|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
From the very beginning, when it first came to me to recollect my past, I was wondering: Should I call it an autobiography, a memoir, or why not a selfportrait. As a picture maker, an artist, “selfportrait” , I thought, might of course best describe the medium by which I see my life reflected But, as best as I remember, only once did I ever do a real self-portrait. That was soon after I came to America in 1935 at the age of 16. It was a pencil drawing and I thought it looked pretty good - my reflection in the mirror, the eye darting back and forth from the mirror down to the paper, back to the reflection in the mirror, again and again until I was satisfied that the drawing resembled me. Or so I thought.
A year later I tore that self-portrait into little pieces. This could not be me, I realized: If a mirror image is nothing but a reflection could I ever really know myself, what I truly look like, who I am. Evidently, I am not my reflection and the reflection is not me. Ultimately, I had to accept that I could never really know myself. Right or wrong, for better or worse, I must accept other people’s assumptions, assessments, verdicts, views, even documentation. But what if official documents are wrong or non-existent.
It was only through my parents that I learned that I was born on or before or about the time of the Armistice. November 8, 1918 was the official date settled on, eventually, though neither of my parents were ever certain of the exact date. I never possessed a Birth Certificate to prove it. In the excitement and confusion of the end of World War I, no one in the small Polish town of Lublin troubled to record the birth of one Jewish baby boy. Nor did I ever care to commemorate that day.
Instead, both I and my wife, Rennie, had gotten into the habit to wish each other a “Happy Birthday” every morning - as though every awakening, each new day, should be cause for celebration: A new day born in wonder! In time this became part of our daily routine and ritual, followed in turn by yet other rituals, such as reciting Coue’s (the Swiss psychologist) dictum: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”, repeated twenty times. Some people, we had been assured, swore by its therapeutic powers of mental persuasion. Once up, the ritual continued with some exotic Eastern exercises - Tai Chi, Yoga and ending with a resounding “Ommm..!”, the sound of the universe, according to Hindu Gurus.
Rennie - guardian of our health - had suggested the various rituals. “It can’t hurt, perhaps it helps”, was her usual persuasive argument. On questions of health, I went along with whatever my wife suggested. I had my way on matters which for me mattered most - my work, my art. By mutual consent - though never formalized - it seemed like a fair, and fairly balanced, arrangement. I would even swallow the multitude of vitamins, mineral pills and the various forms of bran. For the same therapeutic reasons - “essential against all forms of cancer!” - I eventually got used to raw carrots, kale and other vegetations. I would have preferred the kinds of appetizing delicacies I indulged in before Rennie became the overseer of my health: frankfurters, smoked pork, salami and bologna, preferably fried or barbecued to an almost burned crisp. “Nitrites and nitrates, sodium and chemical preservatives - poisons!”, Rennie had proclaimed, and they were banished long ago and persisted solely in my dreams of a tastier but now forbidden past.
Rennie’s preoccupation with “health” and especially the dread of cancer may have been well founded. Sometime, during the 1960’s, I had been stricken with cancer. I was lucky; my brother Isaac, an oncologist (“the best”, colleagues said), discovered the suspicious swelling at the side of my neck. “Just in time”, but henceforth Rennie would make sure that there should be no recurrence, no matter how foolish her husband thought her various food and other faddish, to which, however, I would add one of my own. Mindful of the “power of mind over matter”, it was my contribution to our mutual well being to wag a threatening finger: “you better stay well if you know what’s good for you!”, usually with a touch of chuckled amusement.
But on the morning of January 10, 1985 we did not feel amused. I had a doctor’s appointment to review, once again, a worsening prostate problem. A visit to a doctor, invariably, fills me with dire apprehension, not only because of the possibility of new ills to be discovered, but for the intrusion into what I guarded as my privacy. To strip, to stand naked, to be examined and probed into the very innards of my being, was a dread which went back to the very beginnings of my childhood in Berlin. Often sickly, I still recall and recoil from the terror and screaming on being stripped naked and handled, touched and probed by clinically cold hands of uncomprehending doctors. Over the many years since, I had closed and tightened a mantle of privacy, not only about my body but my psyche as well. To stand revealed had become unacceptable.
