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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Is A Person? Bits, Pieces, And Accumulated Shards Of The Past

“You don’t know shit from Shinola about girls”, Franklin Piggott said to his son, Dilford. “And you had better start learning.”

Dilford Piggott was smart but clueless.  His math teacher in 7th Grade told him he was quick but not fast, referring both to his ability in advanced calculus and his ignorance about girls. Dilford didn’t get the remark until he asked his father, who was already embarrassed by his son’s delayed puberty and dumb innocence.  The elder Piggott was incensed that the math teacher, who should have had his hands full with his son’s precocious ability, felt it was his place to remark about Dilford’s sexual development.

In fact Dilford had already piqued the interest of NASA who were tracking the boy because of his ability to calculate complicated trajectories and orbits.  At least the math teacher had the good sense to alert the authorities about Dilford’s genius, but still couldn’t help getting in a dig about his high soprano voice and undescended balls.

Dilford was as much interested in girls as his mother’s colorful houseplants; but to his credit he wasn’t concerned about it either.  This….

…was far more interesting than this…

Sex had always been more important to Franklin Piggott than brains, perhaps because he had relatively few of the latter.  Dilford’s smart genes had jumped two generations, and his mother said that he got his intelligence from her grandfather who had made his way from the Lower East Side where he peddled used furs to becoming the owner of Kaplan Furs, the biggest and most important furrier in the New York area and purveyor to both the carriage trade and the minks-in-winter Miami Beach crowd.  Isaac Kaplan – a Jewish immigrant with little education except for the Torah – made his way in the competitive world of New York by dint of his brains and chutzpah alone.

Dilford had old man Kaplan’s brains, but none of his chutzpah.  He was content to work out problems of trajectory and had no interest either in material success or girls.  His father, therefore, was in a double-bind.  He had no idea whatsoever what his son was doing when he drew parabolas annotated with equations; and he was obsessed with the notion that Dilford would never mature and would forever be a eunuch.  Franklin was proud of his own virility, and his dalliances had been the cause of endless grief for Dilford’s mother who was willing to put up with one or two indiscretions, but not a whole slew of them, especially with the salesgirls and hospital candy-stripers that her husband favored.

Dilford’s balls did descend, or course, and although his interest in girls was desultory to say the least, he now at least picked his head up out of his equations when he got a whiff of shampoo or body lotion.  The real problem was the math – not that he was having any difficulty, but that the school didn’t know what to do with him.   Yale was too far for him to attend classes, and the most the local community college could offer were courses which involved wrenches and drills, not higher mathematics.

His mother arranged for a graduate student to tutor him, and thanks to his help and Dilford’s remarkable ability, he entered Harvard at 14.  Ironically, the rather insensitive remarks of his 7th grade math teacher, prepared him for the catcalls and jibes from his classmates.  Even big-brained Harvard students put sex above intelligence and never let up on poor Dilford who, in his manner, simply squirreled himself away in a carrel in the stacks of Widener Library, graduated at summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at 17, but still had no girlfriend to speak of.

There was Rachel Birnbaum, a precocious teenager from the Bronx on a full scholarship to Radcliffe thanks to her high school work on theoretical physics.  Unlike Dilford she was as precocious sexually as she was academically.  She very well knew the difference between shit and Shinola, and as her reputation as a sexual libertine continued to grow, her parents became more and more concerned.  They looked at her admission to Radcliffe as a godsend since they wouldn’t have to deal anymore with what her mother called ‘my smart-aleck harlot’.

“Let’s do it”, she said to Dilford on their way back from math class.

“Do what?”, asked Dilford, still as clueless as a meadowlark even after a year at Harvard.

“Feel each other’s parts”, Rachel said with a wink.  It should be remembered that she and Dilford by this time were only 15 years old, and Rachel was not that far removed from ‘playing doctor’ with her classmates in fourth grade, so ‘feeling each other’s parts’ had become her playful ironic invitation for sex; and with that she took Dilford by the hand and led him down to the Harvard boathouse on the Charles.

“Cunt”, she howled when finally she pulled Dilford’s pants down. “Cunt, prick, come”, she yelled; but when she saw that his dick was as limp as an asymptotic curve, she kindly said, “OK, how about some ice cream?”  That was the good part about being in the interregnum between childhood and adulthood – easy and uncomplicated elisions were possible.

Again, full marks to Dilford for realizing that being shanghaied by a rapacious Jewish Princess from the Bronx was not the norm.  His mathematics kicked in, and he knew that he would eventually find sexual satisfaction well under the bell curve.

I am telling this story because it illustrates Tolstoy’s theory of history which debunked the Great Man hypothesis and suggested that Napoleon’s decisions at the Battle of Borodino in 1812 had nothing to do with his unique genius or insight into the parameters of the moment; but the result of an accumulation of past events which ineluctably led him to give orders to charge, to retreat, to move the cannons forward, and to redeploy the Third French Hussars to the left flank and take the enemy by surprise. 

