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FICTIONS OF ART HISTORY
By Mark Ledbury
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
All rights reserved.
Weightless History: Faulkner, Bourke-White, and Eisenstaedt
Gravity is the scholar's element—the weight of the past, the weight of bibliographic sources, the weight of an academic discipline. But I will explore another metaphor for what the scholar does while researching and writing: the scholar floats, even flies, free and somehow above it all. Rather, I should say that the scholar should or might be so free, or that there might be at least moments when such floating or flying happens ( you see how quickly I qualify), and that these moments of ungrounded abandon—these moments of inspiration—create powerful, believable insights into the past, unattainable in any other way.
Scholarship, however, being so grounded, unfortunately offers few examples of this floating and flying. So I turn instead to fiction and photography to explain what I have in mind, in particular to the novels of William Faulkner and the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and their Life magazine colleague Walter Sanders. My aim is to pursue the links between elevation and inspiration in their work. I also hope to tell a story about America in the 1930s and '40s in a way that will require me to leave the ground—to be quite groundless in my claims —if that past is to be heard.
Faulkner's elevations come in different forms. I will give three, the first from Absalom, Absalom!, published in 1936. In that novel, the monomaniacal Thomas Sutpen conscripts a French architect to build a mansion in the Mississippi woods in 1833. The architect, desperate and stuck there against his will, a virtual prisoner in Sutpen's back-country world, one day escapes. He walks into the woods and then, to elude the dogs and search party he knows will come after him, uses a sapling pole to haul himself into a tree, lifting the sapling pole up after him. "Calculat[ing] stress and distance and trajectory," he vaults himself from that tree to the next. The gap between the two trees is wide enough "that a flying squirrel could not have crossed and traveled," but the architect proceeds "from tree to tree for almost half a mile before he put foot on the ground again." When the search party finds the sapling pole on the ground, the dogs smell not only the architect but his "exultation" itself—his pleasure at having invented a way to elude them.
The exultation of escape and the forced labor of building the house: in the plot these are contrasts, but as expressions of the architect's creativity they are the same. "The architect," Faulkner writes, "had used architecture, physics, to elude them as a man always falls back upon what he knows best in a crisis." As a principle of his craft and as the finest expression of that craft, he escapes it: he takes leave of it, in a leap of inspiration, using his skills to do so.
This inspiration, born of desperation—this "exultation"— is one and the same thing with writing in Absalom, Absalom! The architect's lift matches an old letter on Quentin Compson's desk in his freshman dormitory room at Harvard in 1909. The letter is before Quentin as he tells his roommate Shreve the story of Sutpen and the French architect on a bitterly cold night in Cambridge seventy-six years after the architect's escape. Faulkner notes how "one half" of this letter "slanted upward from the transverse crease without support, as if it had learned half the secret of levitation." Earlier Faulkner describes the letter as "open, three quarters open," so that its "bulk had raised half itself by the leverage of the old crease in weightless and paradoxical levitation."
Faulkner embraces this principle of weightless and paradoxical levitation in his writing, which is deservedly famous for its extraordinary invention. Even when his metaphors are grounded—for example, Gail Hightower's wheel of thought churning ever more slowly in the sand of his dying moments in Light in August (1932)— they come out of nowhere. Moreover, these inventive passages, like the ones concerning the architect in Absalom, Absalom!, have a way of making the reader believe in the story—of securing the reader's belief, once and for all—as if Faulkner's work consistently explored the unlikely kinship between extravagant imaginative flights and persuasiveness. When I read Absalom, Absalom!, I noted my incredulity at the architect's invention and then, almost simultaneously, my belief: my feeling of having been secured by means of this improbable invention into the plausible and truthful world Faulkner had created, as if only by imaginatively risking the reader's doubt had the story attained its full measure of persuasiveness. Accordingly, levitation and storytelling—the architect's vaulting, the writer's invention, and the levitating page—combine in these passages to form a grand imaginative flight whose hallmark is a truthfulness as solemn and grave as that of Quentin Compson, the historian who relies on the levitating letter to describe the past.
