Saturday, January 21, 2012

Studies in kissland i: the crime of the upturned face

For Tassos Paschalis

Here, I lapse into a neo-academic voice that I'd like to think seldom surfaces at the page. What inspires it is a text I acquired almost 25 years ago, in the easy browsings I so much enjoyed at City Lights in San Francisco. Few young readers will ever know that amenity, for whose loss not even a fine Review can adjust. Our culture had good company in the stimulating discern-ment of honest tradesmen. I do not pretend to imitate them; but on our days, of all days, we are entitled to seek the company our productivity has taken from us, not by our choice and not by our consent, archaic frames of reference as we speak.

Once the line encountered the body of a dead soldier .. The ranks opened covertly to avoid the corpse. The invulnerable dead man forced a way for himself. The youth looked keenly at the ashen face. The wind raised the tawny beard. It moved as if a hand were stroking it. He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try to read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.

This excerpt from The Red Badge of Courage is not the first to be cited here. Crane tells many stories at once, but also unlocks many vantage points on the Question. He is a writer of great leverage into desire, morbidity, dread - the underside of Burke's influential essay on the sublime and the beautiful - and into the "morals" of any culture's view of their correlation. In The Blue Hotel, Crane finally deposits this correlation in the lap of the criminal code. 

I present a portrait of the kiss, to pursue the question of where its criminality lies. This is not an exercise in the anatomisation of actual criminality, but of the posture which excites the reflex to condemn. Assuredly, something is the focal point of that reflex toward this portrait; and even though we know already what it is, I think it is not excessively evident why we think so. Crane can help.

We know this document does not arise from the inherently radioactive hour of dawn. The plinth on which the figures are situated betrays no nocturnal disturbance. With this circumstance an inference of premeditation cannot be discarded; but people premeditate the buttering of their toast, so we wisely don't linger in horror of that element. Moreover, given the times, we manfully assimilate their sharing of a gender, even a nakedness, with a minimum of that ick factor which nevertheless pertains to this portrait.

We observe abundant clues of their proximity, but we write these off only moderately grudgingly, as elements incidental to the act they are committing, a kiss. We resign ourselves readily enough to precedent for this coincidence; and we have heard, that at a certain age and with a certain experimentalism, this sort of casting of the parts is almost rather ordinary. Not that we could confirm it, our Chorus insists. The intent concentration in the face of the kneeling figure could well be that of an infantryman passing a corpse - a wholesome enough occurrence, in any lad's life.

We will notice a pressing by a hand, but not only is this gesture attributable to the exigencies of one remaining upright, and the other in parallel; at worst it is an innocuous reinforcement of sentiment - or, if this is worse, of motivation. There is a fanny for its placement, but when is there not, we reasonably recall.

Now. Something catastrophically implicates the left face in a condition from which the other - enthralled as it is - is exempt. It is that of the corpse. The upturned masculine face is the marker, at bottom, of death. It is morbidly compelling in signalling something much more stark than the canards of submissiveness, dependency, decadence; yet the face peering into it is captivated definingly by its posture. Call it a vortex, call it an abyss, the reading of the upturned masculine face gives rise to the complaint, but that is supposed to be dead. I happen to think the crime of death, itself, which in Crane is the Question of the infinite, is embedded in the blameworthiness of this image; and I am not surprised, that this umbrage surfaces in scriptural trappings. Our reigning eschatology is proudly steeped in carnal pre-occupations; but Crane reminds us that a phobia is a fear, not a scruple, and that it cannot be under-stood without going to its shuddering reflex.

What a stroke of unsung courage would it be, to breach reflex, shuddering, scruple, fear, pride, umbrage, and rule, to come so far, to kneel there in the backlight of day to meet that face as what it is, even with one's own? We all have seen such people, even met some; and it is apparent that what they have discovered, is that these forces weave not a defense but a tissue of shock having no origin in nature. Not for them, but for anyone, I note that today, in South Carolina, in the United States, every single voter drawing the curtain across his backside has been 'roused by men demanding to be the next President of this nation, to draw a curtain upon that face.

But I stray, and stumble into the abstract against my nature. This is Saturday, and the checklist calls for a kiss. You have Rodin, you have Doisneau, you've Mr Porter to say it's so. You have the world (excuse the limitation) as your oyster. Look into its face. Take all the time you need.

Stephen Crane
The Red Badge of
op. cit., cited in

Michael Fried
Realism, Writing,
  On Thomas Eakins and
  Stephen Crane
University of Chicago Press, 1987©

x-xi  Jeremy Young

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