Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Saturday, May 1, 2010

MEMOIR VOLUME TWO CHAPTER THREE THIRD INSTALLMENT

The relationship among the various members of the department was complex, resembling those of an extended family. The key figure, I very soon learned, was Nagel. Ernest had been the teacher or mentor of Frankel, Morgenbesser, and Danto, among others, as well as of my old protector, Morton White, each of whom he shaped in different ways. Nagel was a small, thin man whose principal published work was in logic and the philosophy of science. The younger members of the department all looked to him as an intellectual leader, but he was diffident about asserting that leadership overtly. Nagel seemed to me to fit perfectly the stereotype of the passive aggressive Jewish intellectual, and for reasons having to do with my relationship to my father, which during those years was being explored in my psychoanalysis, I had very ambivalent feelings about him. When I arrived, he welcomed me more or less as an adoptive nephew, because of his earlier friendship with my father and my uncle. Among the younger men who were his former students. Sidney clearly had the strongest intelligence and the greatest claim to his legacy, but over time, Sidney's failure to publish weakened that claim.

It wasn't that Sidney was short of ideas, heaven knows. If you stopped Sidney in the hallway and asked him a question about virtually anything in philosophy, he would, like as not, give you a beautifully crafted, completely coherent, well-organized answer that could, if transcribed, be published as a brilliant paper. But if you asked him to write it up, he froze. One year, Sidney agreed to speak at the Eastern Division meetings of the APA, and everyone wondered whether he would back out at the last moment. On the appointed day, Sidney showed up, strode to the microphone, put down a thick sheaf of papers on the lectern, and started delivering his paper. "Well," we all thought, "Sidney has come through. He has actually written a paper." Halfway through, as he was carefully setting the pages down on the desk one by one as he finished with them, a gust of wind blew one of the sheets on the floor. It was totally blank.

The relationship between Sidney and Art Danto was especially fascinating. There is an old schlock movie that I blush to admit I love, called Sky High, about a high school levitating in the clouds for teenagers who give evidence of superhero powers. One girl can turn herself into a guinea pig, another boy can hurl flames, a third kid can roar loud enough to knock down walls. At the beginning of Freshman year, Coach has each of them demonstrate his or her power. Since each superhero must have a sidekick [think Batman and Robin], Coach summarily classifies each new student as either a Superhero or a Sidekick, depending on the impressiveness of the power. When I got to Columbia, it was clear that Sidney was the superhero and Arthur was the sidekick. But over time, Arthur started to publish a series of articles and books that earned him a major reputation in the profession and in New York cultural circles. This did not diminish Sidney in any way, but it changed their relationship. It seemed that in life, if not in the movies, a sidekick could grow into a superhero.

Once I knew that I was going to be joining the Columbia Department, I had set about finding an analyst in New York. I had one-hour sessions with two Manhattan psychoanalysts, who consulted with one another and then decided that I ought to go into treatment with Dr. Terry Cloyd Rodgers, whose home and office were on the upper East Side. Rodgers was forty-seven when I went into analysis with him, a slight, sandy-haired dapper man who was quite unlike my stereotypical image of a New York analyst. Apparently the people with whom I consulted had decided that the last thing I needed was an intellectual Jewish analyst -- a Portnoy's Complaint analyst, as it were. I began in September, 1964, and for the next seven years, three or four times a week, I traveled down to West 88th street, just off Madison Avenue, for the sessions.

Rodgers was a native of Arkansas, where he completed his medical education. His office was a part of his apartment, and I once even caught sight of his wife in the hall -- an event that gave me a frisson of primal scene scopophilia. Considering how many hours I spent on the couch in his office -- a thousand or more, by quick calculation -- it is surprising how little I remember of those sessions. Four moments stand out in my mind. One day, I was going on at great length about what a remarkable difference there was between my life and the life my father had led. I was quite self-congratulatory about the distance I had come from the culturally and even geographically circumscribed world of my father, now that I was a senior Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Rodgers, a proper Freudian, did not often speak during the sessions, but as I was getting up to leave, he remarked quietly that he too had come some way. Walking to the bus stop, it suddenly struck me that whereas I had, by dint of heroic efforts and great brilliance, made it all the way from Queens to Manhattan, Rodgers had come from rural Arkansas to the Upper East Side. I think that is what is called transference. Another time I was complaining about the fact that I was paying Rodgers a king's ransom for my treatment, while he was too cheap even to decorate his office nicely, filling it with old and worn furniture. On my way out of the office, I noticed that it had recently been completely redecorated, and that everything in it was quite new.

