Some wordsmiths claim they work by serendipity. Certainly James Joyce would have qualified. When Samuel Beckett was taking dictation from Joyce for what was then called Work in Progress, at a knock at the door, Joyce broke off and said, “Come in.” Reading it back afterwards, Joyce let the “Come in” stand.
There is a root system in World Literature that rivals any other man-made thing on the planet, where languages mingle, shorting or exploding the ideas and poetics they contain. I had just been corresponding with Paul Skinner, editor of the Ford Madox Ford Society’s journal, when I heard, in an obscure online lecture from 2012 at a Paris Poetics conference, the poet Geoffrey Hill describe his serendipitous discovery of a passage in a nearly forgotten book by Ford Madox Ford. Between St. Dennis and St. George: A Sketch of Three Civilisations was republished by Forgotten Books two years ago. According to Hill, it is a book of anti-Prussian propaganda published at the height of WWI. Inside, Ford celebrates French culture (he was a Francophile and knew pages of Flaubert and Maupassant by heart), promoting its arts and the lifestyle of its citizens. About mid-way through, he writes a curious and awing sentence about literature’s importance:
If you will read with great care and assimilate with a humble intelligence — for humility is necessary in approaching the study of words, and your mind must be utterly cleared of any trace of preconception — if, then, with humility and attention you will read the following sentences you will know more of France than if you spend months and months and months in one of the large hotels near the Tuileries Gardens…
And there follows the fourth paragraph of Gustave Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” from Trois Contes, which gives a detailed account of the widow Madame Aubain’s small house, ending with, “Two deep arm-chairs, tapestry covered, flanked the yellow marble mantelpiece in the style of Louis XV. The clock in the middle represented a temple of Vesta — and the whole room smelled slightly musty, for the floor was lower than the garden.” Thereafter Ford offers six pages of close textual analysis. It is an infamous paragraph within an infamous novella within an infamous book — one Gertrude Stein translated into English as an exercise. Ezra Pound took much about technique from Ford and a few of Flaubert’s sentences from that paragraph are to be found in his Canto VII. Ford, after the example of Flaubert, helped change how people wrote English prose. His aim, per Pound, was “the just word” and “good writing as opposed to the opalescent word, the rhetorical tradition.” In the midst of the war to end all wars, Ford himself read Flaubert’s just words iconologically:
Modern life, the modern life of our great cities, has got hideously too far from the quiet rooms where sit the mothers of the race — the quiet rooms that smell faintly of mould because they are a little below the level of the garden. And, if these are hideous days, with hideous occurrences devastating appalling nights, that is very much because the world has got too far away from Mme. Aubain…
We are 100 years from the Great War now and there is barely anyone alive who can remember actual scenes of it or the bloody fields in aftermath. A popular notion is that time is moving faster. Don DeLillo is always good on this topic. In a 20-year-old essay, he writes about the “drama of white-hot consumption and instant waste,” observing, at the cusp of the internet era, how “the microwave, the VCR remote, the telephone redial button and other time collapsing devices may make us feel that our ordinary household technology reflects something that flows through the deep mind of the culture, an impatient craving for time itself to move faster.”
As time revs up, it seems the past falls quicker and more fully out of memory. I’ve just hit the age which is (in)famous for recommended colonoscopies. In day to day life I rarely come into contact with someone in my age bracket who remembers the release of the American hostages in Iran, just after the 1980 election, my first political memory. I do remember seeing Star Wars in the theater at three, and I’m sure many people would prefer to talk about that, but I don’t. Our memories are bound to trick us, to play keep-away or engorge the ego and add another delusion of grandeur, as in how we “swam” with dolphins, though we were near shore and the dolphins were at least a third of a nautical mile away. In numerous op-eds and social media messages, a repeatedly promoted notion is how we are losing memory — that is we have to be, in order to be suckered back into electing fascist-like leaders, while extremists on both sides consciously or unconsciously take after the worst of humanity’s past.
Time and memory are on the move, cresting and sinking in frightening, unforgiving spasms. It’s not a coincidence that the internet has been around for about 25 years. Artifacts used to be a craze with many hours spent deciding what to put in the cornerstone of a building or a Mars-bound space capsule. Now, basically most everything is catalogued on the internet. You can’t eat the internet but you can get almost all the other things humans want out of life on it. The most common pose of a human in a developed country is to sit, stand, or lay while clicking and scrolling — though a semi-driver who recently ran over someone on the road evidently watched porn while commandeering his big rig to become a murder weapon. But there are multiple stories like this every day — that is what the corrupting media, which upholds a wide end of our plutocracy, is for — keeping us entertained so as not to disturb pace of the widening income gap.
So what is emblematic of our time, which is roughly the last 25 years, starting with the infancy of the internet to the present? What can tell us, like the Flaubert paragraph, about our society? My answer is the image of a shark swimming next to a car on a flooded highway or street.
