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WHITE WHALE REVIEW
robert WEXELBLATT
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. His short story "Crazy About Her" appeared in Issue 1.3 of White Whale Review, while two other essays, "Fein on Irreverence" and "Fein on Contracts" were featured in Issue 2.1 and 2.3.

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Fein on Meaninglessness

Robert Wexelblatt

 

“You won’t forget to phone tonight, will you?” That was the last thing Jane said to me before I left. She stood bravely in the doorway, blocking and filling it, as pregnant as pregnant can be. I am ashamed to admit that all I could think was, “My God, what the hell happened to her ankles?”

My flight took off late and was stacked up for forty-five minutes at the other end so I landed just in time for rush hour and didn’t arrive at Fred and Sylvie’s until seven. Battered and ravenous, I badly needed alcohol and comfort food; I wanted to be petted, to be ministered to as though I had just turned the tide at Gettysburg.

Fred buzzed me through without even asking who it was. I could have been a burglar or a rapist, but I couldn’t really imagine myself being a rapist or a burglar. It was hard enough imagining myself an assistant professor and I’d been one of those for four years.

Fred opened the door. “Hi. Bring a suit?”

Not only was this not a welcome, it wasn’t a question. Fred himself was sporting quite a fancy suit, a double-breasted job that hung in an unmistakably not-off-the-rack fashion.

“A blue one,” I said.

He opened the door wide. “Blue’ll do.”

The Soffers’ apartment had been redecorated since my last visit two years earlier when Jane and I had come for a weekend. Dark maroon and whites, half a dozen good antiques, a new beige rug and camel-backed sofa. Fred was prospering.

Shapely, petite, energetic, Sylvie Soffer burst from the bedroom in a knockout of a cocktail dress and spike heels. “Hi there, sweetie. About time,” she said then turned her bare back on us. “One of you can hook me up.” Sylvie seemed to have lost some weight since I saw her last and her hair looked a shade lighter, but it may only have been the black dress. Hating myself, I looked hungrily at her ankles.

Fred took my bag into the spare room, which


featured a large computer with all the cybernetic trimmings, and tossed it on the sofa-bed that used to be in the living room. “Your bathroom’s in there. Remember? Okay. Chop-chop, bub. Into that blue suit. We’re running late. Don’t want to miss the hors d’oeuvres.”

 

On the way down in the elevator Sylvie asked how Jane was doing with only a month left to go. “No problems, I hope?”

“Baby kicks like a Rockette.”

“Never mind the baby,” said Fred with a smirk. “How about the book. Books are harder to make, Sylvie.”

“For men,” she said and whacked him playfully with her sequined handbag. “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.”

“Really, Jane’s just fine,” I said. “We got through the morning sickness okay. Her biggest worry’s striations above the bikini line. As to the book, I figure it’ll take me maybe two, at most three days here once I find what I hope to, then maybe a

month or so to finish up. Then I can await the verdict.”

Pater et auctor. Very nice. And then associate professor?”

“We’ll see,” I said superstitiously.

By now we were out of the elevator and into the lobby. While Fred went outside and waved expertly for a taxi Sylvie explained that we were off to the Harmons, one of whose trust funds Fred was managing. “Terrific couple, hugely philanthropic. And wait till you see the art! I mean the place is encrusted. You’ll love it.”

I wondered how Sylvie knew I’d love it.

Inside the cab Fred gave more details. “The Harmons, well, they’re more than just a meal ticket, though God knows they’re certainly that. Delia and Well know pretty much everybody.”

I was surprised to hear my old friend speak this way. When we were undergraduates together Fred and I had seen the world more or less in the same terms and were not reluctant to judge it harshly. Neither of us would have been capable of


pronouncing a sentence like “The Harmons know practically everybody” in an admiring tone. But Fred had done as his father ordered, picked up a quick MBA and jumped feet first into finance, while I went on to grad school. “Jesus, do I envy you,” he had said on graduation day. So Fred immersed himself in the real world, while I thought about reality. Maybe if you’re deep enough into reality, you never need to think about what’s real at all, but if you’re not, you can’t help doing so. Was the grass really greener over here? I began to consider my hosts in a new light, by the tastefully indirect illumination of their new recessed fixtures, so to speak. No doubt about it, Fred and Sylvie were climbing. I recalled the best couplet from the doggerel I had written for their wedding toast. It now seemed prescient.

They grow prudent, they grow prudent.

They shall dress less like some graduate            student.

“I think there’ll be a little surprise for you tonight,” said Fred putting his finger beside his nose in a way that made me feel about five years old.

Sylvie giggled.

