My brother-in-law, who used to like to argue with my father, described his father-in-law’s effortless fighting style. He painted the picture of my father, lying on a couch, reading the paper, a sword in his other hand, nonchalantly parrying each point and, whenever he chose, driving his rapier home. It is a wonderful image.
We can forget, for a moment (jury, please disregard what you are about to hear) that my brother-in-law generally employed an emotional style while his father-in-law’s was cool and analytical. It’s a particularly apt image of my father fighting my brother-in-law, who my father regarded as an intellectual lightweight, but it’s also a great image of the old man’s almost bored comfort with argumentation.
What about when he felt he was being opposed by an intellectual foe closer to his own powers? I got a chance to witness this up close, two years before he went to meet his maker.
In the den of his Florida apartment, confronted with a piece of evidence he could not talk his way past, by a son who not was only a lifelong adversary but now a trained lawyer as well, I saw what he could do when cornered.
Granted, he had almost nothing to work with, would two years later, as he was dying, admit as much. But watch how nimbly he moves, up on his toes, cunning, hyper-alert, constantly moving. His eyes dart left and right as he improvises. He dances like Slobodan Milosevic in front of the World Court, with the adroitness of a brilliant but demented ballerina. He’s got nothing, but still he fights, back to the wall, battalions nipping at his flanks. There is virtually nothing left to argue, and he is completely surrounded, but this does not stop him. He holds off the enemy with ad hominem attacks since he’s got nothing else to fight with. Then, exhausted by it all, he goes for the kill. And in that moment loses the long war, but that does not matter to him in that moment.
He’d deeply regret this behavior when he was dying, but while he was alive he felt there was nothing he could do about it. The essence of tragedy, really.