Whether Napoleon liked to think so or not, his decisions had already been made decades if not centuries before.  The untold thousands of interacting purposeful and random events that occurred throughout French history or in the life of the Emperor (such as the frequent lashings on the buttocks given to him by his father with a special switch cut from a birch tree in the copse behind their country house; or sweet memories of being suckled by his mother). Life, said Tolstoy, was a nihilistic exercise without meaning only understood with a good degree of circumspection and critical remove.

A good nihilist, however, lives life on two levels; the one defined by reason and intellect – the meaningless one – and the one defined by subjective emotion, animal desires, and idealism.  In other words, life may be meaningless, but there is no denying the allure of a double scoop of Haagen-Dazs dark chocolate ice cream with toasted almonds.

Dilford Piggott knew that he was a nobody – or rather a genetic grab bag with bits and pieces of Great Grandfather Isaac and Isaac’s his mule-skinning father who made a fortune in the shtetl.

Or perhaps his mother’s great aunt who sang at the Manaus jungle opera house with Caruso, and of course the dullards and reprobates on his father’s side who scammed their way into debtors prison in Wales and made it to America under false pretenses.

He also knew that his gift for mathematics and his Jewish heritage drove him to insane and obsessive pursuits of prime numbers derived from the Torah; and so desperately did he read Biblical texts and Bertrand Russell that he had no time for sex and knew that he never would.

He knew, therefore that Rachel Birnbaum meant nothing because she was just a random billiard ball banged by others in his direction; but she was a tempting and tantalizing as an ice cream cone, and her casual invitation to eat Haagen-Dazs after the limp penis episode linked sex – or the lack thereof – and hedonistic pleasure ever after.  He knew that given Freud, Jung, and Adler, he would feel obliged to at least probe his psyche for uncommon answers to his sexual frustration; but he refused to because he was also under the spell of Nietzsche who, through the voice of Ivan Karamazov said, “Everything is permitted”.

Dilford reveled in this double life, and once he got over the shock of being de-frocked by Rachel Birnbaum, he regained his senses and grappled with her down at the boathouse in an ungainly sexual position which involved the tethers used to hold the racing sculls in place and two of the oars.  That sexual escapade was an epiphany for Dilford, for as he gripped the gunwales of the Harvard boat, looked at the 19th century oak-ribbed ceiling of the boathouse, and convulsed in a bolting orgasm, he knew that no matter how cobbled together and clay-molded he was, no matter how many historical billiard balls banged together and ricocheted through a thousand years, he was Superman.

Rachel and he never made it past Sophomore Year.  His epiphany opened the floodgates of sexual passion and deviancy far more than the temptress Rachel could have ever imagined; and her pluralistic libido sent her scurrying to every pickup bar in Cambridge.

In his newfound philosophical skin, Dilford didn’t lose one night’s sleep over their split, nor was he distracted when considering the particularly thorny problems of imaginary numbers and Boolean probability.

One can know only those few people and events which contribute to one’s nature; and so Dilford thought of his father and his eunuch anxiety, Isaac the Furrier, who sent off the most elegant Park Avenue women to soirees at the Fontainebleau, but who lived sparingly and studied the Talmud.  Or his math teacher Mr. Connors who would be proud of how little clueless Dilbert turned into such a cock-hound; or the CIA analysts who had promised him the wealth of Croesus if he would work for them.  Or Johnny Migliaccio who ate with his mouth open and gave Dilford his first lesson in manners and civility.  Or the warm day in Spring when he….Well, you get the picture. A million fragments of the past made up the pastiche that was Dilford; and a million million bits of DNA and remote events in Kazakhstan helped complete the picture.

I always admired Dilford Piggott; and in fact he was my hero.  He was an unapologetic hedonist.  He was indifferent to human plight; and he was intent only on exercising the only ‘God-given’ right there was – the unfettered expression of will.  Nothing mattered to him and everything mattered.

Poor Franklin Piggott. If he felt he could never understand his son at age 10, he was totally flummoxed and befuddled now that he was a young adult.  His mother knew he would turn out this way all along – a good boy, a little weird and anti-social, but with a good brain and, from the number of women who were after him, a lot to offer on the sexual score as well.

He kept up with Rachel.  They were two peas in a pod, after all; or perhaps protons and electrons would be a better metaphor – particles that cannot resist each other – but in any case they knew that the attraction was deadly and would end up badly for both of them, no matter how many nihilistic resources in reserve.  No, they were better off separately as Superman and Superwoman, riding above the herd, enjoying life to the fullest, unconcerned about anybody but themselves, staying out of trouble, and using brain and body equally.

He finally wore out, and although he said that he wanted to end it all like Hedda Gabler, his willful, Nietzschean hero, have a clean death and commit harakiri on a bamboo mat in a Japanese ryokan, but not before he was attended to by three lovely geishas; he stayed at home and finally died in his split-level in Rockville. 

He went ‘up in smoke’ as he stipulated in his will, and left nothing behind of any monetary value; but he knew that just by being he influenced thousands and tens of thousands, even millions to follow.  Not that it mattered, really.  Just that it felt good.

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