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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 three other Fein essays have appeared in issues 2.1, 2.3, and 3.1

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FEIN ON FERNLICHT ON FERNLICHT

Robert Wexelblatt

I met Alexander Fernlicht at a Grand Central Terminal ticket window in the late winter of 1971. It was rush hour and all six-foot-three of him exuded desperation; even in his crisp blue IBM suit he looked frantic. I was third in line when he broke in and began to plead with the clerk. He knew this was useless, but there are times when one can’t help oneself from trying even the futile and humiliating, just so nothing will be left out. Fernlicht was as willing to abase himself before that indifferent clerk as a Dostoyevsky character before his worst enemy.

“Look,” he implored, “I’ve lost my wallet. Or it was stolen. My ticket was in it, my money, credit card, everything. I’ve got to get the train to Norwalk. You understand? My little girl’s waiting for me.”

The two people in front of me, also anxious to get tickets, suggested he get lost and worse.

So I bought Fernlicht a ticket.

It’s normal to feel affection for those to whom

we’ve done a good turn; it’s usually the recipient who resents the obligation. But Fernlicht’s relief and gratitude were whole-hearted. We sat together on the train and got on very well very quickly. The swiftness had to do with his daughter, Hannah. Hannah was the one thing, apart from his gratitude to me, about which Fernlicht was never half-hearted. He explained that he was a single father.

“Me, too,” I said. Both our wives had gone out with the tide of feminism, terrified by the prospect of be coming their mothers by remaining wives and parents. We were in the same situation and of an age.

“Hannah went to a friend’s house after school and she’s expecting me to pick her up. I can’t be late. You know?”

I nodded. I knew the way blood pressure rises at rush hour when there’s a little girl waiting. In those days Maya and I were living just outside New Haven and I had to go into New York fairly often. Alexander and I would meet for lunch now and then in midtown. I invited him and Hannah up to our place for a Columbus Day weekend, but the visit was not a success. Maya, two years younger than


Hannah, had behaved badly, which I ought to have anticipated. Maya was provoked by Hannah’s ladylike, precocious perfection, and exasperated by my appreciation of it.

“Of course Hannah’s good. She really can’t afford to alienate me,” I remember Alexander joking.

“Oh? Well, Maya seems to get a kick out of provoking me.”

He smiled sagely, both superior and sympathetic. “It happens.”

“What?”

“Oh, blaming the parent who isn’t gone for driving away the one that is.”

Fernlicht majored in English literature at Penn. But he had a knack for computers. He understood them, grasped their potential, took some courses at the Moore School, was unexpectedly recruited, and accepted—all in a half-hearted way. Fernlicht was often less than dedicated perhaps because had so many interests; he was an accomplished hobbyist.

A near-scratch golfer and a bicyclist, he had earned some color belt in martial arts, did a little wood-turning. Once in a while, he’d write a poem. The poetry he divulged reluctantly after he’d read one of my books. He didn’t bring it up to be competitive; in fact, he seemed more embarrassed than proud, as if writing a poem were some sort of solecism. He would never accept that he was a poet, a title I think he conceived of existentially rather than practically. To him, that is, a poet was more than somebody who composed verses; a poet had to be some kind of permanently exalted creature. “Jesus, I’m not Wallace Stevens,” he said over corned beef, fingering his blue lapel.

Like most people who make you feel they are truly worthy of happiness, Fernlicht was not happy and he grew less so as Hannah edged toward college age. It was as if he were slipping his anchor and had lost his rudder. Our affinity was a circumstantial one: coincidences of age, family background, education, a fondness for words, and, above all, our bachelorhoods and daughters. According to Fernlicht his marriage began to end the moment his wife discovered she was pregnant. Apparently, she


didn’t want a child; perhaps a sister, but certainly not a daughter. My case was different.

