Ancestors, genetic and spiritual, aren’t so terribly distant. I was reminded of this when the latest A.J. Liebling collection from the Library of America arrived in the mail and I reread his introduction to The Sweet Science (1956), which opens like this:
“It is through Jack O’Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light heavy-weight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.”
Kinship is no respecter of bloodlines. Linkage to nominal strangers, those with a distant genotype, can prove more vital than mere phenotype. Who wouldn’t wish to prune one’s family tree? An illustration of elective affinities:
I shook hands with Guy Davenport, who shook hands with Ezra Pound, who shook hands with Henry James, who shook hands with George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert. Davenport also shook the hand of Samuel Beckett, who had shaken the hand of James Joyce, who had shaken the hand of Italo Svevo. Likewise, I shook hands with William H. Gass who shook hands with many worthies; perhaps foremost among them, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the genius of the last century and a half is a conventional gesture of polite greeting.
ADDENDUM: Thanks to David Myers for pointing out "Jean" Mace ought to be "Jem" Mace. The error was mine, not Liebling's.