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Still on Call
By Richard Stern
The University of Michigan Press Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter One Reflections, Observations, Memories
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1. Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? (Every court case, every witness, would go on forever.) 2. The TV anchor's "I'll see you again tomorrow night." He doesn't see us; we see him/her. 3. Love ya. 4. Have a good one.
That the carnage, savagery, starvation, ignominy, pain, fury, hatred and pity which rise from the news don't send us all to the loony bin speaks for the indifference developed by even the most sensitive and saintly of the world's privileged.
We write letters to the editor, send a check to a charity, moan to our lunch companions, or, like Proust's wonderful Mme. Verdurin reading about the loss of life on the Lusitania as she dips her croissant into her morning coffee, say "How awful," even as her lips curl with delight.
Now and then, we analyze and comment on this or that.
So I, on July 21, 2003, reading the caption on two wonderful photographs taken by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times the day before in the holy city of Najaf, decide that it does not represent what I see in them. The first photograph shows us the backs of seven U.S. marines in hard hats facing a crowd of mostly bearded and beturbaned men, some with arms raised in a salute of appreciation to something unseen by us off to the right; one man is raising a photograph of two white-bearded men. In the background, there is a group of mostly younger, beardless men, most of them seated on what seems to be a low wall. Six of these twenty or so men may be looking in the direction of the photographer or the marines. Two of them are raising their arms, one is standing with arms spread and seems to be shouting something in our direction. The second photograph is of eight men standing on a dais. Three of them wear turbans, one, the most prominent, is waving a sort of forked scimitar. One is taking video photographs of what is probably the crowd in the first photograph. The caption reads, "Iraqi protesters ... pushed toward American marines yesterday in Najaf. The protest erupted after clergymen claimed that soldiers had tried to surround a prominent Shiite leader. Clerics, speaking to protesters from atop a mosque, below, demanded an end to the American occupation." The excellent article, by Neil MacFarquhar, spells out the complexities behind the photograph, the ignorance of the crowd that the marines and helicopters-which are not shown-had been called out as special protection for the visiting deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. It talks of the ambition of Moktada al-Sadr, "scion of a clan of beloved clerics," to assert himself by claiming that the Americans were bent on arresting him. "'Moktada Sadr and his supporters are trying to drag us into this kind of confrontation ...' said a spokesman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic revolution in Iraq, the most established Shiite group ..." It's clear that the crowd in front of the marines is not pressing against them. Only two or three men there are even facing them, and it is not clear what they are thinking. Some in the background fringe of younger men may be expressing indignation, but that is not clear. It does seem clear that three or four of the clerics are worked up and working up the crowd.
What is also clear is that there is much going on that brings people into the street and leads others to inflammatory oratory. It is all part of the complex events which led to the fall of Saddam Hussein and the attempts by many including, perhaps, Saddam, to vie for power in the post-war period.
I compare this to another photograph taken from the album of lovely Richard Rodgers songs to which I was listening while I read the paper. The photograph was taken at the final performance of the musical South Pacific in June 1951. It is the curtain call, and Mary Martin, the show's star, has her hands in front of her mouth and chin in what seems to be overwhelming surprise and pleasure as she sees what we do, the composer, Rodgers, in a sailor's jacket and round white hat, hands clasped in front of him, head bent, next to Oscar Hammerstein, the lyricist and writer, both presented by the play's director, Joshua Logan. Behind them, members of the cast are in various stages of jubilation and tearful nostalgia. One could look at this photograph for a long time, and find next to no space for misinterpretation, whereas in the first two photographs, there seems to be plenty of such space. The clarity comes from familiarity with Broadway traditions of celebration, farewell and public performance; the murk comes from ignorance of the political-social complexities of a very different culture.
I drove back from downtown Chicago along the Outer Drive immediately west of Lake Michigan on a mild, cloudy June day. I'd just bought cans of tennis balls at Sport Mart, where they can be bought cheaply. I pay with what's familiarly called plastic. Since I'm not using what I ignorantly regard as "actual money," the pleasure of getting a bargain is augmented by the self-pampering illusion that I'm not really paying. What occurred to me is that such postponement of payment, an example of artful separation from unpleasant actuality, is one of the fundamental components of human life. The pleasure comes from the illusion of escape, evasion, overcoming of a difficulty. What we call money, whether metallic or paper, is itself an instance of such separation. Instead of the exchange of commodities or services, instead of a brutal takeover by theft or conquest of what's desired, there is this almost weightless exchange which marks the way human beings have learned to live with each other.