My second example of elevation in Faulkner's work comes from his novel The Wild Palms, published in 1939. In one of that novel's two parallel stories, a convict is taken from prison as part of a work gang to help with evacuation, rescue, and public works during a great flood in 1927. Gazing out at the flood water, the convict tells the warden he knows how to handle a small boat, and the warden sends him out to help rescue stranded people. In fact, the convict does not know much about paddling boats, and no sooner is he out alone on the water than the skiff starts to spin and drift, pulled beyond his control (at one point he inadvertently rescues a pregnant woman perched in a tree his boat runs into), so that he floats away and ends up escaping by accident—without meaning to and without even wanting to. Not long after—and this is the scene of elevation that concerns me—the convict hears a loud sound and, turning as he paddles to look back, he sees an enormous wave. This wave, "curled, crested with its straw-like flotsam of trees and debris and dead beasts," soon "began to rear above his head in its thunderous climax." With the pregnant woman on board, the convict turns to face front and paddles like mad, altering his course (though he does not know why) to make the skiff follow a deer he sees swimming in front of him "as the wave boiled down." A scene of levitation follows:
The skiff rose bodily ... on a welter of tossing trees and houses and bridges and fences, he still paddling even while the paddle found no purchase save air and still paddled even as he and the deer shot forward side by side at arm's length, he watching the deer now, watching the deer begin to rise out of the water bodily until it was actually running along upon the surface, rising still, soaring clear of the water altogether, vanishing upward in a dying crescendo of splashing and snapping branches, its damp scut flashing upward, the entire animal vanishing upward as smoke vanishes.
The description of the deer running on water and then ascending out of sight is a kinetic altarpiece, a vision of transcendence, of apotheosis, a miracle out of nowhere, gone in sacrificial smoke. As a set piece, the description also asserts the religious power of fiction itself, its power to make us believe in the unbelievable, to see it with our own eyes, and to be most persuasive when it summons its energies to take leave of the world, to give us an image we never dreamed of, let alone ever thought could be true. Once, when I read this quotation out loud, a person in the audience afterward told me that Faulkner must have experienced this event himself to describe it so truly. It is much more likely, of course, that Faulkner invented it, and the audience member's belief that the passage could only be a journalistic report of a real event acknowledges the truth of invention.
The elevated state is timeless for Faulkner, as in my third example, from Pylon, published in 1935. It is not surprising that airplanes would be another form of elevation for Faulkner, who flew during World War I and remained fascinated by flying for some years afterward. It is not, however, the novel's racing pilots and airplanes that concern me—not their peregrinations around the pylons at the New Valois Airport—but rather the peculiarly aerial, light, and ungrounded figure of the novel's main character, the reporter (the writer, we could call him) who covers the air show.
This reporter, as Faulkner describes him, is without weight. Tall and incredibly thin, he appears "made of air" and "intact of his own weightlessness like a dandelion burr moving where there is no wind." When the reporter hears his name repeatedly announced on the loudspeaker at the airport, that name, which we never learn in the novel, floats in loudspeaker sound that makes it seem "as though he had to be summoned not out of the living world of population but evoked peremptory and repetitive out of the air itself." Otherwordly, nameless, the reporter filters through Mardi Gras crowds "like a phantom." He passes between people "like a playing card," "without alteration or diminution of bulk," and when he moves he does so "apparently without contact with earth like one of those apocryphal nighttime batcreatures ... which are seen only in midswoop."
This reporter—this writer—is serious without gravity. He is like the New Valois Airport, which, when we first see it, hazy in the morning air, "seemed to float lightly like the apocryphal turreted and battlemented cities in the colored Sunday sections, where beneath silless and floorless arches people with yellow and blue flesh pass and repass: myriad, purposeless, and free from gravity." Not everything in Pylon is as weightless as the apocryphal funnies. Newspapers have their weight. A stack of them sits beneath an inverted watch in the newspaper building's elevator—an allegory of the accumulated weight of the everyday. Aviators and airplanes also have their gravity. Shumann, the tragic pilot of the story, crashes into a lake and is permanently entombed, trapped forever among the deliberately sunken junk automobiles and other heavy trash such as pavement and "fallen walls" dumped there previously to keep the lake's sluggish muddy bottom from silting up. Even the reporter has his weight, since on an earlier flight he accompanies Shumann and lies down in the fuselage to adjust the plane's "weight distribution." But, fundamentally, the reporter is weightless.
This makes him, for Faulkner, "beyond all mere restrictions of flesh and time." The reporter, "possessing no intrinsic weight or bulk himself," can be "everywhere," as Faulkner writes, everywhere and nowhere, and be thus apart from the "calculable doings of calculable people." Scholars produce weighty works—or so we are supposed to—but the writer, Faulkner says, makes something without weight, summoning visions out of thin air. The writer, then, is no calculable being, like a scholar, but a magician, a sorcerer, a batwing funnyman, whose final act of magic—or is it the first?— is to make himself float amid the mirages he makes us believe are really there.
