Three Farmers: an obsession

(perhaps mostly for my own eventual rediscovery)

I’ve often had the experience that the first thing I read of a morning colors the day, setting in train what turns out to be a series of interlinked thoughts and explorations. Occasionally I’ve managed to catch the wave of that sequence and capture it to paper (or computer text), but more often stuff happens and I lose the train of associations. Or something shinier heaves into view and I’m diverted down some other path. This morning’s first read was a longish passage from Richard Powers’ Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance (1985/1987), which I’m rereading in the wake of Powers’ marvelous Orfeo.

First a bit of background. I’m sure that I first noticed Three Farmers (which I bought and first read in 1987) because of its cover illustration


–a photograph I’ve known and been influenced (or is it haunted?) by for 50-odd years. It’s by the German photographer August Sander, one of a dozen or so most influential in my own history of photographic aesthetic development (others: Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï… another whole clutch of possible posts). Here’s the image in more or less its original form:


Sander’s photograph has the added poignancy of being taken in 1914, so it’s easy to see (obvious to our modern sensibilities) that the “dance” they’re on the way to is WW I. And that’s how the novel begins, with the narrator discovering the photograph in a Detroit museum. And here’s how Powers himself describes how the novel began for him, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

In the early eighties, I was living in the Fens in Boston right behind the Museum of Fine Arts. If you got there before noon on Saturdays, you could get into the museum for nothing. One weekend, they were having this exhibition of a German photographer I’d never heard of, who was August Sander. It was the first American retrospective of his work. I have a visceral memory of coming in the doorway, banking to the left, turning up, and seeing the first picture there. It was called Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914. I had this palpable sense of recognition, this feeling that I was walking into their gaze, and they’d been waiting seventy years for someone to return the gaze. I went up to the photograph and read the caption and had this instant realization that not only were they not on the way to the dance, but that somehow I had been reading about this moment for the last year and a half. Everything I read seemed to converge onto this act of looking, this birth of the twentieth century–the age of total war, the age of the apotheosis of the machine, the age of mechanical reproduction. That was a Saturday. On Monday I went in to my job and gave two weeks notice and started working on Three Farmers. (from Paris Review interview)

…and for a real shot of versimilitude, you can hear Powers tell the story himself via a Language Log post.

Anyway, what I read (and then re-read several times) this morning was seven extraordinarily densely-packed pages (pp 260-267), in the middle of a novel that follows at least three braiding strands of narrative, includes biographical excursions (Henry Ford, Sarah Bernhardt) and WW I detalia, visits multiple landscapes (Detroit, Boston, Maastricht…), and still finds room to include a chapter on the philosophy of photography and Sander’s glorious photographic quest/project, Man of the Twentieth Century.

The challenge before me now is to somehow extract just what it was that electrified me about those pages, and it’s almost as if I need to invent a new way to write, so as to represent the kaleidoscope of neuronal firings that ensued as I read. A series of extracts might do to begin, but they won’t hold still on the virtual page –each calls for a pop-up or callout (or more likely several) linking outward to other material. And Powers’ prose does that quite a lot, making it a bit difficult to read in straight lines. So I transcribe parts of the text that seem especially portentious, in the hope that I’ll eventually be able to assimilate their message/s:

Biographies ask the question “How do the details of this particular life demonstrate the spirit of its times?” Making the life conform to the times sometimes involves editing the first, sometimes reinterpreting the second. In both cases, biography always involves much footwork to keep the biographer’s footwork hidden… (pg 260)

All lives are messy aggregates: [Henry] Ford the farmer, Ford the illiterate, Ford the mechanical genius, the progressive, the reactionary, the anti-Semite, the philanthropist. Modern times are, by definition, a few billion times messier. Linking one aggregate to the other requires a good dose of editing, and thereby temperament. (pg 261)

The paradox of the self-attacking observer is this century’s hallmark. Psychologists now know there is no test so subtle that it won’t alter the tested behavior. Economic tracts suggest that Model A would be inviolably true if enough people realized its inviolability. Political polls create the outcome they predict. Even in the objective sciences, physicists, in describing the very small, have had to conclude that they can’t talk about a closed box, but that opening the box invariably disturbs its contents.