 

The brownstone was lit from the outside as though for an old-fashioned Hollywood premiere. Grauman’s Chinese. As we drew within half a block of the place our cab joined a line. The line curved so I could see magnificently arrayed couples alighting from taxis and limousines. I thought guiltily of Jane in our low-ceilinged one-bedroom apartment, the bookcases made of boards and cinder blocks, the stained wall-to-wall. Had we grown prudent? Was it possible the baby would take after my mother-in-law? And what if I didn’t get tenure? Finish the Fein book, get tenure. Get tenure, buy a house. Buy a house, become a pillar of society.

Finish the Fein book, or else. I had worked hard for three summers revamping my doctoral dissertation, Things Said in Jest: The Phenomenology of Self in the Texts of Sidney Fein. I thought I had a deal with a good university press. In fact, I believed I was about finished when my editor suddenly insisted on more than the three hundred pages I had submitted. It wasn’t enough to


plumb both chasms of the Diptych on Terrestrial Representation, catalogue the intricacies and unexpectedly revolutionary implications of Feinian Classification, anatomize the frisky, yet penetrating psychological analyses of Want, Desire, and Need, trace the several excursions of Fein’s occasional essays, and wind up by marching boldly through the partisan minefield of Fein’s last book, Aristocratic Democracy. The Press was blunt about the shortcomings of my revision: Let’s try for something a little more than just dumping the excess documentary apparatus and gouging out the “review of the critical literature,” obligatory in a thesis but lethal in a real book. You’re a few bricks shy of a load. You’ve got to give us at least one long chapter on the unpublished work, or it’s no deal. You must have heard the rumors that Fein was working on some interesting stuff at the end. For Heaven’s sake give us at least one piece of the Feinian field that’s not already forever somebody else’s. Understand?

So I needed to get into Fein’s papers bad. As my editor was perfectly well aware, these papers had been deposited two months earlier in the library of Columbia University where Fein last held an

appointment. I got right on the phone to the library folks. Yes, they had the Fein papers. There was even a preliminary catalogue. I called Fred. Hotels cost, especially in New York. Sure, I could stay. Long as I needed. Only too glad to help. Would Jane be coming too?

 

“Fred here’s my favorite Fred since Fred Astaire,” said Delia Harmon, taking Fred by the arm.

“You mean since Flintstone,” quipped Wellington Harmon, slowly enfolding Sylvie in the crook of his left arm while putting out his right hand into which my own vanished. Wellington was a big man.

Fred had already done the introductions.

“I loved my Ancient Philosophy course at Bennington,” said Delia. “The professor was so, you know, brilliant.”

I didn’t know what to say to this. Fred saved me with a well-worn one-liner whose impertinence nobody noticed.


“Well, Delia, you know what they say. No idea so stupid that some Greek philosopher didn’t believe it.”

Then it was Sylvie’s turn to tease me. “You don’t believe stupid ideas, do you?”

I shrugged. “I’m not Greek.”

Everyone laughed and I began to feel a little better.

I felt better still when Fred took me over to the bar and I got a dram of Laphroaig in me. There was a short ton of shrimp just a hoe’s-length away.

“So what do you think of their collection?” asked Fred as if he owned it.

“Well, there’s certainly a lot of it.”

“Too much, you think? Too cluttered?”

“Not particularly. All they need is six or seven more walls.”

“Wouldn’t that cut down the size of the rooms?”

“Well then maybe a Quonset hut out back, or a domed stadium.”

Actually, it was hard to see the walls at all. Paintings and queer installations, fanciful mobiles and metallic statues leapt at you everywhere you looked. In between, beneath, around, in front of them the youthful rich wore their money as vaingloriously as Renaissance merchants, mingling, looking over each other’s shoulders. My blue suit made a poor showing.

“They’re all by living artists, you know. That’s a point of honor for Well and Delia, to collect only living artists. More of a gamble, investment-wise, you see. More of a challenge to one’s discernment.”

“What if one of them dies?”

“They sell. Nine times out of ten for a tidy profit. Mortality’s awfully good for prices, artwise.”

Fred asked so I told him more about the Fein book. Though I’d have preferred not to, one thing led to the other and I began to whine about tenure, the idée fixe of my kind, but he already knew all about that.

“Tell me about Jane.”

I was embarrassed that he had to ask. Fred had


dated Jane before I did and I suppose that might still be a sore point. Maybe that was why I felt relieved when Jane said she didn’t feel up to making the trip.

“She’s doing just fine. Doctor says everything’s ship-shape.”

“The amnio?”

“Clean as a whistle. No elephant man.”

“You weren’t worried about leaving her then, I mean in the last month?”

“Nope. Doctor said it’ll be a good three weeks yet.”

“Really? Pick a name for little schmitzik yet?”

