Thursday, March 31, 2011

Polytheism by Richard Rorty

There is a famous passage near the end of The Varieties of Religious Experience at which William James says

If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may find all worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

In The Gay Science Nietzsche argues that morality – in the wide sense of the need for acceptance of binding laws and customs- entails “hostility against the impulse to have an ideal of one’s own.” But, he says, the pre-Socratic Greeks provided an outlet for individuality by permitting human beings “ to behold, in some distant overworld, a plurality of norms: one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him.” In this way, he says, “the luxury of individuals was first permitted; it was here that one first honored the rights of individuals.” For in pre-Socratic polytheism “the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form- the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes.”

Here is a definition of ”polytheism” that covers both Nietzsche and James. You are a polytheist if you think that there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs. Isaiah Berlin’s well-known doctrine of incommensurable values is, in my sense, a polytheistic manifesto. To be a polytheist in this sense you do not have to believe that there are nonhuman persons with the power to intervene in human affairs. All you need to do is abandon the idea that we should try to find a way of making everything hang together, which will tell all human beings what to do with their lives, and tell all of them the same thing.

Once ones sees no way of ranking human needs other than by playing them off against one another, human happiness becomes all that matters. Mill’s On Liberty provides all the ethical instruction you need – all the philosophical advice you are ever going to get about your responsibilities to other human beings. For human perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibilities to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns – to worship their own gods, so to speak, as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all.

The privatization of perfection permits James and Nietzsche to agree with Mill and Mathew Arnold that poetry should take over that religion has played in the formation of human lives. They also agree that nobody should take over the function of the clergy. For poets are to secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism. Once you become polytheistic, you will turn away not only from priests but from such priest-substitutes as metaphysicians and physicists – from anyone who purports to tell you how things really are, anyone who invokes the distinction between the true world and the apparent world that Nietzsche ridiculed in Twilight of the Idols. Both monotheism and the kind of metaphysics or science that purports to tell you what the world is really like are replaced with democratic politics. A free consensus about how much space for private perfection we can allow each other takes the place of the quest for “objective” values, the quest for a ranking of human needs that does not depend upon such a consensus.

So far I have been playing on the similarities between Nietzsche, and the American pragmatists. Now I want to turn to the two most obvious differences between them: their attitudes toward democracy and their attitude toward religion. Nietzsche thought democracy was “Christianity for the people” Christianity deprived of the nobility of spirit which Christ himself, and perhaps a few of the more strenuous saints, had been capable. Dewey thought of democracy as Christianity cleansed of the hierarchic, exclusionists elements. Nietzsche thought those who believed in a traditional monotheistic God were foolish weaklings. Dewey thought of them as so spell-bound by the work of one poet as to be unable to appreciate the work of other poets. Dewey thought that the sort of “aggressive atheism” on which Nietzsche prided himself is unnecessarily intolerant. It has, he said, “something in common with traditional supernaturalism.”

I want first to argue that Nietzsche’s contempt for democracy was an adventitious extra, inessential to his overall philosophical outlook. Then I shall get down to my main task in this paper – defending Dewey’s tolerance for religious belief against those who think that pragmatism and religion do not mix…

After Dewey realized that his mother had made him unnecessarily miserable by burdening him with a belief in original sin, he simply stopped thinking that, in James words, “there is something wrong about us as naturally stand.” He no longer believed that we could be “saved from the wrongness by making the proper connection with higher powers.” He thought that all that was wrong with us was that the Christian ideal of fraternity had not yet been achieved –society had not yet become pervasively democratic. That was not a problem to be solved by making proper connection with higher powers, but a problem of men to be solved by men.

When Christianity is treated as a social gospel, it acquires the advantage which Nietzsche attributed to polytheism: it makes the most important human achievement “creating for ourselves our own new eyes,” and thereby “honors the rights of individuals.” As Dewey put it, “Government, business, art, religion, all social institutions have a purpose…to set free the capacities of human individuals…The test of their value is the extent to which they educate every individual into the full stature of his possibility.”

