29 December 2013


I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables. The volume I purchased (hard-back) runs to 1194 pages of actual text and another 150 pages or so of notes. I try to read the book only in my home because carrying it about causes lower back pain requiring regular adjustment by the chiropractor. I am at present almost half-way through the book and so I will save my critique of it for another time. Many years ago I did see the original Broadway musical version based on Hugo’s novel, and especially I remember the closing image of the students and workers standing before the battlements waving the flag of revolution. I recall how the audience had been inspired by the power of the conclusion even as they stepped over the homeless camped in front of the theater begging for sustenance.
A long way from the beginning of the novel and a long way still from its ending, the young man, Marius Pontmercy, discovers by accident the identity of his real father, a secret that has been kept from him by his grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand. The latter is a member of the (bourgeois) Royalist conservative establishment in France that opposed the Revolution, the elimination of the monarchy and the attempt to institute democratic rule. Gillenormand despised the government of Napoleon (who Pierre, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace claims to have saved the Revolution by appropriating it) and rejoiced at Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo—a battle exhaustively described over fifty pages in Hugo’s novel¾and the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.  In that final battle, Marius’ real father had been seriously wounded fighting for Napoleon in whose leadership he believed. Hence the first motive for the enmity between Pontmercy and Gillenormand.
The second reason for the animus derived from the marriage of Gillenormand’s younger daughter to Pontmercy and with whom she had a child. The mother died in childbirth, and the grandfather offered to raise the boy under the condition that the father was never to reveal his existence to the boy. Marius was raised in the community of those who longer for the return of the Bourbon monarchy and the end to republican government, and learned contempt for those who still held out hope for the ideals promised by the French Revolution and Bonaparte’s imperial reign.
When Marius learns the identity of his father from the churchwarden, Monsieur Mabeuf, Marius undertakes the study of the history in which his father played a role. Hugo writes: “He read the Moniteur, he read all the histories of the Republic and the Empire, the Memorial de Sainte-Hélène, all the memoirs, newspapers, bulletins, proclamations; he discovered the lot.” And as Marius studied the period in which his father lived and in which he actively partook, he learned about his father as well. “He then realized that until that moment he had not understood his country any more than he had understood his father.” And as Marius learned more he gained more confidence in his thinking even as his learning increased his capacity to think. And Hugo comments, “As though he had a key, everything opened; he could explain to himself what he had hated, he could fathom what he had abhorred; from that moment on, he could see clearly the providential, divine, and human meaning of great things he had been taught to detest and of great men he had been trained to curse. When he thought of his previous views . . . he felt furious with himself and he smiled.” Studying the past offers Marius the present and makes possible for him the future.
If we do not study history we are condemned to the experience of the immediate moment of which we remain mostly ignorant because that moment exists without context, without reason or motive.  This present simply is and exists unconnected to anything that preceded it or that may follow from it. In this way the present is less than an orphan: this present has no parent and may not be considered to have even been born. This present simply appears ex nihilo.

The present is the question for which history is an answer.  I fortunately never know it all, and so daily I continue all over again with yet another question for which I seek answers. Perhaps what school might teach is not the answer but the identity of the question and the necessity for its formulation. History does not give us the present but presents us with portraits of its necessity. And when we study history, we gain the present and enable another future. 