I made a face. “Jane wants to call him Bernard after her grandfather but I keep imagining this little kid being called Bernie. I mean, Bernie? Bernie’s an old guy who smells like cigars.”

“So what’s your choice? Søren, Immanuel—Sidney?”

“I was always partial to Alexander, actually. Or maybe something Asian.”

“Asiatic? I like that. Mao. Sukarno. You know, if I could ever talk Sylvie into giving up her job and her figure I’d like to have about half-a-dozen ankle-biters.”

“You’d better get started then. Tick tock.”

“Not with a guest in the house, pal.”

“I’m a heavy sleeper.”

Fred chuckled then turned around and began ticking off celebrities for me. I’d only heard of about half of them.

“Now, you see that woman over there?”

“Which?”

“The long luscious one with the red hair and the incredible heinie, there on the left of the psychedelic garbage can.”

She was wearing an off-the-shoulder emerald green dress, a tight one.

“Yes?”

“Well, bud, that’s Maya Nunfi Fein.”

“Maya Fein? You mean the daughter?”


“Told you I had a surprise for you. Admit it. If I’d let you, you’d have wanted to stay home, right? Sylvie knows her from work. Want me to introduce you? Maybe you could get an interview on the spot.”

I felt panicky not only because this woman happened to be Sidney Fein’s only child but because she was so redheaded, so florid, so lovely. I felt the same catatonia I did back in dancing class when we were ordered to ask the girls to do a box step. I’d wanted to ask Marjorie Krasker—who didn’t?—but I couldn’t get my knees to bend. Beauty doesn’t always attract. Just as often it’s frightening and makes you feel small, ugly, inadequate, and like hiding. Maya’s was the sort of beauty that, curves notwithstanding, is not at all soft, the type that makes you look ruefully at your fingernails.

“Don’t really feel up to it,” I admitted.

Fred smiled indulgently. “Suit yourself. You know, if you’ll excuse my saying so—”

Cowardice made me irritable. “That’s one phrase I can’t stand. If you’ll excuse my saying so.”

“Really?”

“Like a pitcher winding up for a bean ball.”

Fred chuckled. “I was only going to remark on how married you are. I mean that as a compliment.”

We got back from the party after midnight, too late to call Jane.

 

First thing in the morning I took the subway uptown. I had phoned the library for an appointment even before I bought my plane ticket. They couldn’t have been sweeter. “The Fein papers? No problem, Professor. When can we look forward to seeing you?”

The man at the desk directed me to Ms. Gloor, a pleasant middle-aged woman with an indeterminate smile, impossible to tell what was prompting it. She rose from her desk even as I was knocking on the open door. I introduced myself. “Oh, yes,” she said, “we’re all ready for you.” She took me to a tiny windowless room with nothing in it but a wooden table and three plastic chairs. “You won’t be


disturbed here. Now just settle in and I’ll have one of the work-studies bring the papers in for you.” She paused by the door and ruefully added, “Only two boxes,” as though it were her fault there weren’t more.

“Oh, excuse me. I’m sorry but I’ll need a copy of the catalogue too.”

“Of course you will. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure it’s right on top.”

The catalogue was lightly annotated, only a single page divided into two columns headed Box One, Box Two. The first cardboard file contained thirty or forty pounds of correspondence and various rough drafts, interesting no doubt, but not suited to my purpose. The second file, by far the lighter of the two, was the one I was interested in because the catalogue claimed it held, along with dozens of false starts and fragments, the manuscript of an uncompleted book, most probably the one Fein was supposed to have been working on when he died. The title the catalogue assigned the manuscript was intriguing, like all of Fein’s titles. The Possibilities of Meaninglessness. Forty-two holograph pages.

Just the thing to make them break out the champagne at the Press. And it looked like I was going to get first crack at it. The only trouble was that the forty-two holograph pages weren’t in the box. I headed back to Ms. Gloor’s office.

“Oh, that’s right. I’m terribly sorry. I probably should have mentioned it,” she explained, looking more apologetic than ever. “You see, the catalogue’s complete but the collection isn’t. We prepared the list but the lawyer supplied the boxes. I’m not putting this well. What I want to say is that there are certain items the executrix chose not to hand over to the Library.”

“But what’s missing is the very thing I want,” I whined.

The good woman offered up her unfocused smile. “Oh dear.” I could see how she yearned to be helpful. Her voice rose at the end as if imploring me to succeed. “Perhaps you could contact the lawyer, or maybe go straight to the executrix?”

I knew, but I asked anyway. “And the executrix is—?”

“Professor Fein’s daughter.”


I found a pay phone outside the library and called Sylvie at the Symphony office, where she heads up the interns and volunteers. She gave me Maya Fein’s number and a warning.

