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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Memoirs Volume Three
My Once and Future Love

I take my title from T. H. White's re-telling of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King, supposedly the inscription on King Arthur's tomb. In that charming book, which I read many years ago, the wizard Merlin is represented as living through time backwards, which explains both his great wisdom and his seeming ineptitude at dealing with the world in which he finds himself. Writing my memoirs has turned out to be rather like living my life backwards, because although I know full well how it has turned out, I am constantly surprised to discover things about my earlier days that I had forgotten. Whether I have acquired wisdom in the process I leave to my readers to judge.


"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina, thought by some to be his greatest novel. Although this volume begins at the lowest point in my life, it very quickly becomes a story of almost unalloyed happiness. A great deal has happened in these most recent twenty-five years of my life, and I am hopeful that some of it will prove to be of interest to you who read my words, but those looking for conflict, sadness, and bitter regrets will, I fear, be disappointed.

The first two thirds of my story were devoted almost entirely to the life of the mind. In the present volume, you will see me trying my hand at affecting, in however small a way, the larger world about which I had spent so long thinking and writing. I am reminded of the great passage in Plato's Gorgias in which Callicles chides Socrates for the unworldliness of the life he chosen. Plato is of course putting into the mouth of Socrates' antagonist the doubts he had about his own decision to withdraw from public life and found the Academy. "When I perceive philosophical activity in a young lad," Callicles says, "I am pleased; it suits him, I think, and shows that he has good breeding. A boy who doesn't play with philosophy I regard as illiberal, a chap who will never raise himself to any fine or noble action. Whereas when I see an older man still at his philosophy and showing no sign of giving it up, that one seems to me, Socrates, to need a whipping. For ... such a man, even if he's well endowed by nature, must necessarily become unmanly by avoiding the center of the city and the assemblies where, as the Poet says, 'men win distinction.' Such a fellow must spend the rest of his life skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, never pronouncing any large, liberal, or meaningful utterance." [W. C. Helmbold's translation, with one emendation]

Chapter One
I Once Was Lost But Now Am Found

When Cindy walked out of my apartment that June evening, I felt as though my life had come to an end. It was not just that my heart and my mind had been deeply intertwined with hers for my entire adult life. I was without a fixed point of reference because no one in my extended family had ever been divorced. Even my sister, Barbara, who had long since separated from her husband, Reed, was still technically married to him, and would be for many years to come. Now, we are a Jewish family, so it goes without saying that a good many of my relatives were unhappy. But divorced? They might as well have been Roman Catholics for all the advantage they had taken of the liberalized New York State Civil Code.

I was committed to yet another summer of teaching at Harvard, so that would get me out of the apartment five days a week, but beyond that, I was sailing uncharted waters. Bernard and Susan Avishai, a couple I had come to know through Cindy's connection with M. I. T., became my principal emotional support in those dark months. Bernie and Susan are Canadian by birth and education, although their ties to Israel were, it seemed to me, much tighter than to their homeland. Bernie is a tall, handsome, vigorous man with a shock of curly black hair and a perpetual smile on his face. He was then teaching in the Writing Program of the Humanities Department at M. I. T., although his doctorate from the University of Toronto is in philosophy. He has become, through his books and his writings for newspapers and journals, a very well known voice for peace and understanding in Israel. Susan is an artist, some of whose most exquisite works are pen and ink drawings. They had three ebullient children [who are now, by the mysteries of time, all grown up.] Even though Bernie was "Cindy's friend," they folded me into their family with a supportive love.

Let me devote one short paragraph to a subject that was utterly new to me, but has been written about endlessly in the large and amorphous literature on "relationships." When Cindy and I definitively entered the world of divorce, I found that along with the disposition of our chattels movable, we were also expected to divide up the family friends. I got to keep my professional colleagues, of course, along with my books and papers. But ever since coming to Belmont, we had been socializing with people who were "her friends." It was a generous act on Bernie's part and a bit of a daring one on mine for me to put the Avishais on my side of the list of belongings to be parceled out. All during our marriage, I had assumed that people entertained us, when we were a couple, because they liked Cindy and more or less accepted me as part of the package. It came as a gratifying surprise to discover that people actually liked me well enough to see me unaccompanied by Cindy. [Yes, I know that I sound like Sally Fields accepting her Oscar, but I am trying to be true to the moment here.]