I first saw this doctored image during Hurricane Sandy because it was the only hurricane situation I’ve been in and I watched for up to date carnage on social media, parsing plenty of other doctored and altogether fake photos. Actually, it debuted on a street in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irene. Apparently, the junk artist who constructed it — a person following the definition of a counterfeiter given by Hugh Kenner: “…he imitates not things but occasions, and that a work’s historical context, real or feigned, is part of its meaning” — took a 2005 National Geographic Africa picture of a kayak on water and photoshopped in a rearview mirror, added the wall and the highway’s concrete barrier, dialed down the deep blue sea color to treacly shallow aqua, and voilà, a creation that maybe took an entire hour from conception to completion, and, probably, immediate dissemination. Was he or she a radical green who wanted to convince the naysayers about climate change, or maybe just a bored teenager, who certainly spent some time constructively? Tens of thousands of people believed and will believe this image, which reappears whenever a major hurricane or tropical storm hits the shore.
But as far back as the 1997 film Wag the Dog, one could see how computers could manipulate not just images, but moving pictures, to create a simulacrum of war. There is something deeper to this pissoir image, something greater, beyond how well it took people in. It is speaking in the tradition of an Andy Warhol soup can, without signature, yet it is only unsigned so as to appear real. The junk artist (or counterfeiter or agent provocateur) who assembled it, thoughtfully reproduced the new standard of taking a photograph out the window of a car while driving, except it’s not awkwardly angled enough.
But the philosophy behind its creation is what makes it emblematic, an image to put alongside Duchamp’s Mona Lisa, the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and probably the picture of the sailor kissing the girl on V-J Day, also staged to a degree. It was made to sow fear, and/or humor. But the major difference from the Flaubert paragraph is that you do not need to read it with great care and assimilate it with humble intelligence — no. You don’t have to do much of anything because it so typifies the twitching trigger finger behind our current perceptions, our feelings toward art, people, and the sun. It is full of sass and snark, as weightless as cotton candy, all surface, with no moral consciousness, no conception of history, just a tawdry tease to tempt us to think the end of the world might be closing in.
In 100 years there may be no “artwork,” whether literary, visual, aural, or otherwise that so embodies our era. Not even the tweet, some fatuous forlorn pronouncement utterly egoistic and untrue, is as telling as this image — for isn’t iconology, as Guy Davenport says, “the true study of the world, the true way to criticize anything”? Like that paragraph of “Un Coeur Simple,” this image will inform someone living one-hundred years from now (earth willing) about many of our wayward hours at this moment.
Images dominate us now much more than words — images, no matter the veracity, are our ideas, like the understudy of a star actor, with “text” only as the optional seasoning. Harold Bloom averred that thinking depends almost entirely on memory, of which reading, and especially reading disagreeable things, helps build up, foundation to vane. A too-large segment of the population, situated on the extremes of the two political parties, seems content to dismiss and bully, to banish at the drop of a hat (a thumb jerk against the screen) because they are unable to hear anything contrary — the slightest eye twitch can be as provoking as the Archduke’s assassination.
The headwaters bend a bit but not too much when you mix the extremists with the half of the country that doesn’t vote, but by and by the parties merge and submerge and one might make sense of it with the stark term called “anarchical plutocracy,” a view forwarded by Geoffrey Hill, but which originated with William Morris in his 1883 essay “Art Under Plutocracy.” It means a system, headed by the wealthy, which “destroys memory and dissipates attention,” where too many succumb to consumerism and are “self-satisfied with the offer of total solipsistic pleasure in the self” — social media’s legacy. When fused with the “resistance,” most of which is angry and hate-filled messaging to match the psychosis on the right, are we, as Hill believed, not taking seriously enough what is going on? Are there too many addictive creature comforts that keep us enfolded and quite sanitary, only able to publicly foment all the bitter heart-scald it’s become tantamount to display with our own private but now public address systems?
Perhaps, in the style of the unnameable junk artist, too many of our friends and neighbors are on the path of a lifestyle choice which essentially rebrands them as counterfeiters, those who sow discord under the aegis of resistance, those who curry favor with the pitter-patter or sonic boom of ass-kissing for all to see, and those who get further from their feelings, and those who become more automaton-like, more disabled from joy, pain, and sadness by tracking their ego’s day like the stock prices on the ticker-tape. One hundred seventy-five years ago, Emerson wrote, “We consecrate a great deal of nonsense because it was allowed by great men.” Things of this sort have a track record, but we don’t have go much further than the Senate Chamber and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to see who is in charge of allowing now, with “great” perhaps being the furthest adjective from the truth.
Someone looking at the shark photo 100 years from now will also notice the “person” or “tulpa” is sitting in their car, living by recording what is interesting to them, but what is interesting only in so far as it will instantly get them attention. There are no humans in the counterfeit image, only a sliver of a ghostly car. It is all perspective.