by Ralph A. Raimi
Phil was, to begin with, a friend of my brother Abraham and almost exactly his age: both were born in 1919, five years before me. I suppose they met at the Philomathic Debating club. You had to be fourteen years old (and a Jewish boy) to get into Philomathic, and you had to retire by age 21, becoming an alumnus. In the year or two before I could join, my brother took me to a few of the meetings (Sunday afternoons, they were), where he and Phil were full members holding what seemed to me infinite seniority. I found it thrilling, and could hardly wait to join.
Each meeting began with business, of which there was usually a certain amount, mainly concerning preparations for the programs for future meetings, or for the next Model Meeting or Oratorical Contest. These two events were called our "outside affairs." Each was an annual display we put on for friends and relatives, with printed programs containing paid "advertisements" from well-wishers, usually alumni, and with gold, silver and bronze medals awarded to the best speakers of the day. We also held two "socials" each year, a winter social and a summer social, with poker and hot dogs the main features of the winter social, and baseball and hot dogs the main features of the summer social. No guests.
There was seldom anything really controversial about our business meetings, but that did not prevent controversy. We all cherished Robert's Rules of Order, and studied them, and used them to the fullest extent of the law, presenting motion upon motion, with amendments and amendments to the amendments, points of order, of information, of personal privilege, appeals from the decision of the Speaker, motions to table until a future date certain, and all down to the finest of the footnotes. The naming of the third member of the winter social committee could generate a thicket of parliamentary motions such as would have taxed Thomas Jefferson to unravel; it was no wonder that when we came to elect a Speaker we chose for intellect over every other quality.
Following the business part of our Sunday meetings there would be the Program of the day: a debate or other oratorical contest, criticized and judged first by vote of the members and then, and more importantly, a commentary delivered by an Honorary Alumnus who happened to be present and appointed to the task. The term "honorary" was a curious one, in that honorary alumni were actually genuine alumni, honorary only in that they had been elected, upon their retirement, to a certain privileged status. Ordinary alumni could attend meetings, but only honorary alumni could speak; and while most meetings were attended by several alumni, only an Honorary Alumnus (if one were present) would be chosen to comment on the program of the day, or permitted, like any active member, to speak later under the rubric For the Good of the House.
"Good of the House," as we called it, was apparently designed especially for Phil Nusholtz. This section of the weekly agenda was the last item of business, intended to use up whatever time remained between the regular program and our traditional adjournment hour by permitting any member or Honorary Alumnus to speak, if recognized for the purpose by the Speaker, on any subject he thought amusing or enlightening to the rest of us. Phil generally spoke on sex, with a nod towards literature or philosophy too, since in those days it was necessary (in polite society, or in public) to speak of sex in metaphor, euphemism and circumlocution, and to demonstrate "redeeming social importance" in every way possible. Phil was careful to include all such decorations, but mockingly.
Actually, Good of the House had been designed long before Phil: the Philomathic had been founded in 1898. It is hard to imagine how such a club ever got started, since its continuity, its tradition, and even its finances were so dependent on the energy and devotion of the alumni. Otherwise, it had no connection to any school or to any other Jewish organization. Its constitution stated that its purpose was to foster the highest moral values, and to debate matters of both general and Jewish concern. Most of what we argued, whether in the formal debate or oratorical contest of the day or under Good of the House, was in fact political or moral. In the period of my membership, 1938-1941, there was plenty of that, and especially for Jews.
Though we were very young many of us were fierce debaters, not only in formal contests, but when our fury was roused during the business meeting. How we would summon up the rubrics of justice: "Point of Personal Privilege, Mr. Speaker!" "Amendment!" Or, "I rise to move the Previous Question." Just the same, we were often quite timid about seeking to instruct the other members of the Philomathic, gratuitously, as it were, under Good of the House. We could fight one another, sure, but which of us was willing to announce that we condescended to instruct the House? Well, Phil Nusholtz, for one, both during his membership and later, when I was a member and he an Honorary Alumnus.
Perhaps there were those who actually prepared a speech for Good of the House, as I once did; I explained how one made photographic enlargements in a darkroom. But I wouldn't have dared if my brother hadn't put me up to it. Phil, on the other hand, spoke every chance he got, apparently extemporaneously. He seemed to have read innumerable books. He would refer as easily to Tolstoy and (say) Alexander Woolcott (a popular writer and wit of the time) as later, in his college and law school days, and beyond, he would refer to Einstein and Kant. I was always enough steps behind him to be awed.
I did my best to follow his example (all Philomathians were verbissene intellectuals), but when I finally came to lay down (say) The Brothers Karamazov, having read it in a month of hard work, I would find, when I prepared to discuss it with Phil, that he had read the entire novelistic output of Dostoyevsky, and of Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol too, and had things to say about this book and its cultural setting that I could only dimly understand.
I suppose it was good for me to have such a model, nor was he the only one. Philomathic may have been designed for high moral purpose, and the older alumni surely saw it that way, and that purpose was, I believe, achieved; but as we ourselves saw it in the years of our membership it was a place for the exercise -- and exhibition -- of all the wit and erudition we could command. Ordinary conversation was with us as much of a contest as was a Sunday afternoon programmed debate, and if we felt defeated on some occasion we would each go home and study, to dazzle our friend -- our opponent -- the next time for sure. The girls too, of course. They were not members, but we displayed our intellectual feathers as much to them in school during the week as we did to each other during the Philomathic meetings on Sunday.
Most Philomathians attended Central High School, because that was our neighborhood, but the school had no connection with Philomathic. At school there was the science club, the staff of our newspaper The Central Student and our yearbook The Centralite; there was the Student Council, the debating team, the literary magazine, the photography club ("Shutterbugs"), the Science Club, and others I cannot remember. Girls were in all of them, but the intellectual leadership of these extracurricular activities was plainly with Philomathians. One may suppose the football and basketball teams had a leadership and a following of their own, but that was another world, in which our philosophy and wit had no place. We hardly knew they was there, or cared.
I didn't know Phil at all in my high school days, except at Philomathic, but when in the fall of 1941 I went out to Ann Arbor intending to major in physics, he was in the University of Michigan law school. By the time I went into the Army, in February of 1943, he was preparing to take the Bar exam, and he was well into the practice of law in Detroit by the time I was discharged in 1946 and returned to college. My B.S. degree was in physics and my PhD in mathematics, and while I continued to read in non-scientific literature to some degree, during those post-war years, to maintain an interest in politics, morality and art, my profession forbade my keeping up with Phil in social or humanistic studies.
Psychologically too, I was always a little behind, as is so often the case when one person is younger than another. It was so almost all my life between me and my older brother, long past the time when it could be said by an objective witness that he was wiser or more experienced than me in any particular way, apart from our professions. He became a business man and I a professor of mathematics, both of us rather ordinary examples of our type. Other things being equal this would make us equivalent, one supposes, but the five year difference between us made it impossible, deep inside, for me to believe any such thing.
Could I ever be equal to the one who first taught me to read, as my brother did? The one who first took me to Caruso's (where there was a bust of Mussolini in the back room) and showed me how to pour vinegar and oil onto a salad containing sliced sausage? Every younger brother or sister must recognize the phenomenon: the five years that separated us when we were children were wide as the ocean, sure, but that the distance does not diminish with the years is a fact of life even when it defies reason.
Similarly with me and Nusholtz. Towards the end of my first year in Ann Arbor I got in trouble with the authorities for having violated the school's academic honor code, in that I had written English papers for several of the engineering students who lived on my hall in the dormitories. When I was called to account by the faculty resident in my dormitory I was terrified, sure I would be thrown out of school. I had to wait several terrible weeks for my disciplinary hearing; only Phil made them bearable by assuring me, with a wisdom I never thought to question, that they were not, repeat: not, going to expel me. I didn't know how he knew this, but I believed it. For once his prestige helped him comfort me, rather than defeat me. And he was right. My punishment turned out to be mild, only a deprivation of privilege which, while it hurt (I was forbidden to continue writing for the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, for the following year) did no lasting damage to my reputation or career.
On matters of the heart I was forever in an agony of love, while Phil was of course the amused senior. A man (of twenty-two) who has read Ovid and Schopenhauer, and lectured the Philomathic on their teachings, surely knew all about women; how could he avoid speaking kindly, though perhaps lightly, to a young Werther like me? In the summer of 1942 I was a counsellor at Camp Mehia (no less), in the Irish Hills of Michigan a bit west of Ann Arbor. It was from Mehia that I was writing my first letters to Phil Nusholtz.