It came as a very bitter surprise to discover that as a consequence of our break-up, Barry and Betty Moore wanted nothing more to do with me. No one has ever explained this breach to me, though for reasons I cannot now recall, I have always believed that it was Betty who decided that Cindy was the injured party and I the cause of the divorce. I believe I was actually listed in Barry's will as his literary executor, a role I would have played with great pride and diligence, but after one very painful lunch at a Ground Round in Cambridge, Barry and I never spoke again. I am convinced that it was the breach, and not the subject of the essay I wrote, that led the editor of Barry's festschrift to reject my essay when I sent it to her.

The divorce itself took an unexpectedly long time, principally because Cindy felt deeply aggrieved and wanted an unequal division of the family property, despite the fact that she and I had equivalent jobs and almost identical salaries. I wrote endless memoranda to my lawyer, Robert Mann, carrying out elaborate calculations designed to guarantee that Cindy would be in no way materially hurt by the divorce. Bob charged me for the time it took him to read them and then filed them away. In the end, which was not to come until the last day of 1986, we agreed to an equal division of property, appropriate child support for Toby, who was still a minor, and a sharing of the costs of Patrick and Toby's college education.

While all of this was going on, I was teaching summer school, and then my fall courses. I would pick up the boys to take them to school [by now they were both in high school], drive out to Amherst to teach, and drive back in time to pick them up and take them home. [It was during one of those runs that Bob Nozick honked.] Patrick had become an important national figure in chess, but it was Toby who stunned me one day with an accomplishment of which I was entirely unaware. I was driving him home from one of our weekly dinners, when more or less to make conversation, I asked what he was doing at school. He told me that he had joined a group called The Madrigals. "What voice do you sing?," I asked, very interested because of my own college involvement with madrigal singing. [See Volume One, Chapter Two, blogpost June 28, 2009]. "Countertenor," he replied. Now, you have to understand that to early music afficionados like me, countertenors are the crème de la crème. I had first heard Alfred Deller at a Sanders Theater concert, and was in the front row again at Sanders some years later when Russell Oberlin sang zefiro torno, a transcendentally beautiful duet by Monteverdi. It seemed to me unlikely in the extreme that Toby actually could sing countertenor. Probably he meant that he was a tenor, which would have been nice enough, heaven knows. I asked which madrigals the group was rehearsing. He named several with which I was quite familiar, and then began to sing a few lines. Out of his mouth came an exquisite true countertenor sound, quite like anything I had ever heard him make. Astonished, I blurted out, "Toby, that is the most wonderful thing any son of mine has ever done!" Later that year, the Madrigals gave a concert, dressed in brightly colored costumes that looked as though they had come from the studio wardrobe for A Connecticut in King Arthur's Court. This was no flash in the pan. Toby continued to sing, earning money while at Yale by serving in local church choirs. He studied for a while with the famous American countertenor Drew Minter, and during his senior year sang with the Whiffenpoofs. He even had a solo at Tanglewood in a student performance of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.

At some point that I cannot decisively pin down in the chronology of this Memoir, Toby announced that henceforward he was to be known as Tobias. Since I prefer to err on the side of caution, I shall from this point on speak of him only as Tobias and no more as Toby. I do this with some sadness. He was an adorable child, but he has become an admirable man. Perhaps both the boy and the man can share a place in my heart.