“Look, Maya Fein’s a very unusual woman. Impulsive, probing, kind of unpredictable. If you want something from her I think you’d better be prepared for her to make it a personal matter.”

“A personal matter?”

“Maybe I’m wrong.”

“Sylvie, have you ever talked to her about her father?”

“No, I can’t remember his ever coming up. I mean the office sent a sympathy card, of course, but that’s about it. She’s a big donor.”

“And a redhead, huh?”

“Yep. A redhead.”

 

Maya Fein’s line was busy from noon to quarter past one. I dialed the operator. “The receiver is off

the hook, sir.” I kept at it. I phoned about a dozen times from a little student restaurant where I had the sort of lunch I’m used to. Then, at last, I got an answer.

“Yes?” The voice was rushed, prickly.

“Ms. Fein?”

“Who else?”

With over an hour to think about what I was going to say I ended up saying everything at once.

She sounded suspicious. “Hey, you’re not by any chance the jerk who wrote that article in San Jose Studies, are you? The one about whether my father was serious or not?”*

“No.” I knew the article and had actually thought it daring, perceptive, and highly sympathetic to Fein. I had cited it liberally in my book but this was clearly not the occasion to praise it.

There was some noise in the background. It sounded like banging and there was a muffled voice.

“Look,” she said, “come over here right away


and we’ll talk about it. Okay?”

“Fine,” I said.

“What?”

I laughed. “I said fine, Ms. Fein.”

The banging grew louder and her voice became more tense.

“Right away,” she insisted and gave me the address. “Get that? And take a cab.”

“Okay.”

 

Maya Nunfi Fein lived in a grand old building on the upper East Side. I thought I knew a lot about her father, but I had never asked myself whether he was rich or not. Philosophers and scholars require secure incomes, but affluence is rare. It was only later that I learned about the family trust generated by Fein’s father’s ladies’ undergarment business. Maya Fein was an heiress in every sense.

I nodded at the doorman and pushed the button under “1905, M. N. Fein.” The speaker crackled.

“Hurry!” I heard, then the buzzer went off. I took the elevator to the nineteenth floor, feeling a little jumpy and trying to concentrate on Jane and the baby and the book rather than why Maya Fein was in such a hurry to see me.

Even before the elevator door opened I could hear his baritone. “You fucking bitch I’ll . . .” He was battering at the door, using the flat of his hand to maximize volume.

I stuck one foot out of the elevator and stopped, perplexed. Maya Fein knew I was on the way up. She wanted me there; she had said to hurry. This was apparently a damsel-in-distress situation, and not just any damsel but the daughter of Sidney Fein. My duty, as both man and tenure candidate, was clear. On the other hand, why hadn’t she called the police by now? This fellow was clearly out of control, hopped up. He was even wearing a black leather jacket.

I’ve never been one of those “sticks and stones” types. Though I take a liberal view of speech-acts, to me violent language is every bit as shocking as violent action and I respond to both with a powerful urge to turn tail.


I hesitated but then matters were taken more or less out of my hands.

He spotted me spotting him.

“Hey, dickhead. What’re you looking at?”

I said something that still astonishes me. I don’t know whether it was inspiration or some childish idea that the elevator door could be safely shut in half a second. The thing I said was, “I’m looking at an asshole.”

He was down the hall in what seemed three great bounds.

I released the door and fell back into the elevator but I had forgotten the polite timing mechanism. The door stayed open. I looked around. A moment before he would have been on me I ripped the fire extinguisher out of its little glass case. My fingers found the release all by themselves, the little dears, and as his face came around the edge of the elevator the extinguisher blew some sort of foam into it with a noise like a protracted belch.

His swearing rose several decibels as he fell

sideways, knees up against his chest, hands fumbling at his face. He announced several plans for my future.

In the middle of all this Maya Fein appeared on the scene, red hair down and peignoir open over a nightgown the color of honey.

“Here,” she said to me. “Let’s throw the bastard in.”

She meant into the elevator.

Still clutching my weapon, I worked my way gingerly around the man, who was rolling this way and that rubbing his eyes, and Maya and I pushed him in. “There,” she said with a sigh, nonchalantly pushing the down button, dusting off her hands and looking at me the way Gretel must have regarded Hansel.

I stood there, astonished, heaving.

“You’re here about my father’s papers, right?”

I nodded, still trying to catch my breath. “Won’t he just come back?”

Maya smiled. “I certainly hope so. But never


mind about him. Come inside and we’ll talk. Cup of coffee? You’re not one of those decaf people, by any chance?”

I was, but I denied it.

 

The apartment was spacious and elegant, like the pictures in the brochures for five-star hotels.

As we walked through the door she said, “Absence lessens ordinary passions and augments great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle but makes a fire blaze.”

“Excuse me?”

