The following letter was originally published on another blog, Group Therapy.
February 12, 2004
Hey, buddy. Anything unusual happen to you in the last 24 hours; anything unconventional?
Would you believe it? People are still stopping me on the street, saying: “I don’t understand how you think you can understand anything substantial about a person based solely on a few, trivial facts about that person.” Again, I have to say, it’s just a gift, I guess.
Did I tell you about my first meeting with Claudio Grossman, dean of the law school at American University? That was in late August 1983. I was waiting outside his office to meet with him, to arrange a class schedule. He was the director of the LL.M. program at that time. He had just started teaching at the law school. A custodial employee had gone up to Grossman’s office door and removed the name plate “Claudio Grossman,” leaving, I suppose, just the office number.
Grossman came along, looked at his office door, observed that the name plate had been removed and became agitated: “My name plate is gone. Did you see who did this? Who took the name plate off my door?” He went into the administrative office, across the hall, and asked one of the secretaries: “Someone took the name plate off my door. I want it put back on the door. Who did that? Why was my name plate taken off my door?” Again to me: “Did you see who took the name plate off my door?”
I registered Grossman’s behavior as odd. He had a student waiting for him, yet he ignored the student (namely me), and invested his attention and concern in, what was objectively—so it seemed to me—a minor custodial matter. I thought: “There’s an issue of personal identity here.”
I met with Grossman. We worked out a class schedule. I learned nothing of his personal identity. I learned nothing of his complex background: his origins in Chile, his move to The Netherlands—the political issues, including the issue of anti-Semitism, his professional work in the field of human rights, and so forth.
I didn’t even assume he was Hispanic in origin. I associated the name “Claudio” with the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. I assumed he was an Italian. An Italian-Jew. Well, I was wrong. But, of course, the point is, without any basis in fact—other than Grossman’s odd agitation concerning the removal of his office name plate, I assumed—correctly—that his reaction to the lost name plate involved something of a personal nature that went beyond the objective circumstances, as I knew them.
As I was leaving Grossman’s office, I noticed an art reproduction (a poster!) on the wall. I said: “That’s Kandinsky, isn’t it.” “Yes,” Grossman said, “It’s Kandinsky. It’s a representation of ships. You see the sails?” Quite frankly, I didn’t. Kandinsky is an expressionist. Abstract, you know. It’s sometimes difficult to understand the expressionists among us, don’t you think, Brian? Well, be that as it may, I assumed Grossman had an interest in art.
Another Rubenstein. Or Rubinstein. Have you ever seen Picasso’s sketches of Rubinstein? Have you ever seen Rubenstein’s sketches by Picasso?
There’s a deep structural relationship between Grossman’s fury over the lost name plate and his interest in human rights and the abuses of totalitarian regimes. One of the major components of totalitarianism is the focus on conventional, state-approved values; and the corresponding suppression of individuality. In the Soviet Union, only those values approved by the Communist party were permitted. Contrary values were suppressed; the individuals who held those contrary values were persecuted.
In the Reich, the Nazis took extreme measures to suppress individual identity. Speaking metaphorically, and only metaphorically, one might say that the Nazis removed the name plates of Jewish law professors, leaving only an office number.
There are those fanatics among us—psychotics, really—who believe that the Nazis actually went so far as to tattoo numbers on the arms of persons interned in concentration camps. We know that never happened.
We live in a conventional world, where only the conventional occurs. The accusations made against the Nazis would require us to believe that a state can act contrary to our own notions of conventionality. Of course, we know that can’t happen.
I never tire of repeating: We live in a conventional world, where only the conventional can occur. Allegations to the contrary are the product of sick minds!
Check you out later, buddy. As the Chilean psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg would say: “Hasta la vista, baby!”
P.S. I forgot to mention: I took an immediate liking to Claudio Grossman. But then I learned he wasn’t Italian, and my passion waned.