Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Father's Nonsense: His Own Explanation

Quod praecisa Veritas sit, incomprehensibilis.
[But what precisely truth might be remains incomprehensible.]
Nicolaus Cusanus

My ex, Rambo, sits at the dining room table, reluctant but polite, as if I'd invited him to enjoy repose in the company of corpses. For days the dining room table has been covered with stacks of old sepia-toned photographs and postcards from my father's collection, which I shove around to make space for my laptop, the occasional cup of coffee, or my elbows. He's not buying it.

          "You are living too much in the past," he says in his heavy Egyptian accent. "It's not good for you." He shaved his head yesterday for Eid and I'm embarrassed; I've never seen his naked skull before.

          Rambo's on a mission: pull ex-wife from the wreckage, no matter how distasteful.

          "You spend more time with the dead than the living," he says.

          But I like them.

          He presses his palms against the table, careful not to disrupt the piles, and leans in closer."I'm sorry to have to say this, but your father is dead and your mother's dead, too." He raises one bushy eyebrow. "You are still alive."

          Stop being dramatic, I tell him.  I'm just being practical—I photograph and scan everything before I get rid of it. I don't tell him that I'm not getting rid of it. Or that I write a commentary about everything I copy.

          He tugs at the back of his pants swiftly, like he's reaching for a gun, but instead produces a green camouflage cap that he pulls down over his big head. He looks like Elmer Fudd; I dismiss the urge to nibble on a fake carrot and say, Eh, what's up Doc? He's exasperated enough.

          "Just throw it out or sell it—don't waste your life the way your mother did."

          I feel my eyes glazing over, same as my mother once she had decided not to budge. Just biding time until the opponent gives up. Elmer Fudd takes aim once more, sure he'll hit his mark this time.

          "Unless you like it doing it."

          I like doing it.

Admittedly, I spent days trying to make sense out of my father's notes on Common Sense/Nonsense, taking notes on his notes, working out various possibilities about who Heckscher is, and ending up with several contradictory hypotheses as to personality and motive. Alone, any of the interpretations held up okay, but when grouped together as I had done nothing made sense. I didn't close the chapter on Common Sense/Nonsense and toss out my father's little green file box. I Googled my father instead.
And now as the years have passed, and long after our teachers have left this earth, do we, their former students hear—as we struggle to formulate the results of our strenuous search for nova reperta [new discoveries]—that voice from the dark, 'Ist das alles?'
          Ist Das Alles? [Is That All?] is the title of his essay dedicated to Ursula Hoff, another Warburgian art historian. The editor summarizes the piece as "contemplations on the guidance" of their mentor, Erwin Panofsky (Warburg's disciple), but it's not. After an introduction, he states his topic in the heading Common Sense = Nonsense, with subheadings, Taste, Style, Vademecum, and Truth.

          First of all, what the fuck?
Throughout my life as a teacher and student, I have tried to show, and in the first place to understand, that one won't get anywhere in humanistic, and that is historical, research by applying common sense.
After bashing my head on the dining room table a couple of times, I translate: In the search for truth, common sense can be misleading.
The constantly shifting observations which, in our own lifetime, compel us to revise what once we may have considered unalterable tenets, should be sufficient to alert us to the fact that the changes, affecting layer after layer of the uncountable events which in their totality constitute history, impose upon us 'the one duty we owe to history: to rewrite it' (Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist).
Balls, but my head aches! My translation: Just as individuals understand the world differently with new experiences and the passage of time, our interpretation of the past must be continually revised.
...[One] deals with forever-reverberating echoes of the past. One is confronted with an infinity of strands which interconnect the past with the present.
You're preaching to the choir, brother.

          Warburg explored the way classical motifs were transformed as they were carried forward into different historical contexts. His disciple Panofsky taught his students to turn from generalities to a careful observation of particulars. Panofsky's disciple, Heckscher, took their ideas another step further.
And I, being a disciple of the disciple, have increasingly felt the need to pay attention to my own petites perceptions and to discover the far-going mischief done by people who like to approach everything via their common sense.
I recall that my father published a 30-page article called Petites Perceptions and feel faintly nauseated. I could spend the rest of my life doing this and still not be finished.

          The examples he uses to illustrate his concept of common sense=nonsense offered under the various headings make no sense to me at all, except for the last.

