Boodles

Boodles

Tomorrow I will turn one hundred and seventeen. I have now witnessed almost all of an entire century and two decades of the next. I have seen and done many things, not seen and not done many more. My brain is full. It has often been reported that I have near total recall, the memory of an elephant for details, digits, and descriptions. And without addressing the relative truth of such a statement, it is perhaps good to keep in mind that the oldest elephant on record died at the age of eighty-six. No elephant’s memory, therefore, has ever been as challenged as my own. Assuming an impossible perfect record on the side of the pachyderms, that leaves fourteen years of things for an average centenarian to forget. And nearly thirty years of things for me to relegate to the trash. An entire young life not remembered. But I shall try. Where to begin? Perhaps with a provocation.

My father invented the 20th century. 

Perhaps not single handedly, perhaps not totally, perhaps not even in a way that you will initially acknowledge, but it is my contention, indeed, my firm belief, that the fundamental core of that statement, and all the good or bad it contains, is true. And, I admit, it is my intention to persuade you to believe likewise.

I know that some of you will immediately recoil at the hubristic hue of such a statement, will squirm in discomfort at its adolescent arrogance. Others among you will cluck in sympathy at what they consider to be an unfortunate phrasing from one once so skilled in such things, no doubt attributing these muddled mumblings to the fact that the speaker in question is now a man far, far past his prime. Others, well. I know, I know. Mind you, I am not asking forgiveness, nor even your indulgence, merely that you parse what I propose in as fair and unbiased manner as possible. That alone, a tall order indeed.

While I am fully prepared to defend my opening statement, I am also keenly aware of the jutted chin of its vowels, the puffed chest of its consonants. And this daring, this provocation, is not accidental, not the product of a doddering mind, pottered together by trembling limbs in tragically fading light, nor is it a means of manipulation by a master of that mercurial magic (though I will understand if many among you insist upon harboring doubts in this regard). No, I have anticipated the drama with which each syllable slides its foot onto the stage, I have pondered and postulated, rhymed and reasoned, have turned these six words this way and that against the light, dipped them in shadow, held them heavy against the spinning lathe of grammar and rhetoric. That is to say, I have chosen these words very carefully indeed. 

So carefully, in fact, that with the possible change of the first-person pronoun to the third, these six words could very well serve as my epithet. His Father invented the Twentieth Century. I can think of no words better to be remembered by. Or for that matter, by which to attempt to convince you to remember my father.

As many of you may recall, I open the third chapter of my third book, The First Dividing Point, with the words:  “One can easily discern the type of mind a person uses to interact with the world by their choice of first interrogative – do they ask How or do they ask Why?” You have both questions, to be sure. And while it is no secret that I have always placed more faith in the latter question preceding the former, I shall do my best, in the time remaining, to address either as they bubble up from the depths, glisten at the surface of your attention. 

Whatever their form or depth, your suspicions, your skepticism, are, all things considered, not unexpected. Quite the contrary; they are welcomed. I chose my opening words, not so much for their claimed veracity, but for their inherent ability to plunge us immediately into the arena, the gauntlet thrown down, a challenge issued, six words quivering in the air expectantly, demanding something of us both. 

You are also aware that I have been accused upon occasion of being something of a provocateur. And while I do not mind this title, nor wish to debate its truthfulness (for what could be better than to be one who calls forth an action or provides stimulus for discussion), I must, I’m afraid, further stretch the suspension of your disbelief by saying that in this specific instance, such is not my intention. Let us, for the moment, accept that I merely wish to establish certain doubts and expectations, create certain obstacles to be both met and overcome. I wish to paint you a picture. And first, I pencil in the horizon. Simple as that, as complicated as you wish it to be.

So. Again.

My father invented the 20th century. 

The task is, naturally, to address this assuredly bold assertion, one which at first glance is predicated upon a very shaky foundation indeed. A foundation of worm-eaten wood, built on thin ice, above a deep hole. An impulsive and seemingly indefensible statement that would have certainly raised my hackles at a younger stage, would have prompted a well-known lift of my brow, a rolling of my eyes, when I was of an age still less inclined to forgive such pretensions. I shall pause for a moment to give you time for such reactions if needed.