“La Rochefoucauld. You married?”

Without stopping for an answer she headed straight into the kitchen so that I had to call after her. “Yes.”

“Well then, which is it with you—a candle or a blaze? With that guy it’s a goddamned conflagration.”

It occurred to me that Sylvie Soffer knew

whereof she spoke.

Maya came back with two mugs of fragrant coffee. “Excuse the way I look,” she said. “I was just getting out of bed when that lunatic turned up. A girl doesn’t feel comfortable getting dressed when somebody’s trying to bash in her door. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Mind?”

She pointed down her body all the way to her naked feet.

“No, not at all.”

And, to tell the truth, I didn’t.

“What’ll you do if he, you know, comes back?”

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

“Don’t you think it might be prudent to—”

“Prudence is what I pay lawyers to have for me,” she said in the charming way the rich refer to being rich. “So, tell me now, what do you want from me?”

“I’m a scholar, a student of your father’s work.”


“He’d have been delighted to meet you. You know, when I was little my father was all the time locking himself off in his study to write. I must have resented it because I once asked him who he was writing to and he said—” here she made her voice go low— “he said, ‘For the graduate students of the next century.’ No offense, but you look a little old for a graduate student and, unless I slept even later than usual, it’s still this century.”

“No, I’m a professor. But I did do my doctoral dissertation on your father.”

“Ah.”

“And now I’m turning it into a book, a full-scale study of his work.”

She grinned condescendingly. “You like the idea of writing a book about someone else’s books?”

I shrugged.

Now Maya Fein stalked across the thick oriental carpet and plumped down in a velvet armchair. “Tell me. What’s your wife like?”

I might have said many things about Jane but all

that came out was, “She’s pregnant.”

“Pregnant, eh?” Her eyes grew wide with interest. “Was it planned?”

“Yes. We thought—”

“Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed there’s something a little cold-blooded about planned parenthood. I mean the phrase is decidedly clinical. It sounds like an antiseptic oxymoron. Personally, I’ve always felt utterly accidental.”

She did look a bit like an accident waiting to happen. But I felt it would be a grand smash-up and, besides, the coffee tasted wonderful. It had been two years since I had drunk real coffee. I knew I’d pay for it later.

“Do you really think life ought to be planned out, that it can be? Or was that your wife’s idea?”

“Well,” I said, “of course people make plans.”

She shook her head. “Not people. You. Has your life been planned out? Did you plan to marry your wife or to write about my father or to throw Brian


into an elevator this afternoon?”

“Well, naturally life’s full of chance events. I mean the margin of choice is limited by a number of factors, but within those parameters—”

She smirked. “Pardon me, but do you always talk like that?”

What could I say?

Suddenly she put down her mug and got to her feet. “Look, pardon me for a couple of minutes. What with Brian showing up at the crack of noon I haven’t even been to the bathroom yet.”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually blush.

“My father—that’s Sidney Fein to you—used to call it the only reliably contemplative part of a person’s day.”

“And what are you going to contemplate?” I asked daringly.

You, of course,” she snickered pertly and looked pleased. “The planned parent within prescribed parameters.”

 

I glanced around the room which, now that I really looked at it, did not strike me as the room of a young single woman. Antique oriental carpet. Heavy, mahogany furniture. A wall of old books, probably her father’s. I pulled out a copy of The Magic Mountain and checked the flyleaf. “To My Daughter on Her 16th Birthday. May you learn at least as much as Hans and make better use of it. Facilis descensus Averni. Your Father.” More portentous than warm-hearted. The descent of Avernus is easy. It made me wonder what it might have been like to have Sidney Fein for a father—or, for that matter, Maya Fein for a daughter.

I heard the flush and quickly resumed my perch on the sofa.

She came back in brushing her hair but still barefoot, still showing off her ankles. “There,” she said, “that’s much better. Now, tell me what you intend to say about my father.”

I laughed. “Well, that’s rather a big question. Naturally, I’m profoundly interested in his work, the variety of forms in which he wrote, his insights into so many areas of life and thought. I want my


book to be a comprehensive study, I suppose. A full-scale appreciation.”

“A twenty-one gun salute, eh? Then you think it makes sense, my father’s work?”

“It does to a lot of people; it certainly does to me.”

She laughed the way grownups laugh when a child lisps out something particularly foolish.

“You’d have to say that, wouldn’t you? I mean, if I’ve got it right, my father’s work is your meal-ticket. You’re what they call a Feinian, aren’t you?”

I drew myself up. “Maybe we could talk about some of the papers you kept back from the library.”

“You want to know why I kept them back?”

“Sentimental attachment?”

“That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Tell me, does your wife read my father’s books too?”

“No, Jane isn’t interested in philosophy.”