D.R. was also a counselor that summer. She was my age, beautiful in my eyes (others thought her so, too), and a pianist. It is hard to be sure, at this distance, how much of her attraction was the usual result of our being seventeen years old and how much was due to her playing of the Mozart D-minor concerto and the Bach B-minor Partita on the mess-hall piano after the campers had gone to sleep. There was doubtless a moon as well. Whatever it was, it was hell. The mores of the time did not permit me even to imagine a genuine sexual advance towards her (or towards any girl of her standing: a 'nice girl' of the sort one would end up marrying), and college boys didn't get married anyhow. All I could do is suffer, and write letters to everyone who would read. Phil was a great reader, and he wrote back to me too, both then and later, when I had gone into the army.
I don't retain a single one of all my letters to Phil Nusholtz, except, as we shall see, the last three, written thirty-five years after the war. By 1942 Phil was already writing to his drafted friends all over the world. Soldiers at war are great letter-writers, especially former Philomathians, and it took several foot-lockers, by war's end, to hold the letters that Phil had accumulated in the years 1942-1946. I saw the foot-lockers with my own eyes when I myself came home from the Philippines in 1946 and visited him in Detroit. He went to one of them, withdrew what I had written him, tied up in chronological order, and gave it all back to me. "Keep these for your children," he said, "Or shove them up your ass, but I don't have room for them." There were still other bundles there, waiting for their authors to get back from overseas, and gaps between them where still others had been. Probably alphabetically ordered.
It is a mystery to me that my letters to Phil should have disappeared after that day, since they were in my possession and I did keep a considerable file of the ones he had sent to me, even to summer camp before the army. I still have, in fact, a small box containing many friends' letters from army days, letters I had carried around with me from Seymour Johnson Field, North Carolina, to Williams Field, Arizona, to Palawan in the Philippines and home again; but what I kept was unsystematic. In my youth, I suppose, I was not as much interested in my own history, in what I myself had written to others, as I became by middle age, when mortality becomes more believable -- or present to the mind -- than it is when one is seventeen. I did begin keeping more careful records later on.
Even though my own letters are missing, it is possible to recover some of their spirit from the references that appear in the letters of Phil that I still have. Phil never wrote about himself, except most briefly. Once he wrote, "The Bar exam will be April 17; pray for me," and the next thing I knew, though I certainly had not prayed for him, he was a lawyer. If he had really needed my prayers he would never have mentioned the matter; it was a joke. He (and all Philomathic, I should think) was above the Bar.
On the other hand, it seemed perfectly natural to me, and apparently to him too, that he should interest himself (for example) in my passion for D.R. and never once mention whether he himself had, or wanted, a girl-friend, or suffered or wept. I never even found out why he had not been drafted like the rest of us. He stayed behind, a civilian clearing-house of information for those of us who wrote to him. Whatever his disability may have been, it did not prevent his later having an active career as a lawyer, and a wife and three children. He died of cancer when seventy years old, but that cannot be called extraordinary.
So my letters to him were about me, and his letters to me were about me. Mostly. From time to time he would run off into abstractions, philosophical observations or dilemmas he would invite me to address. Commentary on books he was reading and the like. I was annoyed sometimes, that he would refer so briefly to what I had just written him and then go off on what was not even a tangent, just something that seemed for some reason to be on his mind at the moment. Plato. Justice. War. Historians as liars. Latin tags on postcards. I was not the only one to whom he wrote this way, I discovered as time went on; for my old Philomathic friends mentioned, in their own wartime letters to me, having received letters from Phil giving not only this or that piece of news, but learned instruction and philosophical argument too. He was an institution, but also a curiosity.
One card (December 11, 1943) reads, in its entirety, "Quos deus vult perdere, prius dementat!" I remember receiving it and wondering what I could have written him to deserve that. I think now, nothing; he just liked the line and could think of nothing else to say. Or he was in a hurry and owed me a letter. Another read, "Lascate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate." In those days I had to go to dictionaries to find out what these things meant. Looking through the letters from him that I still have, and remembering my life and loves, I realize that I must have thrown away many of those impersonal letters. They would interest me now, I think, more than they did then.
Even so small a file of his letters as I still have makes a lot of text, so I have to make careful selection if I want to give a correct idea of his general tone, which we will need in this account. My first example will be a letter addressed to me in Seymour Johnson Field, North Carolina, where I was beginning my officer's training for the Air Force; I had been in the Army for ten months by that time. Like all his letters, except for the flippant mockery by postcard, this one was typed single-space on legal-size paper. Later, when writing airmail overseas, he would use onionskin copy-paper for lightness, but always legal-size. He signed them "P" with a red crayon, and sometimes surcharged the initial with a purple thumbprint. His typing must have been very rapid, to maintain so great a correspondence as he did, and he often didn't bother to correct errors, even obvious ones.
But there are in his letters errors that are less than obvious, including misspellings and misquotations that convey, I believe, important information about his genuine state of mind, or understanding, or belief, concerning what he was saying. And in a few places he errs deliberately, as by a pun or other joke, or so I think. Sometimes, especially after all these years, it is hard to know which is which. I will therefore quote all his writings verbatim, complete with misprints and misspellings, except for omissions as noted, rather than try to correct the "obvious" misprints and place a judgmental "[sic]" after the others. The first letter reprinted below, for example, is complete except for the omission of the very last sentence, which might embarrass someone still living, and is on a subject not mentioned in the rest of the letter anyway.
To understand the allusions in this letter a few facts must be reviewed: The Philomathic was still in existence during the war, but reduced in activity by the absence of so many members and alumni who were in the armed forces. Even the most fundamental traditions of Philomathic were in danger, from the resulting lack of continuity. One of the Philomathic traditions, referred to in this letter, was the recurrent half-serious complaint by any visiting alumnus, at the beginning of his critique of the day's debate, that "The Philomathic is going to the dogs." Things had invariably been better (ha, ha) in his day. The only coded reference in this letter is to "BR." This was Bernie Rosenberg, a Central High School classmate of mine -- and indeed friend -- but a bête noir for Nusholtz; I never knew why. Bernie (like Phil) was not drafted, and was therefore one of the few Philomathians of my generation still around Detroit at that time. Oh yes: My middle name is Alexis; Phil always exhibited amusement at this. So did many of my other friends, and even teachers, who had been around long enough to know that I had chosen that name for myself when I was thirteen years old, just for vanity. It even amused me.
Detroit 6, Michigan
December 16, 1943
An ululation par excellence, my dear Alexis, and exceeds infinitely my wildest imaginings for you. All that remains is for a boor of a sergeant to maliciously pick on you and the picture will be complete. This look proud business has the most magnificent ramifications possible. How goading and irritating it must be! And how exasperating especially when that is supposedly the only thing you have which counts towards your spiritual well being. All we can say to you is, Alas!
By a very strange happenstance we waddled into the Philomathic meeting last Sunday and there were, at the end of the meeting, four alumni and three members. The dogs have come and gotten the club. As usual there was a heated discussion going on fostered, sponsored and watered by BR. How he has the gall to speak so knowingly on any and every subject is a source of continual mystery to me. This time it was out of his finite reservoir in re women that he was boring us. His theme, and to say it shows how stupid it is, ran like this. Civilized society is one huge bourgeoisie; nobody dares now shock even his grocer. The women, "marchesane, principesse, cameriere, cittadine" and all, are become equally dangerous; the sex is agressive, powerful; when women are wronged they do not group themselves pathetically to sing "Protegga il giusto cielo"; they grasp formidable legal and social weapons, and retaliate. Political parties are wrecked and public careers undone by a single indiscretion. A man had better have all the statues in Naples to supper with him, ugly as they are, than be brought up before a criminal ct on a simple charge of indecent proporals. We look today in books for sexual attraction and not for nutrition; and to deal with it in a society in which the serious business of sex is left by men to women, as the serious business of nutrition is left by women to me. That the men, to protect themselves against a too aggressive prosecution of the women's business have set up a feeble romantic convention that the initative in sex business must always come from the man, is true; but the pretence is so shallow that it imposes only on the inexperienced. We are all now under what Burke in his peerage, said were "the hoofs of the swinish multitude."
On this point I so heartily disagree that it is useless to argue with him even on paper through you, so I desist. However let me have your sentiments on the matter for want of anything else to do in that asshole of creation you find yourself in. This business of putting you through the mill must gall your little soul...
