Unreal Nature

April 27, 2009

Who, What, Where, When and Why

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:18 am

George Gudger [Agee’s pseudonym for Floyd Burroughs] is a human being, a man, not like any other human being so much as he is like himself. I could invent incidents, appearances, additions to his character, background, surroundings, future …. The result, if I was lucky, could be a work of art. But somehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an illimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, where, when and why he is.

That’s a quote from James Agee that is within an essay, Vistas of Perfection: The self-dissatisfied life and art of James Agee, by Adam Kirsch in the May/June 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine.

The last part of that quote, “he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, where, when and why he is.” is probably what a great many people think straight photography is — or can and should — be about. The problem is, it’s not possible. Nobody, including Floyd Burroughs himself, knows, much less could convey, what “he is.”

You only need go back two sentences above the Agee quote in Kirsch’s essay to see the absurdity of the attempt:

… In fact, Agee’s book is a long meditation on the difficulty of capturing reality in language, on the incomparable uniqueness of the individual soul, on the prison of American materialism — much the same themes that inspired the transcendentalists a hundred years before. They are not themes that lend themselves to direct or shapely expression, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is at times maddening to read — Agee meanders, elaborates, doubts, catalogs, quotes, and versifies, more or less as the impulse takes him.

The only thing you find in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is Agee’s world view. The book, necessarily, cannot be ‘about’ the Burroughs/Gudger family. He spent two weeks living with the Burroughs. If a pair of aliens from outer space (Agee was with photographer Walker Evans) had been living in the Burroughs house, it would not have been any more disruptive than these two New England reporters.

-Julie

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4 Comments

  1. This is very, very thought provoking…

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 27, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

  2. If a pair of aliens from outer space (Agee was with photographer Walker Evans) had been living in the Burroughs house, it would not have been any more disruptive than these two New England reporters.

    Sometimes I think that, but then I see parents come into the classroom and observe their children and very quickly they blend into the background. It is possible, I think, to be a fly on the wall if you are not interacting with the principals. I suppos Evans and Agee were. (Is taking a photograph “interacting with a principal?)

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 30, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

  3. The difference is that the Burroughs family were Georgia sharecroppers. I don’t know how familiar you are with rural poor communities, but they are (in Virginia and I strongly suspect, also in Georgia) extraordinarily insulated from or unaware of anything that is not local. A newcomer is considered a newcomer for at least twenty years and even after that amount of time, they’re described as “not from here” by the locals — who’ve been “from” there for generations.

    Everything about a non-local person is different — the way he walks, the way he talks (what he says, how he says it, when he says it, what he doesn’t say), every bit of his clothing, the way he smells (not bad or good, just different), what he eats, how he eats it, when he eats it; what he does with money, what he does with animals, how he acts toward women, what he knows about essential things like the weather, the seasons, hardship and loss … I could go on and on.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 30, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  4. Yes, agreed. However, dating from the advent of the Beverly Hillbillies, I suspect that most hollows in America, even deep Appalachia, have suffered homogenization with us metro-sapians. (To the detriment, perhaps, of our overall culture.) I am fortunate to have included occasional visits to Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay as a doc in the distant past. I could go on for a long time about their culture and how it appeared to be affected by contact with the “mainland.” You are quite correct about everybody “else” being an outsider. But there can be a real human warmth beneath the rigidity. This has to give one some sense of optimism on the human condition. It sounds trivial, almost Joni Mitchellesque, but we are all much alike under our facades.

    Comment by Dr. C. — May 2, 2009 @ 9:44 am


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