Almost sixty years ago, I read in God without Thunder, a little-read book by the poet John Crowe Ransom, that the human separation from food, by cooking it, using utensils to cut and get it to our mouths, dividing the day into mealtimes, and finally the transfiguration of such times into occasions of conviviality, family intimacy, symposia and religious sacrament, is what differentiates people from animals. Ransom compared it to the democratic "separation of powers" which, although far less efficient than tyranny, elevates instead of degrades the citizen. (Isn't the function of religion itself the elevation of the weak and transient via at least the illusion of identification with more or less absolute power?)
Apropos "the elevation of the weak," I read in the NY Times (June 12, 2003) of "a Chicago man ... Michael Garner, 39 [who] used an axe to break the arms or legs of a dozen people, then took them to the sites of pre-arranged car accidents. Mr. Garner made hundreds of thousands of dollars during the two years he led the scheme while the homeless victims made hundreds ..."
Elsewhere the great newspaper reports on a Palestinian suicide bomber disguised as an Orthodox Jew who exploded a bus in central Jerusalem with bombs filled with nails and glass, so that not only were sixteen people killed but a hundred others were horribly wounded.
Then there is a picture of an Israeli soldier inspecting a long line of exhausted men and women waiting to go to work on the other side of a barbed wire boundary.
Every day, every newspaper reader and television watcher around the world is flooded with the injuries to the great social systems which constitute the orderliness of civic life. Most such readers and watchers have become addicted to these law-breakers. Not only do newspaper and television record them, but much of our literature, plays and films are built around them. Writers, dramatists and filmmakers understand the art of creating this derivative excitement which works on the emotions of audiences without damaging their flesh. I myself have spent much of my adult life either conjuring up such works or teaching students to understand and treasure them.
A year and a half ago, after fifty such years, I retired from teaching and, to a lesser degree, from writing them. I have entered another stage of life, the one often known now by a chess term which Samuel Beckett made the title of a play about it, Fin de Partie (some party!). End Game. It is this part of life which I want to talk about now.
Our memories are picture galleries in whose corridors a large number of images hang ready for re-inspection. There are also libraries of sounds, musical and non-musical, smells, tastes, movements and emotions. Another gallery is full of the slogans, mottos, poems, jokes and dialogue which constitute a too large portion of our active memory. There is finally a gallery of ever-deepening attachments to the past, not only to one's own past experience but to that of the often imaginary or dim remembrance of one's ancestry.
In Hungary for the first time in my life, it was almost a duty for me to think of my paternal grandfather, Adolf Stern, whom I remember vividly although he died sixty-five years ago. Grandpa was a Hungarian Jew, and those of my cousins who knew him better remember what they called his Hungarian temper and accent. My late cousin Ruth Worms Tishman remembered that he could not pronounce "th" and always called her-and my sister, another Ruth-"Russie." She also remembers that during the first three years of World War I, 1914-17, she and her sisters used to scratch out of the rotogravure section of the newspapers the faces of British soldiers. Grandpa was a partisan of Germany. When the United States entered the war in 1917, this changed, but she did not remember how or what Grandpa said to bring about the change.
I remember feeling happy when I saw Grandpa. He had white hair, parted in the middle, and a droopy white mustache. He dressed in stiff collar, cravat, gold tiepin, dark jacket, vest and pants. He was strong. When the laundress came upstairs with the wicker basket loaded with a week's wash, Grandpa hoisted it to show that he could. I sat on his knees, he gave me quarters. Only when I played checkers with him did I experience the man who could not bear to lose. When I crowned a king, he shouted, and once accused me, his beloved little grandson, of cheating him. I was bewildered; my parents calmed him, ended the game and later told me that I must never again play checkers with Grandpa. The last few years of his life, my father, my sister and I took him every winter to Grand Central Station and put him on the train for Palm Beach. The last time I saw him was beside the train in 1938. He died in Florida, a month before a ninetieth-birthday party, the invitations to which had been mailed out. I don't remember his death, only that one day my father, who almost never rebuked us, rebuked my sister and me for not condoling with him on Grandpa's death. I remember once again bewilderment. Who had said anything about his death to us?
What do I know of him beside what I have said? A handful of perhaps distorted stories: his being orphaned at seventeen; his being somehow enlisted by Count Esterhazy to work on a railroad; his working in a bar and there encountering a soldier who wished to recruit him for the Austro-Prussian War; young grandpa broke a beer bottle, threatened the man with its jagged edge, then fled, perhaps to Berlin where he met and married beautiful Rosa Wildman, the grandmother who died thirty years before my birth. In Berlin, she and Grandpa had the first two of their six children, then sailed for New York City where she bore the rest of them including my father; she died of puerperal fever after the last birth, that of my aunt Mildred. Grandpa, after peddling, cigar rolling and other jobs, became the businessman he was when I knew him, founder of Stern Merritt Inc., a firm that manufactured men's accessories including the red neckties he himself always wore, one of which he sent annually to his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, who once sent him a thank you letter, a treasure, which, like so much else, disappeared. In 1887, Grandpa named his last-born son, my father, Henry George, after the famous single taxer whose theories excited the likes of Leo Tolstoy. Grandpa's politics were not socialist or single tax; as far as I can guess, he named my father as he did because George was an idealist who ran, fruitlessly, for mayor of New York. Grandpa was a Republican who in 1912 became so furious at my father voting for Woodrow Wilson instead of the Republican Charles Evan Hughes that he kicked him out of the house. My father sneaked back in at midnight, let in by his loving stepmother, Leontine, probably on the instructions of Grandpa. Another of the extravagant grandfatherly gestures which memory has softened into cosy eccentricity.
