Authors: Stanley Elkin
A Modern Comedy
For Joan, for Philip, for Zelda, and Diane
And for my father
Everybody dies, everybody. Sure. And there’s neither heaven nor hell. Parker says hell is six inches below the ground and four above the head. So we walk between, never quite managing to touch either, but reassured anyway because heaven is by two inches the closer. That Parker! What difference does it make? Everybody dies and that’s that. But no one really believes it. They read the papers. They see the newsreels. They drive past the graveyards on the outskirts of town. Do you think that makes any difference? It does not! No one believes in death.
Except me. Boswell. I believe in it. I believe in everything. My metaphysics is people, the living and the dead. Ladloc, the historian, says that history is the record of all the births and deaths for which there is a record. History is dates. John Burgoyne was born in 1722 and died in 1792. Louis XVI: 1754–1793. (Do you suppose Louis knew of Burgoyne’s death? Do you suppose he said, “Ah, he’s gone now, the old campaigner”? Do you suppose he suspected he’d be dead in a year himself?) Shakespeare: 1564(?)–1616. Caesar: 102 (or 100)–44
History. But do you notice how as one goes back the birthdays become less certain while the year of death is always absolute, fixed? Do you think that’s an accident? Listen, death is realer than life. I saw a sign on U.S. 40 in Kentucky. It said REMEMBER YOU MUST DIE. I remember. But I never needed the sign. I had my own father. My father was a healthy man. Content, vigorous, powerful, well. But when he died, he died of everything. The cancer, the blindness, the swollen heart, the failed markets. But even that, the death of one’s father in a hospital room, the kiss goodbye inside the oxygen tent, isn’t enough for some people. Even if they stretch a point and come to believe in the death of others, they refuse to believe in their own.
I remember reading in the
St. Louis Globe-Democrat
an interview with the murderer, Braddock, when I was a kid. Braddock, waiting in the deathhouse, told Edward Renfrue, the reporter, “When they pull that switch, they’ll be pulling it on the whole world. Nobody will outlive me. Nobody. The warden. The president. You. My girlfriends. Nobody. Everybody dies when I die.” He could believe in a fantastic short circuit that would end the world, but not in his own mortality. Do you suppose only a murderer thinks that way? Go on, it wasn’t until they pulled the switch that Braddock understood what it was like to
a murderer. Then he murdered everybody, all of us, the born and the unborn. And don’t you think he didn’t close his eyes two seconds before he had to just to make sure? Just so as not to be proved wrong? Listen, even my father, my own father, when I kneeled beside his bed in that white white stinking room, looked at me and there was blood in his eyes. Why, he’s angry, I thought. He’s mad at me.
I’m different. I remember I must die. It explains everything. People who do not know me well—people who don’t keep files on me, as I do on them (5 by 9 cards with the person’s name and dates and a brief identifying phrase)—think my interest in them is faked, self-interested, that I’m a social climber on the make for everybody. The truth is I’ve a sort of chronic infidelity. It’s not that I have a disappointment threshold lower than most, or a higher hope. It’s just what I said: congenital infidelity. I am not a lover but I am like one. I am a strategist, an arranger, a schemer, but there is nothing sinister about me, nothing sinister even about my plans. It’s as though I had devoted my life to arranging surprise parties, and, indeed, there is something celebrational in many of my contacts. I have in my files an engraved invitation in a raised, wonderfully ornate script:
Mr. & Mrs. Richard Montrose Shepley
Would Take Infinite Pleasure in Your
Attendance at the Marriage
Ceremony of their Daughter,
To Mr. Leon Randolph Wesley,
The Son of Mr. & Mrs.
Mark Hawthorne Wesley…
All those parents, still living, that striking girl, that marvelous young man, all those beautiful flowers, that sunny Sunday, that handsome church, those honored guests. That is precisely the note
But who keeps Boswell’s file? Persons in institutional relationships to me? Government agencies? Department stores? Junk mailers? My book clubs? What do
know—a name, an address, a vague notion of my income? I at least have seen most of the people in my files, have been in their neighborhoods, have tasted the cuts of their meats.
Who has been in my neighborhood, who has tasted my meat? I have. I have. Who keeps Boswell’s file? Boswell does. I do.
In a way I have never been sure who my first celebrity really was. It depends, as do most things, upon what one is willing to count. I can remember, for example, going to radio programs to see the announcers, men in shirtsleeves, their watches handsome on their wrists. One of these could have been the first, then. Von Zell or Norman Brokenshire or Alec Drysdale or Dell Sharbard or Bill Goodman or Westbrook Van Voorhies. Fame was quantitative, disembodied, in direct proportion to how many heard the voice, bought the product, listened to the name. It had to do with the number of thousands of watts of a given station, with fortuitous time-slots, the ability to overcome static. (Even so, it was what they did
airtime that fascinated me—their deep-decibeled, low- throated “damns,” their nervous coughs, the occasional, luckily glimpsed, shiny spit that sprayed off their expensive lips.) I took the Radio City tour five times before I realized it was a failure. To see Harry Von Zell five times was, finally, redundant. I was jaded. I had climbed that mountain, been in that state capital, seen that wonder of the world. Even at first, then, experience was horizontal. What does a kid know? Everything, everything.