What to me was solitude was loneliness to him. I don’t think Fernlicht missed his wife any more than I regretted mine; however, the man badly needed a woman in his life. The trouble was he only managed . . . women. I met a couple of them. His romances were akin to his hobbies, a sort of rambling from country to country in the hope of finding oneself at home in one of them, a real citizen. His activities—so various, always well done but never fulfilling—were efforts at gap-filling. He confessed as much to me when he asked if I got satisfaction from my work. When I said I did, he replied that he wished he could. “I don’t get any from work—and hardly any from play either.”

Fernlicht loved literature but couldn’t live for it. Like me, he had a special affection for Franz Kafka. “You know,” he said to me at one of our lunches, “Kafka said anything that wasn’t literature bored him. Shocking candor, don’t you think?”

“Bored him?” I said. Then a regrettable association of ideas grabbed me. “That reminds me

of something. You remember the old actor George Sanders? Expert at supercilious languor? Well, Sanders took sleeping pills in his mid-sixties and left a note that read something like “Dear World, I’m leaving because I’m bored.”

“Kafka didn’t kill himself.” It was half a question.

“No. On the contrary, he tried his very best to stay alive. By the way, he also said that it’s possible to extract a lot of books from life, but hardly any life from books.”

“Then maybe he valued life so much only because he wanted to extract books from it. Imagine living with a mind like that,” said my friend with glum wonder.

I examined his long face, saw ciphers in it I imagined I could decrypt. “You too have weapons,” I quoted.

“What?”

“The last words Kafka wrote in his diary. More than consolation is: You too have weapons.”


Why I said this I’m not sure. I suppose I was endeavoring to give Fernlicht advice, to buck him up, keep him safe in harbor.

Fernlicht was good at his job, at most things. I picture him as exceedingly patient with people afraid of computers, but short with those who pretended to know what they didn’t. He was a melancholic man who yearned to make a meaning for his life, one of those who need something to die for—or someone for whom to live. He needed love, intimacy, companionship—that singular woman. He was too wise, decent, and humane to place much-loved Hannah in the impossible position of being responsible for him. Just the opposite. Fernlicht would get down on his knees before a ticket seller not to keep her waiting or—worse yet—worrying about him. While Hannah was still in his charge, so long as he still felt himself Hannah’s father, he was all right. He once called being Hannah’s father “my best gig ever.” Fernlicht went through parenthood with a clenched fist, a straight back, anchor and tiller precariously in place. But that was just it: to be Hannah’s father was to him not being but doing; it was bathing, carrying, playing, feeding,

instructing, comforting, entertaining, dressing. When he had inevitably to give up that “gig” fissures broke out all over the retaining wall.

Like the majority of poets—that is, minor ones—Fernlicht had more sensitivity than talent. However, it was a distinction that he never confused the one with the other. Perhaps that is the deeper reason why he refused to think of himself as a poet; I mean because his verses were the residue of inundations of feeling. It was Hannah, engaged now, who, with surpassing kindness, sent me the following document. The two parts, a poem sandwiched between its exegesis, were both written by her father. She found them on his desk, Hannah said in her note, neatly typed, and addressed to no one.

 

FERNLICHT ON FERNLICHT

 

“Nada” is a less than satisfactory poem that appears to be both the record of a black mood and of a struggle—hard to say how vain—against it. A black mood? Moods are passing events, at least once they have passed. It is clear that the author of


“Nada” would like what he is describing to be a mood; he tries to shake himself out of it. This measure of resistance may well be to his credit; but there is no evidence that the emptiness is filled at the end, only that he is trying to find reasons not to give in to it. If the poem’s subject is not a mood, then it must be a situation, one that is personal, persistent, and potentially universal, familiar enough not to require naming. The gap between “clinical depression” and “la condition humaine” may be no more than a hair’s breadth.

