I know the button was ivory-tipped? Good question. I'm not sure how. The bastard did not get up and, once he had pressed the button, he resumed the steady, relentless gait of his writing. Somewhere far off in the corridor — as though one of the reindeer on Santa's sleigh had unexpectedly shifted its feet and had sent a little reverberation up through the reins and into the sleigh's wooden frame — a bell tinkled gently.
About 10 minutes later (I estimate), a man in dressed in fatigues over which he was wearing a white jacket and a Sam Browne belt, complete with a holster and pistol suspended on his left, came rushing into the room. At first I thought he was also wearing on his chest a badge which said "I Paid for This!" But as he came nearer, I could see that the badge merely had the name "Jackson" stitched into it.
There was no need for him to ask the orderly who was in need of help. The man lying in the bed next to mine was now moaning terribly. "Jesus Christ, man!" Jackson roared as he rushed up to the bedside. "Why on earth didn't you call me sooner? You're bleeding like a pig!" There was another groan, very much like a sigh that had gone badly wrong. "Mnnh, mnnh, mnnh." "What's that?" Jackson roared, "what's that?" He bent down to the groaning man. "Here, get this bloody thing out of your mouth." He seemed to be wrestling fiercely with this wounded wretch, who was trying to fight Jackson off. After a few moments, Jackson wrenched something away from the patient and threw it onto the floor between the man's bed and mine. "You're bloody ill, that's what you are," Jackson said to him through clenched teeth. "I... I'm sorry, sir," croaked the man in the bed. Then I was suddenly aware that, aside from the fair-haired, hunched orderly who kept writing as if he locked in that position and programmed to keep producing more and more pages of script, the whole roomful of sick men, along with myself, was quietly watching this sick drama play itself out.
"I'm sorry, sir," the man in the bed moaned, still lying abjectly on his side. (Come to think of it, I never did see his face.) Then, like a pipe being undammed, he let out a huge belch of blood, pus and vomit. I know this because it sprayed all over Jackson's white coat. "Jesus H. Christ!" Jackson bellowed. Still the relentless scratch-scratch-scratch of the fountain-pen was audible. "I'm sorry, sir...," the man said, as if, between groans, he was still trying to complete his sentence. And then, very softly, he added, "I, er, I didn't want to bother you...." I heard Jackson roar again. It sounded like someone had stabbed him, like he was the one in pain. "You blithering idiot!" he boomed. And then, as if addressing the whole room, he shouted, "You're all alike!"
Sometime later, after Jackson had, literally, thrown in the towel and shambled off, and after some grim-faced nurses had wheeled the wizened corpse away and had changed the sheets on the bed, I managed to shut my eyes for a few moments. "But it is just one death amongst so many," I thought. "I wonder if my family, whoever they are, are still alive?" As you can clearly discern, I had slipped into a completely despairing and irrational state of mind. But we had all seen people dying before — collapsing in the streets, tumbling from buildings, falling down like a puppet whose strings have been cut when a string of bullets hit them, and so on. As well as, of course, writhing and moaning here in the ward. Death was not unfamiliar.
I opened my eyes again and found I was lying on my side and staring down at the object which Jackson had ripped away the dying man and tossed onto the floor. I recognized it at once. It was an ancient copy of the Loeb edition of the plays of Aeschylus. The sea-green cover was covered with dark spatters, the larger ones formed into a sort of crescent or semi-circle which ended at the edge of the binding. Gradually, as I looked at it for longer, I began to see as well that not only was the volume covered in multiple blood spots but that there was also a set of indentations in the cover, exactly embedded in the semi-circle of darker stains. Whoever that fellow was, he must have been biting deeper and deeper into the book in order to stop himself from groaning.
That was when I noticed that the sound of the orderly writing in his ledger had stopped. Then, I heard footsteps padding across the linoleum. The next thing I knew was that an ink-stained hand reached down and picked up the copy of Aeschylus which I had just been gazing at indifferently. In the gulley of shadows formed by the two beds, mine and the dead man's, I saw a gold glint. Some while later, when I turned my head to the right to catch the sky turn a glowing pink as the sun went down, I found that battered copy of Aeschylus lying near to me on the pillow.
August 02, 2007
"Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love."
My poetry life began while my feet still hung in mid-air from the chair I was sitting on. I was staying at my grandparents' home.
My grandmother and I were sitting alone together in the house. It was summer and hot. The afternoon sunlight turned the window panes into streams of upward shimmering air. At a certain point, and to my great disappointment, my grandmother put down her knitting, to which she had been attending, and switched the glowing TV set, to which I had been attending, off. "Enough of that", she said gently.
She had been an Oxford undergraduate at St. Anne's at the same time as the young W. H. Auden was huddled away in his shuttered bunker at Christ Church. But, after her mother died, my grandmother had been forced to abandon her English degree in order to look after her younger brothers and sisters. Now in her early sixties, she was a quiet person, though I think that I remember her chuckling a lot. She and my grandfather were Congregationalists and ardent anti-apartheid campaigners.
We had a cake, and then she began to read to me slowly, carefully and with a faint ironical smile, from Macaulay's bathetic Lays of Ancient Rome. She had a beautiful, gentle voice, soft but clear. (Perhaps it came from her family and the old Victorian/Edwardian habit of reading poems aloud: her brother, Robin Holmes, was a poetry-reader and an announcer on the BBC's Third Programme.) She kept her eyes on the text, as if not wanting to make any mistakes, but she knew I was shooting glances at her and as she looked down, she also letting a wide spectrum of expressive signals move across her face, like a subtle emotional variant of semaphore. "Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber! | To whom the Romans pray, | A Roman's life, a Roman's arms, | Take thou in charge this day!..." I listened, bowed in silence, staring at my floating shoes in an agony of pleasure. Macaulay's Romans and Etruscans orated like titled martinets from the Duke of Wellington's General Staff kitted out in Victorian fancy dress. But it did not matter to me. Aesthetically organized language suddenly caught fire in my head.
Were the flames inside me ignited by my grandmother's voice? Or by the thought of a hero who defeats an army single-handed but then still has to abandon himself to the violent whims of the river he calls "Father"? The moment was so stunning and confusing that I have never had any clear idea about that issue. All I know is that my mind seethed and ran over as if it were being poured out like a ladleful of molten bronze. I thought that my eyes were failing and my tongue was paralyzed. I think I might have sighed after my grandmother finished reading, and, in answer to her question, I just about managed to mumble, "Yeah, it was good." I sat, heavy-headed, gazing at my scuffed sandals as my psyche cooled into its new shape. Then came a knocking at the front door and she noticed that it was getting late.
My grandmother's name was Elizabeth Ursula Joy Moore and on 21 February 1977, as she was trying to release her car’s sticky handbrake before reversing out of a parking spot, she had a heart-attack and died. She was 68. She and my grandfather, who died less than a year later, both donated their remains for use in medical research. I believe parts of my grandmother's body are still preserved somewhere in Oxford. In my more complacent moments, I think of myself as another of her good deeds. And, 30 years later, I still cannot read that Imperial drivel without welling up in floods of warm tears.
August 01, 2007
What to give to the man or woman who has everything? Only this: a hand-written letter containing three elements — acknowledgment of their misfortune, an expression of hope that in the future they will at last find happiness, peace and a good conscience; and a sincere wish that it were possible for them to have a second try at shaping their life along more adequate lines. Finally, the letter should be signed with your own first name and in parentheses following the name you should inscribe the phrase "a fellow-sufferer", underlined twice.[back]