I once wrote an article whose original title was “Filial Piety.” That’s the category under which people used to cite the duties and types of honor that children were thought to owe their parents. Every philosophical journal to which I submitted the article in America sent it back on the grounds that they had already published a piece on … child abuse!
Okay. Finally I got it published in England, but not before I changed its title to “The Filial Art.” In our time, nobody’s against art.
These days, I’ve been reading through my father’s unpublished materials: journals, correspondence, manuscripts, to see if anything there should be lifted out for publication – or not.
Henry M. Rosenthal was described by his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 as their “genius.” Diana Trilling, writer and wife of the even-more-public-intellectual Lionel Trilling, wrote about him as a young writer, that “as we heard him, Lionel and I felt that we were listening to our American-Jewish Joyce … the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Clifton Fadiman, another of his well-known classmates, devoted much of his eulogy at my father’s memorial to reflecting on the meaning of genius. He was uncompromising, Fadiman said. The rest of us made compromises. “Henry never did.”
Obviously, it’s something of a responsibility to be the child of such a man. Since it’s no honor to one’s father to live a stunted life in his shadow, one needs to get enough “escape velocity” to discover one’s own story. On the other hand, there is the danger of escaping so far and so violently that one fails truthfully to honor what is unique and irreplaceable about him.
I did manage to live my own life. What I also did, in the years after his death, was complete the editing and introductions, biographical and philosophical, for his posthumous book, see it all the way through to publication and journal reviews, get their house in Maine sold, and take care of sundry other matters. So it isn’t as if I’m running in the red with my father. If I don’t succeed in finding something publishable in these materials, they will be archived for others to work on. But if I do see stuff in them from which I believe others can profit, I intend to lift that out and get it published.
This final task was, however, one I had planned to leave for the last phase of my own working life. But now, with our present days turning into The Year of the Planetary Plague, my own projects are – apart from this column — all on hold. In consequence, figuring out what to do about the HMR papers moves suddenly to the head of the queue.
When one tries to understand someone who was a major life influence, it’s not only that person about whom one is inquiring. The investigation is also, of course, about oneself. In what way was I influenced? How did it help or hurt me? What did I make of it?
It’s too soon for answers. However, these questions give my present effort to retrace his life its ineluctable fascination and surprise. He had a quality of hiddenness about him that I may not ever succeed in decoding.
The end of his life came without any illness having been diagnosed. It took him only a week to die. When he had slipped into a coma, I voiced a lamentation to my mother, standing with her at the foot of his hospital bed. My mother and I were very close.
“I left Pheidias [my first love, a Greek communist in Paris] for the values that my father represented, and now … he is leaving!”
It would have been said within earshot, had he not been in a coma. Then I walked to the head of the bed where he lay dying. Between him and me, a wordless final communication began. It was transmitted along what I can only describe as an energy current, going from his heart along the length of my arm and right into my heart center.
Distinctly, though silently, it sent the following message:
is the strongest force
in the universe.
It’s more fundamental than the physical forces –
than the strong force,
the weak force,
He wasn’t preaching.
What he was telling me was descriptive, on the order of fact, not admonitory. With this benediction, he was perhaps addressing my complaint to my mother and releasing me into my own life world —
where I’d be able
to observe this for myself.