On Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s Inherited Disorders

Jeremy Butman

New York, NY: Regan Arts, 2016. 272 pages. $23.00.

For all intents and purposes and according to its back cover, Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s debut book Inherited Disorders is a work of comedy. Because it is broken up into aphoristic, joke-like vignettes, from a solitary flip-through it might even appear to be a novelty item or a bathroom book. It is certainly amusing throughout and even provides a few belly laughs, but as the little stories accumulate and the jokes add up, Sachs’s book reveals that it also has real meat. It deals explicitly with philosophical issues like repetition, inheritance, and authenticity and offers a refreshingly ironic critique of patriarchal society.

Sachs’s stories are variations on the theme of patrimonial inheritance, written in sharp prose and cast with an eclectic, typically erudite bunch of caricatures, and through them, Sachs unspools the many tropes that constitute our understanding of the father-son relationship. The two most common of these themes are the need to escape one’s inheritance and the impossibility of doing so.

Sachs lets the logic of this dilemma play out in diverse ways. In a memorable parable, published by n+1 last year, Sachs tells the story of the son of a chimney sweep who becomes a world-renowned philosopher, famous for “a kind of logico-linguistic chimney sweeping.” We are told that “over time [he] construed this metaphor in an increasingly literal fashion,” eventually sending students up onto their Oxford roofs to sweep the chimneys. “For a time in his early career it really did seem that Fowler had torn himself root and branch out of his own past,” the story begins. By its end, Sachs writes that half the philosopher’s colleagues

thought his escape attempt had, belatedly, failed. He was, in the end, still a chimney sweep. He was not so much wielding his past as being wielded by it, less seizing upon a metaphor than being seized upon by one, they said, and he would, in due course, cause a number of students to die of suffocation.

There are stories of refused inheritance, such as the pianist son of a composer who severs his own fingers and then his limbs to discourage his father from writing sonatas for him to perform; stories of desperate attempts at communication: as with the composer-son who learns to paint in order to convey his artistic vision to his deaf father, who then goes blind, so the son learns to cook; stories of filial devotion and of fatherly devotion; stories of competition: the artist-father who imprisons his infant son in a woodshed to prevent him from becoming an artist and surpassing him, only to wonder if somehow his son’s inarticulate wails and scratchings might by some definition be the most transcendental art.

Inherited Disorders is not a psychological farce, however, but rather a kind of metaphysical comedy of errors. As with the chimney sweeping, which begins as physical labor and morphs into intellectual doctrine before returning to the material world unchanged. The dominant philosophical operations of the book, as well as its comedic structure, turn on the ideas of substitution and singularity: the material and intelligible phenomena that can be interchanged with one another and those that cannot.

In a way, comedy and philosophy grow from the same confusion. That a word does not necessarily represent the thing it is meant to signify opens the possibility of wordplay as well as the possibility of metaphysics. A philosopher doesn’t know what anything is, which puts him in a preposterous and hilarious position. Where philosophy tries, and typically fails, to clarify our fundamental linguistic confusion, however, comedy has the good sense just to laugh.

The attempts we make with words to order the psychological and historical drives that animate our lives are ultimately futile and thus comedic; these drives almost always concern inheritance in one way or another: biological reproduction, artistic or political legacy, the longing to transcend death by transferring our being into something that will outlast us. But this desire denies the fact that the singularity of each life cannot be substituted for anything else, while each of our products—even children—always can be substituted, and thus fails to capture our singular being.

In the final variation of the book, called “Unrest,” not more aphoristic than many of the others, Sachs delivers almost a summary of the book as a whole and highlights the finality of death and the indeterminateness of intellectual legacy. It reads, in full:

One winter evening in 1905, on a street corner in Moscow, a radical who was carrying a bomb toward his tsarist father’s home happened to bump into an acquaintance, a painter who was carrying a Symbolist painting toward his realist father’s studio. On the far corner they spotted, purely by chance, a philosopher friend who was carrying an idealist manifesto toward his materialist father’s office. The radical planned to kill his father, the Symbolist to surpass his father, and the idealist to refute his father. But when the radical, kneeling in his father’s bathroom, armed his bomb, it went off prematurely and he killed himself instead. What happened to the other two is unknown.

The point, of course, aside from the inevitability and risk of filial rebellion, is that only material facts, such as explosions, are known with certainty, and the clashes between words like Symbolist or Realist are waged wholly on a shifting linguistic battlefield.

Just as our lives are shaped by our biological and historical forebearers, our legacies, too, are guided by forces beyond our control. We toil furiously to achieve autonomous and authentic selves, but this work becomes comical, for the actions we take according to our personal possibilities are infinitesimally small compared to the forces of biology and history. All we have that is perfectly our own is our death, which is, ironically, exactly nothing. The whole edifice of patrimonial inheritance and legacy sinks in the quicksand of language and metaphysical pretension.

Sachs has not only a brilliant sense of the fluidity of meaning, but also where that fluidity stops and hits the real. In another story, which winks at the idea that the fury and futility of the game of inheritance is specifically male—and which is appropriately, though anomalously, self-referential—he writes:

The author of a book of anecdotes or jokes about his father—not this book—got a phone call from him just minutes before he planned to send the book to an agent. The phone call was so pleasant, so unusually effortless and intimate, that the author had second thoughts. . . .

At the last minute, the author pressed Shift-Command H to open the Find and Replace window in Microsoft Word and replaced every “father” with a “mother,” every “dad” with a “mom.” He figured his truths about fathers were basically transferrable to mothers—who also, after all, come before us and create us and mold our thoughts and who are also disappointed and confused by us when we distance ourselves from them in order to work out which of our thoughts are our thoughts and which of our thoughts are their thoughts, a project which, if we’re completely honest with ourselves isn’t even our project to begin with because we learned it from our literary and philosophical mothers and fathers.

Yes, he told himself, this is about parents . . . He sent the document to the agent. “A book about my mother,” he wrote.

But the fundamental noninterconvertability of mothers and fathers was brought home to him moments later when the agent asked if he intended to refer three times on the first page to his “mother’s penis.”

That’s just funny. And if here I’ve treated a comedy book as though it were a philosophy book, maybe that’s kind of funny, too.

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