Rain, particularly to a child, carries distinct smells and colours. Summer rains in the Tyrol are relentless. They have a morose, flogging insistence and come in deepening shades of dark green. At night, the drumming is one of mice on or just under the roof. Even daylight can be sodden. But it is the smell which, after sixty years, stays with me. Of drenched leather and hung game. Or, at moments, of tubers steaming under drowned mud. A world made boiled cabbage.
That summer was already ominous. A family holiday in the dark yet magical landscape of a country condemned. In those mid-1930s, Jew-hatred and a lust for reunification with Germany hung in the Austrian air. My father, convinced that catastrophe was imminent, the gentile husband of my aunt still blandly optimistic, found conversation awkward. My mother and her fitfully hysterical sister sought to achieve an effect of normality. But the planned pastimes, swimming and boating on the lake, walks in the woods and hills, dissolved in the perpetual downpours. My impatience, my demands for entertainment in a cavernous chalet increasingly chill and, I imagine, mildewed, must have been pestilential. One morning Uncle Rudi drove into Salzburg. He brought back with him a small book in blue waxen covers.
It was a pictorial guide to coats of arms in the princely city and surrounding fiefs. Each blazon was reproduced in colour, together with a brief historical notice as to the castle, family domain, bishopric or abbey which it identified. The little manual closed with a map marking the relevant sites, including ruins, and with a glossary of heraldic terms.
Even today I can feel the pressure of wonder, the inward shock which this chance ‘pacifier’ triggered. What is difficult to render in adult language is the combination, almost the fusion of delight and menace, of fascination and unease I experienced as I retreated to my room, the drains spitting under the rain-lashed eaves, and sat, hour after entranced hour, turning the pages, committing to memory the florid names of those towers, keeps and high personages.
Though I could not, obviously, have defined or phrased it in any such way, that armorial primer overwhelmed me with a sense of the numberless specificity, of the minutiae, of the manifold singularity of the substance and forms of the world. Each coat of arms differed from every other. Each had its symbolic organization, motto, history, locale and date wholly proper, wholly integral to itself. It ‘heralded’ a unique, ultimately intractable fact of being. Within its quarterings, each graphic component, colour and pattern entailed its own prodigal signification. Heraldry often inserts coats of arms within coats of arms. The suggestive French designation of this device is a mise en abyme. My treasures included a magnifying glass. I pored over the details of geometric and ‘bestiary’ shapes, the lozenges, diamonds, diagonal slashes of each emblem, over the helmeted crests and ‘supporters’ crowning, flanking the diverse arms. Over the precise number of tassels which graced a bishop’s, an archbishop’s or a cardinal’s armorials.
The notion which, in some visceral impact, tided over me and held me mesmerized was this: if there are in this obscure province of one small country (diminished Austria) so many coats of arms, each unique, how many must there be in Europe, across the globe? I do not recall what grasp I had, if any, of large numbers. But I do remember that the word ‘millions’ came to me and left me unnerved. How was any human being to see, to master this plurality? Suddenly it came to me, in some sort of exultant but also appalled revelation, that no inventory, no heraldic encyclopedia, no summa of fabled beasts, inscriptions, chivalric hallmarks, however compendious, could ever be complete. The opaque thrill and desolation which came over me in that ill-lit and end-of-summer room on the Wolfgangsee—was it, distantly, sexual?—has, in good part, oriented my life.
I grew possessed by an intuition of the particular, of diversities so numerous that no labour of classification and enumeration could exhaust them. Each leaf differed from any other on each differing tree (I rushed out in the deluge to assure myself of this elementary and miraculous truth). Each blade of grass, each pebble on the lake shore was eternally ‘just so’. No repetition of measurement, however closely calibrated, in whatever controlled vacuum it was carried out, could ever be perfectly the same. It would deviate by some trillionth of an inch, by a nanosecond, by the breadth of a hair—itself a teeming immensity—from any preceding measurement. I sat on my bed striving to hold my breath, knowing that the next breath would signal a new beginning, that the past was already unrecapturable in its differential sequence. Did I guess that there could be no perfect facsimile of anything, that the identical word spoken twice, even in lightning-quick reiteration, was not and could not be the same (much later, I was to learn that this unrepeatability had preoccupied both Heraclitus and Kierkegaard).
At that hour, in the days following, the totalities of personal experience, of human contacts, of landscape around me became a mosaic, each fragment at once luminous and resistant in its ‘quiddity’—the scholastic term for integral presence revived by Gerard Manley Hopkins. There could be, I knew, no finality to the raindrops, to the number and variousness of the stars, to the books to be read, to the languages to be learned. The mosaic of the possible could, at any instant, be splintered and reassembled into new images and motions of meaning. The idiom of heraldry, those ‘gules’ and ‘bars sinister’, even if I could not yet make it out, must, I sensed, be only one among countless systems of discourse specifically tailored to the teeming diversity of human purposes, artefacts, representations or concealments (I still recall the strange excitement I felt at the thought that a coat of arms could hide as well as reveal).
