"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 22, 2017

To Forget The Past Is One Thing–Being Unable To Remember It Is Another

Ronald Reagan in his last days had no idea that he was ever President.  Joanne Woodward now has only fading and flickering memories of her husband, Paul Newman.

Joanne Woodward

‘Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it’, said George Santayana, a reference to the temporal politics that place currency over history, and the need to restore perspective to our short lives.

More nihilistic philosophers and writers – such as Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare – saw history as cyclical, perpetually repeating itself because the human nature driving human action has never changed and never will.  The best we can do is to learn which particular expressions of human nature are most common and how to avoid them.  We cannot change self-interest, aggression, territorialism, and acquisitiveness; but we can anticipate and be prepared for them.

Vladimir Nabokov believed that the past was far more than one part of a time-space continuum, but the most important one.  The present is a chimera, he said, imagined milliseconds of ‘reality’, bounded by the possibility of the future and the long, defining, significance of what went before.  We are not just determined by the past.  We are the past.

Image result for images nabokov
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for…(Speak, Memory)
Memory is not only a recording of events of our own lives, but of those which preceded us; a future conditional, events prior to our birth but on which our existence – our past – depends.
I know…of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged-the same house, the same people- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.
He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated (Speak, Memory)
In his fear of time, the young man unknowingly extended it, for after seeing the film, memory was no longer contained by his years but by the real, associative past of his parents.  The image of the empty baby carriage suggested not only that he was not yet born, but that he would be.  Time was not only past, present, and future, but but made up of an infinite number of possibilities.  His panic came because he knew that he might not have been born.
The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions. It was a phenomenon of orientation rather than of art, thus comparable to stripes of paint on a roadside rock or to a pillared heap of stones marking a mountain trail.  But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one's position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge (Speak, Memory).
Alzheimer’s is not only a disease which erodes, diminishes, and finally erase memory; but it is the final, premature negation of life itself.  If, as Nabokov suggested, we are only what we were, then who are we without memory? Without the past there is nothing.  Without memory an old woman watching television in a nursing home can process nothing.  There are no referents, not clues to behavior, identity, or emotion.  The screen is as blank as the woman’s mind.

In the movie Still Alice, Julianne Moore portrays a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  A woman whose entire past has been built on intellectual and academic brilliance, discipline, logic, and insight finds that those very qualifying characteristics – what makes her who she is – are disappearing.  She understands that soon she will no longer be herself.  She will be nothing. She will not simply be a woman with diminished abilities, she will have no abilities; and not only will she have none of the talents and skills which defined her, she will have nothing to replace them.  She will become a cipher.

Image result for images movie still alice

Suicide while she is still lucid – while she is still herself – is compelling.  It is better to die whole – to remember her past while she still can and leave it intact  - than to disappear.

It is enough that we remember Ronald Reagan, say his admirers.  Although he might not know who he is or what he did, he will never be forgotten.  The fact that in his mind before his death he might have been a rancher, a grocer, or nothing at all makes little difference.  History is a repository for all events, personally remembered or not.

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, has led a life of order and position.  A predictable, ordinary life was kept nuisance at check and unfortunate circumstances to a minimum.  When he is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is disoriented. Life was not supposed to have dealt out such surprises. 

He goes through phases of denial, anger, resentment, self-pity, and final reconciliation; but not before he realizes that his past, restricted within the narrow confines he imposed, had nothing to sustain him as he approached death.  He had nothing but a wife of convenience, indifferent colleagues, and no friends.  His career, marriage, and leisure had been nothing but pieces of his elaborate self-interest.

“We all die alone”, he said, terrified at the prospect of extinction with little hope for  what followed.  A distinctive, memorable past might have provided some comfort, but he did not even have that.

Alzheimer’s patients die with none of Ivan Ilyich’s terror because they no longer know what that is.  If there is any consolation in losing the past it is the absence of any fear of the future.
Yet few of us would prefer the death of Ronald Reagan, neutered and ciphered, happy but ignorant.  As much as death may terrify us, at least such terror validates our lives and our existence – a final confirmation of Descartes. 

Image result for images ronald reagan

How many of us would consider Alice’s option?  How many of us would have the decisiveness, the courage, and the absolute belief in individual value to commit suicide rather than die senseless?
Few, I suspect; and who is to say that dying without the fear of death has no value? 

Nabokov’s mnemonics are important for the living, not only the dying.  Every day that we are able to recall and relive the past is a day meaningful beyond its measure.  The longer we live, the more important the past becomes, and the more full and fulfilled life can be.

Living in the past is no idle dismissal of the present, no refusal of ‘reality’; but another life, a life recalled – one of far more substance and value than a virtual one where reality and fantasy are spliced with little purpose of character or identity.

Nietzsche said that in a meaningless world the only validation of existence is the expression of pure will.  Nabokov said it was acknowledgement of the past.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

From Goomba To Nantucket In Short Measure–An American Success Story

Elliston  had its own Teflon Don – Angelo P _____, a man who was no where near as dapper or elusive as the much more famous John Gotti, the boss of the New York Gambino crime family, but impressive nonetheless in a small town in the Northeast.

Angelo owned the gravel quarry, the trucking company which had contracts with every town from Francis to Bellingham, and the cement mixers which poured concrete for sidewalks as far south as New Haven. Other than a buying a new Cadillac every year and wearing handmade suits crafted by a Mulberry Street Italian tailor, Angelo lived modestly. He built a brick split-level on Adams Street, and although it was far too Mediterranean-looking for the West End, it was far less obvious than it could have been.

