Wednesday, February 22, 2017
An Existential Doubt
We just had a great weekend that included an overnight visit from old friends abetted on the meteorological front by an unexpected premonition of spring. There were a couple of memorable meals and lots of good talk. Joan and I capped it off by attending a “National Theater Live” filming of Shaw’s Saint Joan in a terrific production with a brilliant rendition of Joan by Gemma Arteton. The weekend also included one curious incident, beyond that of the dog in the night, that is.
Shortly before nine on Sunday morning I was driving toward church with our friend Susan when my clunky old flip-top cell phone rang. Now my cell phone seldom rings, and practically never while I am driving. On the rare occasions that does happen, I practically never try to answer it. But this time there was an unusual convergence of circumstances that encouraged me to do so. There was to begin with an ideal place to pull over and stop; secondly, I actually knew where the phone was and that I could easily reach it; third, I believed that the likely caller was my wife, who had forty minutes earlier set off to the hospital to see another close friend who (we had learned) had been taken there the previous night with a heart scare. So I pulled over and answered the phone.
However, the caller was not my wife but my daughter in New York. The conversation went like this—
J: Hi, hon…
K. I’m very glad to hear your voice!
It is always nice to feel appreciated, but this was a slightly odd remark, given that she rather frequently hears my voice without commenting upon the fact and, as I thought I remembered, had done so quite recently. Heard my voice, I mean.
But there was an explanation. She had just received an email from an eminent medievalist, a colleague of hers presently resident in Oxford, expressing her condolences upon the occasion of her father’s death, and soliciting suggestions for possible authors of a memorial notice to be published in Speculum, that best-selling quarterly organ of the Medieval Academy of America. The rumor of my demise, which I must characterize as grossly exaggerated if not flat-out fake news, had in fact originated at Academy headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. That Sunday was very busy, and by the time I broke free the rumor had been apologetically retracted quite without my intervention. I felt no desire to make further inquiry into it. However, I continued on to church with an augmented appreciation of my continuing existence and received Communion with an augmented sense of gratitude.
“It must have been some other John Fleming.” That’s the best the medievalists could come up with by way of excuse. John Fleming is not a common name. On the other hand, it is not exactly what you would call an unusual name either. At all points of my career there have always been two or three other John Flemings out there helping to besmirch or to burnish my reputation. One of them was the pre-eminent rare book dealer in New York. I never met him. He operated out of baronial offices on East Fifty-Seventh Street, where he had become wealthy flipping Gutenberg Bibles and Shakespeare First Folios. He was supposed to have chopped up one or two precious medieval manuscripts in order to maximize profit by selling the individual illuminated pages. It is hard to believe that so cultivated a man could be guilty of so philistine an act, and I report rather than affirm the accusation. What I can say with more confidence is that several manuscript experts in the medieval field were no less certain that John Fleming was a vandal than that I was John Fleming. I have reason to believe that misprision once cost me a place on the ballot of the New Chaucer Society! But sometimes what you lose on the roundabouts you can make up for on the straightaways. There was a prolific British art historian named John Fleming, who often collaborated with his life partner Hugh Honour. Several times when I was about to give a guest lecturer or participate in a conference panel the presider or introducer attributed to me, with glowing commentary, one or more of the important books produced by this couple.
This is, however, the first time I had been credited with another man’s death.
Descartes’s best known contribution to philosophy is sometimes called simply the Cogito, Latin for “I think”. You can arrive at certain grounds for belief in your existence simply by thinking about it. “I think; therefore I am”; for even if the mode of that thought be doubt, it requires an extant mind to do the doubting. So on this one I elect to go with the Cogito.