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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

An Unexpected Essay (Part II)

Author: Nicholas Fox Weber


Well over twenty-five years ago, the extremely helpful Dr. Solnit and I agreed mutually that the seven-year-process of psychoanalysis was complete. But, just knowing it is for you that I am writing, the thoughts and memories have again started to flow unhampered. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I am back in Connecticut, which is rare in my life, and is where I always saw Dr. Solnit. Of course, I do not mean “saw,” since I was on the couch, and never observed his face during the forty-five minute sessions.

Lying there, I faced only the photo of someone I assume to have been my doctor’s son kayaking in rough water, and, on the back of the closed office door, on a bulletin board, among other things, a postcard of the main street of Skibbereen, in southwest Cork in Ireland. From early in my treatment I talked to Dr. Solnit frequently about that town and its surrounding region, since my wife and I spent our honeymoon in 1976 fishing on the Ilen River near Skibbereen and subsequently created our family’s paradise in a nearby coastal village. It was after at least a year of analysis that Dr. Solnit asked me why I had not identified and recognized the scene of the postcard.

Skibbereen, he explained in his avuncular voice, was where he and Dr. Joseph Goldstein and Anna Freud went to buy groceries whenever they were together in the nearby village of Baltimore, where they collaborated on research and writing. Subsequently, my wife and daughters and I went to find the exact house where Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham lived. The only person who could locate it for us was an elderly shopkeeper, a wizened lady who simply said, “Oh, you mean the two German sisters.”

Periodically during the remaining six years we would go back to discussing why I had not spotted Skibbereen on that postcard, why I did not see what was right before my eyes.

As I say that, I shudder. Many of you know that Dr. Solnit died abruptly, after his wife, driving their car to their country house from New Haven, crashed it into a telephone pole. What none of you know, of course, is that one of his patients—I mean me, as I too often do about too much—started his analysis with a memory of walking, at age four, into a telephone pole. I was at day camp. I was staring at another boy, in a different row of campers; we were walking in lines, one behind the other. (I know who the boy was: a Hartford psychiatrist’s son, with angelic curly blond hair. We ultimately went to the same prep school, where his older brother was a classmate of mine; we were part of the 10% Jewish quota, in keeping with the unwritten rule also applied at Harvard and Yale.) I clunked my head, ignored it, and kept walking. Then the kid in front of me turned around for some reason and started screaming because of all the blood coming down from my left eyebrow.

The boy, who was very fat, ran to the counsellor, McCarthy. McCarthy also screamed, and rushed me to the nurse, Miss Manchester. She had white hair and put stingy iodine on it. She then drove me to the hospital emergency room in her Studebaker. By the time my parents arrived, I had had two stitches. Everything that belonged to the aftermath was much more traumatic than the accident itself, but the stitches were exciting, and I parlayed them into an ice cream cone.

You know already that I was then four years old. When I was about forty-five, and still considering the purposes of my psychoanalysis, Dr. Solnit said, with his usual sparseness of words, each of them perfect and to the point and utterly clear, “We have to make sure you don’t walk into any more phone poles.” Naturally, I understood the greater significance of that remark, as you do.

But can you imagine how I felt when my wife phoned me in Paris, and, from Connecticut, in the gentlest way possible, told me, “I have something sad to tell you. I was in the supermarket and saw on the front page of The New Haven Register that Dr. Solnit died, as the result of a car accident, when his car hit a phone pole. His wife was driving; she was injured, but is okay.”?

Good heavens! Oh my God! Please, all these years later, may I scream at last? Writing this, picturing some of you reading it, feeling it, I have been grinding my back teeth and clamping my jaw so forcefully that the pain is shooting down my back. One of the many great things Albert Solnit said to me was, “I cannot solve death.” But did he really have to die that way?

A few years later, his colleague Alice Colonna said to me, “His death was so sad. He still had a lot to do.” I had spotted Dr. Colonna in an ear-nose-throat doctor’s waiting room back in Connecticut, where I was sitting with my daughter Charlotte, then a student at the Tavistock, now a psychotherapist, an aficionado of all things Solnit. Charlotte had known his kind voice on the phone since she was a little girl. It was a poignant moment.