For John Dewey, the principle symbol of what he called “the union of the ideal and the actual” was the United States of America treated as Whitman treated it: as symbol of openness to the possibility of as yet undreamt of, ever more diverse, forms of human happiness. Much of what Dewey wrote consists of endless reiteration of Whitman’s caution that “America…counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success, (for who, as yet, dare claim success?) almost entirely on the future…For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”

Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism, pp. 21-36 in Morris Dickstein (ed.)The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, 1998, Duke University Press

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dewey, Whitman and Hegel by Richard Rorty

John Dewey read a lot of Hegel when he was young. He used Hegel to purge himself first of Kant, and later of orthodox Christianity. Walt Whitman seems to have read only as much of Hegel as was translated by Frederic Hedge in his 1847 book German Prose Writers – mainly the introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History - as well as an intelligent five-page summary of Hegel’s system by Joseph Gostick. But what he did read was enough to make him exclaim with delight: “ Only Hegel is fit for America – is large enough and free enough.” “I rate Hegel”, he goes on to say, “as Humanity’s chiefest teacher and the choicest loved physician of my mind and soul.”( Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Collected Writings, Volume 6, pages 2007-2012).

Hegel’s philosophy of history legitimized and underwrote Whitman’s hope to substitute his own nation-state for the Kingdom of God. For Hegel told a story about history as the growth of freedom, the gradual dawning of the idea that human beings are on their own, because there is nothing more to God than his march through the world- nothing more to the divine than the history of the human adventure. In a famous passage, Hegel pointed across the Atlantic to a place where as yet unimagined wonders might be worked: “America is the country of the future…the land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical arsenal of old Europe.”

Whitman probably never encountered this passage, but he knew in his bones that Hegel should have written that sentence. It was obvious to him that Hegel had written a prelude to the American saga. Hegel’s works, Whitman said, might “not inappropriately be this day collected and bound up under the conspicuous title: Speculations for the use of North America, and Democracy there.” ( in “Carlyle from America points of View’). This is because Hegel thinks God remains incomplete until he enters time – until, in Christian terminology, he becomes incarnate and suffers on the Cross. Hegel uses the doctrine of Incarnation to turn Greek metaphysics on its head, and to argue that without God the Son, God the Father would retain a mere potentiality, a mere Idea. Without time and suffering, God is, in Hegel’s terms, a “mere abstraction.” Hegel verges on saying something Whitman did actually say: “The whole theory of the special and supernatural and all that was twined with it or educed out of it departs as a dream…It is not consistent with the reality of the soul to admit that there is anything in the universe more divine then men and women.” (Leaves of Grass, page 16)

Whitman, like most American thinkers in the 19th century, believed that the Golgotha of the Spirit was in the past, and that the American Declaration of Independence had been an Easter dawn. Because the United States is the first country founded in the hope of a new kind of human fraternity, it would be the place where the promise of the ages would first be realized. Americans would form the vanguard of human history, because, as Whitman says, “the Americans of all nations at any time on earth have probably the fullest poetic nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” (Ibid., page 5) They are also the fulfillment of the human past. “The blossoms we wear in our hats are the growth of two thousand years.” (Ibid.,page 71).

Neither Dewey nor Whitman, however, was committed to the view that things would inevitably go well for America, that the American experiment in self-creation would succeed. The price of temporalization is contingency. Because they rejected any idea of Divine Providence and any idea of immanent teleology, Dewey and Whitman had to grant that the vanguard of humanity may lose its way, and perhaps lead our species over a cliff. As Whitman put it, “The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.” (Democratic Vistas, page 930) Whereas Marx and Spencer claimed to know what was bound to happen, Whitman and Dewey denied such knowledge in order to make room for pure, joyous hope.

The trouble with Europe, Whitman and Dewey thought, was that it tried too hard for knowledge: it tried to find an answer to the question of what human beings should be like. It hoped to get authoritative guidance for human conduct. One of the first Europeans to suggest abandoning that hope was Wilhelm von Humboldt, a founder of ethnography and a philosopher who greatly influenced Hegel. In a passage which Mill used as the epigraph for his On Liberty, von Humboldt wrote that the point of social organization is to make evident “the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.” Whitman picked up this particular ball from Mill and cited On Liberty in the first paragraph of his Democratic Vistas. There Whitman says that Mill demands “two main constituents, or sub-strata, for a truly grand nationality – 1st, a large variety of character – and 2nd, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” (Ibid. p. 929)

Mill and Humboldt’s ‘Richest diversity” and Whitman’s full play are ways of saying that no past human achievement, not Plato’s or even Christ’s, can tell us about the ultimate significance of human life. No such achievement can give us a template on which to model our future. The future will widen endlessly. Experiments with new forms of individual and social life will interact and reinforce one another. Individual life will become unthinkably diverse and social life unthinkably free. The moral we should draw from the European past, and in particular from Christianity, is not instructions about the authority under which we should live, but suggestions about how to maker ourselves wonderfully different from anything that has been.