Context counts. For example, if we knew the poet had been diagnosed, his despondency transfixed with some pointed psychiatric label, we would, I think, find it difficult to put that fact aside while reading “Nada.” Or, if we knew the author of the poem to be a witty, jolly fellow leading a full, balanced life, a good chum and a pillar of the community, then “Nada” would mean something quite different to us. And if the first word of the poem were “She” and we knew the author to be a woman who had just given birth, we might well find in it something post-partum. Nothing. Nichts. Rien. An empty set. An erased memory. Zilch. An utter

absence. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Chapter Two of a textbook on Atheistic Existentialism. Nada—two minimal syllables that rhyme. Here is the poem. Note the rhymes.

NADA

1.

He sits himself down at his desk like an

atheist awaiting the descent of grace,

prepared to propitiate, bargain, sacrifice,

whatever it takes for a vacuum to

suck up this vacuum he abhors.

On the beach the bathers

turn on their towels and sigh;

the teacher at the blackboard

explained how but never why.

In the lounge ladies clink their ice cubes

and nod; in the park kids are getting high

on pot, glue, worse; before their cathode-ray

tubes

the old breathe the stale, ostracized air.

As for him, he feels full of nothing,

nothing on a chair.

 


2.

There’s nothing inside the nothing inside

but nothing, and this nothing swells like a

diapason, adds weight like a careless

jockey, declares it’s both process and thing,

neither fair flower nor foul wind but mere

blankness, white whale’s flank, space left by

last year’s

celosia, the heavy hush after the

final waltz. It grins sullenly then yawns,

a maw fit to swallow selfish prayers, baffled

lust, elegant or crude philosophies—

in fact, it gobbles up far more than these,

eats everything that Polyphemus sees.

 

3.

Children and lovers, scholars in full spate,

an oboist squinting hard at her score,

a sturdy slugger pounding on the plate—

I swear, there are plenty more

to reknit the world, ravel up those rents

through which vacancy peeks—perhaps

even you,

feeling senseless and yet making sense,

struggling from your oubliette and seeing

blue.

 

The rhymes are interesting because they are irregular yet deliberate, as if the poet intended something by them. Part One sets up the expectation of a loose, parasitic blank verse in its first five lines. Then, unexpectedly, the thing breaks into a kind of jig. The lines get shorter; six and eight have end-rhymes, making a quatrain, as do lines nine through twelve. High rhymes with sigh but then also with why, so the two quatrains are merged into an octet, almost a ditty, except the expectation is violated when nothing shows up to rhyme with air when we anticipate something should. And yet, with nothing (nothing) intervening, air is picked up in the devastating final verse, which is half the length of the initial ten-syllable line: nothing on a chair. Air, nothing, chair—these words round out the image of the poet sitting down to work, or trying to work, hoping against hope for something, anything to vacuum up a vacuum, as if, under the aegis of a muse, two nothings could cancel one another out.


Despite being an “atheist,” the poet is prepared to undertake any ritual by which “grace” might descend. At first, “Nada” seems the consequence of a poet employing the deplorable device of overcoming writer’s block by making it his subject, and the “grace” for which he waits seems to be artistic inspiration. However, the language is too suggestive, and radiates too far, for such a self-absorbed, negligible purpose. And, in fact, what ensues in the rhymed, jigging section is a kind of ode to meaninglessness, to emptiness and how people try to fill it with anything from sunbathing to natural science—the latter being superb with hows, but silent on whys. Then there are social drinking, drugs, TV, the palliatives of adolescent, middle-aged, and senile human beings. Though the feeling of nothingness belongs to the poet, he presumes that others suffer from it too; that everybody does. Emptiness surrounds our planet and permeates us—or at least him, who is the “nothing on a chair” inditing all this. Why? Just to make himself feel better? But, if that is what he has aimed at, nothing on a chair sounds as if he missed. If the poet was attempting to externalize his discontent, his quarrel with life, then, out of generosity, we may allow him

some modicum of success. We can even imagine him enjoying a gratifying moment when the phrase nothing on a chair popped into his head, grace showering an atheist.

