In reflecting he length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon.--Emerson, Circles.
My dad graduated the Fashion Institute of Technology, then a community college part of the State University of New York, class 1957. I found his yearbook on a shelve while cleaning out his library. In it I also found a folded newspaper clipping and a pristine social security card with his address; the YMHA on 92nd & Lexington. I knew he had lived at Young Men's Hebrew Association (now the 92 street Y) once -- I believe after he moved out of my maternal grandparents' place --, but upon seeing it I felt instant regret not having visited the Y with him on our many visits to New York. I wondered what stories he would have told me if we had gone there.
Touching the social security card I realized I had no idea what job, if any, he worked at during college. He liked to tell of going to double features at the end of the month because of the cheap popcorn and excellent air-conditioning and survive on popcorn once his dad's money had run out. The Summer heat had made an impression on him.
The newspaper clipping is dated 7 May 1958 (in Dutch) and is an anonymous review of a fashion show at the Doelen hotel (still on the Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam). The newspaper, Het Vrije Volk, does not exist anymore (it has long been folded into Algemeen Dagblad). I read the piece, but only found what I was looking for in the drawings of some collars on the bottom left (see the picture below). My dad is not mentioned at all in the review. The only person named is Nancy Cooke de Herrera, who is described as the famous American visitor bored to tears by the show. (The Dutch journalist is clearly fascinated by the idea of being named the 'perfect American housewife.') Cooke de Herrera had preceded my father from the world of fashion to spirituality and, thereby, became an impression in popular culture: Her son is satirically memorialized as Bungalow Bill in the Beatles' "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill."
Almost certainly the newspaper clip was preserved by my dad because of these NETEX collars. NETEX was the family business. (The rival, Berghaus, later bought NETEX.) Had these fur collars of the 1958 Spring collection been my dad's first contribution to Dutch fashion (or were they really his mom's)? Last week, when we were visiting NYC with my son, my wife disapprovingly commented on the revival of fur collars. No progress is permanent.
I then looked at the picture (see below). I was startled. I did not associate my dad (recall) with 'Karl,' nor with Emerson. He had been a 'Micha' my whole life. (His middle name was Michael.) I knew, of course, his first name was officially Karl. But it seems for his classmates at FIT he had really been Karl.
He had not kept in touch with most of them. Most of the names in the yearbook were unfamiliar to me. Except for Guenter. He had stayed in touch intermittently with Guenter Ruecker (with whom he shared a German background), who later became an instructor (in tailoring) at FIT. Ruecker had been paired with a quote from Keats. I remember joining my dad for drinks once at least twenty perhaps twenty five years ago near grand central station with Guenter; Guenter drank at a much faster rate than my dad. Neither spoke much.
All the yearbook pictures were accompanied by famous quotes. I wondered if they had been supplied by the yearbook editor or if the students had to submit them at some deadline. Because there was no reason to think my dad had been reading Emerson's essays in the 1950s I opted for the former. I wonder if he ever checked out the Emerson essay. It's not my favorite of his. I understand why the piece would have enraptured Nietzsche, but in re-reading it -- and to add an Emersonian affectation -- under the shadow of the Akropolis, I find his language, despite the simplicity of sentences, gratingly pompous, even obscure at times ("Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the termini which bound the common of silence on every side.")
And yet, there is a thought in it that seems sufficiently true:
People say sometimes, 'See what I have overcome; see how cheerful I am; see how completely I have triumphed over these black events.' Not if they still remind me of the black event. True conquest is the causing the calamity to fade and disappear, as an early cloud of insignificant result in a history so large and advancing.
Emerson is right that to say 'I have overcome X' involves a kind of performative contradiction. (It does not follow that forgetting or deliberately being silent about X is any better.) But despite being a 'circular philosopher,' he still assumes the possibility of true conquest, that is historical progress.
My mind circles back to my father, who in the last years of his life told the story of his calamity to the young in Dutch schools and in Germany. He did so not to assert his conquest over the calamity -- he believed in no such thing -- nor even primarily to remember the dead. I was about to reflect on to what degree these school visits were a form of therapy and a means of calling these kids to extend their generosity to vulnerable refugees, when I recognized that for that Karl to become Micha that had been an attempt at such conquest. He stuck with his new name long after he must have realized the futility of it.