This romance of endless diversity should not, however, be confused with what nowadays is called “multiculturalism”. The latter term suggests a morality of live-and-let-live, a politics of side-by-side development in which members of distinct cultures preserve and protect their own culture against the incursions of other cultures. Whitman, like Hegel, had no interest in preservation and protection. He wanted competition and argument between alternative forms of human life – a poetic argon, in which jarring dialectical discords would be resolved into previously unheard harmonies. The Hegelian idea of “progressive evolution” which was the 19th century’s greatest contribution to political and social thought, is that everybody gets played off against everybody else. This should occur nonviolently if possible, but violently if necessary, as was in fact necessary in America in 1861. The Hegelian hope is that the result of such struggles will be a new culture, better than any of those of which it is the synthesis. This new culture will be better because it will contain more variety in unity – it will be a tapestry in which more strands have been woven together. But this tapestry, too, will eventually have to be torn to shreds in order that a larger one may be woven, in order that the past may not obstruct the future.

There is, I think, little difference in doctrine between Dewey and Whitman. But there is an obvious difference in emphasis: the difference between talking about love and talking mostly about citizenship. Whitman’s image of democracy was of lovers embracing. Dewey’s was of a town meeting. Dewey dwelt on the need to create what the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has called decent society, defined as one in which institutions do not humiliate. Whitman’s hopes were centered on the creation of what Margalit calls, by way of contrast, a civilized society, defined as one in which individuals do not humiliate each other – in which tolerance for other people’s fantasies and choices is instinctive and habitual. Dewey’s principle target was institutionalized selfishness whereas Whitman’s was the socially acceptable sadism which is a consequence of sexual repression, and of the inability to love…

American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey; Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America; Harvard University Press, 1998 .

Saturday, March 19, 2011

One Renegade Cell by Robert A. Weinberg

At any moment, the great majority of cells in our body are in a quiescent state. Only in tissues that renew themselves constantly, such as the colonic epithelium, the bone marrow (which generates new blood cells), and the skin, does one find large numbers of cells actively growing and dividing. How precisely do any cells know when they should or should not grow?

Although each cell carries an extraordinarily elaborate data bank in its genes, these genes cannot provide the cell with some very critical pieces of information. Genes cannot tell a cell where it is in the body, how it arrived there, or whether the body requires it to grow. Genes can only tell the cell how it should respond to external signals, which must come from elsewhere – from other cells, nearby and distant in the body. Each cell in the body relies on a host of other cells to tell it where it is, how it got there, and what it should be doing. Among other information provided by its neighbors ( nearby and distant) are instructions that tell a cell when it should grow.

Complex organisms could not be organized otherwise. Cells exist in condominiums with other cells, forming tissues, organs, and ultimately whole organisms. The behavior of an individual cell in these communities must be dictated by the needs of the organism around it. Hence, each cell must be in close and constant contact with many other cells in the organism; these contacts form the network that binds this community together. While cells within a tissue are physically tethered to one another, they are tied even more importantly by incessant chatter.

A normal tissue is thus a network of millions of cells in constant communication, passing information to one another about their respective needs. How does a malignant tissue fit into this pattern? What characterizes the behavior of a cancer cell that arises in the midst of a crowd of normal neighbors?

The cancer cell is a renegade. Unlike their normal counterparts, cancer cells disregard the needs of the community of cells around them. Cancer cells are only interested in their own proliferative advantage. They are selfish and very unsociable. Most important, unlike normal cells, they have learned to grow without any prompting from the community of cells around them.