I doubt that I answered this letter by expatiating on the place of women in contemporary bourgeois civilization; I must rather have gone on with my tales of the hardships of daily parade, white-glove inspection ("Look proud, Mister!"), and the boredom of a Saturday night in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Phil's next letter offers no clue to what I did say, but is also worth quoting, this time in its entirety. Again, a few preparatory explanations will clarify the text:
Philomathic's two annual "outside affairs" were called the Model Meeting Debate and the Oratorical Contest. For these we printed programs, invited our friends and relatives and gave prizes: a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal to the best three speakers, out of the six who had been elected by the membership to be on the program. At the Oratorical Contest, the 1943 version of which is described in Phil's letter, an engraved souvenir gavel would be presented to the preceding year's Speaker; but Larry Hertzberg had gone to the Army and so couldn't be there himself to receive it. Another fact: Servicemen in uniform could ride the Detroit streetcars and buses free of charge.
Detroit 6, Michigan
January 9, 1944
Although I probably will never actually kill Rosenberg myself I will derive a great deal of satisfaction from reading his obituary. His anthropology teacher said he is the best excuse for anti-Semitism existing today. The Philomathic held their outside affair Thursday, which I attended. There were six speeches, five of them were about the persecution of the Jews and the sixth was also on a dry subject. Rembaum came in third, Zeive first and Selesnick came in second. It wasn't such a bad affair with about 35 people there and Norman Leemon, was one of the judges. You will find the enclosed middle sheet showing everything. Rosenberg was the one that donated the Gavel to Lawrence Hertzberg's sister who received it like she was handling a wet and sticky prick. Rosenberg also gave a twenty minute speech on his experiences with the Lesbians in Polynesia.
We are of the opinion that you are going to make a soldier at last. They are going to take Alexis and make such a stereotype out of him that we will call him Stery for short. They will so remove all the individualistic characteristics that he has spent all his life developing that he will be practically indistinguishable from any of the dull tools one meets nowadays getting on the buses free. Oh what a sad, sad story! However you still maintain the inalienable right to listen to a Palestrina motet or a Bach cantata or a Lizst prelude which makes me admire you all the more and convinces that despite the small soul you possess it is made of stern metal and true. Should you find yourself convinced that you are a good soldier, then you will really be lost, but as long as you find that you are apart from the motley jetsam you are alright. Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilize power also to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and are able to send messages and news over the entire world through electric waves. However, the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized, so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle. Furthermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear. This is due to the fact that the intelligence and character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce something valuable for the community. I trust that this is the reason why you feel different from the rest rather than because you are different.
I suppose I found the praise of my intelligence and individuality in this letter more interesting than the familiar commentary on the injustices of the capitalism and war (New Deal fare, as I see it now), but it didn't trouble me to pay for the one by reading the other. Some of the letter was undoubtedly directed to me, for example the comment on Rosenberg, who -- needless to say -- had never been in Polynesia; and it was good to see, sitting on my bunk in a tarpaper barracks in North Carolina, the program for the Oratorical Contest with all its familiar names -- all so far away from what was in fact a hard life, even if I called it so. That chaffing about whether or not I was becoming a Good Soldier was, on the other hand, something Phil was probably writing to all the soldiers he knew, and the business about technology -- well, it filled the page. Phil's letters were almost always exactly one (legal-size) page long, so that his signatory initial in red or purple crayon always overlapped the last few words, in the southeast corner of the page.
He was a regular correspondent, and faithful. If I answered, so did he; I never had to write two letters to get one. Sometimes his letters were really personal, news about friends who had come home on leave, about girls I had left behind, about a friend who had been killed in the war, or about some personal matter I would myself bring up. To reproduce one of this sort here would require a lot of editing, or censorship; they are in my files, where they can be studied by my children, as Phil suggested, after the death of the people mentioned there, and me. Fortunately our present purpose does not depend on this sort of thing. Among the wartime letters that could (but won't) be quoted in full, because of its impersonal nature, there is this one, dated October 22, 1944, beginning,
What to me in life achieves the ultimate of the fantastic as well as the ridiculous, is the exaltation of the human as opposed to, or set over against, the natural or creative forces by which man finds himself surrounded. When he is not busy overestimating his own significance and powers as compared to these others, he becomes fearful and falls down before them ...
and going on like that for most of the (precisely one, legal-sized) page, to end:
...For instance, an Anaxagoras decieds that the atom alone must be the basic unit of the Universe. And forthwith how astounding is the mind of Anaxagoras. Or a Leonardo, after puzzling over the flying of birds, succeeds in suspecting that some day man must fly. How astounding the mind of Leonardo! Again, a Newton seeing an apple fall to the ground discovers the law of Gravitation! How supremely great Newton! But before Anaxagoras were atoms. And before Leonardo, birds flew. And before Newton, there was the law of gravitation. And today -- and day after day, whenever any one individual here on earth finall senses we hear other men exlaiming in admiration and awe; Hearken! Behold! How great is the mind of man! He has discovered that apples fall to the ground, that birds fly. But in reality should we not celebrate rather the greatness of the thing discovered rather than the greatness of the discovery? And what in the hell is wrong with Chamber music as long as you don't pay too close attention to it.
I don't suppose I paid much attention to that letter, either, except maybe the last line, which was apparently the only one addressed to me personally, though as a sort of joke. I must have earlier written Phil something concerning chamber music, which I was at that time getting to hear in Boston, where I was stationed.
It may seem strange, a phrase like "...chamber music, which I was getting to hear...", when I was over twenty years old and passionate about music; but one must understand that the availability of music in 1944 was nothing like today's. The few concert programs regularly scheduled on radio in most places were weekly: Toscanini and the NBC Symphony on Saturday nights, the Sunday afternoon concerts of the New York Philharmonic, and the odd program advertising Victor Records, on which three-minute fragments of recent releases were played between announcements. It was a rare college student who had a record player, and the heavy and expensive 78 rpm shellac records were not the sort of thing a soldier carried around the army with him. I therefore was well acquainted with the best-known symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, for example, but had only the dimmest idea that they had written other sorts of things; and I had no knowledge at all of the quartets of Haydn or the sonatas of Scarlatti -- not even of their existence.
That was good duty, Boston in 1944. I was a Lieutenant already, an electronics officer, living on a per diem allowance in digs of my own choosing and taking a special electrical engineering course at Harvard preparatory to the study of the airborne radar sets whose maintenance would later be in my charge. At Boston University's Jacob Sleeper Hall there was a series of chamber concerts that I attended when I got the chance. I should have been happy.
It was there I first heard Mozart's quartet for oboe and strings. I can remember that room, and that night, so much better than I can remember Phil's letter, for all that the letter is now here before me while the sound of the oboe is vanished these forty-five years. Surely I hadn't written Phil that there was anything wrong with chamber music. To the contrary, that remembered Bach partita had long since displaced D.R. herself in my imagination, and there was another girl now. I must have written Phil all about her; why was he inattentive?
What a disappointment, to get a letter about the smallness of the mind of man when compared to the greatness of the universe outside. I couldn't have been much pleased, either, by the line, "He has discovered that apples fall to the ground, that birds fly." Could this be Phil's notion of Newton's differential equations, of Leonardo's imagined mechanisms, of what science is about?
If an Air Force Lieutenant stationed in Boston can be lonely and sad, think of him on an airfield near Chandler, Arizona, where I was when the war ended. And then, think of him two months later, with the 419th Night Fighter Squadron on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, there for no reason but the inertia of military planning. I arrived in October of 1945, to join a squadron fully mobilized and prepared for an invasion of Japan that never took place. I wrote letters to everyone; they wrote to me. Life was in suspension.
One of the last letters from Phil in my "wartime" collection was dated February 13, 1946. It contained news of the Philomathic, now augmented by returning veterans, and how Phil prevented their suspending the Constitution in the nick of time -- a technical matter, but indicative of his continued solicitude. He enclosed a book review of Schroedinger's now-classic book, What is life?, saying that he could not fully credit the reviewer's praise:
To think that anyone should place anything else in the category of L'Abbé Mendel's magnum opus. But let me know if you want the book and I shall send it on to you inasmuch as I think that I have access to it. Otherwise I have given orders to send you two books a week from the doubleday doran, by air mail so you should be getting a flock pretty soon.
And then, towards the end of the letter:
I am reading All of G.B. Shaw's plays, which is also on the list to be sent to you. These, although maybe heavy for the south pacific might lighten the burden you are having doing nothing.
In the spring of 1946 the 419th moved to Floridablanca, a bleak airstrip near Clark Field, north of Manila. The war was long over by then, and it seemed I would be getting home by summer. I was thinking about Ann Arbor again. Most of the squadron had gone home, the library was full of books, and there was no enemy but boredom. I would lie on my bed listening to Ravel or Handel through the crackling and havering of the shortwave transmission from Saigon or Hong Kong (respectively), and when music and crackling palled I would write, or read. I read long books, at enormous leisure: Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, for example, in a paperbound Armed Forces Edition. And I waited.