Maybe I won’t continue with my education in quite this much detail. But here, rapidly, is the rest:

I spent four years at Loomis, an all boys’ private preparatory school, rigorous, superb for what we were taught. There I came to appreciate Robert Browning and French Gothic cathedrals and Proust and the values behind the American Revolution. I was inspired by the work ethic inculcated by the headmaster, who would rail at us in chapel, “Boys: study, study, study, and when you get tired of studying, grind!” Many people today would consider that a recipe for neurosis; maybe so, but I still like it. I also thought Loomis admirable for the emphasis on physical fitness. But it was miserable for the disregard for human kindness or for suffering of any form.

I am very attached to Loomis again, but now it is dramatically different. My older daughter went there and flourished. What was a hidebound institution has become an enlightened and progressive one. The new head of school, an energetic woman, wrote alumni an open letter about the sex abuse that occurred precisely when I was there, and named the two “masters” who brought such ultimate anguish to some of the boys. Such honesty and candor would have been impossible in the 1960s. Students now come from all over the world, and diversity and humanitarianism are celebrated. This convinces me that, even though Donald Trump is president, change and forward momentum are possible for civilization (which is to say that the discontents can be countermanded.)

Then came Columbia College. At Loomis, they told me to go to Williams or Yale. I was far too restless for those fortress-like campuses, however. By the way, how many of you know the origins of the term “Ivy League”? There are nine Ivy League colleges in America, and I imagine that you, like most people, think that the sobriquet for the group refers to buildings covered with ivy. This is what I always thought, until I learned that it refers to the Roman numerals for 4: “IV.” Initially, there were four of these distinguished institutions of higher learning: Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.

How pathetic of me to delight in informing a group of highly educated European and other readers of this obscure piece of information about American culture. I am picturing you nodding with fascination; I have told something to psychoanalysts they did not already know. I am that childish at nearly the age of seventy that I delight in doing this.

I also want you to know that my Columbia College roommate, a brilliant guy, was admitted to Princeton for graduate school. He went there after a stint in the army following his graduation from college. On the first night, he simply could not sleep in his room; the entire university gave him total claustrophobia. Princeton is, institutionally, as insular, self-obsessed, and detached a place as there is. My friend drove home—two hours—to his parents’ house near New York. The next day, he drove to Princeton again, attended classes, went to his room, and tried, after dinner, to stay there again. But again he knew he would be unable to sleep. From that quiet island of verdure in New Jersey, he drove the two hours back to the hustle bustle of greater New York. This kept up for five days, after which he withdrew from Princeton. I thought that would interest you. It is no surprise that Einstein was happy there—he lived inside himself more than in his surroundings—but for some of us it is like a high class prison.

My reason for going to Columbia was similar to my roommate’s for being unable to stay at Princeton. I needed to be at the center of the nitty gritty, to ride the subway, and, above all, to be near museums. The education was, at best, brilliant. Meyer Schapiro took us through the glories of medieval manuscript pages, and allowed me to write a completely personal essay about a Matisse rug my parents had bought when I was five years old and had hung in the front hall of our house. My friends mocked it when I was little, but, even then, I loved this abstract, richly colored celebration of forms a bit like philodendron leaves (even though the piece is called “Mimosa”) against a composition of three rectangles in plush reds. I was proud of my intrepid mother and father for spending a hundred dollars so courageously, whatever the fuck my friends said. Professor Schapiro told us “no research, no isms, no information on what the artist’s grandfather did; just what you see and feel about a single art work.” Freud would have understood the instructions; he was fantastic at this particular task, as you will see if you read Freud’s Trip to Orvieto, particularly the parts concerning his visit to Dresden, and his letters to Martha about Titian and Botticelli.