Margaret Bourke-White is at first an odd match with Faulkner; her medium was steel and his was dust. But her work is also about elevation and inspiration. A photograph taken by her assistant Oscar Graubner in the early 1930s shows Bourke-White standing in one of the Chrysler Building gargoyles outside her studio window on the sixty-first floor of the then-new building (fig. 1). Graubner's photograph establishes Bourke-White's airborne credentials once and for all. She had always been fascinated by great heights. As a young girl, she had drawn a picture of herself on the moon with an accompanying verse ("A comet took me up to the moon / And it left me far too soon ..."), and at the Terminal Tower in Cleveland in the late 1920s, her dramatic photographs from the new building's sky-high ramparts helped make her reputation as America's canniest and slickest celebrator of industrial modernity. Working for Henry Luce's newly created Fortune magazine and other clients, Bourke-White came to New York and established her studio eight hundred feet up in the Chrysler Building.
What was Bourke-White's lightness? Her genius was not necessarily her risk-taking and fearlessness, which were impressive, but arguably only part of her celebrity, elements in a slick and self-created packaging no less shiny and vainglorious than the industrial implements and architecture she was so skilled at portraying. Her special and weightless gift was instead the quality of being carried away by what she photographed. By this I mean two things: that the world in her photographs seems to escape her grasp; and that, in so escaping, the world carried her away, producing the quality of her having been inspired and even ravished by what she saw.
At first this will make no sense. In Graubner's photograph, Bourke-White appears to be immersed in the view in her camera. She had precise standards about the images she made, and she knew just what she wanted. She insisted, for example, that her negatives be printed to the edges so that there could be no question that the finished photographs reflected exactly her fastidious compositions. "The major control is the photographer's point of view," she wrote in 1936, describing the careful design of her images. Once she became sought after as a commercial photographer in New York, her control of the image intensified as she squared her vision with her clients' demands, "adopting the advertiser's point of view." So, where is the state of being carried away?
It is partly to be found in the centrifugal quality of her photographs. The girders and hoists in Boulder Dam Construction of 1935 go this way and that, extending beyond the frame in every direction (fig. 2). The Chrysler Building tower, in a photograph of 1931, angles away like a jack-in-the-box (fig. 3). The mass production of objects, such as those in the Five-Gallon Water Bottles of 1932 and the Pails of 1934 (fig. 4), appears to go on nearly without limits, indicating the plenitude of American manufacture, but also crossing the line into some alternate, more magical, and finally crazier world akin to that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940).
Then there are the surfaces of Bourke-White's objects, notably the glamorous shine of silver, but really of all her things. "Everything in her pictures looked like it was made out of some kind of polished synthetic, even the skins of people," said the longtime Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski. Szarkowski's criticism notwithstanding, Bourke-White's avoidance of naturalism showcases a bizarre energy, a halo glow whose virtue is its fakery. Like the phrases that the 1940s film critics Manny Farber and James Agee devised to describe the overproduced falsity of Hollywood movies—their "lacquered shadow" and "chromium-and-glucose" details —Bourke-White's surfaces have the exuberance of a pure concoction, a linguistic coinage. She could bend her shadows like rubber around a pipe and she could pour you a vial of light as thick as concrete. If you wanted that concrete to resemble the slickness of the magazine page on which it would appear, she could blend the two together until the pulp and the pulp mill were one and the same. Rather than regard these improbable qualities as failures of naturalism, we might as easily note that Bourke-White invented a visual style whose crazed virtue was that it did not correspond to real life.
No doubt this otherworldly look was what her various employers wanted. They paid her to make modern fantasies. "In photographing the Douglas [airplane], we wish to make very sure we get a metallic, silvery finish of the ship and not a dull grey," one of them specified to her in 1935. No doubt the centrifugal excitement and infinite production of modern industry were what they wanted, too. But Bourke-White's photographs are more than ephemeral documents of a desperately self-celebrating moment of American capitalism. The reason? She knew that the image must court the moment when the world leaves the control even of the photographer paid to depict it. Only then would the fantasy be persuasive. Only when her subject had become truly unbelievable would it engender faith and belief. She realized that she had to make a car not a car for the advertiser to be satisfied: "This car was not an automobile in the ordinary sense; it was a winged chariot which floated smoothly off into space." Bourke-White tried to capture the moment when the world escaped her.
Excerpted from FICTIONS OF ART HISTORY by Mark Ledbury. Copyright © 2013 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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