“We better get a biopsy”, was Dr. Lieberman’s verdict. “A biopsy?” I must have turned pale. A biopsy, I knew, meant the possibility of cancer - once again. “You better tell my wife” I told the doctor. I was afraid to tell Rennie, afraid to face her. Heroics was not for me. Cancer? Almost as much as fear and shame, “guilt” had dogged most every step of my way. It did not help that over the years I had learned to affect a certain bravado: “A little guilt is good for you” I advised others “it makes us what we are - human!” But now bravado had left me.
Fear and guilt crowded out all else in the days, as well as nights, while awaiting admission to Vassar Hospital, in nearby Poughkeepsie. I was certain that the biopsy would be positive: Hadn’t I had cancer once before? Now, age 66, I could not possibly expect to defy the odds a second time, and this time without Isaac, my brother and renowned oncologist, but who himself had died of cancer 9 years before. And Paul, my son-in-law, was, at that very moment in the final stages of terminal cancer. Lately, more and more friends were stricken and dying of cancer. And my father had died of complications following prostate surgery.
Too often, I had watched the slow, agonizing descent - sometimes stretching years - reducing those nearest and dearest to mere caretakers, hopelessly nursing evermore wretched needs. Whether swift or slow, and always too imaginative, I could imagine such an ending, but I could not accept it. The night before the biopsy was long, restless and sleepless. Alone in the bare hospital room, without the always comforting presence of Rennie, the one thought which, like some terrible antagonist, kept stalking “how can you do this to her?” In the 46 years together, I could no longer imagine life without her, and in my conceit I was certain that she could not live without me. Rennie had said that much on various occasions. We had come to depend on one another and had forged a symbiotic relationship where neither of us could imagine life alone without the other.
Upon waking each morning, we not only wished one another “happy birthday”, but also reassured ourselves of our love. “I love you” became a ritual repeated throughout the day and the last utterance before dropping off to sleep. Like any ritual, it took on all the tonalities of almost religion - this ripening love and adoration of an aging couple. Often, while working in the studio, especially when a painting appeared to go well, I would feel compelled to stop, wipe my hands, ascend the stairs to where Rennie was busy, and reach out to touch her arm. Nothing needed to be said. Reassured, I would return to my easel.
Who would reach out to Rennie once I’m gone? kept agonizing through the never ending night. How can I do this to her? Had our love been less caring and all embracing, had it been more sedate and distanced, possibly even antagonistic and spiteful, what lay ahead might have held less terror. Ours was a love based as much on compassion for each other’s vulnerability as on reflected passion. If life had a purpose, I was sure that my purpose, as well as fate, was to “make art”, and also be the guardian, companion, friend and lover to Rennie, my wife. It did not need to be articulated, it went without saying, but neither, knowingly, would do anything which might hurt the other. We both knew what pain was. And yet, now, awaiting what I was certain to be confirmation of cancer, I felt that I was about to inflict upon Rennie the ultimate betrayal from which there was no recovery or forgiveness. How could I do this to her, kept reverberating throughout this long, dark night in the antiseptic bareness of the hospital room. No, no, oh God no, I whimpered into the still gloom. God?
All my life I had prided myself “anti-authoritarian”, a rebellious child from the start, an avowed atheist. But now, facing what I could not face, I found himself praying, perhaps not so much praying as pleading. Pleading with whom - some unseen god? I don’t want to die; not yet. Please give us a few more years. Please, I’ll do anything, anything at all, just let me live. I’ll give away anything, everything I own, I kept pleading. Let me live!
But what do I own, what is mine to give away? my cooler mind began to inventory my assets. No, I could not rightfully give away our home, furnishings or our savings. These were not mine to give away; they belonged to Rennie as well. The only thing, I determined, which were mine, mine alone to dispose of as I saw fit, was my art, my paintings. It was the one and only thing which I felt I possessed and could give away. Yes, I’ll give away all my paintings, I kept repeating, pleading, insisting and praying.