The poet himself is absent from Part Two, which is more a definition than a lyrical complaint. The noun that comes up three times in a line and a half, making up half the syllables, is here personified and put into motion. Nothing is busy so there is a plethora of verbs. Nothing swells, adds, declares, and grins; it yawns and gobbles. Rhyme is nearly absent, as if the poet feared it might distract from the breathless enjambment, the sheer bustle. So it is a surprise when the last three lines are an emphatic, rhyming tercet: philosophies, these, sees. Ravenous nihilism consumes everything, like a black hole, but what nothing eats is nothingness; and all it sees is itself, for the black hole is also Polyphemus’s ex-eye.

In Part Three the poet tries to turn negative lead into positive gold. By this cultural alchemy tragedy confers dignity, suffering breeds consciousness, pain teaches joy, and death is the mother of beauty. Here are things that are not nothing, which are so


gut-an-sich that Nothing cannot chew them up. In the black year 1941, Paul Valéry wrote Mauvais Pensées et Autres in which may be found the two famous sentences: “God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.” The poet alludes to Valéry’s witticism when he claims—without, it must be said, notable conviction—that the goodness of life can “ravel up those rents/through which vacancy peeks . . .”

It is presumably to fortify this effort to reknit, to ravel up life’s torn sleeves that the poet composes his finale so conventionally: eight ten-syllable lines in an ababcdcd rhyme scheme. He uses prosody as a way of “feeling senseless and yet making sense.” Yet the sunshine does not quite break through. It is blocked by one crucial word, an archaic term for an archaic punishment. An oubliette, from the French verb “to forget,” is a concealed dungeon at the bottom of a castle with a trap door in the ceiling as the only opening. The “you” who is down in the secret dungeon, quite forgotten, is the poet himself; he dreams of clambering up and standing erect under a cloudless sky. But the point of oubliettes is that nobody can climb out of them.

Is “Nada” a suicide note written by a man who would prefer to go on living? “Of Suicide” is one of David Hume’s posthumous—that is, suppressed—essays. It is not an argument in favor of killing oneself, but a defense of the right to do so. Hume opposes the general opinion that choosing to end one’s existence is both a crime and a sin. He not only respects the Stoic solution but approves of it under certain circumstances.

 

A hair, a fly, an insect is able to destroy this mighty being whose life is of such importance. Is it an absurdity to suppose that human prudence may lawfully dispose of what depends on such insignificant causes? . . Do you imagine that I repine at providence or curse my creation, because I go out of life, and put a period to a being, which, were it to continue, would render me miserable? Far be such sentiments from me. . . . If suicide be supposed a crime, ‘tis only cowardice can impel us to it. If it be no crime, both prudence and courage should


engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burthen . . . .

 

True, the author of “Nada” makes no mention of suicide, yet his poem is steeped in the thought of it. He believes the world has somehow emptied out and feels himself hollow too, a minor Kurtz, a petty Ahab, reduced to the solipsistic corner lit by a desk lamp and the perverse urge to write these verses which, in the end, are addressed only to the nothing he has become.

 

So ends my friend’s last poem, his effort at a detached, objective evaluation of his condition. That he calls the poem “unsuccessful” might be just another expression of his modesty; or, it could mean he found the poem aesthetically unsatisfactory; or, and this thought has troubled my sleep, what he meant was that poetry couldn’t save him. And, of course, it didn’t.

It’s too simple to say that Fernlicht wanted to

elevate his depression to something cosmic by a sort of negative sublimation. There is no reason why the personal and universal should not coincide; in fact, they must. We don’t live among abstractions but crawl our way toward them through real dirt. Nevertheless, when Fernlicht invoked that famous bon mot of Valéry’s about the Nihilo showing through Creation, I heard a wrong note. It isn’t just that my friend really was an atheist who didn’t believe God created anything, even with holes in it. “God created” is merely a way of speaking for men like Valéry and Fernlicht, hardly a confession of faith. No, the false note comes from the sentiment itself, which is too chilly and remote, like outer space. Closer to Fernlicht’s particular brand of unhappiness is this sentence written by the same Paul Valéry two years later, in Tel Quel. It too begins with God making something:

 

God created man, and finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him a female companion so that he might feel his solitude more acutely.