I wrote to the University: Would they take me back in September? I had heard that with the veterans flooding the campuses there might not be room left by the time I got back. Three and a half years of my youth had already been wasted, from an academic point of view. I wrote to Phil: Would they take me back in September?
Detroit 6, Michigan
March 17, 1946
You may rest assured that you will be in school, if you are here, for the next semester. I have already made arrangements for your name to be on the list of applicants for the september session. They have clost to 14,000 students there now and this is the biggest bunch of students they have ever had. Also there isn't a house to be had in the hole of ann arbor except in quonset houses in willow run and thereabouts, but the living conditions are as bad as all you have heard and worse. But when I was out to AA last week, as soon as I got your letter, I went in to the deans office, put your name down for a dorm as well as application to attend and they said they would write whenever they open up enrollment. But I can only warn you that you had better be here, or else my honor, my sacred word and above all my integrity will be shot to shit. Also I must have a letter from you authorizing me to do all and everything necessary to your continued education. Have it either notorized or signed by your superior officer, prefarably McArthur, but in lieu of him any old chicken will do.
The philomatchic is putting on its first outside affair in about two½ years which consequently means that adds are to be gotten. Maurice morse has refused to give the silver medal with the consequence that the alumni are now donating a medal in honor of the two that were killed in the major league battlegrounds.
Your brother is here in fullswing and you should be an uncle by the time that this reaches you. Shepsie is also doing well having ingratiated himself in the club by actually functioning on two committees simultaneously besides delivering one of the most erudite lectures on hot jazz that the club, which has quite a few addicts, has ever seen, or any other club for that matter.
"Shepsie" was, and is, my younger brother Shepherd, seven years younger than me and in 1946 fifteen years old. By "Your brother" Phil meant my older brother Abraham, of course. An earlier letter of Phil's, dated January 4, 1946, contained the following paragraph:
As for gossip, there is none. I could duplicate all that has gone on from time immemorial, but one generation does but mimic its progenitors in exact duplicate and we who attend prizefights by the 5000 are in nowise any different from the 5051 who attended Nero's circus maximus to see two christians beat each other with the throngs and thongs. The philomathic is back on its feet. Your brother is a member. They are to have a social on Jan 19th. I will cook the hotdogs. I will eat one in remembrance of you. They have an active membership of about 14. Last week there was quite a sizeable meeting with the following alumni in attendance in order of importance. Nusholtz, Dick Kramer, Nate Epstein, Sol Schwartz, Sid Baron, Harry Jacobs, Bill Shapiro, Martin Shapiro, and the atavism Rosenberg. It was quite a hectic session in which I gave another jab at bernie and this time he really fought back with vitriol. He was even fined a nickel for doing so.
So the dogs had only temporarily come and got Philomathic, I was glad to hear. In this letter, "your brother" meant Shep, of course. My older brother, one may infer, had come back from the war earlier on, in time to beget a child by spring. I remember looking up the word "atavism" in the dictionary when I got that letter. The nickel fine Phil mentions was a sign that Bernie Rosenberg had done something parliamentarily unacceptable, like continue speaking when the Speaker had given someone else the floor. It was the Speaker's prerogative to maintain order by fining an unruly member, and a nickel was fairly stiff in my day, when three cents was the standard. Still, by 1946 there had been some inflation. A truly unruly member of Philomathic could be ejected by the Sergeant-at-Arms, but I never heard of this being done; fines were the standard thing.
To understand the meaning of a five-cent fine it is not sufficient to know that there has been something like a tenfold inflation since that time, as measured by the price of a hamburger or an automobile. One should also recall that people were much poorer too, on average. The nickel fine was half the price of a small hamburger, but the number of hamburgers a Philomathian could afford to buy was limited in a way that middle-class high school boys of the same apparent social class can hardly appreciate today.
I was discharged from the Army in July of 1946 and returned to Ann Arbor. Phil may have been prescient, in having so frequently written me about mathematics, and humbling me with his collection of puzzles, like the Chinese Ring Puzzle and the various wooden blocks with indentations that could be fitted together into a cube, and so on, because I ended up taking a PhD in mathematics, rather than in physics as I had intended earlier. Except for a Fulbright year in Paris, I spent the years 1946-1952 in Ann Arbor, and though I visited Detroit often I did not visit Phil. He remained a friend of my brother Abraham, who lived in Detroit, and of my parents as well, curiously enough. He wrote and amended their wills, for example, even after he had retired and had officially given his practice over to one of his sons. I certainly did see him a few times during my Ann Arbor years, at a concert or party in Detroit, but we did not write letters. About all I knew about him was that he was a successful tax attorney, that he had three children during the 1950s, and that one of his hobbies was to serve as a discussion leader of Great Books seminars. These were a sort of club or class, Adult Education I suppose, but outside university walls, and somehow related to general education as prescribed by Hutchins and Adler at the University of Chicago. There was a national organization of people doing these things, and the discussion leaders underwent special training. Phil loved the classes, he told me, and was proud of his participation.
In 1952, myself also married and a father, I moved to Rochester, New York to become a professor of mathematics. When my first article appeared in print, in The Proceedings of the American Mathematical Society (1955), I pridefully sent Phil an offprint. Brief as it was, I knew it was intimidating in appearance. It had a gorgeous title, "Compact transformations and the k-topology in Hilbert space," and it glittered with mathematical symbolism. I sent copies to my brothers and parents too. Of course it was incomprehensible to a non-specialist, nor did I intend any of them to attempt, or pretend, to read it. Phil replied with a postcard containing, apart from his crayonned "P" in the corner, only the single word, "Oi!" I took this as praise, which it was.
Our letters of the 50s and 60s were few, and I didn't keep any; even the one-word postcard now exists only in my memory. It was not my habit to save my correspondence in those days, and only accident that I had kept some of the wartime pieces. But by the late sixties I had acquired administrative experience, serving as chairman or dean of this or that, and since I had the secretaries and filing cabinets that go with such duties it became tempting to begin to build my biographical record. I had always written letters to the editor of the local newspaper, and to the student newspaper at Rochester; these I mostly kept. With the increasing dignity of my titles came occasions to make speeches, and to write more elaborate "Op-Ed" pieces, and even genuine articles, for newspapers and magazines. I always made reprints by Xerox to send to my correspondents, and to file, and I know I sent some of these too to Phil, even though the letters accompanying them, and his answers if any, are mostly missing.
In the fall of 1974 I went to the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, on sabbatical leave, and I must have written to Phil from there because I have his answer:
2054 FIRST NATIONAL BUILDING
DETROIT, MICHIGAN 48226
27 November 1974
Dear Ralph, et uxor,
Your Father, whom I see at least once a month at the concerts, indicates that Vancouver is one of the greatest Cities to take a vacation in.
Of course there is a future for lawyers and particularly female attorneys. You can tell your daughter that it will be a struggle, but she will prevail. Other than this sage nonsense I can give no future hope. It is amazing, in the legal profession, the number of graduates who have been going into pro bono work...[Here Phil goes on for a paragraph on this subject. I had evidently written him about my daughter, who was at the time in the UCal (Berkeley: Boult hall) law school.]
Perhaps you can give me a little more detail about Vancouver and its environs and what you are doing, or is this sabbatical or have you taken time off to solve the twenty-one mathematical enigmos propounded in 1910.
"Noblesse Oblige" is interesting. Are you making it a habit to do writing or is this an alternative to the ennui?
Your Mother has been receiving cards or pictures of my boys for over two decades. In the beginning, with the first child, I thought the entire world was interested in my produce and so, I commenced taking an annual picture and sending it to all and sundry. By the fifth year the enlightenment that the interest was not there, and that it never existed, did not deter me from sending out cards, since it had now become a sanctified ritual. whether peopel are interested or not and whether there's a reason, is secondary. I now have an established ritual of taking a picture of my children which I add to my collection for my own personal happiness. Your Father always shows great delight in making a point about the way he watched them grow up, via Eastman Kodak. But I have made the record.
In answer to your query, they are presumed to be all my sons and the blond in the middle is the middle son who has several recessive characteristics which are not indigenous to our family. Blond hair, blue eyes, left-handed, and double-jointed, which is proof that the genetic deity moves in mysterious circles its wonders to perform.
Does Vancouver have a source for petite Madelaines?
At the bottom of this letter is a list, in my own handwriting, of the reprints I had sent him, five of them, including the one called "Noblesse Oblige" he referred to. I entered it so that in my next letter I would not repeat any enclosures. As it happened, my next letter seems to have been over four years later, and it is the earliest entry in the file in my possession that was written by me to him (in Xerox copy), and not from him to me.