Despite the upheaval in my personal life, things were going well in the AT. Students kept choosing our track, in great measure because of the heroic efforts Bob Ackerman had made to turn himself into a one-man Department of Recent Continental Philosophy. I have lost contact with our students after all these years, but they have made lives and careers for themselves in academic philosophy, for the most part. Mecke Nagel is at SUNY Cortland, exploring penal abolition and African peace making approaches. [Those who have read my blog post about Macros and PC have already met her. It was she who challenged her fellow students' unthinking use of the formula "racism, sexism, classicism, and homophobia."] Alex Pienknagura is one of the coordinators of the 2010 Radical Philosophy Association meetings. Kevin Dodson is still at Lamar University in Texas, where he is now a full professor. Kim Leighton is at American University in D.C., Amie MacDonald is at John Jay College of CUNY, Lisa Tessman is the GPD of philosophy at SUNY Binghamton, and George Leaman, the unofficial chronicler and archivist of the AT, is now with the Philosophy Documentation Center. Early on, George did some splendid detective work on Heidegger's Nazi connections. All of them, and our other students as well, would undoubtedly have found their way into academic philosophy without the AT, but I think it would have been a good deal harder for them to pursue the sort of philosophy that attracted them. All of it, needless to say, was not philosophy in the eyes of the departmental majority.

I was still attending the Boston Colloquium, of course. It remained a highpoint of my rather bland calendar. That November, a talk was scheduled by Debra Nails, the former Colloquium Coordinator, and I was penciled in as Chair. She had left the Colloquium to follow her husband, Berendt Kolk, to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was Professor of Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand. Debra, it turned out, was teaching in the Philosophy Department at Wits, which was chaired by Jonathan Suzman, nephew of the famous anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman. At the Colloquium dinner before her talk, Debra asked me whether I would have any interest in coming out to South Africa to lecture on Marx to the second year undergraduate philosophy majors. Now, as I have several times noted, Cindy was phobic about flying, with the result that we never went anywhere interesting. When we broke up, I decided that I would speak anywhere I was invited, so long as I had to fly to get there. I asked somewhat facetiously whether you had to fly to get to South Africa, and Debra replied that it was a very long boat trip. Well, I was owed another sabbatical by UMass that I had actually postponed in order to serve as the AGPD of the AT [we talked like that], so I said I would be delighted. It was agreed that I would come out for six weeks starting in late April.

It was about this time that I finally got myself out of the awful apartment and into a very attractive upscale apartment in Watertown. The owner had had some trouble renting it, and I cut a pretty good deal with him. It was a three story townhouse with rooms on the upper two floors and a garage on the ground floor. It was just off Arsenal Street, near the Arsenal Mall. I could see the Marshall's from my rear window. That move gave me a great psychological boost -- I no longer felt that I was being punished for unspecified marital sins -- and I spent a very happy fifteen months there. Since Cindy had sold the Garfield Road house for a hefty sum, half of which was mine, I could finally acquire my half of the family furniture. Opting for value rather than quantity, I ended up with several very nice pieces of eighteenth century English furniture that still grace my Chapel Hill condominium today.

I tried my hand at dating. God knows, I had hated it as a fourteen year old, and it had not improved four decades later. Milton Cantor, always the supportive friend, arranged for me to meet a lovely woman in New York City, and I actually asked one or two women to dinner on my own, but since all I wanted to talk about was what had gone wrong in my marriage, not surprisingly nothing came of those forays into the singles world. Instead, I turned my attention back to the cache of family letters and papers that I had rescued from my father's house. I felt that my life had suffered what I can only describe as a metaphysical break. I could not repair it by falling in love with someone new, and I certainly could not even imagine starting a new family. I had my sons. I was their father. I no more wanted another child than I wanted another heart or brain. I felt a need to reach back to a time in my life that antedated my long involvement with Cindy, and that could only mean my earliest years.

And so I read the letters that I had written home from Harvard, the letters my sister had written home from Swarthmore. I found myself holding in my hand letters like this one, written in the Fall of my Freshman year:

"Greetings, folks, I received your letter today, with the enclosed invite from Shaker Village [the teenage summer work camp I had attended in '47, '48, and '48]. I don't think I will go. I don't have the money or the time, and I want to see a lot of both of you two and Sue during the vacation. I won't be able to work out that staying at home business. There are complications. I was wondering if I could stay home on Friday and go to Harvard Sat. with Sue. I don't want to miss classes, though, so I don't know what I'll do. I had a very wonderful weekend with Sue. The only thing wrong was that I didn't get enough time to see her. This business of seeing her every two weeks is getting me down. We have decided to get married, by the way, although not for a while yet." I was sixteen.