“Good for her. My father always said it wasn’t a fit subject for women.”

“Really? Why?”

“He said women embody whatever meaning life has so they don’t need to think about it.”

Then why did he want you to learn as much as Hans Castorp I would have liked to ask, but I suspected she was just kidding me. I had never come across this restrictive view of women in Fein’s work.

Then came three heavy but not necessarily homicidal knocks at the door.

Maya fetched a sigh. “That’ll be Brian again. Excuse me.” She got up, then stopped. “It might be a good idea for you to go into the bedroom. Just in case.”

“You’re going to let him in?”

She flashed a wicked smile. “Maybe.”

I did go into the bedroom. It was heavily draped and the drapes were dark red so that the room seemed sunk into a maroon, placental sea. The bed was disheveled and big. The sheets were pale pink. I could hear only their voices, not their words. No shouting now. A few minutes later Maya came into


the bedroom.

“I decided to send him away,” she said and sat down on the bed. “Come here.” Maya patted the pink sheets, whose color set off her red hair.

“I don’t think—”

“You know I saw you at the party last night. The Harmons’. You were checking me out, weren’t you? Why? Because I’m Fein’s daughter or for some other reason?”

“Maybe we could get back to—”

“Imagine what it would be like. All of a sudden like this. After all, I am Fein’s daughter. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance event, totally unplanned. It would be like merging with your subject, in a sense, wouldn’t it?”

“What—”

She reached out and took my hand. “Anyway, it’s the best way to get what you want. And you did save me from an abusive boyfriend, didn’t you? So you’re my St. George, my very own Perseus. I mean it’s the least I can do.”

“I don’t—”

“Oh, such qualms!” She took off the peignoir. It fell behind her onto the bed. Then, in an unforgettable, ineffable motion, she slipped the honey-colored nightgown over her head. All that red hair fell over her face.

I allowed myself to be gently pulled down on the bed beside her.

She put her lips up to my ear, kissed it, whispered, “You want that last book, don’t you?”

“That’s the one,” I dutifully confessed.

“It’s necessary to choose between loving women and understanding them. Chamfort. So which is it going to be, Professor?”

With the last of my resistance melting I objected, “Without any understanding love’s just meaningless.”

“Bingo,” she said, throwing her lovely arms around my neck. “Now, let’s see how many unplanned orgasms you can manage.”

 


When I woke up Maya was standing by the bed fully dressed and holding an envelope.

“Hi there, Professor.”

“Umm?”

“I’ve been out, sleepyhead.”

I yawned. “Out?”

“Just to the corner copy shop.”

“Copy shop?”

She waved a manila folder in front of me. “Forty-two pages of precious holograph. The master’s very own handwriting. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? All right, then. Time to get up and go. Time to fulfill that plan of yours.”

And, bewildered as I was, Maya Fein more or less threw me out.

 

Dinner was a trial but I evaded Sylvie’s questions and went to bed early. I was too upset even to look at Fein’s manuscript that night, though, between his daughter, the caffeine, and my

troubled mind, it was a sleepless one.

I flew home the following morning. I read the manuscript on the plane, which was fitting because in a plane you really aren’t anywhere at all. The sensation of being placeless and outside time didn’t vanish when I landed. I was exhausted and disoriented when I slouched back to my low ceilings and ankleless wife.

I’m still deciding what I’m going to do with the manuscript, whether or not to include an account of it in my book, what to say of it if I do.

How serious was Sidney Fein? “Well,” concludes the author of the article of that title, the one that may or may not have affronted his daughter, “serious enough.”

Here, then, is a sampling of Fein’s final ruminations that concern the meaning of meaning, the meaning of no-meaning, to secure which may have cost me my own confidence in the meaning of my life.

from THE POSSIBILITIES OF MEANINGLESSNESS

unfinished manuscript by Sidney Fein


How does the artist bear himself with relation to the meaning of his material? Or, to put it a little differently, how does an artist choose a subject? I would propose that the successful artist can only adopt material that is already his or hers in the sense of being conformable with that particular artist’s characteristic vision, form, and style. Thus the subject of War and Peace is precisely Tolstoyan, as that of Pride and Prejudice is Austenian and The Trial notoriously Kafkaesque. Moreover, the greater the artist, the more apt this principle will be. Indeed, the inchoate, the messy, the botched in art can be traced to some incommensurability between artistic ability and subject. Even a gifted artist will appear bathetic if he is working on the wrong subject. After The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald tried to write a medieval romance with a hero modeled on Hemingway. Nathanael West’s crypto-Joycean The Dream Life of Balso Snell is a failure, but two years later he discovered the Susan Chester letters that led him to write the distinctively Westian Miss Lonelyhearts. In art, the eponymous adjective defines the work even as the work does the adjective. When Thomas Mann gets his hands around the neck of a proper

subject—a child prodigy, for example, or a self-divided artist—he wrings it until it is unmistakably Mann-like. So too Chekhov with his world-weary doctors, and Salinger his spiritually precocious toddlers.

