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.        


  1. Charlotte!! That was absolutely fascinating and then it moved me to tears. What a range of emotions, so much packed into words! I found myself agreeing and disagreeing. Some of those words I adore, and some of those phrases made me laugh!! I think my father was similar and cataloged in a similar way (but unique musings/taboos). As always I am better for having read your writing. Thank you.

  2. Charlotte sis ... this is very painful for me. I think this is the first time a am really missing our William and realize that I miss him terribly. You are stuck with Roxie's foot, I am stuck with William's hands, Mary's hands and Duncan's hands ... I know them better than my own.

  3. I like the note about whipping cream: 'The Americans think it is called 'schlag' in Vienna' :) Hmm, I wonder what he'd make of the Urban Dictionary. I do agree about 'charmed life' always makes me think of snake charmers for some reason.

    1. Lise, so lovely to hear from you! But now my skin will crawl whenever I hear 'charmed life' ;)