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.


  1. I think he once told me that truths are lies and lies are truths ... when I was little I was soemtimes not sure if 'daddy was telling the truth' ... I'd ask Mary and she would shrug and say, 'I don't know'. Bed time story time was a hoot ... the moment Kathy or I started getting bored he would spice the story up and suddenly we were wide awake and giggling, ' Daddy, you are making that up?' We loved it.
    He loved to embroider bits onto 'the truth' just to make a story more entertaining. Come to think of it, I never heard him of Mary telling us that it was naughty to tell a lie ... ot that we should always tell the truth.

    1. Story time sounds so cozy! I can just imagine the the two tiny Heckscher girls giggling in their beds while Beautiful Lingle-Daddy told his wild stories.