A Bare Landscape, Simply Recorded
History would be, for Benjamin, remembered not as stories but as images.1 I seldom read historical novels, though I am trying to write one.
Prior to making the animated film In This Corner of the World, Mizoguchi is said to have researched World War II so thoroughly that the mise en scène misses no detail, from reproducing the exact flora and fauna species found in Kure and Hiroshima, down to depicting accurately which days it rained. I’m wary of history when it’s presented as a narrative, which is to say I’m having a hard time making a cohesive narrative out of the images before me. For one, I don’t have nearly enough.
I have a folder of Kodachrome photos I once digitized of my mother, my father, and my brother, in China before ’89. The photos were taken in a park. It was clearly a special day, as my brother was in a duck-billed cap and suspenders. Nabokov’s chronophobiac saw photos predating his birth and “realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.”2 I, on the other hand, felt shortchanged and wished to be in the Kodachrome with my family. It occurred to me that, had I been in the park that day, which is to say, had I been born years earlier in a different country, I would not have to trouble myself with these photographs.
The author of the monograph Memory, Metaphors, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images, compares the Atlas to photographs in Austerlitz’s house, as seen in Sebald’s eponymous novel.3 The Atlas consists of sixty-three wooden panels (roughly the height of a standard bookshelf), each rather portable and dressed in black cloth. Tacked onto each panel is anywhere from five to twenty-five photographic reproductions of oil paintings, drawings, newspaper images, and advertisements of varied sizes.
The front room, into which Austerlitz took me first, had nothing in it but a large table […] with several dozen photographs lying on it, most of them dating quite a long way back and rather worn at the edges… Austerlitz told me that he sometimes sat here for hours, laying out these photographs or others from his collection the wrong way up, as if playing a game of patience, and that then, one by one, he turned them over, always with a new sense of surprise at what he saw, pushing the pictures back and forth and over each other, arranging them in an order depending on their family resemblances…4
The power of images is that they’re inextinguishable, endlessly generative. Perhaps this is why W., an art historian, chose to “write” his last book in images.
At first glance, the Renaissance imagery is the dominant imagery in the Atlas. What jumps out are the nude arms of women extended in various directions, gesturing, making meaning happen in the painting. There is also the arm of Christ, extended in benediction. The arms of Roman generals, raised in deliberation.
Some panels are fully collaged, so as to look like a family scrapbook. On others, the images have been arranged in such a way so as to leave sections of the wooden panel—sometimes a swath in the middle, sometimes the bottom half—vacant, the empty space calling attention to itself, as though marking a period of time in which such an image was absent, or as though waiting to be occupied by an image that has yet to be made. In W.’s view “history” was like a person, someone who could have many temperaments and phases, but who would ultimately return to the same interests.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned about scholars’ rocks, a sort of ancient found artwork popular in the Tang Dynasty, involving rocks with special properties such as asymmetry, acoustic resonance, and resemblance to mountain shapes. Irregular, mountain-shaped rocks were objects of contemplation, which the elite mounted in their pleasure gardens.
When I was in my early teens, I had an unforgettable experience riding in a car with two “uncles”—my father’s friends—in a southern Chinese province and having them tell me that the ridge line of the mountain up ahead resembled the silhouette of a recumbent woman. Not long after they said this, they pulled over and collected quite a few large rocks from the side of the road and loaded them into the trunk. They said the rocks resembled the lady of the mountain. It occurred to me then that these two were con artists.
As it happened I was searching for a note I’d scribbled, having something to do with W.’s Kreuzlingen lecture, when I found the two enigmatic words—“scholars’ rocks”—scrawled in a diary entry from 2019. I have no doubt I’d heard the phrase at a show or a dinner at someone’s house and simply jotted down the mysterious words that night—an idle note—to resolve later.
W. wagered to prove his sanity in 1923, at the psychiatric clinic in Kreuzlingen, by delivering a lecture to his fellow patients. Writing out the details of the lecture by memory, the story starts to ring false to me, like another one of those myths that are used to flavor a famous scholar’s biography. For example, W. is said to have given his birthright to his younger brother, in exchange for books.5 My mind drifts to my dentist, who loved my teeth so much he once expressed the desire to make a mold of them to display in his office.
