Working as a philosophy professor inevitably means brushing up against Greatness. I’m not entirely sure I believe in Greatness, much less its far more exalted cousin, Genius, but if you will do philosophy, you won’t escape those select human beings whose words and work long outlast their lives. Aristotle’s old bones turned to dust millennia ago, yet still we puzzle over all he said. When I was younger and first learning, I found it magical the way that made things and storied lives will last. What must it be like, I’d think, to write a book someone will read some thousands years hence? Did those who did such things know or have any indication? As I have aged, I’ve come to see it all more complicated.
Human beings are frail and fragile things, yet some will work on us like near immortals. They do what others can’t or won’t, and we pay them back with memory. They so impress us that we keep them, finding what they did of such account we’ll spend some portion of our own finite mortal hours puzzling it out. One way to think of this is to find it all a curse of sorts. Some would say the trouble with long dead Greatness is just the way it preys upon a living mind, generating the wish within oneself to do oneself that something that might last. We none of us can live forever, but one might flee or fight the sorry fact by reaching to be remembered. A philosopher might explain much about the vagaries of human conduct in just this way, seeing in our most ambitious doings a plea against forgetting, a strategy to last beyond ourselves. That might be right, but I find it unappealing and too simple. The Greats stick around because we stick with them, keeping live their doings for ourselves. And we keep most live just the bits of them we like.
Part of what I notice now I’m older is how choosy memory can be. The nigh immortal Greats with whom I pass my working hours are so much cleaner than the living. We run them through a filter of forgiveness, we scrub them down and save what’s best, preserving most what does them credit. So even as we talk of Aristotle still, we largely overlook his worst ideas – ignoring, say, his insistence that women are as irrational as children. When obliged to register such flaws, we can maybe find in them some consolation. Even the Great, we can assure ourselves, had their limitations. Old Aristotle himself can be of aid in understanding this. Even the very good, he did observe, will have akrasia, an occasional inability to let reason rule the day, for they too suffer their own weaknesses of will. However great the Great, they would sometimes be “incontinent,” the English term used for the Greek akrasia (and a word I expect gives Aristotle’s translators a soothing scatological laugh). None escape; the Great too will suffer incontinence. So it was for Aristotle and so it was for my great uncle Imon.
One night some years ago as I set in hospital with my grandfather in one of his last illnesses, we talked of travel he had undertaken. Grandpa was reflecting on the present ease of travel compared to what it once had been, back when the lack of roadside services could make all manner of inconvenience. In aid of the comparison, he described a trip he took with Imon. Their course one day of driving was fractured and fragmented by the repeated need for urgent stops, for Imon had “underestimated his prune intake and come up with the trots.” There was more he told than this, but his scandalizing recitation of all the facts I do not need to detail here. The finer content of the story matters not, what matters is the fact of it.
My great uncle Imon, my grandmother’s brother, was an educated man. He spent his life fulfilling ambitions far beyond the class to which he was born. He was a professor of English at a little college and there taught generations of Missouri youth the arts of composition. In my childhood, I found him a man of great remove from all the rest, a family anomaly in both his learning and his manner. I suspect he would have found this right and fitting. His parents prized him as a triumph and I expect he thought it apt they did. He was, in short, a pompous seeming man, but one who had indeed done more than his origins would predict. He was just the sort who might, in a family such as mine, become a Great, one whose doings stand as credit to himself and perhaps to all of us. But as my grandpa spoke, I understood that it would not be so. Imon’s interest for we the living would just then, and likely always, be his trots. This owes not to any meanness or desire to draw low the high. Instead it speaks the choosiness of memory and how for us that choosing tends. In my family, historical memory about our ancestral dead has a rather definite direction. It largely does not matter what you do, however bright or noble your achievements, we’ll find the bit we want and what we want will be what is peculiar. This has proved to be quite useful for us all.
To lodge oneself among broad culture’s Greats, to imagine that lineage as one’s own, will be chafing and unpleasant. Far happier to be joined where what gets saved is what’s peculiar because peculiar anyone can surely do. I expect it may be hard to fall afoul of such a standard for remembrance. To be sure, not all excel – Imon’s trots are modest stuff where family memory is concerned and many others well outdid him. But there may in fact be no way to fail, for a failure to be sometime odd would be truly odd indeed. I don’t aspire to Imon’s “deeds” of course, no more the others’, but I find great comfort in the style of our remembering. Our filters for our dead leave them all their troubles and even their indignities, so they better serve as succor for the living. I at least have found it so and found it most among our women.
My great-grandmother Della died long before I was born, so all I know of her is what my family would tell. They’ve told some other scattered bits and pieces, but what gets told the most is just her temper. Della once chased her husband Will across the house wielding a carving knife. She also violently thrashed a neighbor in her garden, just ran that woman to ground among the peas and tomatoes and, apparently, kicked her ass. This is what I know of Della, what family memory has collectively elected to preserve. The why of these events is always left out in the telling – no one living knows what might have provoked her, what it was that summoned up her fists and knife. I heard these stories once related as evidence that Della took the hormonal changes of aging hard. But more usually, since it all came out all right, no time is spared thinking about what Della’s temper might portend, as if women after their husbands with knives is just one of those things that can sometimes happen, and happen really to anyone.