No? You are most kind.

I will admit that even I smile now when imagining that younger self, shoulders back, strutting down St. Michael’s Street towards the Oxford Union, a sheaf of notes in one hand and a pint of Midlands brown in the other, can only guess the scorn and derision that I, in the giddy heat of debate, would have heaped upon such a preposterously presumptive phrase as made above. I smile and I sigh, knowing that my younger self, standing in the Old Library under the glowing Rossetti murals with the lamp lit looming history of our kind above me, around me, would have scoffed at the supposedly simple skirmish ahead, unaware, as all youth are, of the insolence of their still soft suppositions. 

And now, even imagining myself some years after those youthful Oxford evenings, a relative world of experience under my belt, I readily admit that I would still have reacted much as you undoubtedly do now to such a seemingly sophomoric statement. I freely acknowledge the dismissive reaction I would have offered had I heard those words spill past the lips of a prospective employee, if one of those trembling hopefuls had posited such a Munchhausian monolith during the arduous verbal examinations that preceded their joining my firm. An immediate Cesarean thumbs down, no follow up questions, no opportunity to explain. 

And, to further cement the bond of cynicism between us, I am equally sure that even years after, solidly ensconced in my middle years, I would have reacted with the same dismissive doubt. I ask you to imagine with me the furious stroking of my beard that such a statement would have elicited, the irritation at the almost perfect arrogance, the unblemished conceit. Your father? Invented? A century? The very idea, the naivete of the notion.

But there you are. The words stand, forcing an approach on either side, you on yours, me on mine. Each bringing with them what they know about the other. You, most certainly, with preconceptions and prejudices, me with the wariness wrought from years of dealing with the same. And so, I ask of you a patience and openness of mind that, as I have readily admitted, was for the longest time beyond my own abilities. So. Bear with me. 

I am aware that while I am asking for both your time and forbearance, I myself risk nothing with these words. As you know, I am now at the age where going out on a limb is no longer a daring act, but simply a slight speeding of an unavoidable assignation. I shuffle slowly after elusive fate, that wilted carrot on its bent stick, and go out on a limb I do, the change to the final sum negligible, the potential reward immense.

So. For the final time.

My father invented the 20th century. 

These book-ending words, the symmetry of their positioning tickling certain tendencies, their mirrored phrasing so suited to my personality. None of this news, of course. Forgive me the arrogance of assumption, but as you have surely read in the tabloids, the tell-all books, the fawning biographies, I am known to be fond, sometimes overly so, of order, of the underlying structures of things. As has been repeatedly and truthfully reported, I am drawn to fractal patterns, the hidden rhythm of nature, am enamored of the invisible hand of facts and figures, the digits that lie behind our lives. These proclivities are well known. As are the accomplishments that have arisen because of these traits (or in spite of them). My past-times and peculiarities, the minutia of my existence, all well documented, my story well told. Much has been said about my meal habits, my reading preferences, my sartorial selections.

As such, I do not doubt that many of you have strong opinions about my life and legacy. I have after all, at least in periods, lived a very public life. 

I would posit, however, that seeing the tip of an iceberg is not to know its depth. The old fable of the blind men attempting to identify an elephant by its various body parts springs to mind. And so, for some of you, I am the rope, for others, the wall or the spear. And for others still, the snake. I will deny none of them. I would maintain, however, that what you know of me is but the well-lit leaves of the tree, dappled with sunlight, while the branches, the trunk, lie still hidden in shadow, the roots deeply buried. I would also maintain, and more importantly so, that ho much or how little you know of me is of small importance. As much discussion has been had around the sharply defined philosophy attached to my name, as widely bandied as my name is in the textbooks, the editorial pages of the papers, as commonly uttered as it may be in the business school lecture halls (and to be fair, various courtrooms around this delicate blue sphere), it is not my image I am here to paint. Now, with the light if not fading, then at least losing its luminance, here, looking back through the lace curtains of time, the gauze of all these years, I feel a pulsing desire to get it all down, a task more wisely done long ago, but perhaps now more important for its postponement. 