These are the recognizable bywords and clichées of our times. Casual talk abounds with the knowledge that there is no understanding a system without interfering with it… “All observations are a product of their own times. Even this one.” [cf Gartner Hype Cycle, for an über-current example]

This recursion is critical, not because it places a limit on knowing, but because it shows the impossibility of knowing where knowledge leaves off and involvement begins… (pp 261-262)

With every action, we write our own biographies. I make each decision not just for its own sake but also to suggest to myself and others just what choices a fellow like me is likely to make. And when I look back on all my past decisions and experiences, I constantly attempt to form them into some biographical whole, inventing for myself a theme and a continuity. The continuity I invent in turn influences my new decisions, and each new action rearranges the old continuity. Creating oneself and explaining oneself proceed side by side, inseparably. Temperament is the act of commenting on itself. (pp 262-263)

Each discrete life examines and explains everything it touches in a constant exchange of mutual defining and reshaping. By living, we become our times’ biographer. (pg. 263)

Although we cannot hope to pin down a view of our subject undisturbed by our observation, we can test if we have reached an optimal fit between the two.

One such test is unsponsored recognition. Each day as I sift through my many new experiences, I find a few that I recognize without having any memory or experience of them. I do not mean mystical déja vu; I mean the practical moment artists call epiphany and scientists call the instant of aha.

At this moment of recognition I temporarily stop taking part in the thing at hand and jump a level in the hierarchy of awareness, no longer looking at the object from my vantage point, but at myself from the vantage point of the object. This shift of awareness away from the looked-at to the act of looking creates the illusion of familiarity, since this moment of standing outside the observed system is common to all other such moments.

…What I am experiencing is neither precognition nor submersion in mystical vision. It is a by-product of the way consciousness is structured, the consequence of our unusual ability to make one level of our terraced awareness double back and appraise another. At the moment when the stuff holding our attention dissolves and gives way to an awareness of awareness itself we recognize a community with all the other similar moments we have gone through –a concord, or close fit, between hypothesis and measured result.

…By slightly changing our angle of observation, a copse of seemingly random trees reveals itself as an orchard. This specific angle of observation, then, has an independent validity, revealing an order not of the viewer’s making. Such a surprise visit of the orchard effect is always pleasurable –filled with the delight of recognition, a sense of the community of all explorers who also touch base at this common spot.

I continually write my own biography by my actions, mixing involvement with knowledge, accountable to those moments when both drop away to reveal the act of mixing –something a priori recognizable. This process does not differ measurably from the way I come to understand others, my time, or past times. Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all future moments of corresponding circumstance.

We remember forward; we telegraph ourselves to our future selves and to others: “Rescue this; recognize this, or not this, but the recognizing.” If we constantly reform the continuity of our past with each new experience, then each message posted out of an obscure or as yet unexperienced past represents a challenge to re-form the future. No action unchanged by observation. No observation without incriminating action. Every moment of unsponsored recognition calls me to return to the uninspired world, to continue the daily routine of invention and observation, to dirty my hands in whatever work my hands can do. (pp 264-266)

To compound the instant of aha, I rounded the corner smack into the three farmers, more familiar to me than my own parents, though I knew beyond doubt that I had never seen them or their photo before. For the next several months I would be obsessed with finding the exact message the image meant to send me, mistakenly looking for it in names, dates, and places.

I had to learn that that none of that had any real importance, did not in fact exist without active interference from me. The black-and-white print was less a document for archiving than it was a call to action… (pp 266-267)

Here are some links to other takes on the book:

Wikipedia on Three Farmers

Richard Powers’ own website

Minnesota Review interview (2001) with Richard Powers

summary from A Modest Construct

Signal or Noise? Information Theory and the Novel (John Gunders –the last half discusses Three Farmers)

…each of the three story lines cycles in a predictable order: Chapters One, Four, Seven, etc. follow the story of the extradiegetic narrator; chapters Two, Five, Eight, etc., the three farmers, and so on. Selectively reading every third chapter produces a coherent narrative that largely stands on its own. The relationship between the three threads in the novel is a tension that holds the narratives in position. Each is completely explicable on its own, yet the additional meaning provided by the parallel threads at once enriches and problematises the meaning of the threads. None of the threads in the novel can be considered as more important than any other, whether contemporary or historical, extradiegetic or essayistic, and while the events in the contemporary thread are subsequent to those in the historical thread, their importance belies the subordination implied by the term ‘subsequent.’ It is this idea that I call temporal flattening. While the fabula of one thread is located some seventy years in the past, its sjuzet is indistinguishable from the contemporary threads, in either style or diction…

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