My own spelling was not perfect either, I now see. As I did with Phil's letters I shall also quote my own writing verbatim, without inserting the distracting "[sic]" after each error, pun, or stylistic curiosity. In place of a letterhead, in this particular letter, I used a copy of a squib I had found in a magazine somewhere:
The school will emphasize the basic sciences, however, he said. "Compassion and sympathy can not compensate for scientific ignorance. You have to have both." -- San Juan (P.R.) Star.
22 January 1979
Leafing through my files, as I sometimes do on a grey afternoon, than which they come no greyer than in Rochester, I found a letter from you to me in Vancouver dated 1974. My younger daughter Diana was at that time a law student in Berkeley. You commented on the amount of pro bono work being done these days -- at the public expense, for the most part -- and on other things. Photographs of your children.
Diana is now a member of the California and Michigan bars and practises in Ann Arbor, where she has joined a firm called Matuzak and Stillwagen. It consists of Matuzak and Stillwagen, and now Raimi. If you ever have any business to throw their way, go ahead. Since this is Diana's first year of practise, she has not yet got into the public good, but she expects to. My own view is that the public good is best served by providing what the public will pay for, assuming they are free to pay or not pay. At least, to a first approximation. In the waning years of the present decade, even the young are coming around to that point of view. I hope.
I enclose three of my recent newspaper pieces. Two of them were followed by a certain amount of controversy, as you'll see. I would write more on the subject of the law if the paper would print it, but they prefer me to write on subjects on which I am a certified expert. Like Helsinki.
If you ever had any respect for certified experts in linguistics, prepare to lose it now..
love, or as H.L. Mencken
used to write,
Yrs. in Christ,
With the letter I enclosed some pieces I later included in my collection, Vested Interests. They had all appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which is known locally as the "D & C." One concerned the law: the question of whether a court could or should compel testimony from a journalist who had promised confidentiality to his sources. That article had generated several objections in the letters column of the D & C, which I also enclosed. Another article concerned the recent International Congress of Mathematicians meeting in Helsinki, where a certain Russian Jew had not been permitted to leave his country to receive the Fields Medal, our equivalent of a Nobel Prize. The third concerned recent deplorable (in my view) trends in written and spoken English, and was not of exceptional interest except in that five professors of linguistics, colleagues of mine and well acquainted with me, had written a heated rejoinder in the form of a letter-to-the-editor, a rejoinder demonstrating that they had quite misunderstood, totally, disastrously and hilariously misunderstood, what I had written. It was a nice packet, and as usual I was hoping to impress Phil with my erudition and wit. He wrote back immediately.
2054 FIRST NATIONAL BUILDING
DETROIT, MICHIGAN 48226
25 January 1979
Dear Dissident (or should I say provocateur),
Obviously the D and C is a fine outlet for some of your minority opinions. Let me congratulate you since the style is excellent. Some of the grammar, of course, could be a little more polished, but the expression is consistent with the Philomathic tradition. that you have left fifth dimensional tensors and are moving through non-Euclidean dialectics is probably something that no other Mathematician in your Department dares to do.
I shall make contact with Diana and if she is willing and capable I shall throw some business her way. Your intimation that the public should pay for the services she renders to them has overtones of Ayn Rand who inferred that there is a virtue in selfishness which I found to be diacritical from all of the other anti-pro-bono philosophies.
Insofar as the teapot tempest brewing with the variegated Professors I maintain that language should not be puristically viewed. Although there should not be new rules, it is difficult to find that the rigid approach to syntax and absolutism in use is a proper way of life for a language user. I agree that there should be some resistence, but History has indicated that what is taboo yesterday becomes abandoned or perfectly acceptable today, and therefore, all sorts of tolerances should be permitted.
In Israel the decision to make Hebrew the national language was immediate and profound. Since the language is devoid of much of the expressiveness of the romance languages, for instance, a large committee was set up to introduce new words, no rules of grammar, and all sorts of additions to the foremat. This is an official government pronunciamento which has never been done with Latin, used as it has been through the centuries, or any other language to my knowledge. In France a committee was set up to eliminate American neologies, even the word le Drug-store.
I have re-read your Opium of the People article which begins "My brother taught me to read." What did your other brother teach you?
In my next letter to you I would like to go into your biography. My last letter to you, according to my files, was 1 June 1975. There seems to be a hiatus in your letter replies.
This reply disappointed me a bit, in that Phil seemed to have missed the point of my controversy with the five linguists, or didn't care, and confined himself to a rather banal comment on the inevitability of language change. Possibly he too had misunderstood me, and thought I was being a purist, a "schoolmarm" as it used to be said of those who excoriated the split infinitive and the use of "ain't." Well, I had plenty of time to go into that. Phil's desire to "go into" my biography was flattering, and I was quite willing to write about myself as well as about the history of language or whatever was on his mind. Had I ever written to him about anything other than myself? I suppose I was curious about him, too, but being five years younger all my life never permitted me to feel entitled to discuss his affairs. Maybe now. In any case I looked forward to a renewal of our correspondence.
In a very dusty cardboard box in a little closet-like enclosure off the attic I had (and still have) all the letters that survive, that were sent to me during my Army days, more or less. I knew that a lot of Nusholtz letters were there, but I had not looked at them, not at any of them, for thirty-three years. In the same box were also letters from Shel Kushner, Vic Baum, Ernie Schwartz, Henry Geller and a few other of my contemporaries, for the period 1943-1946, and I had actually read a couple of them during those thirty-three years for one reason or another. Once I copied a 1944 letter from Ernie, to whom I hadn't written in fifteen years, and sent it along with a letter of my own asking some question his own letter had left unanswered in 1944, as if I had just then received it and were continuing a conversation that had suffered a short interruption. Ernie was astonished and pleased (he had just retired from his business in Detroit and moved to Arizona), and wrote me a pleasant reply, in which he did explain the point he had left obscure. It brought back a lot of memories, to both of us. Well, I expected much the same thing now, in going back to that box to ruminate on the Nusholtz correspondence.
They were in their envelopes, tied in a bundle in string, in chronological order. The one on top was postmarked Detroit, July [something], 1942. The envelope was one that had been imprinted by the Post Office with an embossed red 2-cent stamp forming part of the envelope. Since the price of out-of-town postage was 3 cents, Phil had had to add a green 1-cent stamp. The printed return address was that of Louis Glasier, a downtown Detroit lawyer (but not a Philomathic alumnus, now that I think of it) for whom Phil had been working that summer, between terms of law school, and the letter itself was addressed:
R F D 1
It was my first letter from Phil, I believe, and certainly the oldest in the file, though we had already had much to do with each other by 1942. That summer, during which I was a counselor at camp, was about four months after my run-in with the academic honesty authorities at Michigan, and about eight months before I was to become a soldier. The main thing on my mind, however, was certainly D.R., and I suppose I had written Phil all about her (not that he hadn't heard my woes before) in the week or two before this reply:
July 28, 1942
You are probably aware by now that your brother and I played variations on a game of poker last Thursday. And, as it must during all poker games, we engaged in discussion. To minimize the encomium as much as possible let me merely say that our mouthings were about you and especially your analytical ability. Your brother holds that the mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. With this I could only take issue and offer no disproof not having the hundred years hence ontological explanation. But I did realize that we appreciate the analytical powers only in their effects. It is my contention that we know of them among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of liveliest enjoyment as you yourself can testify. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such kinesthetic exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupation, such as a puzzle made of twisted nails, which bring his talents into play. He is found of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural. And your borther held in an offhand remark that the faculty of resolution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially the highest branch of it which unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations has been called as if par excellence, analysis. Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. And with this I took issue with him holding that the only good mathematics is, other than its practical applications in science and industry, to solve a math problem. When your brother held that the mathematical reason has always been regarded as the reason par excellence he was committing the error in reasoning that the people did who held the world was flat merely because it was held so by centuries before. If I'm not mistaken Chamfort said, "Il ya à parrier que toute ideé publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle a convenu au plus grand nombre. The mathematicians have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which your brother tenaciously clings to, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy of a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term analytical into application to geometry. The argument we had was of course over the meaning of words. I think, and rightly so, that if a term is of any importance, if words derive any value from applicability, then forms of `analysis' conveys algebra or geometry about as much as in Latin, ambitus implies ambition, religio - religion or homines honesti a set of honorable men. I'm writing you to find your ideas on this subject inasmuch as I find that you have transcended the petty mechanical features of math and are beginning to plumb, from an eclectic standpoint, the philosophical bases and theories behind the whole of math. Although I didn't mention it I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason, which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstracly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity, in other words empiricism. The great error which Abraham didn't see was that one could suppose that even the great truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has not been received. Mathematical axioms are not, though they have held to be, axioms of general truth. What is true of relation, of form and quantity, is often grossly false in regards to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemsitry also the axiom falls. In the consideration of motive, it fails also; for two motives each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united equal to the sum of their values apart. Their are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolute, general, applicability.