Under the subheading Truth:
For lack of evidence I vociferously doubted Man's landing on the Moon; my Dean, innocent target of my wrath, was an intelligent physicist. He pointed out to me that scholarship can only operate if there is a rational modicum of trust in the validity of facts with which we operate; he quoted to me Nils Henrick David Bohr's observation that Truth should be defined as 'something that we can attempt to doubt and then perhaps, after much exertion, discover that part of the doubt is unjustified.' Bohr once said to his students: 'Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question.'
For my father, truth and lies share a common definition; they're both subject to doubt. This makes perfect sense to me and conveniently justifies my compulsion to continually reimagine my father through the documents he left behind.
          The notion of reconstructing my father out of paper—in all his various moods and contradictions—is irresistible. Just won't tell the ex that I'm making myself a paper father.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

My Father's Nonsense

A small, gray box tucked into a shelf in my father's messy study bears an alarming, red label. It's possible that common sense—or nonsense—pissed off William Heckscher so much that he actually made a file for it. While the exterior is labeled Common Sense/Nonsense, the interior decidedly equates the two phenomena.

          So, is common sense nonsensical or are those who lack common sense being subjected to Heckscher's ridicule? If I had to guess why common sense should infuriate my father, I'd bet it had something to do with the fact that he had very little of it himself.  After all, he possessed great nuance, style, originality, and an appreciation of those unpredictable flights of lunacy that are so often inherent in genius. Conversely, challenge my father with a hammer and nails or basic math or a set of DIY instructions, and all bets were off.

          As I thumb through the index cards, most of which are covered in my father's spidery, indecipherable scrawl, the specific purpose of his box becomes more complex and elusive.

          At times, my father employs a Socratic Q&A format.
Yes, the oldest profession...
"Has it ever struck you that the oldest profession is apple-picking?"
Do Cupid & Psyche have a child?
Yes, their legitimate daughter is called Voluptas.
Cher called her daughter Chastity.
Did you idiotae know that in ancient times urine was habitually used for washing of clothes & other objects. Urine was also used for the cleaning of teeth
          That Ronald Reagan should land in the box is not shocking.
"The thought of  being President frightens me. I do not think I want the job."
One can deduce that Reagan ought to have followed his common sense and shunned the presidency and that, consequently, his presidency was nonsense.

          Reagan kept company with Louis XIII, who was also exemplified for his lack of common sense.
The bath of Louis XIII had "submerged cushions and drapery
trimmed with lace," p. 98 of Lawrence Wright, Clean & Decent,
London 1960
          Another sort of common sense dictates that we behave in accordance with our own particular set of skills, and the dashing of that expectation is worthy of the box.
Thomas Edison was both tone deaf and hard of hearing
            The inventor of the phonograph was totally deaf in his left ear and suffered 80 percent hearing loss in the other ear. That's absurd, right?

          Hypocrisy, particularly in idealogues, is a form of nonsense subject to ridicule.
Lenin had a Rolls Royce vintage 1919
now in Lenin Memorial Museum 
Abraham Lincoln was deeply ashamed of his log-cabin origins, and
he had "a shrill, high-pitched voice."
NY Times, Feb. 12, 1977, p. 21
Carl von Linné w/his great all-embracing love of nature utterly disliked fish.
Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian, he hated the sight of blood,
his penis measured 1 1/2 cm
          While Hitler's tiny penis and Lincoln's shrill voice are not examples of hypocrisy, they challenge the powerful public persona of each man.

          How do croissants fit in, you ask?
The first 'croissants' were baked in Vienna in 1689 as a sign
of victory over the Turks & known, originally,
as "
          If I had my own Common Sense/Nonsense box, I would be sure to stress a couple of facts that my father left out. Not only do croissants defy our common-sense assumption of Frenchness, they were concocted by a Viennese baker who fashioned dough into crescent shapes to mock Islam, which is represented by the crescent moon. With every bite of croissant, we symbolically devour the Turkish army. Why didn't he include that information, I wonder? Doesn't it meet his criteria as common sense and nonsense? (It meets mine.)

          In fact, the Pyramids are acceptable to Heckscher, but perhaps Arabs are less certain. 
The road to the pyramids is lined with nightclubs with outrageous prices
(mostly belly dancers in body stockings ogled by Arabs)
While Heckscher may have been untroubled by bigotry against Islam, he was, however, interested in antisemitism.
A sixpence fine or "Whippinge a Jewishe man"
Very high: because it is "three times the rate for whipping a Welshman"
See: Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England.
Proper names were a subject of common sense and nonsense.

William the Conqueror had a Flemish mistress called Matilda
Mussolini was baptized Benito after the Mexican radical
JuárezMussolini's father was himself a political radical of the left. 
Instances of historical irony are found in the box.
Marx declared that he was not a Marxist.
None of the apostles was baptized, except for St. Peter
see: H.A. Echle, "The Baptism of the Apostles."
The Statue of Liberty stands in New Jersey waters.
          My father also appears to enjoy correcting the historical record.
Emperor Nero who fiddled when Rome burned didn't have a violin but—according to [illegible] played the 'tibia ultricularis'—i.o.w. the bagpipes
Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism, Emannuel Winternitz, p.69
He was suspicious of anything that appealed to the masses and pop culture, for him, took surprising forms.
Mozart's dreadful Klamauk ('din' or 'uproar 'in English), 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,'
was never performed during his lifetime.
Marcel Proust who could not sleep when his mother wasn't present loved life in the army; he referred to it as 'paradise'
The military was a particularly onerous example of mindless or evil conformity and I think my father may also have disliked Proust's tendency towards the long-winded and effeminate.

