a melody from a past life keeps pulling me back

There’s a piece on the Paris Review blog that’s in part a description of a photo of Joseph Cornell’s old house in Queens that appeared here long ago and the comments that have attached themselves to that photo over time. The description given there is an odd misreading:

. . . a series of comments spanning four years, left almost fifteen years ago, on a blog post that featured nothing but an image of the home’s facade. The softness of the blue light and the wholeness of the tree behind the house and the certain weather of its green suggested it was taken from a moving car, windows down, by someone passing the home at the end of a near-perfect end-of-summer day . . .

Some quibbles! The post is clearly dated May 26, 2006, which is more than eighteen years ago now, astonishing in its own right. There are comments starting in 2010 and going up to May 27, 2024, which is a fourteen-year span – maybe the piece was in the works for a while? I don’t know exactly when the photo was taken, but probably the same day it was posted (one could check the EXIF data on the photo, of course), definitely not at the end of summer; it was not taken from a moving car, but by me, standing on the sidewalk, trying to look unobtrusive with a flip-phone that took wildly poor photographs. And I’m not sure why it says that the blog post “featured nothing but an image”; there’s a link to a Metafilter thread with posts from people who knew Cornell, which suggests that the saintly image of Cornell that emerges from Deborah Solomon’s biography isn’t entirely accurate, particularly with respect to his neighbors. Perhaps this is some sort of John D’Agata exercise in using poetic license with your subject material to achieve ecstatic truth?

It is odd to think about that post now: it’s from another time, a year before there were iPhones or there was Google Street View. It’s not entirely before social media, but it was a point at which blogs seemed like they might be an all-purpose tool, a sort of scrapbook for things found. I took that picture while working on a never-finished essay for the Institute for the Future of the Book’s blog; it was going to be about collage as method and the then newly prominent resurgence of scrapbooking, linked together by a walk through Queens, as, at that time, the only scrapbooking store in New York was vaguely near where Joseph Cornell had lived; the final ta-da would be a meta-move about how as bloggers we were all scrapbookers now. Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde fit into this somehow. Maybe Johanna Drucker did too? This was not a very good premise, but it was 2006, so I didn’t look on Google Maps, still very new, to figure out how far it was from the scrapbooking place to Joseph Cornell’s house. Queens is enormous, and Joseph Cornell probably would have had the good sense not to have walked to that scrapbooking store, somewhere in Beechhurst, not far from where Rudolph Valentino once lived – he didn’t nicely fit my schema. It was not, it doesn’t need to be said, a revelatory walk, though by the time I arrived at the scrapbooking store, Peter Bürger in hand, I did have the good sense to realize that whatever highbrow/lowbrow thing I had been imagining wasn’t worth pursuing any further.

Perhaps the photo looks like it was taken from a car because it was taken somewhat surreptitiously, with some amount of shame – at the time, it still seemed strange, maybe antisocial, to be pointing your phone and someone’s house and taking a picture of it. To say nothing, of course, about posting that photograph on the internet! While this house is, of course, of historical interest because it was once Joseph Cornell’s house, it’s now someone’s private house, and they didn’t deserve to have it randomly on the internet. A few years later, of course, Google Street View would erode any idea you might have had about the privacy of your house, and a picture of this particular house becomes trivially easy for anyone, anywhere in the world, to produce. I can’t imagine that this was the first picture of Joseph Cornell’s house on the internet – the address has been published many places, it’s not particularly hard to get to – but it did exist at a particular point in time.

If there’s value in this image, it’s in the way that, over time, it served as a connector, minor though it might have been. A few years later it would have been posted to a social network and almost certainly would have disappeared. (A scrapbook made in 2006 would have a better chance of lasting!) It’s turned out to be surprisingly hard to carry on conversations on the internet over long periods of time, harder than anyone realized in 2006, when websites felt less nebulous than they do now. This blog feels antiquated now, though it still works, and it’s easier to keep paying the hosting fees than to have the mental argument about whether I should shut it down. I wouldn’t argue that these fragments collected achieve anything like a Cornell box, like I might have in 2006; what they are is something different, something still evolving, and it’s hard to tell what that meaning will become given enough time.

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