Issue 2 - Spring 2006 - The Fight Issue
An exploration in 32 paragraphs
BY WAYNE KOESTENBAUM
We have grown very poor in threshold experiences. Falling asleep is perhaps the only such experience that remains to us. (But together with this, there is also waking up.)
1. I’m trying to figure out why — or how — or if — I became intellectual.
One place to begin: the time my mother “pulled a knife” on my father.
The expression “pulled a knife” — is it correct?
I think a kitchen knife.
Certainly a knife from the kitchen drawer.
Probably not a steak knife.
Perhaps a bread knife.
Just a soft-edged, relatively harmless butter knife.
Let’s say she was making a statement.
Her performance had two direct witnesses.
One, my father. He saw her “pull the knife.”
Two, my father’s aunt, Alice.
Seated in a black chair, she was waiting for my father to drive her home.
My father and his Aunt Alice often spoke together in German.
My mother didn’t understand German.
I imagine that she “pulled the knife” as a performance directly aimed at the aunt.
The act — “pulling a knife” — had two other indirect witnesses.
My sister saw it. I saw it. We were standing in the hallway. Later, we talked about the incident.
It has become, for us, a touchstone.
“The time Mom pulled a knife on Dad”: that scene is a card we sometimes play; a trick we pull out of our hat; a piece of evidence.
What does it prove?
2. Did I mention that my mother was angry when she “pulled the knife”?
I don’t remember whether she put it back in the drawer afterward or whether she left it on the kitchen counter.
I don’t know what she was angry about.
3. I write this way not merely because I enjoy being irreverent or atopical but because when AIDS hit in the early 1980s I decided not to waste my maybe very short life writing what I didn’t want to write or obeying rules that in the grand scheme of things (death) didn’t exist. The imminence of nothingness was the only rule I would obey.
4. If you care about words, you learn quite early in life that it is evil to lie.
5. I’m trying to figure out why — or how — or if — I became intellectual.
My father and I had an interesting conversation recently, when, on his world travels, he came to New York, and we had dinner.
I told him I was reading Heidegger.
Then my father told me the following story.
6. My father met Heidegger’s mistress in Caracas, Venezuela. My father’s good friend at the time, Ernst Tugendhat, introduced them.
Ernst, like my father, was a Jewish refugee: the Tugendhats had left Brno, Czechoslovakia, where they had lived in a famous house designed for them by Mies van der Rohe.
My father’s parents were uneducated, poor. The Tugendhats listened seriously and solemnly to Beethoven quartets on their record player in Caracas.
Heidegger’s mistress gave Ernst Tugendhat, my father’s friend, a box of Heidegger’s lecture notes, which Ernst eventually translated.
Ernst and my father left Caracas in 1945 to go to Stanford. My father was seventeen. World War II had just ended.
After a period at Stanford, Tugendhat returned to Germany to study with Heidegger and became an important analytical philosopher.
While at Stanford, my father was technically a displaced person, under custody of the United Nations. To keep his identity papers current, once a year he had to meet a Venezuelan diplomat on the streets of San Francisco and bribe this shady functionary with a few hundred dollars in cash.
7. I’m trying to figure out sequence: how paragraphs connect; how generations overlap; how ideas bleed into each other. My subjects include the interdependence of fragments; the weight of incidents; subordination and insubordination; hierarchy; demonstration and denotation; shadow and palimpsest; argumentation and allusion; name-dropping and citation; causality and the aleatory; my old chestnut, overdetermination; fact and speculation; melodrama and sentimentality; time-wasting; performance and being-buried-alive; cop-out and aporia; agency and knifepoint; the beauty of detachment; misalignments; leaving projects dead and incomplete in their midst and not regretting the abandonment.
8. My father’s father, Ernst — yes, the same first name as my father’s friend, Ernst Tugendhat — wanted my father to stay in Caracas and become a gentleman farmer, to acquire a coffee plantation. I doubt that a coffee plantation was in the offing. Forgoing agriculture, instead my father went with Ernst Tugendhat, Heideggerian, to Stanford.
I met my father’s father only once. I don’t remember the encounter, but I have seen a photograph of it: discontented, contextless black-and-white snapshot, underexposed despite California sunshine.
