Backstory — Part 4: Je ne c’est quoi

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PART FOUR: JE NE C’EST QUOI

1

Two people sat in the front room; they obviously had never met before. He was about 60 years old, with a full head of gray hair, brushed back neatly. She was several years younger, but with a shock of white in her forelock, giving her a kind of Susan Sontag look. Their respective others were in the next room talking seriously. Their respective others used to be married to each other. It was late afternoon and no one had turned on the lights. All color in the room was grayed out.

“Portland,” said gray hair to forelock.

“Me, too,” she said in an accent that implied “Moi, aussi.”

“Oregon,” he said.

“Maine,” she said.

It was awkward. They had all flown in from their respective corners of the map to see Mia for the holidays. And now Esther and Stuart were in the bedroom with Mia. She had something important to tell them.

“I heard from Dan,” Mia said. “He’s dying. Lung cancer.”

“He never smoked,” Esther said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I know,” Mia said. “But it’s far gone. He’s asked me to come.”

“Back to Poughkeepsie?”

“Yeah.”

Esther now lived in Oregon with gray-haired Roger. They had been married for a decade and it seemed to have taken. She didn’t expect to find any more Waynes or Bobs or Eds — or Stuarts. He was a good man, and he suffered patiently while Esther discussed her first husband with her second husband in the next room. Current husbands must face the closed door of their wive’s previous lives. But not a closed door, one left just enough ajar to let him know there will always be a portion of his mate’s life that will be strange to him, even as it remains vital to her. He hears the stories, but they are like fictions read in books. Esther’s life with Dan, her later marriage to Stuart and her briefer liaisons have formed the woman he inherited, and he was grown up enough to know he must not be jealous of those earlier men, but grateful to them for creating the woman he now loved. But still. It can be hard to live with all those shadows on the bedroom wall.

Mia didn’t see her mother all that much anymore, now that Esther had moved to Oregon. But the holidays gave them an excuse to travel back east to Morgantown, where Mia now had her Ph.D. and was a novice instructor teaching classical literature in translation, first-year Latin and the mythology course that was her great pleasure.

Stuart also lived in Portland, but Maine, not Oregon.

“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”

He was now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”

She was the other sitting in the front room with Roger. Her name was Genevieve.

“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart. “Je ne vieve pas,” he punned. “Je ne c’est quoi.” She was born in Belgium and took the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French.

This was the undercurrent as Mia explained to Esther and Stuart about the cancer that had appeared out of their shared past. Stuart stood in the corner He was never good at real stuff. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“So, should I go?” she asked. “I think I should.”

Esther took Mia’s hand; Mia sat on the bed next to her. They hugged.
To fill in: Dan was alone in the world. He had no living relatives other than his daughter, and had been something of a hermit for many years, moving back and forth from the job to the house and back. It was believed there were cats. Mia had not seen him in years, and what contact they had was awkward.

“Can you take me?” she asked Stuart.

“Me?”

“I need support.”

2.

In the front room, Roger waited for the confab to conclude.

“Mia’s rather quiet,” he said. “Isn’t she?”

“Well, she keeps her own council.”

“I’ve tried to talk to her, but it’s like pulling teeth,” he said.

“She is maybe a little withdrawn,” said the French accent. I mean, Belgian.

“Not like Stuart,” he said. “He talks a lot.” He tried to be neutral about it.

“It is true,” she said. “He won’t shut up. But that is why I like him. He is … inextinguishable.” She said the word slowly, with no syllable accented. Was she thinking of the Nielsen symphony?

“How long have you been together?”

“A long time, I think. Maybe eight, nine months.”

“Can you take it?” Roger was letting his tact slip.

“We shall see.”

December 01
3.

Sometime here, we will have to admit that Mia was not a normal woman, had not been a normal girl. Her mother was voluble, friendly, chatty, even. Moved easily from man to man in her earlier days. There was a brightness to her that lit a room and attracted many a keen suitor. But Mia inherited none of that; rather, she had her father’s melancholy — at least that’s the old word for it. It probably didn’t rise to the diagnosis of depression, but it edged the border. Mia took few chances in life, let it flow around her, accepted what came her way, but seldom took the initiative. She kept to herself, found building relationships difficult, but in return, felt a kind of quiet satisfaction in those little things that floated her way. She would never have called herself unhappy, but there was not a great deal of effusive joy in her bearing, either.

In a way, Stuart provided that effusion for her, and she enjoyed his silliness. He had enough for both of them.

And so, they drove from Morgantown to Poughkeepsie, a December thaw left clods of melting snow hung on the trees higher up on the hills. The roads were all clear, but often still wet, even in the sunshine.