Method of this work: literary montage. I have nothing to say—only to show.6
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1989 film City of Sadness was the last historical film I watched that really struck me as something the genre should strive for. The film is all images. I walk around with its afterimages in my mind, which is to say it has left me with memories in lieu of a story. Set in Taiwan during the late forties, a time of martial rule known as the White Terror, the film casts Tony Leung as a deaf-mute photographer, the youngest of four sons, who falls in love with his friend Hinoe’s sister Hinomi. In one of the last scenes, the film cuts to an image of them on a road by the beach, looking as though they were going on a trip, but the train passes by them, and they’re back home in his photography studio, where he slowly and methodically turns the camera on himself and his wife and baby, producing the wide-eyed family portrait that becomes emblematic of the film. In the town in China where my family is from, there are certain images, very ordinary images, like laundry hanging out to dry on balconies, and the specific look of people’s balconies covered in translucent blouses, bras and underwear, that I like and that I can’t replicate without drawing undue attention to it. A bare landscape, simply recorded, carries a historical depth that we, historians of archive and narrative, have a very difficult time reproducing with the same intensity.7
Two Dragon Inns
In the case of a historical novel, one risks writing a slow and antiquarian annal, or one risks being gaudy, parading contemporary actors trussed up in period costumes. This tendency for the present to alienate the past is clear in Tsai Ming-Liang’s film Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which takes its title from King Hu’s film Dragon Inn.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn premiered in 2003 and is a product of the Taiwanese Second New Wave. Dragon Inn, filmed also in Taiwan, but in the sixties, is a classic swordplay film. In Tsai’s film, an assortment of moviegoers gather in a rainy Taipei theater to watch the last-ever showing of Hu’s film before the theater shutters. Tsai’s film follows the movements of the theater staff, a Japanese tourist cruising in the back rooms, and two middle-aged actors, the stars of Hu’s film, who stare at their younger selves on the screen, eyes brimming with tears. It is clear that no one but these two are interested in the heroic past represented in the images before them.
Another “uncle” once went on about his love for the distinctly “Chinese” experience of driving fast on the freeway while listening to traditional erhu music. He had really bad teeth from smoking, and he never wore a shirt. He would always take me shopping and leave me at the front of the store to talk to the sales clerks.
Once, we went shopping with my grandmother in a department store that was offering free semi-professional photoshoots. The clerk operating the camera said, “Why don’t you try smiling?” but changed her mind when she saw my grandmother’s strained expression and frowned at her camera as though there was something broken inside it. I stood behind my grandmother with my hands placed lightly on her blouse. (Even today, I can see, through the heavily edited and airbrushed haze, how my hands are just barely skimming her shoulders, afraid to touch them.) My grandmother looked at the proof and said, “I had a stroke. One of my eyelids is drooping. Can you fix that on your computer?” The clerk said, “Oh, I’m afraid the computer can only make surface-level changes, but I can brush up your skin.”
The department store laminated the photograph of my grandmother and me. Many members of my family display their laminated photographs like postcards on their shelves.
I can think of many reasons why I was reluctant to touch my grandmother. I didn’t know her, and she looked fragile. Perhaps I was reluctant to touch her out of deference, and maybe even fear: she moved slowly but her grip was tight, she swung the cleaver hard against the cutting board. Perhaps the weight of all she’d suffered in life—as was recounted to me—made her untouchable, like a god, or, I flattered myself to think, she might burst into tears if the fact of my nearness was made real by a touch.
Near the end of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, after the lights come on and the remaining audience disperses, we get a six-minute shot of the empty theater. The past represented in the King Hu film—the swordsmen, the innkeepers, the imperial armies—begins to fade away into the stark white light, until there is nothing left of the romance of the theater. The shot is held like a photograph. It could just as well be a photograph of my high school’s gymnasium, its accouterments just as stark. A critic says the “hyperbolic” and “intolerable” duration “makes no concession to those viewers avid for storytelling.”8 Another writer argues that the shot is held so as to “reverse the irreversible, to grab hold of these fleeting memories and wrest them out of the flow of time.”9
I say I didn’t touch my grandmother, but I would always hold up my hand behind her when she went down the steps of her building. My hand would just linger where she wouldn’t notice. It’s common sense, I think, to do these things without thinking too much about them. The way you would never ask your grandparents point-blank about a famine, or a house that burned down, or a child they lost. Rather, you would lead them to the altar, wordlessly bow to the plate of oranges, the little boy on the painted sign, and let the atlas of images fall open on its own.
1. Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), 1:596.
2. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (New York: Vintage, 1989), 19.
3. Christopher D. Johnson, Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images, 6.
4. W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2001), 175-6.
5. Cornell University Library, the Warburg Institute.
6. Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), 1:574.
7. Arlette Farge, quoted in Antoine De Baecque, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, 16.
8. Tiago de Luca, “Slow Time, Visible Cinema: Duration, Experience, and Spectatorship,” Cinema Journal 56.1, 28.
9. Rapfogel, Jared and Tsai Ming-Liang. “Taiwan’s Poet of Solitude: An Interview with Tsai Ming-Liang.” Cinéaste, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Fall 2004), p. 27.
About Jenny Wu
Jenny Wu is an art historian and creative writing instructor based in St. Louis. Her stories have appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Collagist, and The Literary Review. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. She is represented by Kiele Raymond at Thompson Literary Agency.