          Wordsworth is also in trouble.
Wm Wordsworth (1770-1849) was incapable of writing: "when he held a pen it brought on painful trials—perspiration, nervousness, pain in the chest; his wife, Mary, & his sister, Dorothy, acted as his secretaries.
          The sphere of general knowledge is another example of the degrading effects of conformity and pop culture on society. Dumbing-down was absolutely taboo.
General knowledge=good
"Anybody deserving the name of a student must learn to mistrust what passes as general knowledge..." Ernst Gombrich, The Tradition of General Knowledge.
          Here, he agrees with Gombrich, who espouses what my father considers common sense. 

          Why wasn't an entry for Heckscher, William S. included in the little gray box? For decades my father worked in just the kind of institutional bureaucracy he condemned, as a university professor. What's more, he was very popular with his students.

          I think he liked the lyricism of the name Common Sense/Nonsense, but Varieties of Annoying Bullshit would have nailed it, too. Specificity of purpose (or strict adherence to it) would have been too confining for William. What he meant by common sense and nonsense was completely idiosyncratic. He wanted to fill a little gray box with paradoxes, and that's exactly what he did.

         The Common Sense and Taboo boxes weren't secret, but they were private. He took these notes as he was reading a book or a newspaper, or watching TV; his notes were documented in a spirit both scholarly and personal. How odd that these minor bursts of epiphany were meaningful enough to him that he felt compelled to record them. In that sense, it's almost like reading an intellectual (rather than emotional) diary, outrage and amusement notwithstanding. I imagine that he was afraid of losing any of these fragments of knowledge and opinion, like a splintering of self—or perhaps it was the opposite. Maybe these little shards of information and irritation got stuck in his consciousness until he was able to unburden himself onto index cards and file them away.

          He was also capable of questioning his own facts.
George Washington was a trained dental technician; dental instruments
w/which he repaired his false teeth & those of his servants.
Preserved at Mount Vernon
This seems to be wrong! He wasn't.
          My father must have felt that very act of questioning his own veracity merited preservation.
Left & Right—
See also: Common sense: nonsense—
the heart
The heart. It's only when I stop straining to analyze the file—to squeeze random bits of information into categories, like forcing mismatched puzzle pieces—that a very simple pattern emerges.

Brain weight
a.) Anatole France's brain was inordinately light in weight (1844-1924), 2 lb. 4 oz. against:
b) Turgenev whose brain weighed 6 lb. 9 oz. (1818-1883)

i.o.w.-its weight is meaningless
Einstein's brain at Montefiore Hospital in New York
not much to look at
"an average brain"
I grew up in Northern Europe, ages 1-13 in Germany, 13-23 in Holland.
when in 1932 I arrived in New York, German-American friends served sauerkraut
which I had neither tasted nor seen!
The Princeton Tiger on Palmer Square looks like a panther.
Observed by WSH, May 14, 1978
ca. 1534 potatoes came to Europe
but only as ornamental plants
That no manmade objects can be seen from the moon; the exception is:
China's Great Wall, 3,600 miles in length.
Edgar [illegible], an American, walked its
entire length in 1909
NY Times, 8 March, 1983, p. A-30
          There is a curiously touching similarity about each of these disparate statements: Nothing is as it seems. All these facts are as meaningless as the weight of Einstein's brain or, at best, facts are always suspect. In any case, inherent in virtually everything is the capacity to provoke amusement and wonder.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My Father's Taboo File

William S. Heckscher was an important art historian of the Warburg school, whose scholarly writing liberated art history from the shackles of mere aesthetics into the boundless realm of philosophy. 

          Guaranteed, Heckscher would have consigned that sentence to his Taboo File: it's pompous bullshit. Upon reading the words, he would immediately have reached into his breast pocket for an index card and one of his beautiful Kohinoor fountain pens to transcribe the offensive words. Afterwards, theoretically, he could simply drop his irritation into the small green file box he'd designated for this purpose and relax.



to blaze a trail

blazing a trail

blazing a trail

blazing a trail

          Unfortunately, he was just as offended the second, or third, or 300th time he heard words like stardust or trail blazing

          Lots of words bothered him.



riveting, gripping
          And one four-letter word was absolutely forbidden.

          Words that seemed coy or prudish offended him greatly.


          Anything having to do with commerce. Or improper use of Latin.

in the final analysis
"Fax me the details and I'll call you this afternoon."

"That impacts on our creditability."
(D. California) NY Times, 6-XII-84, p. A3

warranty, produce, data
          Nor was Germany spared.