9. I don’t yet know the full meaning of what I am telling you. My drift concerns the romance of uncompleted projects.
10. Walter Benjamin wrote that we — moderns — are very poor in threshold experiences. We have many boundary experiences. But we are remote from the homeland of the threshold. Perhaps only when we are falling asleep do we fully experience that lost, ungraspable, nonexistent place.
To break up a piece of writing is — I hope — to extend the threshold. When a piece of writing knows its destructibility, its frangibility, it occupies the threshold.
11. I never met my father’s mother, Ilse. She died in 1940; I was born in 1958. My father often used to say that emigration from Berlin killed her; she never adjusted to Venezuela and died of a heart condition.
My father says she was “soft.” What is soft?
12. My father and his parents, uncertain whether any country would accept them, took a ship from Hamburg on January 2, 1937; they arrived in Caracas on January 18, 1937. They brought twenty-five German marks and a Leica camera.
If, magically, I found that Leica camera and took pictures with it, what would I be photographing?
13. According to my father, his father never lost his heavy German accent.
When he arrived in Caracas, my grandfather changed the spelling of his last name: Köstenbaum turned to Koestenbaum.
I regret the transformation.
14. My father’s father in Germany sold wheat to bakeries. He was a grain middleman. I am forty-four years old, and I just discovered two months ago for the first time that my father’s father in Germany had been a grain middleman.
A middleman is not poor in threshold experiences.
15. My father recently told me that when I was young, we had problem neighbors. The family next door had a cat that defecated in our side yard, in the gravel outside my parents’ bedroom. Apparently we set a trap and then sent the cat to the pound. That incident started a feud with the neighbors. Their son broke our fence.
16. Describe Heidegger’s mistress.
Explain why she moved to Venezuela.
Describe her voluptuousness, from my father’s point of view.
What was she wearing when my father met her?
How fancy was her Caracas home?
List Heidegger’s mistresses.
Rank them, by length of time spent with Heidegger, or by physical attractiveness (as assessed by my father, as told to me).
Find a photo of the Tugendhat house, designed by Mies van der Rohe, in Brno.
Find a photo of Carlotta, my father’s father’s second wife.
17. I never met Carlotta. I used to fantasize about flying to Caracas and finding her.
Once, in the mid-1960s, she telephoned our house in San Jose, California, to tell my father that his father, Ernst, had died.
Three sentences my father said to me in a recent conversation:
I’m only interested in the future.
I didn’t go to my father’s funeral.
I’ve never seen my father’s grave.
18. Emotion is, at the moment, missing from this essay. I’ll add emotion later. Emotion is the middleman, sometimes left invisible in the transaction.
19 How precisely can you approach the one thing it is your project to say? You certainly aren’t going to let anyone else’s ideas of the proper interfere. Why mask your articulations, muting their force, maintaining conventional appearances? Refuse verbal compromise.
20. On the Internet I found the Tugendhat house. It exists. It is a fact. Villa Tugendhat was constructed between 1928 and 1930 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Grete and Fritz Tugendhat in Brno.
21. More facts about Villa Tugendhat. The Tugendhat family left Brno for Venezuela in 1938. The Gestapo occupied Villa Tugendhat in 1939. A bomb damaged it in 1944. Red Army soldiers occupied it in April 1945. Now it is a museum.
22. Now it is time to leap into an entirely different subject. Here is a story that always made a huge impression on me and that I don’t entirely wish to tell.
23. My mother in 1949 or 1950 was one of only two women in a creative writing seminar at Harvard. The rest of the students were men. (Technically, she was not a Harvard student; she was a Radcliffe student.) The other young woman in the seminar was Adrienne Rich.
That story used to make me feel like literary royalty, once removed. I realize that this feeling is illegitimate and unfounded.
In 1976, when I was a freshman at Harvard, I took a creative writing seminar taught by Cynthia Rich, Adrienne’s sister. I developed a crush on Cynthia. In the first short story I wrote for her seminar (the story was almost entirely autobiographical), I mentioned that my mother had been Adrienne Rich’s classmate. Cynthia professed to like my story: she read it aloud to our workshop. When she came to the line that mentioned her sister, Cynthia didn’t falter. Nor did she stop to say, “Adrienne Rich happens to be my sister. What a coincidence!” The allusion in the story was my private signal to Cynthia. I don’t know what I was trying to communicate. She must have been irritated to see her famous sister’s name dropped in a fawning student’s composition.
