What Richard Wollheim Taught Us About the ‘Finished State’ of a Person
Sheila Heti on the British Philosopher's Memoir, Germs
Germs: not only the dirty little things you can’t see but also seeds. In his sensuous and melancholic memoir, Richard Wollheim attempts to collect the seemingly insignificant, lost little kernels of his life—the most powerful impressions of his younger self—that then germinated and made the man. It is a book written by a philosopher who is interested in how the seemingly random yet indelible experiences from early age might, when recalled and assembled, constitute evidence of the inevitability of one’s future attachments. Yet no matter how perfectly one recalls the past, the first cause always remains a mystery: Why were the things that touched us so powerfully those things, and not others? This question hangs over every memory—exquisitely unanswered, and unanswerable.
Wollheim was a man whose passions—philosophy, art, and, in particular, painting, and an examination of the mind and self through the lens of psychoanalysis—led him to write some of the 20th century’s most eloquent essays about aesthetics. To read these alongside this memoir is to recognize both a gap and a connection. His professional development and philosophical accomplishments are not really part of this book, which stops when he is still a young man; but reading the two together does give a sense of how a person blooms into greater complexity through the years, while always retaining the inclinations and sensitivities of their first self. His childhood fascinations—with the beauty of words, with categorizing, with secret names—are surely the seeds of a writer, and in particular, a writer who will become interested in thinking about thinking.
The pleasure he takes in being pampered, sick, and slothful is an ideal disposition for someone whose adulthood will be spent inside reading, lying on a couch or in bed. Even his professed inability, in childhood, to differentiate between men and women—and his early confusion over what makes a man a man, and a woman a woman—seems to point to someone who would eventually theorize fluidly on the beauty of art, which is categorically neither male nor female, or is perhaps neither and both at once.
Germs is concerned with the conditions of growth. It is easy for people to sentimentalize childhood as a sunny place, but for Wollheim—romantic but not sentimental—the world’s rare joys were contrasted by an atmosphere that was gray, cloudy, and solitary. This feeling is perhaps best crystallized when he writes of a “mood from which I have never learnt to escape altogether, and to which I readily fall victim on autumnal nights and spring evenings: fierce, overbearing loneliness giving way to a suffocating togetherness, the two separated by no more than the shutting or the opening of a front door, or the climbing of a staircase, or just the turning of a key in an innocent enough lock.”
This is a book about looking back, but also about how hard it is to look back. There must be “overbearing loneliness” to encountering oneself as a child, who has become so remote and strange, yet there is also a “suffocating togetherness” in making this encounter, for who could be closer?
Wollheim’s father was a prosperous Jewish theatrical producer and something of a dandy, which resulted in many colorful characters passing through the family’s life, “foreign actors, diseuses, dancers, composers of music for cabaret,” and yet the younger Wollheim seemed to live in a distressingly private world of his own, in which he was made miserable by the sight of “sunlight after rain,” and was ever sensitive to “the slightest irregularity” in his body. He was at a remove from the adults except when admiring them from afar, or else experiencing humiliation, as when he overheard “a mezzosoprano from Vienna” whom he took to be an ally remarking to his parents about his unfortunately large ears.
It is hard not to feel affection for the handsome, dark-eyed boy with the brooding forehead and prominent eyebrows who stares back at us from the photographs in this book and who, despite having every material comfort, bore the anxiety of the chronically deprived, so much so that even writing of his father’s chauffeur he recalls the “distance that Allen’s manliness put between him and me, and then between me and all men,” a fundamental feeling of inferiority that no advantages could overcome.If life does not offer up any theories about itself, why should the person who is looking at a life?
The delicate beauty of this memoir is the result of its prevailing atmosphere of sadness and fog, in counterpoint with the most glittering sentences, surely some of the more beautiful surfaces in English prose. Wollheim writes about the name Charrell, the surname of two brothers, friends of his father, and loving it as “one of those Central European names, like Putschi, or Czarkas, or Knize, which seemed, as is said of some wine, magically to fill the mouth.” He writes about “the futile, solitary, acid tears of children.” He describes with unusual romanticism the beauty of clothing and the vanity of men. I can think of few writers who so gracefully capture the fineness of men’s dress and their secret pride at their own natural gifts. There is Allen arriving at work in his cap and chauffeur’s suit, whose “bicycle slowed to a halt, and, with his left foot still planted firmly down on the pedal . . . swung the right leg up, up and back over the saddle, and then, for a few seconds, held it stretched out behind him, totally stiff, parallel to the ground, the blue serge held neatly in place by a black bicycle clip, which encircled the turn-up of the trouser-leg. . . . How I loved the majesty of that outstretched leg, held rigid in all weathers.”