The American bastardization of foreign words was strictly forbidden.

revolting American subjunctive

whipping cream—the American tragedy

          Many words and phrases were forbidden because they are meaningless or 'verbally tread water' while pretending to sound fancy.
all I'm saying is...

but more importantly

in this day and age

Will you address that question...?

'something must give'

to take a hard look at

(verbal treading of water)
For better or for worse
"in a changing world"
This is meaningless since
we live in a changing world
at all times.

          Of course, some words just sound funny.

Holocaust, Armageddon, Juggernaut
          Or awkward.

gender gap

          Catchy phrases were taboo.
Clothing a man can relate to
Advertisement in the Times
April 4, 1983

          Pompous, pseudo-intellectual crap was a no-no.

'It's a serious sociological problem that's tearing away at the fabric of American life," he says

          Literary buffoonery was not tolerated. (Nabokov and Michiko Kakutani made the list.)

Journalese critique = the vomitmaker
rueful humor & spunky charm
shaped with intelligence and verve
charged with emotional dynamite

'emotionally compelling'
Michiko Kakutani—a Quatschkopf review in the NY Times
St. Nicolas' day '83

Nabokov was 'the last of the Mandarins'

when referring critically to a book
arresting—leave to the police
absorbing—leave to toilet paper, diapers, blotting-paper

          Because Heckscher was fair, there were also conditional taboos.
taboo if the words fail to precede an account of what it is
that earns them this predicate

          Offensive proper names were duly cited.

Rip van Winkle

Ford Maddox Ford
Studs Terkel
Spike Milligan

           Catch-phrases were no good, either.

a charmed life

hook, line & sinker

"a legend in his own time"

          Political kitsch and anything romanticizing JFK was also out.


          There were strict sexual taboos.
"Darling, make love to me..." This is like telling a dog
to "sit" in order to beg for food. All it means is that

somebody wants to revile the beauty of sexual activity
by dragging it down to the level of Love.

          Religious taboos; because he was so highly ethical, he was contemptuous of Catholics who recited their rote prayers at top speed thinking they could get credit just for going through the motions. 
(to be said very fast almost slurred by believers)

          Institutions of higher learning did not escape his wrath.

Outside the sheltered walls of the places of higher learning
          My own words made it to the level of absolute taboo.

Get your shit together
          In a pinch, taboo ideology muscled in with the words and phrases.

          And finally,
see also:

         My father would have preferred that I didn't edit his work, choosing one taboo over another and grouping them into categories. Now I'm afraid I will extend this taboo by examining our shared compulsion to record every thought, observation, and opinion.

          I had intended to review the contents of my father's Taboo File prior to throwing it out, but in doing so I let the genie out of the bottle. The green box opened and my father materialized.

          Heckscher kept everything he ever wrote—poetry, essays, jokes, mishearings, short stories, erotica—whatever he typed, drew, doodled, embellished, photographed, thought, fantasized, despised, loved, overheard, what he found humorous, what revolted him, what moved him, what made him insecure (disguised as ranting), every complaint was recorded, every Christmas list preserved. He exists in all of it. I share his desire for immortality; I cherish every example of him.

          Cherishing him is also an important way to cherish my mother. She was his widow for 14 years and spent much of that time curating everything he'd left behind. She organized a lot, but there was just too much of him. She would lose whole days reading his letters and sorting through old photographs, and she would get excited and call me to discuss her new finds. "When I go," my mother told me in her last years, "you'll have all this to deal with. I don't envy you."

          She also told me, more frequently than I cared to hear it, that it's not uncommon to feel liberated by the death of one's parents. It sounds right, but I'd like to tell her she was overly optimistic. In fact, I feel the opposite of liberated: I feel responsible for keeping my parents alive. I feel panicked at the thought of their diminishing in my memory or being lost to the world.

          Right before waking this morning I dreamt about my mother's foot. It was just her foot, smooth, golden, with its high arch and knobby ankle bone, and the callous along her heel and the outside of her big toe, an Armenian foot, a foot with her stubborn, vulnerable character. 

          As I woke up, I awakened to the plain fact that her foot is nowhere to be found in the whole, wide world. Half-asleep, I was rapidly searching the planet, taking inventory of all the places where her foot might be. I breezed through Istanbul and under her bed and at her gravesite. I was disappointed to recall she'd been cremated.

          No one remembers the exactness of my mother's foot the way I do, in my dreams. This realization is as stunning as when she was still living and I realized that she really would die. 

          Do I digress? That's okay; my father approved of digression, revered it as a channel for true creativity—at least for himself. (He was in an almost helpless, constant state of digression and evolution.)

          Until the contents of the Taboo box are recorded I won't throw it out. After that it stays, right here in the internet ether—which my father would spell aether—where it will be insubstantial but still accessible, a bit like my mother's foot.