There is no dearth of subjects in this world. All the same, virtually all artists experience terrible periods when they feel there is no vein for them to mine, when the blank white canvas or sheet of paper swells up like Moby Dick before an un-harpooned Ahab. Out of concern their friends may offer subject after subject, hand them the plots of whole novels, drive them to picturesque prospects. This is useless since the true artist works from the inside out. Anything that is not his own is meaningless to him. She must find her proper food and, if she does not, then digestion will be at best incomplete. Given all this, we may suppose that it is only partially the case that artists select their subjects; it is no less true that their subjects choose them.

The choice of the artist by a subject has been very little analyzed because people suppose there is nothing analyzable about it. Surely, they say,


inspiration is indefinable. We should be content to say that Picasso was “inspired” by the bombing of Guernica or that the death of Manon Gropius compelled Berg to write a violin concerto. But I suppose there must be a movement anterior even to such inspiration: first a Picasso must want to paint, a Berg must need to compose.

It seems troubling that art’s first principle should be the desire of the artist to be an artist. This statement threatens to involve us in an infinite regression. Nevertheless, if we insist on looking for the irreducible meaning of a work of art, I think we will find it in the inner compulsion of the artist to make, all other motives being accidental, ancillary to a desire that may be anything from devoutly spiritual to childishly vain to crudely careerist.

Art, then, is what the artist produces when he or she finds the right material from which to fashion meaning. Without that material, with nothing but the urge to make, the artist is in despair, lost on a featureless plain, clogged with coagulated yearning. Without his or her subject the world, so full of subjects, is utterly meaningless.

• • •

After a couple world wars, meaning can no longer be convincingly grounded as either transcendental or eternal. Radical skepticism and solipsism are two responses to conditions in the second half of the twentieth century. The radical skeptic suspends judgment indefinitely and thus his condition turns Eleatic. The skeptic is a sort of fetishist who rejects all fetishes. The solipsist accords exclusive deference to the self and its impressions and so becomes terminally hermetic. Nevertheless, this exaggerated respect for the self cannot be justified, even in the eyes of the solipsist. It is no better than a circular argument. Both types look at “meaning” from the outside, so to speak, and find it a mirage. I would prefer to submit the concept of meaning to an analysis from within. I do so on the hypothesis that there simply is not so much as a yard of soil outside on which to stand. If there were such an “outside” Archimedes could have moved the earth. But even then, where would he have moved it to?

• • •

Let me be frank. Nobody can do without


meaning, not even those ferocious philosophers who undertake the most corrosive deconstructions. Even they understand the meaning of a red light, a handshake, the offer in a woman’s eyes, the blue jeans on their students, the words of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, the significance of a bad review. This means that, they will have to admit. But in stating that A means B they merely define A in terms of B. A and B are clear, while to mean, the essential relation, escapes them and so they are reduced to claiming that the relation is simply one of equivalence. But our sense of what it means to mean is precisely that the relation should not be one of equivalence. One dime is equivalent to another dime, but it does not mean that dime. No system is airtight. Some gas always escapes.

• • •

Take the case of a man hiking through the woods. He comes on a stream and in this stream he finds a stone shaped precisely like the Venus de Milo. Will he say that his find is meaningless? Form suggests significance, or at least the perception of form demands that we find a meaning. Formlessness is just what we dismiss. Noise is

formless, music formed. So we say we hear noise while to music we listen. Form makes us attentive. But is it not fair to say that it is the quality of our attention that makes all the difference? For example, I can imagine an acousticist for whom noise is music because he understands its form, out of what elements it is constructed. He does not merely hear; rather, he listens and so to him the noise has meaning, and, in effect, the noise is music in so far as music is meaningful noise, as in the Biblical phrase “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Geologists see the form in rocks, meteorologists in clouds. Meaning is the consequence of expertise, the highest type of attentiveness. That expertise which is generally shared constitutes a common culture—in language, literary references, street signs, in-jokes, table manners, etc. But we all also possess individual expertises, thus the existence of private meanings, images and dreams we personally find meaningful but whose meaning we are unable to convey to others. By definition what is privately meaningful must be generally meaningless. Private meaning accomplishes nothing for the group, which can only resent or reject it. However, if somebody’s private meaning


promises to make life easier or longer the group bows before it. Why else would the ignorant respect scientists, scorn artists, and sleep late on the Sabbath?