“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.” His arm crossed the steering wheel with his left hand at the 2 o’clock position, he leaned in to Mia riding shotgun.

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

Mia watched Pennsylvania out the window pass by, hoping to stop soon for lunch.

“You mean,” she said, “like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” she said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”

“Of course,” he said, “that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about the ozone or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about.”

Stuart had no humility about bringing up the Greeks to the classical scholar sitting next to him.

“They had a peculiar relation to their language,” he went on. “They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”

Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal, linguistic forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” Mia said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is full of such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or tickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”

Stuart: “My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

He went on. “Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.”

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?” she said.

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water,” he said. “This language-reality dilemma is never gone.

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”

He was thinking about his copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, which divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’

“A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

“I have another good example,” she said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those now being ethnically cleansed in Bosnia? So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”

“Bingo,” he said. “It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

She was talking about Genevieve.

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century,” she said. “Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”

“Exactamente. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”

Mia had her own example, thinking of life in academia and faculty meetings.

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, now we have department chairmen, academic deans, provosts. We still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn.

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

When they reached the Tappan Zee Bridge, it was hard to know if their exhaustion was from the long drive or the conversation.

poughkeepsie 3
4.

When they got there, it was worse than she had thought. Dan was in bed with tubes in his nose and an IV plugged into his forearm. His eyes were dark, as if he had on eyeshadow, and his cheeks were scoured out; his skin was sallow. He barely spoke above a wheeze.

Stuart waited at the hotel while Mia went to visit.

“I’m going to die,” Dan said. Slowly, very slowly, one word squeezed out at a time before gathering wind to say the next. “You are the only person …” He waited to finish his thought while sucking air. “…” He didn’t finish his thought, hoping Mia would finish it for him.

Dan had spent the three months in hospice, but a turn for the worse had landed him back in the hospital. Mia held his hand; she didn’t know what else to do. Dan closed his eyes and slept. Mia sat there for a half hour, watching the sunlight on the bare trees out the window. Then she got up to leave the room. A nurse came to her with a clipboard.

“There are some forms to sign,” she said.

Mia growled her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

She hadn’t expected anything official; she was just there to see her father.

“You are next of kin,” the nurse said.

“What about …’ Mia realized that an ex-wife didn’t count. All of Dan’s blood family was gone. She was all there was. She signed whatever she needed to and went back to the hotel.

“It’s bad,” she said to Stuart. “He’s barely able to speak.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“I signed a bunch of papers.”

“I mean, anything to help?”

The air was crisp, the sun was sharp, the day seemed at odds with Mia’s mood. They went to the hotel cafe for dinner.

Motel 1

5.

The next morning, when they went back to the hospital, a different nurse, this one much taller and older, met them with the news that Dan had sunk into a coma and was not expected to come out of it.

“We need to know your wishes,” she said.

“My wishes?” Mia frowned. She didn’t think her wishes were important. “What can we do for him?” she asked.

“I mean, at this stage, we are only keeping him alive with feeding tubes and a respirator. We need to know if it is your wish to continue life support or should we let him go.”

This is not a decision anyone should have to make. Mia certainly didn’t think she should have to make it. She barely knew the man; it was only an accident of DNA that she was being asked to make this choice. For the first time, she started crying. She found a chair in the hall and lowered her head and let the hot salt water drain. Her brain was seized up; the tenuous connection between her birth father and the grown daughter was made sensibly, palpably real. She reached for Stuart’s hand; she held it in both of hers.

“I don’t see that I have a choice,” she said. She told the nurse to let him die. It felt so cold; it felt so unfair to be made to choose.

“He’s going to die anyway,” Stuart said, trying to comfort her. “You are only helping him get there.”

The trip back to Morgantown was much quieter than the trip to New York.

6.

There was a lot to manage after Dan died. What to do with his remains, what to do with his apartment and all his stuff. It was all strange to Mia; she hadn’t known Dan in any real sense, so the books on his shelf were a surprise, the clothes in his dresser, the foods in his pantry. They all spoke of someone who had had an actual existence, but no longer did. Where did he go? Vanished, except for the cans of tomatoes and the box of Cheerios, the bottle of soured milk leftover in the fridge. Throw it all out, she thought.

An estate sale was arranged, the body was cremated, the gas and electric turned off, the deposits promised to be returned, the key given back to the landlord. Mia felt a deep sadness, but it wasn’t grief. She barely knew the man, so that wasn’t why she was feeling this profound emptiness. She had now a personal connection, a bodily connection with death, with non-existence. It didn’t matter whether she ever spent time with Dan; there was a cause-and-effect connection with a dead man: He had caused her to exist in the world, and his world was now over. The flower had give way to seed. Was this, perhaps, what it meant to be grown up?

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