Yet this working-class man is no less exquisite than, in the Savoy Hotel, “the debonair figure of the Prince of Wales, wearing a light grey double-breasted suit, and holding in one hand a black cigarette holder . . . he straightened himself up, he stuck his cigarette holder between his teeth, and both hands flew up to adjust the large knot of his silver tie, which protruded from the famous cut-away collar of his shirt. Momentarily assured of his appearance, he paused,” before mistakenly, and comically, entering the ladies’ room.
Can a person alter their present self by investigating their past self? In his introduction to the work of Sigmund Freud, Wollheim wrote that, “in revolutionizing the world, Freud revolutionized himself,” and Wollheim may have wished that writing this memoir would do the same for him. Did it? I’m not sure. It seems to me that if anything is won by the end of this book, it is rather the truth—more conservative than revolutionary—that the things one most tries to put on the page do not actually belong there; that life cannot be captured in words, and as much as one longs to use art-making as a tool for personal transformation, the self remains what it is.
And yet there is something reassuring about this—about the self being evidence of a continuity beneath even our conscious design. The relish Wollheim then took in perceiving the world, and the sensual pleasure of his private noticing, grew into an exhaustive technique of looking at paintings which, for the grown-up Wollheim, was perhaps the greatest and most natural gift he could give himself. His patient attentiveness—with him from childhood—not only provided his later insight into art but clarified his perception of life, since the connection between the two is what he was determined to understand, as underscored in this passage from Painting as an Art:
I evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognize that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was. I spent long hours in the church of San Salvatore in Venice, in the Louvre, in the Guggenheim Museum, coaxing a picture into life. I noticed that I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture that I was looking at . . . I then recruited the findings of psychology, and in particular the hypotheses of psychoanalysis, in order to grasp the intention of the artist as the picture revealed it . . . [not] to “psychoanalyze” individual painters [because] if I am right in thinking that art presupposes a common human nature, and that pictorial meaning works through it, then it must be absurd to bring to the understanding of art a conception of human nature less rich than what is required elsewhere. Many art-historians, in their scholarly work, make do with a psychology that, if they tried to live their lives by it, would leave them at the end of an ordinary day without lovers, friends, or any insight into how this had come about.
It is his insistence on not draining an object of its richness through simplification that makes his display of recollection so satisfying: structurally, the memoir seems to follow no organization more rigid than free association, and he never succumbs to easy analysis. This makes the world of Germs feel so true, for if life does not offer up any theories about itself, why should the person who is looking at a life?
This book was first published in 2004, the year after Wollheim died, but there is nothing in its pages to suggest it was unfinished, and he considered it his best writing. The great art critic Arthur Danto, in the obituary he wrote for The Guardian, remarks that Wollheim was “a profoundly engaging man, and wonderful company. An animated conversationalist and a vivid raconteur, his default state was one of amused detachment, though he sometimes took positions on issues that others, to his amazement, found outrageous. He tended to side with the underdog—to support rioting blacks in Detroit, or Palestinians in the Middle East conflict.” Danto tells us that Wollheim was even “prepared to admire some contemporary artists whose work differed sharply from that in which he deeply believed.” One can see the possibility of all this in the boy depicted in these pages, yet it is hard not to be relieved that such a melancholy and lonely child grew up to be a man with rich friendships, who was a pleasure for others to know.
In one of his most influential essays, “Minimal Art”—in which he coined the term minimalism—Wollheim writes,
So far I have spoken of constructive work: which consists in building a picture, in “working it up” from the blank canvas. . . . But now I want to suggest that in our contemplation of art we often envisage another kind of activity as having gone on inside the arena of the painting and which has also made its contribution to the finished state of the object. And this work, which is at once destructive and yet also creative, consists in the dismantling of some image which is fussier or more cluttered than the artist requires.
Does life, in adulthood, risk being “fussier or more cluttered” than we require? The clarity of this memoir makes one think so. And although of course a memoir is a collection of images—the building of a picture—there seems to be a significant dismantling impulse in Wollheim’s return to his childhood, as if he were asking: What can be taken away from the man I have become, what can be stripped, to see what is at my core? To write about one’s earliest years can be, like a great work of minimalist art, a paring down and a paring away of all the “fussiness” that decades of living have laid over the self. In this way, Wollheim suggests that “the finished state” of a person may be the original state—the earliest one—the germ.
From the foreword to Germs: A Memoir of Childhood by Richard Wollheim. Reprinted with permission of NYRB.