My mother must have freaked out at the last line, because in a later letter from Swarthmore, my sister reassured her that I was a sensible kid and would not do anything foolish.

As I read these letters, I thought more and more about my boyhood love. Susie and I had "gone steady" for five years, and even though we had never gone "all the way," I had thought of her always as my first love. Suddenly, it struck me that the break in the continuity of my life could be repaired only by reaching out to her, for I had loved her before I had ever met Cindy. Immediately, I contacted Connecticut College for Women [as it was then still called], and asked for her address. Rather primly, the Alumnae Office explained that they did not give out the addresses of their graduates, but that if I wrote a letter to her and sent it to them, they would see that it was sent on to her.

I crafted a long, chatty letter, all about my life, my sons, and the ending of my marriage. Back came a very brief note from Chapel Hill, North Carolina [Susie never liked to write letters], in which was enclosed a photo of the two of us at my 1950 graduation from high school. [Susie needed two more courses to graduate in three and a half years and did not finish up until the end of summer school.] She said nothing at all about her marital status, but the return address printed on the envelope read "Mrs. Susan S. Gould." Now, I am well enough brought up to know that a woman does not style herself "Mrs. Susan S. Wolff" unless she is widowed or divorced, but I did not let on that I had decoded this. Instead, I wrote back, telling her that I was scheduled to give a talk at St. Andrews College in Laurinberg, about one hundred miles south of Chapel Hill. Could I perhaps drop in on the way home and visit with her and her husband? Two days later, the phone rang. It was Susie.

It seemed she was indeed divorced, from Floyd "Jerry' Gould, and was raising her two sons, Jon and Lawrence, by herself in Chapel Hill. She would be happy to see me when I came to North Carolina. I nattered on happily, mentioning that in March, shortly after the St. Andrews gig, I would be going to a conference in Dubrovnik, which I had never seen. "Oh," Susie burst out, "That is my favorite place in the whole world." "Well," I replied, "perhaps you could show me it to me." After a bit, I got off the phone, saying again that I would see her in March during my visit to North Carolina.

Two days later, another brief note came from Susie. 'If you would like me to show you Durbrovnik, I would be happy to." Right away, I called her up. "Look," I said, "this is early February and March is a long way off. Why don't I come down to see you tomorrow?" In a soft voice, she said, "All right, if you would like to." "I will call you back," I said. I got off the phone, did my laundry, got a haircut, and called Piedmont Airlines. Then I called Susie once again and told her that I would be arriving the next day at Raleigh Durham Airport. I told her the time and flight number, and she said she would meet me.

As my plane was about to land at RDU, it suddenly struck me that I had not seen Susie in almost thirty years. We had met briefly my first year in Chicago, but that was it. Would I even recognize her? When I got to the terminal, no one who could plausibly be Susie was waiting, but then, after a moment, she walked up. She looked different, of course, but somehow, she looked exactly as she ought to look after all those years. It was as though I could imagine the intervening time in my mind's eye.

When we got to her modern ranch style home on Brookview Drive, we stood in the kitchen while she made us a little something to eat. She said quietly, "I was so glad to get your letter. I was waiting for you." I was stunned, and overjoyed. "What would you have done if I had not written?" I asked. 'I would have gone on waiting," she answered. That night we made love, and the break in my life was healed. I have often since said that I have loved only three women in my life, and two of them are Susie. She was and is my once and future love.


David Pilavin said...

It would have been funny if you have called this chapter Altneulove. But that's just me...

Happy walker said...

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David Pilavin said...

If you like countertenors, you would probably just love this

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hey, David, YouTube says that is not available. Do you have secret stuff in Israel?

David Pilavin said...

Sometimes availability on Youtube varies by country.

Here is somthing else of the same kind (Philippe Jaroussky):

If this does not work, here is another version:

And if this does not work - I truly do not know what will...


Cheers from Israel...

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