The Figure 5 in Gold
The hidden connection between a modernist poem about a firetruck, a golden painting hanging in the Met, and Westworld’s magical train
This post is part of Entry Points, an occasional and totally un-calendared series that will publish every other whenever, and which explores symbolism and references, both large and teeny tiny, in HBO’s delightful new show Westworld.
Westworld begins the way half of all stories begin: a man is coming to town.
That man is on a train. The train is black and slow, moving langorously, as if from within a dream. And isn’t that just so; now we see that the man is waking up, too. This is Teddy, raised from the dead.
As the train pulls into town, it announces its arrival with a western whistle. That’s when you see, on the nose of its engine, a golden number five.
Did you miss it? You’ll see it again. And again and again and again. Teddy dies. Dolores is raped. The day resets. New guests come to town. Teddy wakes up. And every time, the train, the number five train, arrives to restart the narrative. You can set your DVR by it.
But why the number five? Why the red circle around it? And why, throughout the first episode, with each recurring train scene, does the camera get closer and closer to the golden number five on the train’s nose? Almost as if Jonathan Nolan is daring us to wonder.
Let’s throw a dart at the saloon dartboard: perhaps a clue can be found in The Great Figure, a poem by the modernist poet William Carlos Williams (below), and its more popular, reverse-ekphrasistic painting, The Figure 5 in Gold (art, above).
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
— The Great Figure, by William Carlos Williams
Go ahead. Roll those heartless android eyes. There’s no firetruck. There’s no city. There’s not even any rain. But Nolan The Younger was an English major, and referencing WCW and The Great Figure makes a lot of sense. Here’s why.
WCW was a modernist. He wrote in the ’30s. It was a time of uncertainty — an uncanny valley of ennui between world wars in which nobody knew what, or who, to believe in.
T.S. Eliot was popular. So was Ezra Pound. Eliot was British and despondent (see, e.g., his bright and cheery poem The Waste Land). Pound was an American expat and treasonous anti-semite who broadcast anti-Roosevelt propaganda during WWII, was arrested for treason, went bughouse in a psych ward, and was buried on an island off the coast of Venice, Italy (I visited once, it’s very peaceful).
All WCW wanted to do, you see, was be the bright American answer to Eliot and Pound. He wanted to make American poetry that was uplifting and which broke from Eliot’s and Pound’s conventional use of meter. He wanted to experiment. To breathe life into verse. He also happened—not unlike Dr. Ford—to be a doctor.
Of only one thing, relative to a work of art, can we be sure. It was bred of a place. It comes from an application of the sense to that place, a music, and that place can be the middle of an African jungle, the Mexican plateau, a Parisian whorehouse, a room where Oxford chippies sip tea together, or a down-hill street in a Pennsylvania small town. It is the particularization of the universal that is important.”
— WCW in The New Republic, October 1938, reviewing Walker Evans’ photographs of Depression Era America
Also not unlike Ford, he was frustrated. He wanted to capture the musicality and rhythms of the spoken word, but felt he had failed. The vehicle for his ambition, eventually published in 1946, was Paterson — a poem that attempted to capture the rhythms, sights, and sounds of the New Jersey town of the same name. In a way, WCW was trying to recreate life by mimicking exactly how real people acted and talked.
Quoting Dr. Ford: “They come back for the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before.”
At publish, the reception to Paterson was mixed. WCW’s attempts to approximate the rhythms of real life were considered “a remarkable, but sterile” failure. Oh well. He won the first National Book Award for Poetry anyway.
“Make it factual (as the Life is factual-almost casual-always sensual-usually visual: related to thought)”
This brings us — by way of that long, digressive, and possibly self-indulgent background, I’m sorry, deep bow and scuffle — to one of WCW’s early poems, The Great Figure.
It’s a simple but powerful poem. On a rainy night in 1920s New York, a firetruck rumbles and rackets through the city, on its side a golden number five. The city is chaotic, a cacophony of sounds.
What is the number five? It’s an anchor—a dependable piece of discrete information in an otherwise hectic scene. Just so in Westworld: no matter how chaotic the previous evening, the Number Five Train is the one thing you can depend on.
Back in the ’20s, the firetruck and the city also held a futuristic appeal. Today, we are fascinated with the technology of VR; the futurists of the ’20s were fascinated by the technology and rhythms of machines and metropolises. Critic Peter Haller captures this notion:
In Williams’s poem. . . the environment is the dramatic setting that enhances the epiphanic effect of the golden figure on the “I,” the individual whose special sensitivity enables him to be thrilled by something that is “unheeded” by all the others around him. As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces an intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a mere number; it becomes one of the new heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.
That, in a rhetorical nutshell, must be exactly what the guests feel as they arrive on the train. They notice, per Dr. Ford, things they think nobody else has ever seen. That, too, is what the viewer feels, watching the show (and, in very specific cases, what compels them to write long, tortured posts about the intersection of dead poets and androids).
As for Demuth’s painting, it’s been hanging on and off in the Met since 1949. “It is the best synthesis of shared ideas about the symbiosis between painting and poetry,” said Robin Jaffee Frank, a senior associate curator at the Yale University Art Gallery, to the WSJ. Asked whether the numbers are receding or advancing towards the viewer, she said “it’s both.”
And isn’t that just like Teddy, fated always to return. And just like the guest, always arriving new. Here they both are, oscillating between the real world and the imagined, ceaselessly.
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