picture perfect

In reading the letters to Tissot, I am continually confronted by the limitations of my own bodily lenses, at least in terms of how such lenses might allow me to access and interrogate the bodily worlds inhabited by Tissot’s correspondents. While their stories are sometimes surprisingly familiar (thus lulling me into a false complacency), more often than not, they take me into realms I could never have imagined. Their bodily fears, their emotional investments, the stories they tell…so many seem absolutely and utterly foreign.

What to do with the the four trembling siblings, who started shaking one after the other after the other? What to do with the man whose emotional distress, at witnessing a friend’s epileptic seizure, transposes itself into extreme bodily disorder? What to do with the young man whose first epileptic seizure occurred after an overindulgence in sweet pastries? Or the one who seems to go into convulsions at church?

These are stories that make me stop and think. Stories that force me to slow down, retrace my steps, pause in a courtyard, think a bit further… eighteenth-century embodiment never seems more remote than when I’m lost in the letters.

Which is why I was so struck by this headline: “Martin Routh, born in 1755, caught on camera at Magdalen College.”

Wait. What?

I checked the date. It wasn’t April 1.

But how could this be?

How could it be that this foreign world and my own are actually so close together, united by shared technology? How could this eighteenth-century body and mine both be captured in a photograph?

How is that even possible?

As a  musician friend wrote yesterday: “He lived during all of Mozart’s life! He was born just after Bach died!!!!”

Reading on, we learn that Routh was blessed with extreme longevity. Born in 1755, he died in 1854. The photo was taken during the early days of photography and shows Routh wearing a somewhat anachronistic (for that period of the C19) horsehair wig.

Could Mr. Routh, hunched in his chair, possibly have known, way back then, that the photograph would become such a ubiquitous element of contemporary self-fashioning that “selfie” would be proclaimed 2013 word of the year by the venerable Oxford English Dictionary and that Instagram would become a common mode of conversation and discussion?

I don’t know about you, but I’m never going to look at the eighteenth century the same way again. And that’s significant, given how much time I’ve spent there over the last twenty years.

P.S. If you want to see Mr. Routh’s venerable wig, click here.

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