Two years later, I asked Cynthia if she would do an independent writing tutorial with me. She refused.
24. Has Adrienne Rich ever read Heidegger?
Has Ernst Tugendhat, Heideggerian, ever read Adrienne Rich?
25.On my father’s bookshelf, when I was a child:
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet.
On my mother’s bookshelf:
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen.
A Georges Simenon mystery, paperback, in French. I don’t recall its title.
26. While writing this essay, I am reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (in translation) and Iris Murdoch’s Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. I can take Sartre only from the woman’s angle.
27. Recently, my father told me that in the early 1960s he was on a panel discussion with Marianne Moore, somewhere in the Bay Area. Must now my father be my middleman to Moore? Is my connection to Moore enriched by the
28. My mother told me that William Carlos Williams long ago came to read in San Jose and that she didn’t go to hear him. My father seemed vaguely to blame. Either he refused to drive her (she didn’t yet have a license) or else he didn’t encourage her to go, or help make it possible. The time my mother didn’t hear William Carlos Williams read in San Jose is an important family story, though not as important as the story of the time my parents heard T.S. Eliot read at Harvard.
29. Walter Benjamin insists that boundary and threshold are not the same: “The threshold must be carefully distinguished from the boundary.”
30. Fact, discovered on the Internet: a symposium was held at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, on January 25, 26, and 27, 1963. The symposium, in which my father took part, was called “The Potential of Woman”; it was the third annual conference in a series called “Man and Civilization.” Afterward, a book was published, entitled The Potential of Woman. I remember seeing it on my father’s shelf. I don’t have a copy, and the New York Public Library’s copy is missing.
I don’t know what my father said about the potential of woman. At the time, I was four years old.
I wonder if my mother read his talk. I wonder what she thought of it, and what she thought, in January 1963, about the potential of woman.
31. As far as I can judge from the photo on the Villa Tugendhat Web site, the house seems mostly threshold. Mies van der Rohe brought outside inside. A glass wall faces the garden, as in the Eichler homes I saw, as a youth, in nearby affluent, enviable Palo Alto.
32. In 1961, when I was three years old, my father published a translation of The Paris Lectures, by phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. The translation is dedicated to my mother: momentarily Husserl played middleman. When my father was doing the work of translating, I was probably one year old. A translator is a middleman. So is a one-year-old.
Here is a quotation chosen more or less at random from my father’s introduction to the Husserl translation:
“The following example might clarify the point. I perceive a doorknob at this moment. The doorknob is not a diaphanous apparition but an intentional object. Part of the meaning of this particular doorknob is that it has been there for a long time, and that it will continue to be there. I make the tacit prediction that, if I touch it, the doorknob would feel hard and enable me to open the door.”
Is the door a threshold or a boundary? I will call it a threshold — a zone in which to dwell, however briefly. A boundary, on the other hand, is a prohibition, a fence — not to be crossed, occupied, or trespassed upon.
My father’s introduction reminds the reader that Husserl, a Jew, a teacher of Heidegger’s, “was stripped of his professorship and teaching privileges by the Nazis in 1933.” Husserl’s papers are now, according to my father’s introduction, in Louvain, Belgium: “forty thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts.” (Of Louvain, Gertrude Stein writes, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: “Gertrude Stein desperately unhappy said to me, where is Louvain. Don’t you know, I said. No, she said, nor do I care, but where is it.”) As my father writes, in his introduction: “After several unsuccessful attempts to sneak the manuscripts across the Swiss border as a nun’s baggage or to interest a Belgian consulate to take charge of the bulky materials, Van Breda persuaded the Belgian Embassy in Berlin to declare the suitcases containing the manuscripts as Belgian property and thus have them covered by the immunity of the diplomatic pouch.”
I seek for myself the immunity of the diplomatic pouch.
I seek, for everything I write, the immunity of the diplomatic pouch. &