Cancer begins with a single renegade cell which succeeds in subverting normal regulatory processes of cell growth . The creation of a tumor is extraordinarily slow , often extending over decades. The cells forming a tumor are all lineal descendants of a single progenitor, a distant ancestor that lived many years before the tumor mass became apparent. This founder, this renegade cell, decided to go off on its own, to begin its own growth program within one of the body’s tissues. Thereafter, its proliferation was controlled by its own internal agenda rather than the needs of the community of cells around it.

So there were no millions of recruits, only a single one that spawned a vast horde of like minded descendants. The billions of cells in a tumor are cast in the image of their renegade ancestor. They have no interest in the well-being of the tissue and organism around them. They have only one program in mind: more growth, more replicas of themselves, unlimited expansion.

The chaos they create makes it clear how very dangerous it is to entrust each cell in the human body with its own measure of independence. Still, that is how we are put together, and how all complex, many-celled organisms have been designed for the past 600 million years. Learning this, we realize that the chaos of cancer is not a modern affliction but a risk run by all multicellular organisms, from ancient to modern. Indeed, given the trillions of cells in the human body-their hugely complex and unceasing activity providing, until recently, an almost unknowable number of subversive angles from which a renegade cell can operate - it is a wonder that cancer does not erupt more often in our long lives!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fragile Absolute by Slavoj Zizek

Or Why Is The Christian Legacy Is Worth Fighting For?

A partial summary in my own words.

For Zizek Christ is a 'ridiculous and/or traumatic scandal' who unplugs us from the entire socio-symbolic network and throws the' balanced circuit of the universe off the rails, 'radical' in perhaps the most completely primordial sense, representing ( in the ancient world at least) the power of unheard-of negativity. He gets this in part from Luke 14:26- ' If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and mother, his brothers and sisters- yes, even his own life- he cannot be my discipline'. This is what true charity- loving one's neighbor- entails: an erasure of all social distinctions, exploding the fabric which comprises the 'organic community' of contemporary New Age Spiritual Practice.

This is supposed to suspend the vicious superego dialectic-cycle of Law and transgressive desire. "Real Muscle", as Jacques Lacan would have it.

As far as I can discover, John Calvin only addressed Luke 14:26 directly in his essay on The Harmony of the Gospel where, it seems to me, he tries to soften the blow:

As it is exceedingly harsh, and is contrary to natural feelings, to make enemies of those who ought to have been in closest alliance with us, so Christ now says that we cannot be his disciples on any other condition. He does not indeed enjoin us to lay aside human affections, or forbid us to discharge the duties of relationship, but only desires that all the mutual love which exists among men should be so regulated as to assign the highest rank to piety. Let the husband then love his wife, the father his son, and, on the other hand, let the son love his father, provided that the reverence which is due to Christ be not overpowered by human affection. For if even among men,in proportion to the closeness of the tie that mutually binds us, some have stronger claims than others, it is shameful that all should not be deemed inferior to Christ alone. And certainly we do not consider sufficiently, or with due gratitude, what it is to be a disciple of Christ, if the excellence of this rank be not sufficient to subdue all the affections of the flesh. The phrase employed by Luke is more harsh, if any man doth not hate his father and mother, but the meaning is the same, “If the love of ourselves hinder us from following Christ, we must resist it, courageously," as Paul says,

what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ, for

whom I suffered the loss of all things, (Philippians 3:7,8.)

Of course with Calvin 'Heaven' is not a realm that is distinct from material existence, nor 'soul' an entity divorced from passage of air through the body or 'eternity' anything other than a potential of the present. And he took a scant view of the idea that salvation was a matter individual will or works, however much in our witnesses we might regard them as other than signs of grace. No, as we see in this passage, to be "victorious in Christ" is to have and be nothing, a benefit we can only expect to obtain by the sheer wonder-working and entirely inscrutable Providence of God set down in the Beginning once and for all time.

There seems to be a delicious irony in this view, of which 'neo-Calvinists' other than Slavoj Zizejk apparently have no clue.


Here's an example of Zizek's drift in his own words:

Schelling wrote about the ‘infinite melancholy’ of all living nature, about how there is an infinite pain and craving in nature, since nature is caught in an unresolved absolute tension, torn from within, unable to ‘reach’ or define itself- which is why the emergence of logos , of the spoken word, in man is not simply an excess that disturbs the balanced natural circuit but an answer to this infinite pain and deadlock of living nature, a resolution of its unbearable tension; it is as if living nature itself was secretly pointing towards, waiting and longing for, the emergence of logos as its redemption.

