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.


  1. Two small corrections from a stranger to your ever-enjoyable blog:

    You call Thomas Edison the inventory of the telephone. I think you mean the phonograph. Fortunately, your point still holds.

    The illegible word after “Mozart’s dreadful . . . ” is “Klamauk” or “din”.

    Yours sincerely,

    Ian Jackson, Berkeley

    1. Alexander Graham Bell, damn it!

      Ian, I'm thrilled that 'a stranger' a) reads my blog, b) calls it ever-enjoyable, and c) cares enough to make corrections (which I've now incorporated).

      "Mozart's dreadful Klamauk"— makes me giggle.

      Thank you so much!