When I was twenty-three I was very proud and very ashamed. I was too proud to take help from anybody; I had moved out of my parents’ house and worked as a legal temp, putting my ninety words per minute typing speed to good use making five hundred a week, and living in a one bedroom apartment in Harlem. I was ashamed because I hadn’t achieved my goals. I wanted to be a philosopher like Plato and I was so ashamed that I would ride the subway in February and take down my hood my face was burning so hot with shame.
I met Salvator in a class on metaphysics I had taken at the Learning Annex. The teacher was a round-faced partridge-shaped woman who wore shoulder pads and a big mystic pendant. She spoke to entities. I don’t think she was a con-woman; I don’t think she spoke to entities; I’m pretty sure what she perceived as entities were submerged pieces of her own soul. One of them was named Fernando. He was eight thousand years old.
I recognized Salvator from the class afterwards (it was held in P.S. 8 on the Lower East Side). He had brought his dinner in a brown paper bag as had I and we agreed to eat on a park bench and talk. November in New York at 8 pm and the wind going down the big east west streets — in this case Houston — carried a real bite. The cold made the city bleak but it was a hospitable bleakness, it offered comfort perhaps most to those who could not otherwise be comforted. When Salvator talked there would be drops of foam on his upper lip. He had to get dialysis twice a week and was on disability from his job as some sort of inspector for Con Edison.
When I shared my ambition with him of becoming a philosopher Salvator told me that had tried to study Plotinus as a youth but was convinced that the Enneads had been written in a code and the key had been lost. He had studied with something that he referred to vaguely as “the School” — when I got to know him better I learned that this “school” was really just one woman who had been his lover in the 1940s and had explained certain things to him. He said that he lacked the strength because of his kidney disease to make any further discoveries but he would pass what he knew on to me.
The basic idea he told me was that there are two kinds of things in this world — things and utterances. The mistake modern thought made was to believe that utterances had to have an utterer. This was just a mistake — not wishful thinking, not an illusion, not a fantasy, but a simple error. We generalize from our own utterances to think speech must have a speaker. But in many important cases there are utterances that nobody speaks.
We are such cases.
He told me as it got colder and colder what this meant, and it had been worked out — by him? By “the school” (was there even a school?) in great, and I will say, convincing detail.
A metaphor is an utterance that says something is like something else — the “head” of a company means he leads it, as a head leads a body. So some people are metaphors. So, some lives get their meaning by being like something else — this man is a metaphor for his father, this woman is a metaphor for martyrdom, these people together are a metaphor for the sun rising in the morning.
Metonym is an utterance that says something is near something else — a “crown” for example may mean a king. Some people get their meaning by where they are. This man lives in America and his life is a metonym for the country he happened to have been born in.
Tmesis is when a word is interrupted by another word — abso-fucking-lutely. The first word is split and it causes us to wait for the first word to be over for us to know what the whole is. So people’s lives are interrupted — by a war, raising a family, a marriage that begins and then ends in divorce or a spouse’s death — and only when the interruption is over do they complete what they need to say.
Praeteritio means when we say something by avoiding saying it. In other words I say “I will not mention the mayor’s notorious philandering” and by doing so, I mention it. So most of us who live lives avoiding something — lying, or a belief in God, or a betrayal, or over kindness — are actually living a life in tribute to expressing the thing which we avoid.
It was a sound doctrine. It was extremely cold. The Christmas lights had star-shaped patterns around them from the tear-freezing nature of the cold. I could not get Salvator’s phone number as he had no phone and this was before the internet. I suppose he is gone now but his echo resounds.