Before we dismiss this notion as a crazy teleological speculation that belongs to the deservedly forgotten realm of Romantic Naturphilosophie , we should nevertheless take a closer look at it. Do we not encounter something similar in historical experience?

Let us recall Fellini’s Satyricon, with its unique depiction of Ancient Roman hedonistic figures permeated by an infinite sadness. Fellini himself claimed that, precisely as a Christian, he wanted to make a film about a universe in which Christianity is yet to come, from which the notion of Christian redemption is totally absent. Does the strange sadness, a kind of fundamental melancholy, of these pagan figures not, then, bear witness to the fact that they somehow already have the premonition that the true God will soon reveal himself, and that they were born just a little bit too early, so that they cannot be redeemed?

And is this not also the fundamental lesson of the Hegelian dialectics of alienation: we are not dealing with the Paradise which is then lost due to some fatal intrusion – there is already paradisiacal satisfaction ( in the satisfaction of the ‘naïve’ organic community) something suffocating, a longing for fresh air, for an opening that would break the unbearable constraint; and this longing introduced into Paradise and unbearable infinite Pain, a desire to break out – life in Paradise is always pervaded by an infinite melancholy.

Perhaps this paradox also accounts for the ultimate paradox of melancholy: melancholy is not primarily directed at the paradisiacal past of organic balanced Wholeness which was lost due to some catastrophe, it is not sadness caused by this loss; melancholy proper, rather, designates the attitude of those who are still in Paradise but are already longing to break out of it: of those who, although still in a closed universe, already possess a vague premonition of another dimension which is just out of reach, since they came a little bit early…

Far from entangling us in speculative teleological nonsense, such reading offers the only way of avoiding the naïve evolutionary approach which sees historical development as the gradual disintegration of primordial organic forms of life ( from Gemeinschaft to Geselschaft). On the contrary, it is the evolutionist notion of progress which is inherently teleological, since it conceives of the higher stages as the result of the deployment of the inner potential of the lower stages. In contrast to such an evolutionist notion of progress, one should stick to the notion that the New emerges in order to resolve an unbearable tension in the Old, and as such is already ‘present’ in the Old in a negative mode, in the guise of an infinite sadness and longing…

In a properly historical perspective as opposed to evolutionist historicism, the past is not simply past, but bears within it its proper Utopian promise of future Redemption: in order to understand a past epoch properly, it is not sufficient to take into account the historical conditions out of which it grew – one has also has to take into account the Utopian hopes of a Future that were betrayed and crushed by it – that which was ‘negated’, that which did not happen – so that the past historical reality was the way it was.

To conceive the French Revolution, one has to focus also on the Utopian hopes of liberation that were crushed by its final outcome, the common bourgeois reality - and the same goes for the October Revolution. Thus we are dealing not with the idealist or spiritualist teleology, but with the dialectical notion of a historical epoch whose ‘concrete’ definition has to include its crushed potentials, which were inherently ‘negated’ by its reality…

What the proper historical stance ( as opposed to historicism) ‘relativizes’ is not the past (always distorted by our present point of view) but, paradoxically, the present itself - our present can be conceived only as the outcome ( not of what actually happened in the past, but also) of the crushed potentials for the future that were contained in the past. In other words, it is not only – as Foucault like to emphasize, in a Nietzschean mode – that every history of the past is ultimately the ‘ontology of the present’, that we always perceive our past within the horizon of our present preoccupations, that in dealing with the past we in effect dealing with the ghosts of the past whose resuscitation enables us to confront our present dilemmas. It is also that we, the ‘actual’ present historical agents, have to conceive ourselves as the materialization of the ghosts of past generations, as the stage in which these past generation retroactively resolve their deadlocks.

Mother Country by Jeremy Harding

Memoirs of an Adopted Boy [And The Search For His Birth Mother]

This excerpt gives away the ending.

Mary laughed and asked for a refill. She was exuberant and funny. None of us could quite believe what had happened.