EDITOR’S NOTE

I found the above manuscript in Fein’s folder for the year 1979.

The structure of the piece makes one think of Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, the frame of Frankenstein.

Fein introduces Alexander Fernlicht, Fernlicht his poem, then, at dead center, sits “Nada,” the poem itself, followed by Fernlicht’s critique (in which he does not identify himself), and, finally, Fein reflects on it all, though so briefly one wonders if he abandoned his essay, perhaps unwilling to find out where it might lead.

Fein wrote down two titles at the head of the first page of the manuscript: “Nada” and “Distant Light.” Both are crossed out. The present title has been provided by me.

Did Alexander Fernlicht ever exist? Was he a real person or a creature of Fein’s like Philippe Leconte Duparc [“Fein on Philippe Leconte Duparc,” Northwest Review, 46, 2 (Spring 2008), 142-157], Klaren Verheim [“The Birth of the

Author,” Denver Quarterly, 30, 4 (Spring 1996), 132-145] and Mr. Ponderoff [“Fein on Ontology,” Denver Quarterly, 31, 4 (Spring 1997), 87-96]? When I first came across the manuscript I felt pretty sure that Fernlicht is, like these others, a fictional character. Fein’s imaginary people are not quite characters in works of fiction; they serve a different function. They are more like specific stimuli or thought-experiments Fein deploys as a means to work through something. With Duparc it was aesthetics, with Verheim critical theory, with Ponderoff pseudonymity. Nevertheless, I did diligently check the public records for Alexander and Hannah Fernlicht. I even contacted IBM. I found what I expected to, nothing.

Another reason I am sure Fernlicht is imaginary is that this is not the only piece Fein wrote about him and his versifying. There was an earlier one, dating fro 1977, published as “Fein on Two Sonnets of Alexander Fernlicht” [RE:AL, 25, 1 (Spring 2000), 71-80]. The earlier essay is more fantastical, but, like this one, is built on an exegesis of poetry, in that case a Petrarchan and a Shakespearean sonnet made by arranging the same fourteen regretful, romantic lines differently:

 


this long adagio, our history

each day my first, each night our very last

the present is all future and no past

whose melody's a minor mystery

a virgin bridge no car has ever crossed

eagerness unanxious, ambition fresh

whole-hearted as a lion tearing flesh

was it you I found or was it I was lost

 

On such a night it was our fate to meet

to look, to see, before the silence falls

the melting snow lays puddles on the street

black looking-glass reflecting darkling walls

all the steps I took, every breath I drew

before I knew I knew you I knew you

 

 

the melting snow lays puddles on the street

black looking-glass reflecting darkling walls

on such a night it was our fate to meet

to look, to see, before the silence falls

whole-hearted as a lion tearing flesh

each day my first, each night our very last

eagerness unanxious, ambition fresh

 

the present is all future and no past

before I knew I knew you I knew you

a virgin bridge no car has ever crossed

all the steps I took, every breath I drew

was it you I found or was it I was lost

whose melody's a minor mystery

this long adagio, our history

 

The Fernlichts that emerge from the two essays, while not identical, are certainly similar: highly sensitive amateur poets with romantic problems.

What did Fernlicht mean to Fein? An editor can only speculate. I think the answer implied here is that Fernlicht was an alter-ego, the Fein who composed verses, the Fein who chose a career in business, the Fein who couldn’t bear solitude and whose daughter was always perfectly behaved—above all, the Fein who succumbed to despair. Alexander Fernlicht, the suicide, may have served the same function for Fein as Nietzsche said the thought of suicide did for him: “. . . a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night.”

Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 4.1


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