When, early the next morning, hospital attendants came and readied me for anesthesia - one final fervent plea: I’ll give away all my work, yes, I promise! When I regained consciousness, I did not dare look into the face of my waiting wife. Nurses and attendants merely shrugged: It’ll be several days before the results of the biopsy will be known; be patient.
Several days after returning home, Rennie called me to the phone: It’s Dr. Lieberman, he wants to talk to you. Once again I must have turned pale, certain to be asked to come to his office to discuss the various options of therapy. “Everything is clear”, Dr. Lieberman said. “No, there’s no malignancy of either prostate or bladder; everything is fine”. I could not believe it. “Are you sure”? Dr. Lieberman had to repeat the diagnosis: “No, no cancer”. Still, I was convinced that I had, indeed, had cancer and that death was certain except for a miracle. Perhaps, prayers and pleadings and my promise had saved me - additional proof of the power of the mind. I may not have believed in God, but I did have faith in the miraculous.
Long after I and Rennie stopped hugging and crying, following, what I was convinced was another manifestation of spontaneous remission, I suddenly remembered: my pleadings and my promise to give away my paintings. Oh no. No, that was not a valid promise. God or no God, it was extracted under unfair duress. It shouldn’t count, I began to argue. After all, how many New Year’s resolutions are kept? You can always claim that you were drunk, that you didn’t know what you promised. Surely, I must have been mad. Resolutions and promises should only be offered under sober and normal circumstances. My resolution was made under the most abnormal conditions.
In any case, I considered myself an atheist, at most an agnostic (according to my wife). My prayers and promises could not be taken seriously. If there should really be a God, He or She could not hold me accountable or keep me to my promise. Besides, I argued, we need the money (reflecting greed more than real necessity). I am too old and set in my ways - I can’t change now. It’s impossible. It was a crazy thing to do. God (if there is one) would surely understand and forgive me. For days after the “miracle” I kept arguing. With whom? With myself, my conscience, with a God I had never believed in? I had not even been Bar Mitzvahd or ever opened a prayer book. Orthodoxy would never consider me a proper Jew.
Growing up in Germany, my upbringing was one of “liberal enlightenment”, free of old shibboleths and traditions. My father was proud of his “break with the past”, his escape from the Polish shtetl culture he grew up in, and he relished his new found atheism. My mother went along, at times, a bit apprehensively. She, after all, had come from a long and proud line of Hassidic rabbis, going back to the Wonder Rabbi of Lublin, the so-called Lubliner. It was said that he performed miracles, had visions, heard strange voices and was given to prophesies. He was mad, my father insisted.
It was said, as my mother often recalled, that this ancestor awoke one morning and announced that he had visions and heard voices proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. To make sure, he recruited two more rabbis in a joint endeavor to bring about the appearance of the Messiah. They prayed and pleaded, and for miles around the pious gave up their worldly possessions and gathered around Lublin, prayed and pleaded, chanted and danced and awaited the coming of the Messiah. The prophesied time came and passed and, of course, there was no Messiah. Legend has it that after the debacle, this ancestral rabbi stood at an upper floor gallery of his study when a gust of wind blew off his hat. As he reached for it, he fell to his death below, and two angels were said to have been seen conveying his soul up to Heaven. My ancestor, the Wonder Rabbi of Lublin, probably jumped to his death. Prophesy is a risky undertaking; but strange dreams and visions, apparently, still run deep within the Rabbi’s descendants.
Scornful of all dogma and religion, my father may have been right insisting that his wife’s forefather was mad, always pronounced however with a certain respect, and the subject of one of his earliest books. Equally scornful of all dogma and brought up on “rationality, enlightenment and atheism”, I would wonder, eventually, whether a sense of religion and the fear of some God may not be inherent, no matter how deeply buried in the subconscious. My prayers were, perhaps, a momentary genetic throwback to some archaic past. A sense of religious awe, the prayers this evokes and the promises it extracts may be more profound than reason would admit.