When I began to resist the pull of alcohol and tried to figure Margaret and Mary’s description of the family, it was clear how vastly separated we’d become by circumstance.

Turning what Margaret and Mary said about my three brothers into a generic profile, I could make out the shape my life would have taken if I’d stuck around. I’d have been the father of five children ( 4.3 to be exact) conceived by two partners. I’d have left school at an early age. I’d be living, on average, no more than a half-hour walk or a short bus ride from my mother’s. The odds were against my setting foot outside England very often: London would have been an unconditional and rewarding fact of life. I’d have made jokes about my mother’s Irishness – nothing cruel, a tug of the leg now and then – and regarded myself as a pure English product, by disposition and default. A lot of what went for the brothers was true of the sisters, from what I could tell – including the fact that they, too, lived close to their mother.

Yet any more detailed account of the differences between the person I was and the one I might have been by remaining in the clan was pointless. The serious distinction between Margaret’s people and me, the thing that set us apart, I suppose, was the fact that I’d been able to pile up wealth, incapable of functioning in the world without the thought that it was there to fall back on. The gratifications of surplus were not so insistent, or possible, for my brothers and sisters. Nor were they for Margaret. There’d been accumulation, but not the kind you could liquidate if you needed to. Whatever else she was, who ever else she’d been as a working person, Margaret preferred to think of herself as a daughter, a sister, a mother and finally a grandmother. To that extent, she was laying claim to a way of life, or you could say it was all she had.

But I didn’t have to say anything. I’d felt edged into a wonderful, puzzled reticence, robbed of the words for things I knew well: difference or affinity by social group and background; wealth and poverty, having and making do, and the gradations in between. Margaret and I had stumbled through the battle lines of the British class system like a pair of ragged picnickers – and now we were spreading the rug over the grass, determined to ignore the great forces all around us manoeuvring for position.

Perhaps some new pressure – the pressure of ‘blood’ or ‘nature’- was responsible for the momentary lapse in my habits of describing people. But that seemed unlikely. What would blood prove if our meeting had turned out badly, as reunions can? Supposing Margaret had thought me a callow little prig who knew nothing about real life? If the blood-tie could bring love and loyalty to bear, it could also be an engine of bitter disappointment.

And for a moment, in a flash of intelligence I never quite regained, the process Margaret and I had begun turned into a second adoption. A two-way adoption without rules, of course, since either of us could pull out without prior warning, and at any point. But otherwise the similarity was striking. And if blood could go either way, then it wasn’t the main consideration, any more than it was in an old-fashioned infant adoption, where natural and social identities were reinvented in a single fluent movement.

What mattered was to want to engage with another person, and to continue to believing this was a good thing to do. Margaret and I were embarked on an experiment that had begun as a matter of chance, whose outcome would be determined largely by chance For as long as we proceeded with care, it was likely to go well.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘but if you are having a good time, and you say that you are, then you won’t object if I do what I shouldn’t and smoke another cigarette.’

‘Tell me,’ Mary asked, ‘is this at all how you imagined it?’
I hadn’t imagined it.

‘But weren’t you nervous?’

‘It’s fine,’ said Margaret with an air of confidence, as though she were dragging us away from slippery ground. ‘We were all nervous. You were Mary, And I was, I’m sure. And he was, I suppose. And now we’re none of us nervous.’ She pointed her finger at me a laughed. ‘You’re a nosy prat, by the way,’ she said. ‘That’s my honest opinion.’

‘She means,’ Mary said, ‘that someone like you who gets to find someone like her after all these years is a proper little busybody.’

‘That’s exactly what I mean,’ Margaret said.

We were pleasantly high on the drink. I looked at Margaret’s face and then Mary’s, and tried to fix my own in the mirror. We lingered over the glittering remains of our feast – the red paper napkins hunched beside the bright empties and the half-done glasses – while the waiters circled. I was sitting at the westerly edge of my life, where no story could ever surprise me by the manner of its ending, and I was holding the hand of my first mother, also my last.

Outside, the light was orange and the day was old. By the time we had dealt with the bill, the other tables were reproachfully clean. I ordered a cab for Mary Hannafin and the former Miss Walsh.

[ The author’s search for his birth mother also turned up many surprises about his adoptive mother]