I set out, as many children do, to compile lists. Of monarchs and mythological heroes, of popes, of castles, of numinous dates, of operas—I had been taken to see Figaro at the neighbouring Salzburg Festival. The wearied assurance of my parents that such lists already existed, that they could be looked up in any almanac or work of standard reference—my queries about anti-popes and how to include them visibly irritated my somewhat ceremonious and Catholic uncle—brought no solace. The available indices of reality, be they a thousand pages thick, the atlases, the children’s encyclopedias, could never be exhaustively comprehensive. This or that item, perhaps the hidden key to the edifice, would be left out. There was simply too much to everything. Existence thronged and hummed with obstinate difference like the midges around the light bulb. ‘Who can number the clouds in wisdom? Or who can stay the bottles of heaven . . . ?’ (How did Job 38: 37, already know about rains in the Salzkammergut?) I may not have cited the verse to myself in that drowned August, though the Old Testament was already a tutelary voice, but I did know of those bottles.
If the revelation of incommensurable ‘singleness’ held me spellbound, it also generated fear. I come back to the mise en abyme of one blazon within another, to that ‘setting in the abyss’. Consider a fathomless depth of differentiation, of non-identity, always incipient with the eventuality of chaos. How could the senses, how could the brain impose order and coherence on the kaleidoscope, on the perpetuum mobile of swarming existence? I harboured vague nightmares at the fact, revealed in the nature column of some newspaper, that a small corner of the Amazon forest was habitat to thirty thousand rigorously distinct species of beetles. Gazing at, recopying with watercolours, the baronial or episcopal or civic arms, pondering the unlimited variations possible on formal and iconic motifs, I felt a peculiar dread. Detail could know no end.
How can a human voice cast a huge sickening shadow? On short waves, the wireless chirped and often dissolved in bursts of static. But Hitler’s speeches, when broadcast, punctuated my childhood (whence, so many years later, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.). My father would be close to the wireless, straining to hear. We were in Paris, where I was born in 1929. One of the doctors assisting at my awkward birth then returned to Louisiana to assassinate Huey Long. History was always in attendance.
My parents had left Vienna in 1924. From meagre circumstances, from a Czech-Austrian milieu still in reach of the ghetto, my father had risen to meteoric eminence. Anti-Semitic Vienna, the cradle of Nazism, was, in certain respects, a liberal meritocracy. He had secured a senior legal position in the Austrian Central Bank, with fiacre (the use of a carriage and horses). A brilliant career lay before the youthful Herr Doktor. With grim clairvoyance, my father perceived the nearing disaster. A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture. The world of Freud, of Mahler, of Wittgenstein was also that of Mayor Lueger, Hitler’s exemplar. At their lunatic source, Nazism and the final solution are Austrian rather than German reflexes. Like his friend out of Galicia, one Lewis Namier, my father dreamed of England. For the East- and Central-European Jewish intelligentsia, the career of Disraeli had assumed a mythical, talismanic aura. But he suffered from rheumatic fevers, and medical sagacity of the day held France to be the milder climate. So Paris it was, and a new start under strained circumstances (my mother, Viennese to her fingertips, lamented this seemingly irrational move). And to the end of his days, my father never felt at home among what he judged to be the arrogant chauvinism, the frivolities, the myopia of French politics, finance and society. He would mutter under his breath and unjustly that all nationals will sell you their mothers, but that the French delivered.
Of fragile physique, my father was compounded of formidable will and intellect. He found a surprisingly large portion of mankind unacceptable. Sloppiness, lies, be they ‘white’, evasions of reality, infuriated him. He lacked the art of forgiveness. His contributions to the skills of international investment banking, to the techniques of corporate finance in the period between the wars are on record. His Zionism had the ardour of one who knew, even at the outset, that he would not emigrate to Palestine. His bookplate shows a barque, a seven-branched candelabrum at its bow, approaching Jerusalem. But the holy city remains on the far horizon. Papa embodied, as did every corner of our Paris home, the tenor, the prodigality and glow of Jewish-European and Central-European emancipation. The horrors which reduced this liberal humaneness and vision to ashes have distorted remembrance. Evocations of the Shoah have, tragically, privileged the remembrance of prior suffering, particularly throughout Eastern Europe. The proud Judaism of my father was, like that of an Einstein or a Freud, one of messianic agnosticism. It breathed rationality, the promise of the Enlightenment and tolerance. It owed as much to Voltaire as it did to Spinoza. High holidays, notably the Day of Atonement, were observed not for prescriptive or theological motives, but as a yearly summons to identity, to a homeland in millennial time.