Day after day, and some nights as well, following my “clean bill of health”, I argued and debated - forget this “crazy” promise or abide by it. Of all confrontations, confronting one’s conscience can become the most terrifying - ¬there seems no escape. Alcohol or drugs would not have helped; I never cared for either. Life itself had always appeared intoxicating enough.
After days of arguing and wrestling I finally confronted Rennie: “I can no longer sell my paintings, I must give them away”, recounting my fears of cancer and dying and frantic pleadings and promise. “I have no choice - I cannot sell them anymore”. I should have discussed it with Rennie first. We usually discussed everything and tried to arrive at some mutually acceptable decision. This time, I had presented her with a fait accompli; irreversible, allowing for no compromise. Rennie was dumbfounded - she said nothing.
Usually the more rationale of our long partnership, she realized, no doubt, the absurdity of her husband’s resolution, but was probably reluctant to make things worse by pointing it out. Apparently, she did not want to add to what she realized must have been a fearsome battle. Years before they had once discussed - in purely academic terms ¬what I perceived as the growing corruption of art into a “marketplace of commodities” and what the individual artist could possibly do about it. Perhaps, I ventured, the artist should get out of “this marketplace” and declare his work “price less”. We agreed, however, that to declare one’s work “price less” might also make it “worthless”.
“We should tell the children”, Rennie finally reminded me. I would, indeed, be depriving our children of their rightful inheritance, especially now with children of their own. Yes, we should discuss it with them. We met and I told our two daughters of my decision: how I came to it, my fears of cancer and dying, my pleadings and prayers, my promise and subsequent concern whether to abide by my promise. I know it’s crazy, I admitted.
“How wonderful”, both Vivian and Nina answered almost as one. I felt relieved. Rennie, too, must have felt relieved and increasingly reassured her husband that he had done the right thing. Like a co-conspirator, she would become the guardian of my resolve, concerned now that I might perhaps weaken and break my resolution.
As a final gesture, I gathered up all of my carefully compiled price lists and consigned them to a fire which I watched turn to ashes. There would be no more prices, no more haggling, no more reminders and pleading of payments due, no more charades about “fair” price, no more greed. The “fair” price, I could now acknowledge, is always an insult to both the artist and his work.
The original doubts and misgivings slowly began to evaporate, replaced by a sense of increasing euphoria and feelings of liberation. Even the world around me began to look very different: people, their ambitions and foibles and their mostly misdirected dreams. I thought that I also began to understand my past as well as the direction of my future. A door seemed to have opened and with it a view of a very different and new landscape. I felt as though I had regained the untainted joy of painting of my childhood. At the age of 5 in Switzerland, I had announced that I wanted to be a painter; at 13 I had my first exhibition in Berlin and sold my first paintings amid dreams of fame and fortune - in America. But also, I began to have my first misgivings. With my first sales, had I lost an innocence, the innocence of the pure joy of painting?
Evidently, it was a question which had haunted me. Now, more than half a century later, I had finally resolved it: I would no longer sell my work! Perhaps, it was merely another sign of advancing age: a second childhood trying to recapture the innocence of the first. No matter. I set to painting with a vigor I had not known for many years. From the very beginning, when I first began to paint, I had always relied on images presenting themselves, rather than ideas. Throughout the many years since, there had never been a lack of these “presentations” - call them inspirations. Now however, a flood of ever new images seemed to overwhelm me which I seemed almost unable to keep up with. Before, I had always worked on one painting at a time. I now found myself working on several, arising and setting to work earlier and earlier. I seemed driven or dragged along by an uncontrollable frenzy of painting. Far from exhausting, I found the pace exhilarating and strangely liberating. A heavy weight appeared to have lifted; I felt free.
Several months after my fear of cancer and death and my promise and resolution, one June morning in 1985, I even felt free enough to think of composing my memoir (or self-portrait) : to begin recalling and retracing a past which in the past I was always reluctant to face.
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