Over the vast majority of these many years of my life, I have done little other than put into practice the thoughts of a better man. Every accolade, every honor I have received should bear his name, not mine.

So why have we never heard of this man, you may ask? A man who, it has now been repetitively claimed, deserves the credit for an entire century, whose name should adjoin all of the innovations or achievements of one of the most storied, documented lives in history. Why is such a man’s name not inscribed above the arches of public monuments, curled around the marble pillars of academia? Why is his cognomen not a household word, rolling easily off even the most simple tongue, why not used as a verb, a collective noun, a curse by college students, as a cheap descriptor of all things modern by various and sundry, common in the colloquial even if its origins obscured? Good questions, all, and I entertain them with pleasure, not with injury, as they too provide a path by which to know my father. Why is he not known?

Well, I might reply, what name had he who invented the wheel, what name the person who first applied fire to food, what moniker she who first traced the contours of her fingers or drew the shape of a newly slaughtered beast upon the walls of a cave? By what word do we know the person who first scribbled down the symbols with which to represent our language, our thoughts, our feelings, so as to communicate them across time and space? These gift-givers too, nameless, vanished like ancient elephants into the gray mist of past, unknown on page or poem. And yet, like my father, their gifts remain.

And this thing I credit my father with devising? There it is, just behind us, that most impressive of centuries, a still recent tide, ebbing out to deeper waters, and us, stranded here, whales gasping on the sand, struggling to evolve in the shallows of the future, to understand the receding force that brought us to where we are. The 20th century. That age of convenience and conflict. The heady swirl of socialism, the rational boots of capitalism marching forward in time, the fires of revolutions, the shuddering winds of change. A century that saw the raising and razing of walls, the establishing and erasing of borders, the liberation and enslavement of information, the promises and lies of a global community, the final fall of truth, the placement of science on the spinning wheels of whimsy, truth competing with rumor, myths, and crowd sourced fantasies for the scraps of our attention. And in the background, a soundtrack to it all, the rising of seas, the falling of water tables, the thickening of waistlines, the thinning of air; the leveling of the playing fields, the stacking of the deck. We have danced wildly, drunkenly, flirting with both the future and the apocalypse, our eyes glazed, our faces feverish then blank, our cheeks slack, our souls drained, our gray matter overloaded with cognitive dissonance. 

I know, I know. I hear the whispers, see collective hands rise to cover ears, eyes, muffle yet another voice of doom. And again, I beg forbearance. I nod, hold out my aging hands to still the waters. This, I assure you, is not that. I am not here to preach or proselytize, am not interested in finger wagging. I am here to describe a gift, not a curse.

A gift, yes. For it is my position, carefully considered, that amidst the deluge of delusional missteps and mistakes, the rushing water of regret, there is, or should be, a celebration of the causal current, of the motion that has brought us to where we are. We have erred, yes. We have presided over a great fall, to be certain. But we have also witnessed the greatest era of man, the best of times, the worst of times, as the sage too early foretold. We have harnessed the power of the mighty sun, of the minuscule molecule, we have played with the very building blocks of our genes the way small children once played with wooden blocks, arranging letters on a dusty floor of a Sunday afternoon. We have devastated, decimated, yes, we have killed on a scale heretofore unimaginable, but we have also saved, or attempted to save, almost as many things as we have destroyed. We have ushered in a rise of the intellect, even if only tidal; an embracing of aesthetics, of personal style and taste, a placing of value on individual expression and nuance. Voices long ignored have been given megaphones, bellies have been filled, homes lit, waters cleaned, streets made safe. Where these things ultimately have led us is not, in my opinion, the point. Prometheus is not to blame for the flames that took your barn, but should be given credit for the soothing heat from your family hearth. And so, here, in the dwindling twilight of my years, shuffling slowly towards my elephant graveyard, I will write of my father and of the gifts he gave, not of the purposes to which we have bent them. To paraphrase one of the more nefarious organizations of the past century, gifts don’t ruin people, people do. 

My father. Whether he was a man before his time, after his time, or, like his son, a man stuck between times, is a difficult question. To explain is the task at hand.