Do you see what I'm driving at? If not go back and re-read certain portions of my reasoning and perhaps you can understand me. No doubt you will agree with your brother since you are so finely steeped in the lore, shall we say, of mathematics. However I would like you to admit, at least, that an argument of a sort exists. And, if possible, could you defend your side if you care to deny me. But do not argue from the finite truths of math but rather use, not to be trite, Hegelian dialectics. Whether I shall see you again to give a verbal encounter is a moot question because of the army.
You probably have seen Sam Schwartz who told you that I had a host or rather a plethora of puzzles stocked up. They have been coming to me from all parts of the country from friends of mine at school who know my mania. But it is all to the good inasmuch as they are all gratis, although one did arrive collect, $1.25. I hope that you are keeping up with your reading. What with being in charge of what Shepsie calls a stupid senior (sic) group I can imagine that there is plenty excess time in which you can skirt and probe the realms of fancy even though there are more banal things to look after. A report also reaches me of certain sexual atrocities on your part. Atrocious from the standpoint that your normal acts are not abberational as my informer would lead me to believe. But you must let me know more.
At present I'm working downtown in an attorney's office, being a quasi-lawyer-filing-clerk-barrister-confidant- and general all around kibitzer. They say the stuff I'm writing on is legal paper, but from whatI've seen put on it, they might as well call it toilet paper. You can write to me home, P.N. 2940 Collingwood, Detroit.
My love to Sam and my regards to the 32 year old Mr. Schwartz whom the girls tell me is quite a macrogenital.
I remember receiving that letter in Camp Mehia, and I remembered it just as well on that February day in 1979 when, in the attic room here in Rochester, I opened it again. I recalled (in 1979) how I had had to put together (in 1942) the parts of the word "macrogenital," and how I wondered what he could be referring to when he wrote of my "sexual atrocities." (I still wonder; I think he was just having fun with me.) That was pretty funny about the legal paper, too, but the rest of the letter, the part about analysis, had just washed over me in 1942. I hadn't understood it, and I had been a bit puzzled about why my brother Abraham should have spent so much time on philosophic quarreling about mathematics, of all things, and at a poker game. I suppose I allowed, in 1942, for Phil's usual hyperbole, and then forgot about it.
Not so in 1979. The words were familiar, not as haunting as the appoggiaturas in the Mozart oboe quartet, but more familiar than they would have been if I had only seen them that one time thirty-seven years before. The sentiment was perverse: mathematicians do not in fact think the way Phil seemed to imagine, and mathematics itself, especially what is now called "analysis", is not as he was picturing it. And there was something about the language...
Within twenty minutes I found it, in Edgar Allen Poe's The Purloined Letter. In my own living room was -- still is -- a Heritage Edition of Poe stories, and on pages 284-285 appears this passage:
"But is this really the poet?" I asked. "There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet."
"You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect."
"You surprise me," I said, "by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence."
"'Il y a à parier,'" replied Dupin, quoting from Chamfort, "'que toute idée publique, toute convention reçue, est une sottise, car il a convenue au plus grand nombre.' The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term 'analysis' into application to algebra. The French are the originators of this particular deception; but if a term is of any importance -- if words derive any value from applicability -- then 'analysis' conveys 'algebra' about as much as, in Latin, 'ambitus' implies 'ambition,' 'religio' 'religion,' or homines honesti' a set of honorable men." "You have a quarrel on hand, I see," said I, "with some of the algebraists of Paris; but proceed."
"I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra are abstract or general truths., And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation -- of form and quantity -- is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability -- as the world indeed imagines them to be..."
The rest of Dupin's disquisition was not used by Phil. Comparing the two texts showed that Phil had not transcribed it perfectly (even apart, of course, from his own interpolations, like "When your brother held...", and "If I'm not mistaken, Chamford said, ...") His French, which had so impressed me in Camp Mehia, was not perfect, for example; he had copied "idée" as "ideé", and "parier" as "parrier". And the ideas! It was no wonder, I saw in 1979, that I had not understood in 1942 what Phil seemed to be driving at; for he had not understood it either. Today, having read something of the history and philosophy of mathematics and knowing (more or less) how a non-mathematician like Poe would have looked at the world of mathematics in 1830, and taking into account how Poe the journalist must have estimated the taste and understanding of his own paying audience, I can see why he had Dupin say these things in this way. But Phil? What the hell did Phil think he was doing?
I didn't immediately look at the other Nusholtz letters in the box, and it still didn't occur to me that they also might contain plagiarisms. I stopped with that one letter, and it turned out to be some years before I looked at the others. I never did try to run down his other sources. Those lines, for example, about the atoms of Anaxagoras, and "How supremely great Newton!" -- it shouldn't take too long to find their original, I think.
But that 1979 day I unthinkingly imagined that the Poe was a unique example, and I was more than a bit proud of myself for having so quickly recognized its source, especially since I hadn't read Poe for many years. Phil was still Phil, and I was by no means horrified by the plagiarism. Phil had been 21 years old when he wrote that letter, and if I were to count the stupidities (including deception, I would have to admit) I had myself committed for vainglory or whatever, at that age, I'd never be done. It absolutely didn't occur to me (though, having read the rest of the file, I now find it obvious) that this particular letter was typical; that Phil had made a practice of writing letters straight out of the Great Books; and that calling this single example to his attention, with witty admonitions, would end our friendship.
12 August 1979
It is true that as the years go by I write less in the way of letters than I used to. Perhaps because now that I am paid $ for some of my writing I must save my ideas that once flowed so freely. Another reason is that I am no longer in the Army.
In 1943-46 I wrote a snowstorm of letters, to you, my older brother, my parents & Shep [Shep lived with my parents], Kushner, Baum, E J Schwartz, a couple of soldiers I met early in my career, about four women with whom I was in love three times a day or so, and to a lesser degree another couple dozen friends and relatives. Alas, I no longer have those letters, and my friends probably haven't kept them either. You returned my letters to you, from the foot locker they shared with the writings of your other wartime correspondents, in July of 1946. I destroyed or lost them.
Curiously enough, however, I remain in possession of a considerable file of letters from you to me, and postcards saying things like "Quos deus vult perdere, prius dementat!" These letters run from consoling thoughts sent to the lovesick R at Camp Mehia in August of 1942 to consoling thoughts sent to (lovesick) R in Clark Field (P.I.) in March of 1946.
So when your last letter ended with an announcement that you "intended to go into [my] biography" in your next letter, and the complaint that my replies to your letters lacked promptness, I went back to my old file for inspiration. Lo, what did I find in Item # 1? Some strangely familiar sentiments concerning analysis, thoughts that could not have been written by a mathematician or serious philosopher of mathematics or science, and yet in a 19th century style -- how shall we say -- not entirely redolent of the ambient culture of 2940 Collingwood. It was not hard to remember where, and a moment's work to go there.
And so I look at my newly unearthed file of letters marked P and wonder: Will I find therein a summary of the best critical writing of western civilization, from Montaigne (--nay, Cicero) to Eddington, where I had thought to find warmth & instruction? And does it matter? Well, sez I, if memory serves: Caninunt Soporificum Habemum. And if memory don't serve, what does?
-------- -------- --------
I have never read Ayn Rand, but I have been told that she is nutty on the subject of individual freedom not because it maximizes the GNP but because freedom is morality. What morality may be, I am told, she doesn't quite say.
I tend to agree with her, or what I know of what she believes, but my philosopher on this matter is Hayek, whose Constitution of Liberty is insufficiently celebrated. The Road to Serfdom, much shorter, is better known, and carries the same lesson of course but doesn't cover all the ground as well. Milton Friedman's Capitalism & Freedom is a more pointed tract to the same purpose.
You must not believe, therefore, that if I rail against some current fashion, such as an unnecessary and even obfuscatory neologism, it follows that I recommend legislation. There is too much law, and my views on lawyers are not far different from those of Molière and Daumier; we must create new laws with some care lest the cost of their application exceed their putative value.
-------- -------- --------
You are right to call attention to my use of the term "my brother." My other brother is one your letters have always called to my attention; I'm not sure why. We are on formally good terms (which Shep and Abraham are not) that go beyond mere courtesy, but we are not close. Our characters are as different as our interests, and we have known this from childhood.
