Why I Read

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In 1964, a small circle of friends gathered and read, in front of a fireplace, over coffee, or high on a hill, riveted by the distinctive sayings of a Polish WWII survivor.  The aphorisms of Stanislaw J. Lec became our code of clique or means to limn a collective literacy.  While not long for this world (Lec died in 1966), his words have remained in memory across the decades.  At 17, those verbal prods to critical thinking kept our crew talking for hours as we swilled Dr. Pepper and munched on pistachio nuts.  Sometimes, angst-ridden conversations beckoned us up to the Colorado National Monument, a paean to sandstone and wind which bounded one compass direction of the lost-to-uranium town called Grand Junction, Colorado.  There, in the lea of a juniper tree, we would dissect and decode Lec’s words.  “In the house of the hanged, one does not speak of the noose.  And, in the hangman’s house…?”

This dilemma laid out, in an exquisite mapping of context, the distinctions of perception brought on by personal views, experience, and culture.  The noose, of course, was the symbol for death, and one which a family left to mourn would be loath to mention.  In the hangman’s house though, the noose would take on a work-a-day semiological relationship, more like a steering wheel for the bus driver or a hydraulic jack for a street repairman. Those objects so define the doer that synecdoche enters the game. Could his nickname be “Noose” at the prison or among his unemployed, beer-drinking brothers-in-law? Familiarity can take the sting out of almost anything, so talk around the dinner table might touch on the variable strengths of hemp fiber, the stinginess of a budget-bred supervisor in wanting to reuse the noose a minimum number of times, or the hangman’s desire to try out a new knot he’d been testing on sacks of gravel.

The pithy sayings of this one Holocaust survivor took my classmates and I light years from the grim realities of being on the D-List in a tribe-driven high school.  The two boys in our quartet – alas, strictly platonic – vouchsafed my only semi-close contact with testosterone during two of the three measurably miserable years of secondary school.  Yet, talk of issues beyond our ken and, truthfully, the challenge of pitting one intellect against another muffled the pain of misfitness.  We shared ideas our English teachers would have applauded and our peers would have found incomprehensible.  What did Lec mean when he wrote, “Are naked women intelligent?”  This question, like any other stemming from creative concision, was a maze of complexity.  An avowed feminist from birth (I refused to take typing out of terror that I might end up a secretary.), the query either condemned the temptation presented by the female form, lamented that women’s value lay only in the lushness of their curves, or slapped society upside the head for denying the compleat nature of a woman with both body and mind.   No consensus was reached by our eager band of debaters.

A decade ago, when American soldiers clambered up a tank attachment to tie ropes around a bronze icon and then, finally unseat the statue of Saddam Hussein, I recalled another Lec favorite, “When toppling monuments, always save the pedestals.  They come in handy.”  Those of us who were familiar with the Middle East viewed the dictator’s metaphorical fall with trepidation.  Why would Americans and America’s government suppose that no vacuum would be created by a tyrannical government’s downfall?  Such  a misguided assumption would contravene even the most basic laws of physics, as well as the history of lands whose traditions go back eons longer than our own.  So often that it is almost axiomatic, where there is a leader of a tribe, “by consent or coercion” as Phillip Khoury has said, that status brings with it an historic plot of power and a maintainence stratagem is drawn in the sand. The top spot becomes political  acreage occupied by one man’s ability to control for any breach or encroachment.  When the ruler falls, as many have, that holding might likened to the nicest bedroom in the house.  With views, a large, attached bathroom, a Temperpedic mattress, and sumptuous French  linens, the “home formerly owned by” suddenly appears on everyone’s wish list.  Someone will occupy the bedroom, or, just as often, the bedroom will be destroyed so that no one can occupy it,  a la Aesop’s “Dog in the Manger”. In that case, the bedroom moves from the wish list to the New Year’s resolution list, an even more dangerous aspiration.  While my fellow citizens thought the fall of the statue signaled the end of the conflict, I thought of Stanislaw J. Lec, and foresaw a different future.  Such is the dynamic of well-chosen words.  As Lec, himself, said, “An apt aphorism half kills, half immortalizes.”

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