ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, by Robert Wexelblatt. A review by Ricardo Nirenberg

While inspecting with delight the many papers of the pseudonymous Sidney Fein, a word kept pestering my mind, escaping when I tried to catch it, then coming suddenly back.  At length I caught it: it was the French expression en vrac, as it appears in André Gide's autobiography: "You should expect no logic in the presentation of my arguments; I offer them en vrac, as they came to my mind and without reordering them."  (Et qu'on ne cherche point de logique dans l'exposé de mes raisons ; je les présente en vrac, comme elles m'étaient venues et sans les ordonner davantage (Gide, Si le grain ne meurt).  It is a triumph of the French tongue, this expression of informal, spontaneous arrangement, whose opposite turns out to be, if I am not mistaken, the nearly homophone en frac.

Don't be fooled, though: neither Gide's nor Wexelblatt's book are really en vrac or thrown pell-mell; a hidden logic has arranged both, only they wouldn't want to appear like they are wearing tail coats.  Sidney Fein's last paper – last in his short life (1942 – 1984) and last in this book – is serious and formal enough, but, in compensation (remember Horace's Lectorem delectando pariterque monendo) it is strategically preceded by a hilarious, bawdy, and slangy narration of how the non-tenured young scholar came into its possession, and how its possession would, in turn, guarantee the young scholar the possession of a tenured job. 

Fein's papers are mostly about philosophers.  His superhero is clearly Kierkegaard, and his admiration for the Dane has proved stylistically contagious, for Wexelblatt uses the Kierkegaardian method of setting multiple strata of pseudonymity between Fein and himself.  There is also an affinity between Wexelblatt's and Kierkegaard's affection for significant proper names.  I'm thinking of Constantin Constantius in Kierkegaard's Repetition, and of Sidney Fein, which sounds to me quite close to "signifies."  Indeed, signifying and significance are the theme of Sidney Fine's last paper, mentioned above, and if you are looking for an interesting philosophical problem to munch on, you might consider the significance the erotic, bawdy framing of this last paper has for the notion of significance itself.  More generally and bluntly, is there, or can there be, significance without Eros?  Plato and his feathered soul should be of some help here.

Socrates and Plato are, to be sure, also heroes of Fein's: one of his papers is about the Euthyphro, an early Socratic dialogue; I find it especially delightful because I see in it, perhaps more than in others (although it is present in all), the feeling we may tentatively call teacher's nostalgia, to which we shall return in a moment.  Fein points out that the Euthyphro is very rarely taught in college courses; this is likely true, but it was one of the two Socratic dialogues Kierkegaard studied most carefully, the other one being the Apology.  Then there's Kant.  Not much eroticism here.  Fein had written a poem titled, "Königsberg," and Wexelblatt gives us the text as well as an extended commentary: it deals not only with Kant but also with the great mathematician Euler, older than Kant by almost two decades, who solved the problem called "the seven bridges of Königsberg," an early instance of topology and the beginning of the theory of graphs.  It even deals with Mikhail Kalinin, the Bolshevik, after whom Königsberg was renamed, by Stalin, Kaliningrad.  Three lines of Fein's poem stand by themselves in my mind:

"Teach to the students of middle / ability was his [Kant's] recommendation.  The best / don't need you; the worst can't be helped."

I hesitate to speak of teacher's nostalgia.  My sensing it in Wexelblatt's rich treasure of a book may be, after all, but a fake echo in the old, shrunken cockles of my heart.  Nostalgia, in poems, was often expressed by the Latin words, ubi sunt?  Where are they?  Where are the snows of yesteryear?  Where the ladies of the court of King don Juan?  The echo I just mentioned can be phrased: Where are the students of middle ability interested in the humanities?  Are there any left?  Oh, surely there must be, but how few!  And so, why should not old teachers be mad?  Madness be blessed, if it brings us the overflow of wisdom and of love that falls from Wexelblatt and fills his Sidney Fein.

Robert Wexelblatt's work has appeared frequently in Offcourse. R. Nirenberg is editor of the journal.

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