By virtue of what was to become an unbearable paradox, this Judaism of secular hope looked to German philosophy, literature, scholarship and music for its talismanic guarantees. German metaphysics and cultural criticism, from Kant to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the classics of German-language poetry and drama, the master historians, such as Ranke, Mommsen, Gregorovius, crowded the shelves of my father’s library. As did first editions of Heine, in whose mordant wit, in whose torn and ambiguous destiny, in whose unhoused virtuosity in both German and French, my father saw the prophetic mirror of modern European Judaism. Like so many German, Austrian and Central-European Jews, my father was immersed in Wagner. During his very brief spell under arms in Vienna in 1914, he had ridden a horse named Lohengrin; he had then married a woman called Elsa. It was, however, the whole legacy of German-Austrian music, it was Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Hugo Wolf, Mahler who filled the house. As a very young child, at the edge of bedtime and through a crack in the living-room door, I was sometimes allowed to hear chamber music, a lieder recital, being performed by musicians invited into our home. They were, increasingly, refugees in desolate plight. Yet even in the thickening political twilight, a Schubert song, a Schumann study could light up my father’s haunted mien. When concessions had to be made to encroaching reality, my father gave them an ironic touch: recordings of Wagner were now played in French.
Only in the posthumously published letters of Gershom Scholem have I come across the same note of helpless clearsightedness and warning. Over and over, even prior to 1933, my father laboured to warn, to alert, to awaken to refuge not only those whom he and my mother had left behind in Prague or in Vienna, but the French political-military establishment with which his international dealings had brought him into contact. His ‘pessimism’, his ‘alarmist prognostications’ elicited only officious dismissal or hostility. Family and friends refused to move. One could come to reasonable terms with Herr Hitler. The unpleasantness would soon pass. The age of pogroms was over. In diplomatic and ministerial circles, my father was regarded as a tedious Cassandra, prone to well-known traits of Jewish hysteria. Papa lived those rancid 1930s like a man trapped in cobwebs, lashing out and sick at heart. There was also, however, a more private and constant regret.
His own studies in law and economic theory had been of exceptional strength. He had published monographs on the Utopian economics of Saint-Simon and on the Austrian banking crises of the later nineteenth century. The absolute need to support various less qualified members of his family, the collapse of the dual monarchy and the aftermath of world war had thrust him into finance. He respected the importance, the technical ingenuities of his craft, but cultivated scant regard for most of those who practised it (one of the few contemporaries he acknowledged as pre-eminent, also in integrity, and whom he came, in certain outward gestures and tone, to resemble, was Siegmund Warburg). My father’s innermost passions lay elsewhere. His uncertain health had barred him from medical studies. He turned to intellectual history, to the history and philosophic aspects of biology. His learning was extensive and exact. His appetite for languages remained unquenched to the very end (he was systematically acquiring Russian at the time of his death). Investment banking occupied the main of his outward existence. At the core, it left him almost indifferent. From this tension came his uncompromising resolve that his son should know next to nothing of his father’s profession. This partition could reach absurd lengths: ‘I would rather that you did not know the difference between a bond and a share.’ I was to be a teacher and a thorough scholar. On this last point, I have failed him.
Why this elevation of the teacher-scholar rather than, say, the artist, the writer, the performer in a sensibility so responsive to music, literature and the arts? There was scarcely a museum in Paris and, later, in New York, to which he did not take me of a Saturday. It is in this instinctive preference for teaching and learning, for the discovery and transmission of the truth, that my father, in his aching stoicism, was most profoundly Jewish. Like Islam, Judaism is iconoclastic. It fears the image, it distrusts the metaphor. Emancipated Judaism delights in the performing artist, especially the musician. It has produced masters of stage and film. Yet even to this day, when it informs so much of American literature, when it can look to a Kafka, a Proust, a Mandelstam or a Paul Celan, Judaism is not altogether at ease with the poetics of invention (fabulation), with the mustard seed of ‘falsehood’ or fiction, with the rivalry to God the creator inherent in the arts. Given the limitless wonders of the created universe, when there is such wealth of actual being to be recorded and grasped by reason, when there is history to be untangled, law to be clarified, science to be furthered, is the devising of fictions, of mimesis a truly responsible, a genuinely adult pursuit? Freud, for one, did not think so. Fictions were to be outgrown as man ripened into the ‘reality principle’. Somewhere in my father’s restless spirit a comparable doubt may have nagged. Even the most Voltairean, perhaps atheist—I do not know—of Jews knows that the word rabbi simply means ‘teacher’.
Only later did I come to realize the investment of hope against hope, of watchful inventiveness, which my father made in educating me. This, during years of private and public torment, when the bitter need to find some future for us as Nazism drew near, left him emotionally and physically worn out. I marvel still at the loving astuteness of his devices. No new book was allowed me till I had written down for his inspection a précis of the one I had just read. If I had not understood this or that passage—my father’s choices and suggestions aimed carefully above my head—I was to read it to him out loud. Often the voice clears up a text. If misunderstanding persisted, I was to copy the relevant bit in my own writing. At which move, it would usually surrender its lode.
Though I was hardly aware of the design, my reading was held in balance between French, English and German. My upbringing was totally trilingual, and the background always polyglot. My radiant mama would habitually begin a sentence in one tongue and end it in another. Once a week a diminutive Scottish lady appeared to read Shakespeare to and with me. I entered that world, I am not certain why, via Richard II. Adroitly, the first speech I was made to learn by heart was not that of Gaunt, but Mowbray’s farewell, with its mordant music of exile. A refugee scholar coached me in Greek and Latin. He exhaled an odour of reduced soap and sorrow.