At his wife’s insistence Angelo commissioned a replica of the Rizzoli Palace in Sorrento, but realized when he saw the architect’s rendering (below)  and realized that it would be too unlike the simple white frame colonial houses in the neighborhood, he demurred, offered his wife an even bigger winter residence in Bay Biscayne, and stuck with an American classic.

Everyone in Elliston knew Angelo’s real business, and that the gravel and cement companies were alleged fronts for extortion, money laundering, and wire fraud, but he was such a conscientious member of the community that they turned a blind eye.  He knew his place and never made a ruckus like other Italians and Jews who had been blackballed at the Green Acres Country Club.  He gave to the Annual Fund at St. Mary’s, supported the Boys and Girls Club, and contributed to the Democratic Party; but always kept his donations within the limits of social propriety.  The town’s old guard was as flinty as they come, and Angelo, while far more generous, kept his largesse within range.

He played golf with Father Mullins at the public course and although he knew the Archbishop, he kept the friendship quiet and low-key. He was careful to meet the city’s union bosses in New Bradford where in one of the largest Italian communities in the Northeast, they would barely be noticed.  He loved Jai Alai and the dog track, vacationed on the Jersey Shore in the summer, and sent his children to public school; but all in all he was a remarkably well-integrated first generation Italian.

He was serious when he told his wife that he would go legit before he was 70 and turn over the family business to others.  He spent as much time running his successful above-board enterprises as he did leaning on the unions, making backroom deals with the aldermen at city hall, and negotiating productive truces with his competitors in in Bridgeport and Providence.

Angelo kept his feet in both worlds but for him like every other immigrant before and after, he wanted acceptance, legitimacy, and a piece of the American pie.  He understood that when his father arrived from Sorrento in 1890, paths to traditional success were blocked.  Luigi  never looked down on his brothers who never managed more than menial factory jobs, but knew that he wanted more.  Not a barber, cook, or truck driver; but the owner of a chain of barber shops, restaurants, and trucking firms.  The way up for Italians was not paved with bank loans, advanced degrees, or family privilege but muscle, balls, and hustle.

Luigi knew about the Mafia in Sorrento.  Everyone did.  It was ubiquitous, powerful, and had been solidly entrenched in Southern Italy for decades if not centuries. The Mezzogiorno was always so poor and underdeveloped that La Cosa Nostra had an easy time acquiring and keeping power.  Stories of the internecine battles between branches of the Giotto, Mirabella, and Palumbo Families  were legion; but these were more the classic blood feuds of the South than any high-octane wars over wealth and profitability.  The Mafia was as traditional, old-fashioned, and backward as the region itself.

When he arrived in America and saw how the dons of Mulberry Street, Brooklyn, and Queens ran large, highly profitable businesses, controlled the operations of dockworkers, truckers, and police; and bought off judges, aldermen, and state representatives, Luigi was impressed. “America”, he told his young son. “Land of opportunity”.

Neither Luigi nor his son Angelo years later ever resented the prejudice and hostility of the majority community.  They knew that America was such a big country full of potential and possibility for all, that all one had to do was to figure out how take advantage of it. They believed that the ends justified the means, and that America would eventually be better off through their enterprise, however distasteful it might seem to others.  Their stay on the margins of society would only be temporary; and within a generation, their offspring would be golfing at Green Acres and summering on the Vineyard.

Luigi left New York for New Haven, thanks to a patron from his home town who said that the opportunities for a smart young man would be better there, and worked his way through the ranks of the G____Family. Like all ambitious young men at that time, he did his share of beatings and ‘disappearances’; and he had his own Family-sanctioned business on the side. 

A lot of Italian families in North Haven bought cars they couldn’t afford and contracted Angelo to dump them in New Haven Harbor so they could collect the insurance.  It was easy money for Angelo and his partners.  The gates to the harbor were rarely locked, a few bucks to the night watchman gained them access to deep water Pier 40, and when the barnacled bumpers of dumped Buicks on the top of the underwater pile started to show they moved to Pier 41.  No one cared.  The piers were abandoned and awaiting repairs which would never come; the insurance companies had made plenty in premiums so looked the other way; and the police had other fish to fry.

When Angelo was 31, the boss of the G____family asked him to take over operations in Elliston.  Over the years he acquired the gravel and cement mixer business, maintained a steady cash flow of protection money and government kickbacks, and thanks to a natural accounting ability, kept his expenses to a minimum.  What with his legitimated and family businesses, he became a wealthy man.

Angelo  was one of the most patriotic Americans in Elliston if not the state.  He voted faithfully in every local, state, and federal election.  He championed every principle the Founding Fathers had ever espoused; and was deeply committed to family and community values.  Whereas other first generation immigrants turned their backs on newcomers, he was never hostile to the many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who had come to Central Connecticut.  He was never hesitant to employ them as laborers, and offered opportunities to the most responsible.  By the 80s it was as likely to find a Jose behind the wheel of a cement mixer as a Guido.

“Let ‘em in”, he told his son who, as Angelo had predicted, had become an IT entrepreneur in Boston and indeed summered on Nantucket and played golf with investment bankers.  As a matter of fact Angelo saw no difference at all between their bare-knuckled tactics of intimidation, legal shenanigans, and muscle and his. His ambition, drive, determination, and willingness to do whatever was necessary was as American as apple pie. So what if a few bodies ended up in the East River?