Sunday, July 3, 2011

You've seen it happen ii: architecture of a generous man

Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in the races of the coming century..;
but, on the other hand, the ordinary traveller, who does not enter the field of racing, finds advantage in being, so to speak, ticketed through life, with the safeguards of an old, established traffic. Safeguards are often irksome, but sometimes convenient, and if one needs them at all, one is apt to need them badly.

Why would such a man, so ticketed, trouble himself to master fatherhood, much less to two sons whose distinctions he did nothing to discourage? If Laurent had a conviction of the existence of God, he would not dream of taxing Him with this riddle. But he has to think; something in him says, Laurent, let us play in the field of understanding, and he exerts himself quite beyond precaution. He gets this from our father, whom we never saw exploiting his ticket in our life. He was born this day with a pithy name, and not as the first one. He called himself, Nick.

The plural possessive pronoun may throw one, so let us make it clear. This was never a father of sons who would be divided, as he had been from his brother; this was a man who could play the very diverse games of each of them, with astoundingly unlimited empathy and skill. He can not be discussed, except as our father. Where does this come from? The floor beneath the Wrigleys', at 1500 Lake Shore? That would not seem pertinent.

          If springing things be any jot diminished,
          They wither in their prime, prove nothing worth.

It comes from a man, amazed in youth, by participating in a flux of civilisation much vaster than his branding, above any squabble of fraternity and without limit in its gift of nourishment. This was the ticket he gave his boys. It is certain, of course, that the ineradicability of the other ticket drove one of his boys to the most extravagant risks, and the other to repeated experiments in renunciation. Unfailingly, he was there to understand, and - how did he know this - to be our father.

The gorgeous trajectory which steadied him will never again bear his name. But it never did. The other one, cosseting him as eponymous nuisance, got his boys schools wherever they grew, rooms wherever they traveled, tables wherever they ate, homes wherever they moved, ladies wherever they strode, anything they could want, except what he showed them they need. To be created so poor, exceeded their wildest dreams. And there he met them.

We all know the safeguards Henry Adams was talking about, and in fact we're seldom able to say - that though a man might have had them, they never got the better of him. I don't claim this for myself but I can't deny it when I see it. Most such men are known for their club, few are known for their swing. Henry Adams went on to endure his safeguards and create probably the most brilliant biography ever written, even though of himself. His caustic chapters since the Grant Administration foretold the scalding shock of a blogosphere saturated in the self-diminishing conceit of bearing privilege, an exhibitionists' bacchanale of heartbreaking feeble-ness. But to believe that the proliferation of these preening blogs represented anything more than a tangling of magpies on a common coxcomb, would lend such sterility to the mortal project that, at least, we could dispense with fathering. Hence the distaste here, for those frauds upon a legacy that so favour the trappings of descent over its endowing hunger. They flatter us with a name for earnest lark, pimped as a lewd riposte:

We owe our debt to Adams, rather, to the modesty of our father, an act of will but also of style, innately borne and sometimes rough, of carrying forth what he won from his boyhood, to press into the veins of his own get. We think of this giving motive as uncanny, laughably incongruous, but those who inherit it are in no doubt. Here, strapping my sunburnt wrist is the watch my brother wore to his death, and I'll wear to mine. Beneath it, keeping time I'll not forget, I see some blue I'm living with, and treasure where I got it. I don't claim to deserve it. I claim to need it.

Let's have raspberries this morning, then, and Beethoven tonight. He loved the Rondeau's end of the Dance of the Furies. And so does your child. It's where Laurent was born, a spit of sand for dancing.

Henry Adams
The Education of Henry Adams
  An Autobiography
Massachusetts Historical Society, 1918
Houghton Mifflin, 1961©

William Shakespeare
Venus and Adonis
Alfred A. Knopf, 1992©

Internet source

Painting extract, Titian
op. cit.

Photo, courtesy Beth Nelson


  1. Honor thy father, I am not so much biblical -as this but you do it beautiful-touched by this poem to your father & brother. we fly by night in the blogsphere and on the trip we lose sight of our bearings, this is a reminder. Gaye

  2. Thank you, PGT. As I try to make plain, I do not claim this for myself. Chastening begins at home.