Encl: Don't Punish the Police by Freeing the Thief
P letter of 1942
Passage from Poe: The Purloined Letter
One should never send an important letter, one whose diplomacy is uncertain, on the day of its writing. Within a day of sending out this letter I was sorry. Phil would take it as a slur, perhaps as a gesture of superiority on my part, an attempt to one-up him, as I might have done forty years earlier at Philomathic, had I been his age. Maybe that would have been true, too; one does not always know one's own motives. Of course I always wanted to look important to him, but not to denigrate him. He was like my brother, or my parents. One wants to gather honors in the sight of one's parents, but the parents do not thereby feel put down, nor was that the child's intention. Parents are proud of the accomplishments of their children, and do not, except in morbid cases, feel eclipsed or insulted when the child brings home evidence of that accomplishment.
I had sent Phil reprints of mathematical journal articles, and op-ed pieces as they appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle, not to tell him he was no mathematician or no writer, but to show him what his protégé had done. And until now, he had taken it so, even being a bit patronizing in his replies ("Oi!"), as befitted an elder. My discovery of his page of Poe could not be hidden without introducing a falseness into our correspondence, or so it appeared to me. Having discovered the plagiarism I was -- against my will --- one-up on him, and he didn't yet know it; leaving matters that way would have changed everything. It would have converted Phil into an inferior. Can one bring one's problems to an inferior?
Sending him the evidence was, it seemed to me, necessary to restore the balance. He could laugh at the pretensions of his youth, in my presence, and that would be that; we would go on to discuss the common law, or love, or socialism, as in olden times. And my chaffing him about whether the rest of his letters were an outline of the Great Books or whatever -- that was intended as a joke. I remembered that he had often written impersonally, philosophically, in a self-consciously learned way, as if speaking under Good of the House; and I was referring to that aspect of his letters, without suspecting that they contained more plagiarisms than I had that day discovered.
But when Phil did not immediately answer, and I had leisure to think things over, I became anxious. If discovery of his plagiarism had changed our relationship, and I could see that it had, my calling it to his attention had not been the way to fix it. What I did not at first understand was that there really was no way for me, at age 55, to sit at the feet of this honorary alumnus, and that any attempt to do so was false from the beginning, whatever Phil may have done or not done in 1942.
Phil's answer took nearly five months. It was typed by himself with errors as always, but for the first (and last) time included a formal address to me instead of a simple "Dear..", as for example the "Dear...provocateur" of his preceding letter.
2054 FIRST NATIONAL BUILDING
DETROIT, MICHIGAN 48226
2 July 1979
Ralph A. Raimi
Professor of Mathematics
College of Arts and Science
The University of Rochester
Rochester, New York 14627
When the University of Michigan made their facilities available to me in September, 1940, the Library became the focus of most of my waking time, and a considerable portion of my sleeping time, since I dreamt about the stuff immensed in the bindings.
The Freshman year, with 300 students in my class, was competitive and (a al Hobbes) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. With the declaration of War the tri-decimation occurred and my graduating class had six (6) graduates, of which altogether the Army could not make one (1) 1-A. Consequently, the Library became all mine.
The courses in Law School were over-simplified, almost abandoned by the Professors, and I graduated with honors, with distinction, with medals, with fanfare, and as my Mother frequently said, in the top six of my class. All of the above is a prolegomenon to my letter-writing to you and others.
One of the first books devored and ingested was the Holmes (Oliver Wendell, Jr.) - Pollack letters. I became entranced, hyper-ventilated, and extraordinarily addicted to the notion that I too could write such magnum opera. And so, with your et alii I began those correspondences, one of which you returned to me in your letter of February 14th. Since then I have read and re-read a huge quanta of the Greats and Near Greats. Most of the correspondence I kept, including yours, and copies of my letters to you. Because they became so bulky I returned them over a couple of decades. Your second paragraph indicates that they have been destroyed or lost.
A recent acquisition has been the Nabakov-Wilson letters which are magnificent because these two are Titans of style and devore one another with gothic ferocity.
Horizon Magazine of July, 1979 carrys a series of letters between Ray Bradbury and Bernard Berenson which are very precious, particularly since B.B. was so poignant.
Simon and Schuster published in 1940 a Treasury of The World's Great Letters, and Schuster himself wrote the introduction because being letterophile he proclaimed this book as one of his finest publications. I suggest you read it. Of course, some of the letters are brovura with an apparent eye to prosperity. Others are fascinating because of the insight into history.
When I look back over the trash I have written in the past 45 years I am appalled at the puerility, arrogance, and general pleonasm (including this one) rampant in my writings.
Apparently you are involved in a need for communication now and I shall be glad to oblige, but not at an accelerated pace. My delay in this letter was due to the income tax season, a vacation in Florida, and the birth of a granddaughter. All of which procrastinated my personal correspondence.
Last week we were at a dinner party at a friends house who is a Professor of Spanish at Wayne. We had invited some colleagues, and I sat next to a woman physicist and I asked her about current thinking on a fourth dimensioned tenors. We went into a discussion of mathematicians and I postulated the theory that all of the great contributions to mathematics were done by men before the age of 30 and inferred that somehow or other the cervical cortex was incapable of original creativity after that age. Even today! I pointed out that Pythagoras did his mucical intervals at 21. Euclid wrote his geometry at 25. Johann Muller did his prinipia at 23. Gauss did his original contribution at 24. And, although not primarily a mathematician, Einstein's special theory was done at 23. Rarely have any of the great contributions to mathematics been made after the age of 30, although Leibniz made his contribution at 39, I attribute this to a delayed puberty.
The woman argued against this concept saying that there were a whole lot of writings by the great mathematicians in their 40's and 70's. I conceded this point but irradiated my thesis that their original creativity was before the age of 30 and the rest of their contributions was commentary on the great leap into space. Perhaps you would care to amplify or speculate on why this might be so.
Well, then. It was worse than I had thought. He was embarrassed by my discovery, and he offered weak excuses where a simple confession of fatheadedness would have sufficed. Still, had that been all, it would not have been so bad. The rest of his letter did show a desire to go on in the old way, and maybe (or so I thought) I could answer in kind, and we could get on to my biography, as he had earlier suggested, or talk about Philomathic, or Bernie Rosenberg, or my brothers. He was, after all, a voice out of my childhood. As the years go by, one finds charm in talking over old times, and there are not many with whom one can do it.
But this was exactly the trouble. This letter was surely not plagiarized, but it was no more personal than those that had been. Phil's diction had not improved in forty years. The language I had found so impressive in Good of the House had not changed a bit, except maybe for the worse. What had he learned in forty years' reading of Hegel, Holmes and Nabokov, that he could write with such confidence about Pythagoras (about whom precisely nothing is known) and Euclid (ditto)? His phrasing, "I asked her about current thinking on a fourth dimensional tensor," was downright embarrassing. That he should understand nothing of tensors is to be expected; neither do my wife and father, and though I wish everybody could understand relativity I do not expect it.
But those who do not know mathematics should recognize their ignorance. To ask a physicist about "current thinking" on tensors? It is as if a newcomer to America, with a strong foreign accent and very few English words at his command, sought to indicate his fluency by saying "Twenty-three, skidoo" from time to time. There is no harm in being a foreigner with few words and an uncertain grammar, but there is something wrong with such a person who imagines a few phrases are all that distinguish his diction from that of an educated native.
I remembered a letter Phil had written to me sometime in 1942 or so, in which he asked me something like "... and are you developing your space-time intuition?" Even then the pretense of partial understanding had made me uneasy. I recall trying to make sense of it; I did not want Phil to have feet of clay. The present letter, however, left no room for doubt. His feet were pure clay, through and through. When it came to matters intellectual he could still outshine a fifteen-year-old, but I wished he wouldn't continue to do so. I didn't want him to outshine anything. I only wanted him to be an old friend, and here he was putting on a show for me, a very thin show. I suppose he felt he had to do so. He always had. He didn't actually feel inferior to me, or superior, no more did I to him, or at least I didn't want to, or really think of it in those terms; but having once been my mentor Phil knew no other rôle. It was not bravado, it was merely his duty.
Still I thought I could get him out of it. I answered within a couple of weeks, taking seriously his comments on the early age of mathematicians of originality (something everyone has been hearing all his life, I might add) in order to segué into something else. My letter was handwritten.
30 August 1979
From time to time I think of typing my letters, but it's so hard. My speed is only a little improved over writing, but the keys do something unacceptable to my style. Meanwhile I get older & less patient, and my handwriting deteriorates.
Still, I write a great deal. Probably I have already done all my thinking in this lifetime (perhaps even by age 30 as you suggest) and it only remains to pick up the fruits as they drop. Often I do not do even that: -- I get a thought beautiful & complex and still let it die without even making a note, realizing the labor that particular harvest would entail.