The funniest moment in my analysis came when I was talking about my extended family, which, as I have already explained [Volume One, Chapter One, blog for June 28, 2009], meant my father's parents and brothers and sisters and their children, my cousins. I made mention of my Italian relatives, Ben and Fan and their kids Cora and Tony. Rodgers coughed gently and said, rather tentatively, "er, I thought you were of Eastern European Jewish extraction." "I am," I said. "Then how can they be Italian?" I was absolutely thunderstruck. I had always thought of them as Italian, but of course, if my father and my uncle Bob and my aunt Rosabelle were all Jews ultimately from somewhere in Poland or Russia, then their brother Ben must also be. Why on earth had I imagined that Ben and Fan and Cora and Tony were Italian? Well, it was really quite simple. My parents and Bob and Rose and Rosabelle and her husband, Anoch, were all rather quiet and intellectual. Ben and Fan were big and fat and cheerful and played musical instruments, and Cora and Tony were the same. When they arrived at a family party, they sat down at the piano played, sang, and made a lot of noise. I figured they were Italian. By the way, "intellectual' is a relative term. Both Ben and Fan were teachers in the New York City school system.

But the moment that really caused my heart to stop came some years into the analysis, when Cindy was also in analysis with a doctor whose office was two blocks north of Rodgers' office. These were the days before voicemail, call waiting, and such innovations, and though it was possible to pay for a telephone answering service [Bells are Ringing, with Judy Holliday], Rodgers did not have one. From time to time the phone would ring during one of our sessions. Rodgers would pick up the phone, say softly "I am busy now," and hang up. Over time, I developed the active fantasy that one day the phone call would be for me. One day, the phone rang, Rodgers picked it up, and after a moment he said, "It's for you." I had taken the bus to my appointment, but Cindy had taken the car, and it wouldn't start. I cut my session short and rushed out to rescue her, but for a brief and rather scary moment, the real world had penetrated the carefully protected space in which I could give voice to my fantasies without fear of their actualization. Who knows how much that set me back?

So, a thousand sessions and twenty-five thousand dollars, which was more than twice my before tax annual salary. What did I get for all of that? There are a lot of complicated answers I could give, and even though these are my memoirs, I cannot imagine that many people would be terribly interested them. But there is one thing I need to say, because it bears so directly on the way in which I conducted the rest of my life. As a boy and as a young man, I was in a perpetual rage of generational conflict. As far back as I can remember, I was engaged in challenges to male authority. At twelve, I challenged the people who ran the Boys Scout Camp over saying the Boy Scout oath ["As I scout, I will be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty. brave, clean, and reverent." I wouldn't say "reverent."] As a teenager, I challenged the authority of the couple who ran the Shaker Village Work Camp, even though I loved that camp more than anyplace else while I was in high school. I challenged Leo Ryan, the Acting Principal of Forest Hills High School, over whether I had to shave my incipient beard [since my father was a fellow high school principal, Ryan took me into the private bathroom in his office and made me shave]. No sooner had I got to Harvard than I published a letter in the Crimson calling for James Bryant Conant to step down as President [see Volume One, Chapter One. Blog post June 28, 2009]. I challenged McGeorge Bundy on Cuba, George Beadle of Chicago on discriminatory housing, and just about any other male authority figure I could find. Interestingly, I have never had any problem with female authority figures, which is why I found it so easy to work under a woman as Department Chair once I joined the Afro-American Studies Department at UMass.

One of the things my analysis clarified for me was my motivation in writing Kant's Theory of Mental Activity. It wasn't hard to figure out that I had fixed on Kant as a suitable father substitute. I had serious issues with my father, whom I viewed as weak and a failure. [This was unfair, but then I was not the first son to have a jaundiced view of his father]. Rodgers pointed out that my relationship to Kant was a bit more complicated than that. I represented him to the world as the greatest philosopher who had ever lived, and the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding as the central portion of his greatest book. But, as Rodgers observed, I also claimed that Kant needed me to make his central argument comprehensible and defensible. In effect, I was not willing to cede primacy of place even to Kant. It was an interesting insight.

Somehow, during the course of my analysis, I went from being an angry, rebellious son to being a generative, supportive father. The arrival first of Patrick in 1968, then of Tobias in 1970, obviously had something to do with it. But I really do believe that without the help of the analysis, I could not have moved smoothly and happily from the generation of the sons to the generation of the fathers. As a consequence of that transition, I became both a loving, supportive father and a generous, supportive teacher. I never lost my suspicion of bureaucratic or political authority, but that ceased to be the dominant modality of my personal relationships.

1 comment:

Buck said...

Perhaps if you take a DNA test you will find those Italian origins are there.

As for me, my DNA says I am Irish, I am British, I am Scottish, I am Ashkenazi, I am Sephardi, I am Russian, I am German and many many more, too numerous to list. But I forgot if I was Italian or not. I'd have to go back and look that up from the DNA test. All of that and they still call me WASP. Damn bastards. Yes, I too know the feel of challenging authority. Geez, it's a crazy world ain't it.

Again, a wonderful engaging story. Thank you so much.