• • •

A critic remarks in praise of a certain poet that “he finds meaning in everything.” This is deemed a special virtue, but the verb is telling. Common parlance has it that one discovers meaning more or less as Columbus did the New World, by chance. And this may be true, so far as it goes. Only one change is needed, that the New World should exist because Columbus found it, and found it only by dint of sailing into the Western sea, into the “limitless inane.” For centuries we have been beguiled by the Platonic paradigms, those invisible perfections, and by the Platonic opinion that all knowledge is recollection. But now the pendulum swings. The solidity of reality evaporates under our microscopes, dissolves in our cloud chambers, melts under the sheer totality of our critique. Plato still triumphs, of course, but in how different a way! Modern physics is a thin tissue of pure ideas.

• • •

Like a man who observes a woman at a party, like a woman who knows she is being observed, the observer and the observed cannot escape their effects on one another. Therefore meaning is like breathing—two things, not one.

• • •

Meaning is inseparable from context. If a man should say to me, “I went outside and turned the corner around,” I would have a hard time making out his meaning. However, if I were aware that the gentleman happened to be German I might grasp his point quite easily. A grander example. The Gospels go to Greece and Jesus becomes the Logos, to Denmark and he becomes the chief of a warrior band, to the Ivory Coast and he becomes a shaman. Is it only the flexible genius of Christianity that is at work in these transformations? No, I reckon there is more. The context must already be there to allow such meanings, for example the universal questions to which Christianity offers itself as an answer.

Most spiritual questions are primitive and ineluctable and often enough so are the answers. Orthodoxy is constructed of old answers to old questions. An entirely new question, on the other


hand, and an utterly unprecedented answer will necessarily appear meaningless. Credo quia absurdum said the pre-orthodox Tertullian to his rational, pagan friends. Even today, nearly a century since the early works of Stravinsky and Picasso came into the world, much of the general population regards the one as incomprehensible cacophony and the other as childish daubing. All that is lacking is familiarity. Perhaps meaning is domesticated meaninglessness.

• • •

Objective meaning is certainly an illusion, though, as a quality, objectivity is routinely ascribed to facts. Nevertheless, let us agree for the sake of argument that facts are indeed objectively true—that is, not subject to disagreement, provable. However, while facts may be objective, no fact is meaningful. A bunch of fellows got together in a building in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776. A fact perhaps, but the meaning of that fact is not a fact in the sense that it too is objective; that is, not subject to disagreement, or provable. Kierkegaard was right to say that truth is subjective. We may put the matter this way: what is

objective is not meaningful and what is meaningful is not objective. Meaning emerges against a background of meaninglessness as a crow does against the sky.

What then is meaninglessness? Meaninglessness is the blank paper on which I am writing these ruminations—my last, if my frail heart is at all prophetic.

• • •

Meaning comes into the world with consciousness, just as silt comes into the sea through rivers; indeed, the role and consequence of consciousness is precisely the muddying of waters through the construction of meanings. Consciousness is unclean and, according to Genesis, came into the world with two siblings, sin and death.

For consciousness to believe the proposition “Everything is meaningless” is no more possible than for a locomotive to renounce its tracks. Nevertheless, we do have an idea of meaninglessness, as we do of train wrecks. Whenever I have this idea it is ipso facto a bad day.


But where could the conception of meaninglessness come from except the desire of my consciousness that it not be so? Meaninglessness is like an empty pitcher we hasten to fill, if only with our deep anxiety to fill up vacancy, to annihilate annihilation. It is against this conception of meaninglessness that we butt our busy heads. You might even say that, in this sense, our heads were made for butting.

In other words, meaninglessness becomes a profoundly meaningful idea as soon as we ask whether it has a significance. No one is exempt from anguish, certainly not the faithful. In fact, nobody can be completely human without at least the threat of experiencing this sensation of meaninglessness, however it may be beyond one’s power to bear.

• • •

I say, then, that meaninglessness is itself no threat to our humanity but rather its guarantor; it may be as much of the ground of being as we shall ever discover. What really threatens our humanity is not the apprehension of meaninglessness but

indifference toward it. This is a religious idea. To conclude, then, consider the following tale which is told of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk:

A Hasid came to the rabbi. “Rabbi,” he complained, “I keep brooding and brooding and don’t seem to be able to stop.”

“What do you brood about?” asked the rabbi.

“I keep brooding about whether there really is a judgment and a judge.”

“What does it matter to you!”

“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what does all creation mean?”

“What does that matter to you!”

“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean!”

“What does that matter to you?”

“Rabbi! ‘What does it matter to me?’ What does the rabbi think? What else could


matter to me!”

“Well, if it matters to you as much as all that,” said the rabbi of Kotzk, “then you are a good Jew after all.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 3.1


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