Another great-grandmother, Dovey, had troubles never quite specified. It is generally acknowledged within the family that something was awry with her nerves. Having something awry with our nerves is likely a collective family trait, a tempting explanation for why we prefer to sit with our backs to walls and cannot abide a WalMart. Yet Dovey’s nerves were a different order of magnitude.
Dovey was, in the general way of most, a moral woman, but she feared being bad and feared committing The Mortal Sin most of all. The greater trouble was that she professed not to know what The Mortal Sin could be. It was, to Dovey’s way of thinking, something you might just stumble into the way you might a gopher hole, a thing you’d know you’d done only once it was too late. You could stumble all the way to hell, she fretted, fall into that Sin from which you don’t ever recover God’s grace or care. To do it would be to set oneself on the road to perdition and no coming back. Her fear of this was a weapon in her husband George’s hands. Whether in anger or boredom, my great-grandfather would sometimes make sport with Dovey’s fear, telling her she’d done The Mortal Sin and thereby inspiring her to terror for her immortal soul. He’d adamantly refuse to tell just the nature of the sin – he would just confidently affirm he saw her do it and feign theatrical regret that she could have acted so. Why she credited him in this, for she surely knew his character, is a story known only by her mysterious nerves. Of my great-grandmothers, Dovey is the one I wish had had a knife.
To think of Dovey inevitably leads to thoughts of George, her husband, and he works as a lesson on the way of memory. Della and Dovey stand for us as all that can be messy, all the ways the best of us may sometimes swerve a little strange. But George swerved mean and we’ve paid him back by holding fast to what he would have wanted lost. He too is an immortal of a sort, just not the way he wished.
There’s a lot to know of George, if one but wants to find it out, for he left an autobiography behind, some 50 pages he called “A Preface to My History of Life.” I suppose the title indicates that there was someday more to come, but someday never came for him so all we have is preface. To be sure, it’s more than plenty and, at any rate, in the choosiness of memory, we have largely chosen to ignore it. In his telling, his life was a redemption. “In my ramblin days I had a ruff time,” he writes. “Some times in danger, some times I didn’t care for no one, I was with bad company. I done many things that I now regret. There was times it seemed as if I wanted a chance to shoot and kill.” That does sound feisty and the sort of thing we’d like, but it’s early in the pages and the rest is duller by degrees. By his own recounting, he soon traded pistol for a Bible and settled into something better. But for all that those around him saw, though he may have lost the coarser impulse, he but settled into more studied forms of spite. What we most remember is not what tales he told himself, but what was seen and seen by those who knew him.
George was clever, to be sure, but clever turned to others’ disadvantage. His work on Dovey’s nerves was just one bit of this, but there was more. For a time, George ran a general store and chose to be a cheat. He would price beans at 10¢ a can or two for 25¢, hoping thereby to part customers with low numeracy from a little more of their money. He would run meat going off through the grinder to pink it up, the better to sell spoiled to the unwitting as fresh. Our family has other cheats, but none else that cheated poor. More generally, George reveled in petty exercises of the power one person can take over another, his pleasures greatest when tinged with dominating meanness. Family memory has not forgiven this in him. Indeed, it’s most of what we kept of George. I did know George – “Papa” to me – but only in the way that children know cross and elderly relatives they fear. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found him useful in his way.
In writing out his recollections of his life, George tried to tell us what of him to keep. He told the facts of things but colored them with fiction, with a character he did not have. He wanted to do work on memory, to record what we should keep. We are no historians, with fidelity to truth in all of its completeness. But neither will we submit to the purportedly heroic, to cleaner versions of ourselves, to memory that’s set aright where life went wrong. My people, in short, will not be steered. The character of memory as mine have sought to do it has about it a humility that George sought to deny us. To be sure, we have an eye for the arresting and dramatic – if you will chase someone with a knife, even just once, you may need to accept that this will stick with others. But the broader logic run through what we keep answers not to drama, but to frailty. None of us succeed in ever-stable self control. Temper, nerves, or even bowels will sometimes defeat the best of us. Incontinence is not the steady way of things, but still it happens to us all. And there is a good in keeping this, I find.
When I turn away from family and back to my work among the Greats of philosophy, I find it reassuring that all that labor to keep live the wise and best is not the only labor that I do. All the academic work I do will matter not to mine. They’ll find and keep instead some moment I swerve out from that. I can’t predict what it might be – we none of us control what lasts – but it will almost surely be some humbling oddity, some mortifying monument to weaknesses of temperament or will. This is a consolation of course for when incontinence may come. In doing odd, I’ll but be doing as my ancestors did and it’s easier to tolerate the sacrifice of dignity where it joins one firmer to a company of one’s own. So too, when I am gone, what will be kept will be the liveliest, I think. When the dead are only respectable and seemly, they truly do seem dead. Impressive immortal achievements be damned, maybe it’s better that someone remembers your trots and passes the tale along, preserving you from the deadening of a dignity none of the living possess.