Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Uncles and the Present Perfect

We just spent a delicious Fourth of July holiday that turned out, in an unexpected way, to be a nearly complete family gathering. Zvi and Katy arrived a few days ago from Paris, with young Lulu and Cora very much present. (Sophia is for a while at an upscale photography workshop in Ireland—a boondoggle passed off as “preparation for the Bac.”) Luke and Melanie naturally drove over from Philadelphia. This meant that only Richard would be missing. He, I knew, was in Atlanta crating up his photographs, prior to driving to Massachusetts via North Carolina and Brooklyn.

It had not occurred to me, though it had to Rich, that an itinerary indentured to the I-95 corridor would inevitably bring him very near our house. He called with the news that he could make a brief meal stop, and Joan, who answered the phone, conspired with him to double the delight by making his arrival a surprise. At least I had no inkling he would be appearing, nor did his adoring young nieces Lulu and Cora. They had already been given the disappointing news that Uncle Rich would not be there. In fact, since they had asked about this more than once, they had been told more than once.

I don’t know whether the Fourth of July is an official “family” holiday; but ours was at least an informal one, and before it was over I had occasion to meditate on the appropriateness of one of our old national emblems—Uncle Sam. Supposedly Uncle Sam came about because of the importunities of anthropromorphism and the need to fit the pre-existing initials U.S., but there’s more to it than that. Brother Sam, Cousin Sam—they wouldn’t do. In Hamlet’s famous remark about his stepfather Claudius—“A little more than kin, and less than kind”—we are reminded of the double nature of family relationship, in which the ties of blood and those affection are by no means identical. “Of all my wife’s relations,” my father used to say, “I like myself the best.” The primal memory of blood is fossilized in our word cousin, which really means “of one blood” (con + sanguinis), which is why the word is used so often in Renaissance drama of any blood relative, sometimes to our confusion. The distinctive feature of the closest of all relationships, the marital relationship, is that though it is the creator of the blood bond, it is not itself one. In fact many societies have taken elaborate care to keep the marital bond and the blood bond separate. The old Anglican prayer book had an elaborate Consanguinity chart, summarizing the consensus of medieval canon law, allowing marriage between partners at the fifth degree of consanguinity (first cousin, once removed) but no nearer. The old country phrase "kissing cousins" refers to those kinsfolk sufficiently distant to lust after safely.

The animus here is a primitive fear of incest, which exists in most cultures and is immortally enshrined in the western cultural tradition at the very birth of tragedy, in the story of Oedipus. Faithful adherence to the consanguinity charts was intended to obviate the Theban unpleasantness. One of the great lines of world literature is taken from one of these charts: Tom Jones’s horrified realization that unknowingly he may have been in bed with his own mother. “Incest!” he cries out in alarm, “—with a mother!” That is perhaps the most telling indefinite article in all of English literature.

The blood relationships are all different, often in indefinable ways. We all of necessity have a similar pattern of biological forebears. Almost everybody has had the experience of parents, and most of us of grandparents. But we may or may not be brothers or sisters, uncles or aunts, nephews or nieces, cousins. I had brothers but no sister; but I realized how much I had missed only much later when, as a father, I closely observed the interaction of brother and sister within my own house.

My more severe disadvantage has been in the realm of uncledom. I had two terrific uncles, especially my Uncle John, for whom I was named. He was my father’s elder brother, and those two remained close until the end of their lives. Between the two of them they taught me all the arts and crafts of country life, not a few of which turn out to have a surprising relevance in the New Jersey suburbs. The more important instruction was informal; they taught me about brotherhood and friendship.

Before I got married I didn’t think much about what kind of a father I would become, but I spent a good deal of time imagining my avuncularity. Here Fortune dealt me a blow. It isn’t that I have nobody to be uncle to. I have two splendid nieces, one of them an expert in primary education, the other an intellectual property lawyer, both of them as well busy mothers in their own right. But they are Englishwomen, separated from me by a wide ocean, and I was able to make only occasional and usually highly formal appearances in their young lives. There wasn’t much opportunity for me to teach them how to repair a hay-bailer. I was for a time worried that something similar would happen among my own children when they began going international in a serious way, but if you get to be sufficiently international you also make the effort to keep in frequent communication.

The relationship between nephews and nieces and maternal uncle was particularly strong, and it had a special character, in that the uncle was the particular mentor of the nephew and the protector of the niece. This relationship probably developed in early warrior societies in which male mortality was high and widows and orphans numerous. There are many allusions to this situation in our earlier literatures, where it not infrequently is the occasion of irony. In Beowulf King Hygelac, the emblem of the brittle warrior code at the tragic heart of the poem, is the brother of the hero’s mother. In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which considerable complicates the narrative situation of Boccaccio’s Filostrato, its ostensible source text, turns Pandarus into Criseyde’s uncle. The obvious purpose of this detail is to heighten the awfulness of his sexual treason against her. In one of the most haunting and mysterious of the Troubadour poems, Arnaut Daniel’s sestina Lo ferm voler the strangely rhyming impediments to the lover’s enjoyment are the ongle and the oncle, the metaphoric fingernail of the spying gossip, the watchfulness of the guardian uncle.

Well, the Fourth was a beautiful day. The usual family high jinx were in train, with central headquarters, as always in the kitchen. I was doing a little intermittent, desultory work in the garden when little Cora came running out to me in a paroxysm of excitement. “I have seen Richard,” she blurted out. She did not say “Richard is here” or even “I just saw Richard in the kitchen”. I probably would have intuited the whole plot in an instant if I had heard either of those sentences. But “I have seen Richard” was so formal, so literary, so clearly at odds with the normal syntax of a four-year-old, that I just stood there befuddled for a moment. There is a special dignity in the present perfect tense, a solemnity. “He hath loosed the awful vengeance of His terrible swift-sword.” Now there is an absolutely indispensable hath. It just wouldn’t do to say, “He loosed his vengeance.”

It finally dawned on me what “I have seen Richard” had to mean, and, standing as I was in a garden, I at the same moment realized why little Cora’s sentence was so arresting. Her words were nearly identical to those of Mary Magdalene who had gone to visit a dead body and found instead a living man. “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (Luke 20:18). She had at first mistaken the risen Christ for the gardener! This beautiful anecdote is the literary source of one of the great subjects of medieval and Renaissance art—the so called “Noli me tangere”.

Although little Cora has already mastered some of the Hebrew prayers for the Sabbath meal, she is not yet truly a Bible scholar. So I do not claim to find here a conscious quotation. What I can and do claim is a very particular love of a niece for her uncle. She was as delighted to see Richard walk into the kitchen as Mary had been to stumble upon her risen Lord. Joy doesn't get much more intense than that.