19 December 2013

She's Not There, She's Here

My mother suffers from dementia. Over the past nine yearssince she turned 80 years old, in facther mind’s ability to function has deteriorated. Wikipedia describes dementia as a “serious loss of global cognitive ability.” There is much truth to the description: the woman who looks at me from across the table does not think as did the woman who raised me. Or so I think. I refer here not to the nature of her thoughts but to the very thoughts she utters and the capacities that produce them. They are in serious decline. Yet . . .
            There resides in my mother’s face a peacefulness that I don’t think she ever knew in her life. She experiences at this time no visible sign of anxiety, no sense of unhappiness or displeasure. She is thoroughly content in her present moment. As we sit at a restaurant where I eat a meal and she barely tastes her cup of chicken noodle soup, a smile remains almost permanently on her face, and it seems to me as I look at her looking at me that the smile she shines on me wholly expresses her. My mother is more than content: she is happy.
            Dementia affects the ability to understand and to produce language. Of course, dementia affects memory, and language depends very much in its functioning on the basic powers of memory. Though it seems automatic, the production of even the very grammar of the sentence has to derive from memory’s awareness of structures essential to meaning making and to the production of a vocabulary that communicates. My mother cannot construct a simple sentence: either the grammatical forms lack the ability to make meaning or the available resources of vocabulary elude her. And yet . . .
            Though I comprehend almost nothing that she says, there seems to run through her head a series of scenarios that she means to report to me in her talk. It is not conversation she intends because she makes statements of fact that do not require response. “This is,” she means. I know this, I think, because of her use of pronouns. She struggles to find the grammar to express what she must be seeing, and because she sees something and assumes her hearer knows of whom she is speaking, she employs the pronoun (it is almost always the masculine form) to refer to the subject of her sentence. “He always says this . . .” she says simply, smiling knowingly. This sounds to me like a trace of the mother I remember: always certain and never to be questioned. Authoritative. Somehow, I wonder, is she still there (where is there) but now can’t be here (but where is she now here?).
            It is the struggle of any writer to get the ideas and pictures in her head into a language that someone who resides outside of her head will be able to comprehend. Language to make sense of. Language to play with. But my mother will not be able to achieve this again because she is not aware that she is incommunicative. She struggles for words and form, as do we all, but once she chooses she assumes she has achieved her purpose. And I say to her as I sit across the table from her, I say sotto voce “What do you see, Mom? Of whom do you speak? Is it someone we know together? Tell me!” I am in this questioning engaged in the same wonderful effort that an adult makes with every child learning speech, the pretense of comprehension and the evocation of sense and the teaching of new forms in the serious attention to developing the ability to intelligently converse. And the terrible sadness as I look into her face is that my mother will never again achieve the ability to speak and to communicate no matter how I respond to her pseudo-sentences. She is trapped in the mind that suffers from the steady process of debilitating dementia.
            Nevertheless, I smile as I would for the learning child, and I nod affirmatively to my mother as if we were in perfect sympathy. But I don’t know to what she refers; I don’t know what she means. Of whom does she speak? To whom does she think she speaks?
            And when I stand up and give her a kiss goodbye, she smiles to me, and it is I who feel a deep sorrow at my leaving. She has immediately returned to the present, and in that present I have not left and I am not there.

15 December 2013

For Ugena

At Columbia University a well-respected but predictable professor of religion was apt to give the same final exam year after year to his undergraduate class. Every end-of-the term the professor would require his students to list all the Kings of Israel from Saul to Jehoiachin including with the complete dates of the reign. Of course, everyone was aware from the beginning of the course what the end product was and few prepared in any manner for the exam except to know the required list.
            Well, one semester some discontented snitch informed the oblivious professor of the fate of his final exam and he proceeded to change the question. Thus, one bright Spring day kthe class filed confidently in to class for the final examp only to read: “Provide a complete list of the Major and Minor prophets.”  Students sat stunned and paralyzed, and one by one they placed their pencils down and sullenly departed the room. Except one student who got steady to work and wrote for almost an hour, after which he confidently turned the exam over to his professor.

            “Far be it from me,” the student had written, “to distinguish amongst such revered men—who would be major and who would be minor. But it crossed my mind that you might be interested in a listing of all the Kings of Israel from Saul to Jehoiachan with the dates of their reign!”

04 December 2013

A Warm Memory On a Cold, Quiet Day

It is a snowy cold day in early December at the end of another semester. I’m not going into the office today—working from home, as they say in the business world. And I’m sitting out here in the cabin marking papers (ugh!), reading (ah!), and thinking (thankfully!). I had the radio on quietly but somehow felt compelled to blast the music. It started when the Roche Sisters version of “Good King Wenceslas” played.  Too many years ago I traveled down to Greenwich Village and the Bottom Line to hear the Roche Sisters sing. I owned their first album which I played happily and somewhat often. I think for this show I was accompanied by my friend (I wonder where he is now?) David W.
And even now I’m wondering if perhaps the venue wasn’t the Bottom Line but perhaps some other place. No matter . . .
That night the live voices of the sisters, Maggie, Terre and Suzzy reached me with such remarkably beautiful harmony and interesting lyrics that I fell in love with their idiosyncratic performance generally and with Terry Roche specifically. I sat entranced and very satisfied. I think that David Massengill was the opening act.
I remember at some starry-eyed point during the evening turning to David and declaring that if I could have a wish I would like  to spend Christmas at the Roche sisters home and listen to them sing Christmas Carols. Of course, being Jewish this was a rather odd desire, but . . . well, I was in love. David smiled.
One day in late November the next year I discovered in the Village Voice (RIP) the announcement of a show at the Bottom Line headlined by Tom Paxton ,and as a second act, The Roche Sisters would appear with their friends singing Christmas carols!!  Okay, maybe I have some of the details confused: it might have not have been Tom Paxton, but it was certainly the realization of my Christmas wish, though it would occur not privately before their fireplace but at the very public Bottom Line with other admirers in attendance. I don’t think it was David with whom I attended this show. I don’t know that I would have cared who I was with that evening: I wrapped myself in the gorgeous harmonies of the singing and fixed my gaze intently adoringly, and invitingly on lovely Terre.
Anyway, I am going to try to continue marking papers (ugh!), and reading (ah!), and thinking (thankfully!) out here with the music blasting and request somehow that “Good King Wenceslas” play again and offer me again that wonderful memory of a Christmas past.