My father, the late Henry M. Rosenthal, was the antithesis of a worldly man. “He never made a useful friend,” as someone said who was well placed to know. Speaking at his memorial service, a college classmate recalled, “We all made compromises. Henry never did.”
In reaction, I resolved early to reverse my father’s style of living in his world. I allowed myself to admire my philosophical colleagues for what they could do – even if their aim was to build their own professional importance rather than find truth unvarnished. Wherever possible, I separated the question of their accomplishments from the question of their character.
“How wonderful,” I sometimes said, “that they follow a noble calling like philosophy, when they could be running the numbers!”
My father was considered by his peers, who graduated Columbia College with him in 1925, to be their “genius,” the one most likely to make a great name. Although he remained truthful, original and very interesting to the last day of his life, he did not make a great name.
His closest friend in the undergraduate years was a man who became an eminent literary critic and taste-maker to the nation for some decades of the twentieth century. The name of that closest friend (and eventually ex-friend) was Lionel Trilling. Students of American culture know the name and, at one time, every educated person knew it.
They were as close as the Biblical David and Jonathan, as close as two men can be who also love their wives, as each man did. I never knew exactly what broke them up. The obvious answer is that one man was going on to a great career, the other to an obscurity that he was willing to live with as, for him, the price of an uncompromised life. They were perhaps too young to tolerate these diverging paths in each other. The one man was worldly, the other was the contrary of worldly.
The other day I happened to come across a document that Lionel Trilling had sent a German scholar of American Studies who wanted information on my father and other college classmates of Trilling’s. LT’s words about my father went beyond honest negative criticism and amounted, I thought, to professional sabotage. He also reported that my father had ended their friendship — “unilaterally.” If that was true, Trilling could have been very angry. Understandably. Nevertheless …
I thought of two collegial friendships of mine that had come to an end, with complaints on both sides. In each case, I had taken care not to commit to writing any negative after-judgment of the ex-friend in any arena where that could do professional damage. In one of the two cases, I even stopped socializing with the collegial friends we had in common, lest I be tempted – even inadvertently – to telegraph something prejudicial. One’s reputation in one’s line of work is bread on the table, I felt. You don’t tamper with another’s survival.
Trilling’s communication to the German scholar seemed to me a betrayal. Even ex-friends should handle each other with delicacy.
Last week, I was visited by moments of acclaim in connection with recent efforts of one kind or another. In one instance, my therapeutic riding teacher said the way I do one-stirrup riding is “an inspiration” to her. Another example: the comment on last week’s column – “brilliant beyond brilliant” – comes from a writer for whom I have the highest esteem. My acupuncturist, to whom I mentioned these feathers in my cap, must have seen something askew in my expression. He said, I needed to learn not to flinch when praise comes my way.
I decided to take this advice seriously and meditate on it. What do I really think of the world’s accolades?
What do I think of the world
Two images came into my mind. The first was about Stefan Zweig, an author I have mentioned here before. At one time, he was one of the most lauded writers of his day, popular yet taken seriously by elite opinion. On his fiftieth birthday, greetings and plaudits came in from all over the world. A birthday or two later, his books were burned and old friends became afraid to nod or tip their hats to him in the streets of Vienna. Zweig was an Austrian Jew. Once it had been advantageous in a worldly sense to send him personal greetings. Now, with the Nazis suddenly in power, it became unsafe to know him.
The other image that came to mind was also one I’ve mentioned here before. I have – explain it how you will – the most vivid impression of having been among the slaughtered in Germany in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust.
Clearly, what I think about “the world” and its “worldliness” is that, when the world comes to call, it doesn’t necessarily come as a friend.
The world giveth – reputation and honors –
and the world taketh away.
It is only sincere on our part to seek our private happiness while we can, as best we can. If we pretend not to care about such things, nobody believes us and we don’t believe ourselves either. No point living a lie.
But another part of our assignment is to be a witness to our times. That is something we can do … with or without happiness. To be a witness, all we need is a clear lens to look through.
This is where honor comes into it.
It’s the unstained lens.