What is the meaning of these scarcely documented anecdotes which stand along with a few sensuous memories as my grandfather? A grandfather myself, I wonder about my place in the heads of my grandchildren.
I already see my children turning me into a comic figure, one that releases some of the pressure I exerted on them at various times. Indeed, I already see that my oldest grandchild, a wonderful twenty-year-old girl, seems to regard me more realistically than her mother, my daughter, although the realism lies beneath a layer of affection, of love. Are there lessons here for historians, particularly for biographers?
One thing I can't remember is if in my first twenty or so thoughtful years I was ever overwhelmed by the sheer mass of event out of which thoughtful people try to make sense. Perhaps charitable oblivion erases this memory as it does many others. The algorithms which govern memory have been treated better by novelists than by psychologists, but I suspect that there's enough individuality in them to make it a serious occupation of the elderly. Why do we remember what we do? How much of what we remember applies to what we have to make sense of now?
What counts? What are the influences which lead to action or inaction? What seems odd, strange, sometimes shockingly novel to an elderly American writer and professor may appear like matter-of-fact diversions and pleasantries to younger European, African, American and Asian intellectuals. ("The wildest dreams of Kew / Are the facts of Katmandu.") Let me try out a number of-let's call them-oddities which cropped up in the issue of the New York Times the day, April 29, 2003, I am writing this.
The art critic Michael Kimmelman reports from his recent trip to London. The headline reads "London Is Agog over Art, Especially Saatchi's." The article describes an exhibition of Titian paintings attracting "art besotted . . . mobs" to the basement of the National Gallery. Nothing shocking there, but when Kimmelman crossed the Thames to the Tate and other galleries and saw Ron Mueck's trompe l'oeil Nude Man with Arms Folded Sitting in a Rowboat and very small figures whose "forlorn and troubled expressions make them seem so vulnerable and childlike that they provoke the embarrassment of invading their privacy," something beside semi-mindless relaxation into an art critic's report occurred to me. Nothing exactly mind-blowing, but some of what Kimmelman called "the visual chestnuts" of Saatchi's old "Sensation" shows was agitating: Marc Quinn's frozen cast of his own head in his own blood ... Chris Ofili's glittery Madonna with elephant dung ... Sarah Lucas's photograph of herself with cash stuffed between her legs or fried eggs on her breasts ... Cornelia Parker's version of Rodin's Kiss wrapped in marble strings ... David Batchelor's tower of colored light boxes looming over Jim Lambie's eye-popping vinyl floor ... and the famous Damien Hirst's famous cow sliced up into parts exhibited in a row of glassy telephone booths aligned as in old-fashioned train stations. These roused me, but perhaps not entirely as the artists intended I should be roused from the spectator's complacent torpor.
The lust for novelty once satisfied by fantasies and myths, by sphinxes, dragons, griffins, plumed serpents and other fanciful creatures or, more physically, by exotic, difficult and dangerous voyages on earth and, more recently, in space has now overflowed the boundaries and proprieties of art, sex, family and crime. Almost every age offers similar violations often inflicted by the bored, the cruel, the idle rich and powerful. The violations occur when other powers are tightening the bonds of middle- and lower-class behavior. So out of the April 29 Times comes a list of strictures on schoolbooks inspected by Professor Diane Ravitch in her book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Here are things students are not supposed to find in their schoolbooks: Mickey Mouse, because mice and rats might upset small children; a mother cooking dinner, because it enforces a gender stereotype; stories set in jungles because they suggest "regional bias"; angry, loud, quarreling people, because they are not "uplifting"; birthdays, because some poor children can't afford to celebrate theirs; mention of cakes or cookies instead of healthy foods like yogurt and bran; words like "swarthy," "senile," "crazy" and "heroine" which could trouble the swarthy, the senile, the crazy and those driven mad by gender inequality. Old people must be described doing something active, not as weak or dependent; men must be considered nurturers, not, say, doctors, lawyers or plumbers. "Founding Father" is objectionable. I suppose Washington, Adams and Madison should be depicted along with their estimable spouses, Martha, Abigail and Dolley, as state-nurturers. Finally, children should not be shown as disobedient.
Excerpted from Still on Call by Richard Stern Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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