After hearing Paul Tillich mention Aristotle in a lecture, Delmore Schwartz went up to him and belligerently said “Listen, I’ve been studying Aristotle since I was a child–nobody can tell me anything about Aristotle.”
Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, James Atlas
We was playin’ marbles, me and Delmore and Eddie Wilson. Delmore had a big hog roller he was shootin’, and he kept aimin’ for the prize of my collection: a green and blue cat’s eye, it looked just like Brenda Thomason’s right eye, except hers is brown and blue. It was as close as I could get to having her for my very own, there was so many guys who was creamin’ in their jeans about her.
So it woulda crushed me if Delmore had won it. I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs, to use a pseudo down-homey expression like I was some kind of future Dan Rather or somethin’.
And then–tragedy struck. He hit it, dead on, and sent it flyin’ out of the circle. It was his by rights under the 1956 International Convention on the Rules of Marble-Shootin’–unless I could think of some exception, or some overriding philosophical principle under which his claim was like totally bogus.
And then it occurred to me: Now is the perfect time to invoke David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher. God I loved the guy! He was the author of several pithy phrases I liked to insert into heated discussions of baseball cards and other important topics. “Dogmatic slumbers,” “fell stillborn from the press”–the guy was a laugh riot!
So I cleared my throat to announce my intention to challenge him. “Excuse me,” I said as Delmore reached for my prize marble.
“You aren’t suggesting that your marble caused my marble to leave the ring, are you?”
“You better believe it, you stupid doody-head!” Delmore snapped.
“That’s funny, because as David Hume pointed out in A Treatise of Human Nature, and subsequently re-cast in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, we have only a weak understanding of causality. When billiard ball A hits billiard ball B and billiard ball B moves, are we certain that A caused B to move?”
“Of course we are, you dingbat!”
“I think not,” I continued, as calmly and rationally as I could in the face of Delmore’s rage. “Hume taught us that we are not reasonably justified in making inductive inferences . . .”
“Listen,” Delmore snapped. “I’ve been studying David Hume since I was in diapers. Nobody can tell me anything about David Hume.”
It was Friday night, time for the weekly sock-hop at Mel Ott Junior High School, and all of us guys was getting spiffed up. I had on my two-tone loafers, Lionel Trilling had on his two-tone jacket, Wallace Stevens had on his two-tone pleated slacks. Delmore Schwartz was the only one of our gang who hadn’t bought into the whole two-tone craze that was sweeping boys’ clothing at the time. He was trying to harmonize the apparent duality between poetry and philosophy, the nut!
All of us started gettin’ nervous when we saw the girls walk into the gym. I don’t know what it is–the most confident seventh-grader in the world can get all knock-kneed when the women arrive in the flesh, no matter how tough he talks when he’s takin’ his last puff on his cigarette outside.
“I don’t know how to talk to girls,” Trilling said, disconsolate. This was the guy who could draw fine distinctions between the sincere and the genuine, and even he’s tongue-tied at school dances!
“Just ask her what her favorite song is,” Delmore said, and rather dismissively I might add.
“What if she don’t have one?” Stevens asked. His ice cream was dripping on his pants, but I didn’t say nothin’. He says he’s the emperor of ice cream, and I’m a mere commoner.
“Every girl has one,” Delmore said.
“Although it’s possible,” I mused aloud, “that at some point as humans continue to procreate–assuming some of the babies are girls–that girls will exist who don’t have a favorite song.”
“Why’s that?” Trilling asked.
“Because you got a possibility of an infinite number of girls, whereas Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz postulated that there was only a finite number of songs in the world.”
“Why is that?” Stevens asked.
“I dunno, somethin’ to do with monads or somethin’,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “If you read his . . .”
That was all Delmore could take. He’d been simmering like a pot of potatoes, ready to boil over at the first misstatement of a fundamental principle.
“Baloney,” he snapped.
“Oh yeah?” I said. I’d had enough of the boy genius.
“Yeah!” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked, and believe me I meant it rhetorically ’cause I didn’t think he had anything to back it up.
“How do I know?” Delmore said, then laughed a mirthless laugh–if that’s even possible. “I was studying Leibniz before you took the training wheels off your bike, you mook. Nobody can tell me anything about Leibniz.”
Karl Shapiro gave me the nod of the head, which was our signal to simultaneously ask to be excused to go to the boys’ room–me, Karl and Delmore Schwartz. Mrs. Cooper said our bladders must be synchronized, since we always had to “go” at the same time.
We beat it down to the end of the hall, checked under the stalls, then Karl spoke.
“What’s so bleepin’ important?” Delmore asked, although I have scrubbed his language to protect the innocence of any young children who may be reading it on something called the internet many years hence.
“I really screwed up,” Karl said.
“What–what did you do?” I asked.
“I told Mary Alice Fogarty I loved her.”
Delmore and I groaned like we’d been hit in the solar plexus by Rocky Marciano.
“What’d you do a stupid thing like that for?” I asked.
“I wanted to feel her up,” Karl said.
Delmore looked around with that distracted air he got whenever he was about to receive a divine inspiration. “This may not be fatal,” he said after a while as he stroked his chin.
“Nuh-uh,” I said with certainty. “If you tell a girl you love her, you gotta take her to the Sweetheart Dance in February.
“No fair,” Karl said. “She didn’t even let me put my hand on her sweater.”
“You can wriggle out of this,” Delmore said. “‘I love you’ isn’t a performative utterance, it’s merely an expression of an emotional state. Now, when you say ‘I do’ at a wedding–that’s final.”
While I respected Delmore’s towering intellect, I thought he was just plain wrong for once. “I disagree,” I said. “If you examine Austin’s ‘How to Do Things With Words’ carefully, you’ll see that he contemplates a wide range of apparently innocent statements that may commit us to consequences enforced by culture and not just logic. ‘Trailing clouds of etymology’ and all that.”
Delmore looked at me with a withering gaze. “Really? So you’ve been brushing up on your philosophy of language, have you?”
“Yes,” I said, and I was about to elaborate but he cut me off.
“Listen, you dink. I was studying Austin when you were riding a rocking horse. Nobody can tell me anything about Austin.”