Our entire grade was based on that single term paper. This is because it was spring of 1968, and Columbia was shut down following student demonstrations and the occupancy by rebel students of the president’s office. One of my classmates sat at the president’s desk and was photographed smoking a Cuban cigar there. The problems intensified when the New York police came in and cracked open the heads of our professors. One forced to wear a bandage around his skull was F.W. Dupee, whose Shakespeare course I took. Professor Dupee encouraged me much as Meyer Schapiro did, in this case for a term paper in which I compared the language of King Lear at the end of his life to the minimal art of Donald Judd and Robert Morris and the Homages to the Square of Josef Albers. At Columbia, I was introduced to the brilliance of E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Gogol. But what lingers most are the life experiences, more than the formal education. New York’s mayor, John Lindsay, publically apologized for the action of the New York police, which he had ordered. To this day, I consider the capacity to apologize a fantastic human gift. And what has stayed inside me above all is that I survived, as most of us did, the misery of that time period when we all faced the draft into the army, yet most of us knew we would refuse to serve because of the Vietnam War. Columbia was a place to be true to one’s feelings, to be audacious and irreverent; it is perfect that Barack Obama was graduated from there.

You have noticed that I cannot stay on topic for more than a few minutes without coming back to myself. But that’s the point of analysis, isn’t it? You told me to stop telling anecdotes and to go inside. Oh, please assure me those were your instructions. You see, I want to be a good boy in your eyes.

And then Yale Graduate School. Two years, with a Master’s Degree awarded for the most worthless educational experience I have ever had. Footnotes to footnotes, irrelevant to humankind. Scholarship for its own sake, for a pale and morose intellectual elite. But the mother of dear friends I had met at tennis camp took me to meet Anni and Josef Albers, who felt about Yale’s art history department as I did. My life took another glorious turn as a result of an event that I could not have predicted, but that you might have thought was, somehow, in the cards. I had, after all, an abiding passion for looking at art. Few people do. Freud was among those few, by the way.

We never stop learning, of course. Thoughts lead to other thoughts; happenstance transforms our lives. You are always having more feelings than you can keep up with, and having more information come in than you can parse. Only about a year ago, researching a last detail for Freud’s Trip to Orvieto, about the doctor’s pivotal encounter with the paintings of Luca Signorelli, written about by two a Viennese-born doctor and his Czech wife, he a psychoanalyst and she a psychiatric social worker, Richard and Mariette Karpe, friends of my parents in Connecticut, did I learn that Marietta lived to be ninety-eight, and played a strong game of tennis to the end. Would I ever have expected this? Why was I so unimaginative and hidebound that I did not see her as the sportswoman she was?

Which brings me back to tennis. I started with it not by plan, but by instinct. Tennis is second nature to me. It is also my staple. I love the way the basics never change. I played in Quito when I was fifteen, and in Guangzhou (which I still call Canton, to my wife’s annoyance) when I was sixty, and have played on asphalt courts alongside a highway in New York, on red clay in Genoa and Catania, indoors in Milan, in fancy clubs and un-fancy public sports centers in Paris, on grass in Ireland, and also in a field there, and what I love is that the tennis court is unvarying and always home. It never changes: the layout, the measurements. My God, how reassuring it is. You know just how far and high the serve has to go, wherever you are in the world. I still play as often as I can, and hope I will for the rest of my life. The games provide memories; they also give current pleasure, and a bit of health. Knowing that Marietta Karpe played and kept on playing is a sheer joy. Tennis is like family for some of us; rather, it is the ideal family that few of us have.

Anni Albers used to remind me that Wassily Kandinsky said “There is always an and.” Of course, all of you know that already. I remain convinced that you know most everything; I am a product of a milieu and education in which psychiatric professionals are the gods of the era. What a glorious racecourse the human mind sends us on. How brilliant of the psychoanalytic process to let us follow its leaps and twists, to open all those doors rather than censor ourselves.

Of course, I know that I never got past “highly educated.” But we never really finish most things, do we? Thank goodness that termination is only a term, is irrespective of nation, that nothing deters us from thinking, that the mind is richer than ermine—and that words, for all their flaws, are at least guideposts to feelings.

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