I stopped the tours. For me the
appearance of a famous man was of no more account than the scheduled appearance of a famous planet. If it were available, it was of no use to me. You couldn’t buy a ticket of admission. It was of no use to go to theaters, concerts, ball games. Experience was something oblique, not crept up upon so much as come across. When I read
I at last had a name for it. The
Two ships meeting accidentally in the middle of the ocean.
What opportunities, then, for the landlocked, for a child? For the time being I made do with the crank, the exotic, with people who, self-scarred by characters which were forever too much for them, were perpetual butts and trailed their shameful fame like cans tied to dogs.
But the first really famous man I ever met was Dr. Leon Herlitz, B.Pg., Berlin; M.Pd., Baghdad University; Ph.D., Lucerne. He’s dead now, of course. He leaves no survivors (none of us do), so I suppose I’m free to tell what I know. I have a feeling, however, that many already know his secret, that he instilled confidence by placing himself at our mercy, by making himself repeatedly vulnerable, exposing his heart, so that after a while it became merely a gesture, too automatic to be real superstition, a physicist touching wood. It was endearing though, no matter how many times he must have done it and despite the disparate personalities to whom he must have exposed himself. It was a testimony to—no, more —an endorsement of the really gentle needs of human beings that no one has ever used the information until now—saving only Dr. Herlitz, of course, whose information it really was and so who was entitled to use it.
He was an amazing man, Herlitz. I’m not being sentimental. Of course he was my first famous man; of course we all have an unreasonable loyalty toward our first celebrity, what Randolph calls “the hypnostatic effect of the primal evening star.” I realize all this. Nevertheless, Herlitz was a truly remarkable man. (I pay for having had Herlitz as my first great man, I pay for that. What expectations he created in me about great men!) Wasn’t he already an old man in 1922? When I first met him years later he was ancient. Who could count his years? I remember Ebbard Dutton’s article in
on how Roger Maris got into baseball. Dutton referred to Herlitz as “the Satchel Paige of Psychologists.” It is awesome to think of the stages of the man’s career, the active influence he’s had on our culture from the last quarter of the nineteenth century up through the development of the hydrogen bomb. One doesn’t know whether to call him an historical or a contemporary figure. Why, he must already have been an adult when he put Freud into psychiatry in the last century; a man well past middle age when during World War I he acted as Chief of Personnel for the German army, personally assigning, on the basis of intricate tests and interviews, each German officer above the rank of lieutenant to his particular army, sector, regiment, battalion, even company. Bhangra, the Indian war historian, says that Herlitz, single-handed, “was responsible for the long duration of the war. The Germany army was, in essence, the most signally ill- equipped, ill-prepared, anachronistic army ever to fight a major war. Only the circumspect appointments and assignments of officers made by Dr. Leon Herlitz can account for the effective participation of the Germany army in the First World War. Herlitz raised the Department of Officer Personnel into a deadly instrument of warfare. It is not to be doubted that with even a mediocre army supported by even mediocre equipment Leon Herlitz could have conquered the world.” So he was already old when he talked Lindbergh into flying the Atlantic and ancient when he counseled the French Existentialists.
In truth, of course, Herlitz was not really a “placement counselor.” His official title at Harvard during the last years when he developed the famous classes of 1937 through 1945 (what an official Department of Health, Education and Welfare survey calls “collectively the most successful group of college graduates ever to enter the fields of Science, Finance, Government and the Arts”), was “Psychological Placement Officer.” Herlitz didn’t counsel. Herlitz commanded. When he was through with you your life was fixed, charted. He raged through your ideas about yourself like a violent wind. He was a kind of scientific gypsy, reading your fortune, your future. Like no other man who ever lived
he knew what was best for people.
I encountered Dr. Herlitz during the famous “last phase.” It was after he voluntarily left Harvard in 1945. A man of great age, of extraordinary age, he who suspected and knew so much must have suspected his death. The old forget their deaths as easily as men forget old debts (we think we are forever quits with the world, all obligations canceled or unincurred). They have lived so long that they have developed a kind of hubris which even age and infirmity cannot defy. That’s why they seem so serene; it’s pride. But not Herlitz. It is my belief that a terrific anxiety overcame him and that this anxiety was less for himself than for his world. How could he be sure that the most promising men of their generation would continue to pour into Harvard where he could counsel, command, shape what might otherwise have been their unfulfilled lives? He hit upon the idea of a world tour. (Leonard Zeiss, the geriatrician, is convinced that for a man of his extraordinary years, Leon Herlitz was remarkably sound physically, but that in subjecting himself to “the Tour” he made himself prematurely vulnerable to the ravages of old age. It is a genuine tribute to Herlitz’s humanity that he was so loved by the scientific community. After all, to Leonard Zeiss, the geriatrician, Herlitz could easily have been just another old man. What was it, if not love, which guided Zeiss’ hand when he concluded his report in
The Journal of the American Medical Association
on “Herlitz As An Old Man”: “It was the Tour which took him. He might be alive today had he stayed on at Harvard. Leaving there must have been for Herlitz like her journey with Conway beyond the valley of Shangri-La was for Lo-Tsen”?)