The notion that mathematicians and some sorts of scientists are finished at an early age is a very popular one. I wonder where it began. It is a 20th Century kind of thought (right or wrong). It is impossible to imagine Isaac Newton ever thinking such a thing, even though he himself is a spectacular example of a practically self-taught genius, who convulsed the scientific world before he was 25.
Plainly, people who are good at anything will tend to show it at an early age if the culture permits it. In the case of mathematics, the culture permits it. In the case of jurisprudence it forbids it. Thus Newton and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. probably were more or less equivalent at age 25, but Holmes was not permitted to write Supreme Court decisions for another 35 or 40 years. What he did write he could have written before; indeed almost everything he did was laid out in The Common Law and a few law review articles. But the Holmesian revolution took place later. Even when he was on the Mass. bench he was not yet in charge of the law to the degree he later was.
So when was his career finished?
Mathematics is closely allied to music in its spirit and in the sort of combinatoric imagination its creation calls for. Haydn was certainly a young genius, but he was also an old one. If he had written only Opus 76 he would still rank with Beethoven and Brahms. Mozart, a greater genius, certainly did not produce what he would have with thirty more years.
Now we have mathematicians , and have always had them, whose finest work is done at age 40 or 50, and whose finest writing, syntheses, are even later. Sure there is visible in their youths the seeds of this work, and very often particular constructions of a novelty never again seen, but so what? Had they died young they would have done for mathematics the equivalent of what Holmes would have done for jurisprudence had he died in 1880.
But that's enough. It is not a question really worth debating. What do we do with the answer -- put it in the Guinness Book of Records? That is a barroom entertainment, not an intellectual discussion.
If you wish to write to me (something your letter does not make entirely clear), I hope you will tell me something firsthand. Sixty years (more or less) must have taught you something serious and unique to yourself. That is what I would hear, and not some commentary on a Great Book. Books are fine, but at our age we are the writers, or should be. Let us enlist Montaigne or Cicero on our side when we have a point to make, sure, but let us begin with the point, one of our own, and not with Montaigne.
I would talk of justice.
Phil was a tax lawyer, and I was a mathematician. Was it arrogant of me to want to talk about the law with him, not letting him talk about mathematics with me? It might appear so, but as I see it I simply did not want him to make a fool of himself with his half-remembered legends of Euclid and Newton, his "four-dimensional tenors." Again as I see it, I was willing to sound as foolish as my ignorance might prescribe, in discussing the law with him. But there is no symmetry here; he could learn nothing about mathematics via letter-writing, while we both might explore the law to some profit. And if he were to write about something he knew something about we might overcome the posturing we had both developed so highly at Philomathic.
Of course he never answered. The chances are that he regarded my reference to Montaigne and Cicero to be further mockery about the plagiarism. They weren't. They meant no more than they said, but I couldn't have written again to explain this.
My files contain (courtesy of Xerox) one last letter from me to Phil, also handwritten, about a year and a half later. Phil had written new versions of my mother's and my father's wills, and his office, now run by his son Neal, sent me copies, as my parents had asked him to. The two wills were identical, each leaving his (or her) entire fortune to the other, if the other still lived, and otherwise equally to their three sons "per stirpes, share and share alike."
The Latin phrase reminded me of an episode in late 1942, when it was necessary for me to amend my own birth certificate. I was applying for officer training in the Army, to which I had not yet been drafted, and I needed a birth certificate for the first time in my life. When I got it from the Board of Health I found that my name had there been registered as Rolf Raimi, while all my school and college records (which the Army also required of me, along with the birth certificate) had me as Ralph Alexis Raimi. The remedy, since I was still a minor, was for my mother to file an affidavit with the Board of Health affirming that I was the same person as that Rolf Raimi of theirs; they would then issue me a new birth certificate with the corrected name.
Phil explained this to me at the time, and he personally typed out the affidavit, which he notarized after my mother had signed it. The text as I remember it went something like this:
Sylvia Raimi of 18623 Roselawn, Detroit, Michigan, appearing before me ...[etc.]... deposes and says:
That her son, born 25 July 1924 in the city of Detroit, and named Rolf Raimi upon the birth certificate filed ... [etc.]...is one and the same with Ralph Alexis Raimi, and has always been known by the latter name, under which he holds Social Security #382-18-5202, and in all his other engagements and records.
Further deponent sayeth not.
I may not have all the text quite right, but the last line is verbatim burned into my memory. I was downright enchanted with its style, and memorized it as I had memorized so much else of what Phil had written me, that I had then seen for the first time, like "...prius dementat." Now, after all these years, the equally beautiful, and new to me, "per stirpes, share and share alike." I therefore made one last attempt to jolly him, handwritten.
18 I 82
"Per stirpes, share & share alike" is one of the lovelier phrases I have seen recently, comparable with "Further deponent sayeth not" which you used in the affidavit certifying my 1942 name.
Well, it didn't work. Phil didn't answer. Maybe he thought I was mocking him. Maybe that was what he thought right from the time of my first letter enclosing the quotation from Poe. Maybe he thought -- here was an idea that took some time for me to arrive at -- maybe he thought that I had told Abraham about this whole thing, and was keeping him posted on each succeeding turn of the screw. There was no help for it. No amount of explanation or apology would do any good.
From 1979 on I only heard about Phil second hand, from my father or from Abraham. They would see him at the Detroit Symphony concerts, or by accident in a restaurant; and of course they got the yearly photo cards of his increasing family.
In 1988 I was writing an essay which included some reference to the Philomathic Debating Club. I needed some history that I thought Phil might know, for I had heard that he had done a signal service to Philomathic (just before I became a member) in straightening out its alumni files, something of great value to the Club when it came time to solicit contributions. In July I visited Detroit and thought I might phone Phil with my questions, but I was embarrassed and put it off. I decided I would write to him instead, with that question. Several questions, actually: What was the precise retirement age (I wasn't sure about the 21 year rule), how had Philomathic been founded, and how, precisely, had it died? This last point was still important to me, though I had rather lost track of Philomathic in the years of its final decline, around 1948.
It was not until the last day of that visit to Detroit that Abraham told me that Phil had cancer and was in a bad way. He urged me to give Phil a call, to cheer him a bit. But I didn't. What was I going to say to a dying man? "Hey Phil, you old plagiarist, serves you right, what?" I feared that whatever I said, it had got to where this was what he would hear. I therefore had to manage my essay without that extra bit of Philomathic history. Maybe I could still find the answers from someone else.
A week or two later I got a letter from my brother, enclosing the obituary notices, one from The Detroit News and one from the Free Press; they were essentially the same, probably revised slightly by different editors from the identical text as submitted by his family. I will quote the one from the Detroit Free Press (August 2, 1988):
PHILLIP NUSHOLTZ, 69, of Huntington Woods, died Sunday of cancer at Hospice of Southeast Michigan in Detroit. Mr. Nusholtz, a tax lawyer, was a 1943 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. He was a member of Temple Emanu-el in Oak Park and the Philomathic Debating Club. Mr. Nusholtz is survived by his wife, Shirley; sons, Guy, Dean and Neal; four grandchildren and a brother. Services were held Monday at Ira Kaufman Funeral Home in Southfield.
Abraham's letter, typed out at the bottom of the sheet on which he had printed the Xerox copies of the obituaries, was as follows. (One may notice that my brother's spelling is also not perfect.)
Phil's funeral was unusual; there were three speakers: the Rabbi, Phil's oldest son Neil who has taken over Phil's law practice, and Henry Bershas a close friend. Rabbi Rosebaum wept as he told some of Phil's secret charities ... secret so the recipient wouldn't have to be grateful. Henry too wept as he spoke of his close affection. And Neil reminisced of his childhood; once when Neil was six, he set the sofa on fire and Phil was not upset. This strained my credulity somewhat but I heard it.
Another story told by Henry Bershas concerned Phil's omniverous reading habits. In discussing this Henry remarked that Phil had the largest collection of erotica he had ever seen and welcomed his friends to pore over it at leisure. This is not common in eulogies at Kaufman's Funeral Home. Fortunately few of the listeners recognized the word "erotica".
If you notice, the obituary mentions only two organizations to which Phil belonged: Synagogue and Philomathic. Actually Phil belonged to dozens of organizations. It is curious that he only named two, and one of them Philomathic, which few people would recognize. Phil must have talked about Philomathic a lot to his family. Still, it is curious.
Phil and I were the same age, both born in June 1919. We used to talk about death and even bet who would go first. Phil complained that with his luck, he would win but have no way of collecting. As it turned out, it was not a problem.
[10 June 1992]