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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

'Pushing Time Away' & the 'Commemoration of a Name'

I called into our Central Library in Wellington on Tuesday and saw that a stock of old and worn books had been put out for sale. Browsing the material, I spent the sum of $6 on three.

Among them a treasure. A wonderful if thought-provoking read for anyone who is caught up in the fascination of Family History - 'Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna' by Peter Singer (2003).

Pushing Time Away is partly a family memoire - in search of lost years and broken futures. The book starts by providing a Family Tree for the Oppenheim family which illustrates the links back from Peter himself to Moravian rabbi Simon Wolf Oppenheim (1580 - 1664). The 1931 photograph (above) shows the extended Oppenheim family on summer vacation by the lake at Velden am Worthersee, Austria.

Peter's grandfather David Ernst Oppenheim - a secular Jew - was a World War I war hero from the Austro-Hungarian army (fighting in Galicia and the Isonzo Pass Italian front). Despite his heroism and patriotism, he was denied 'war invalid' status in the sham settlement that the Nazis constructed at Theresenstadt and fell victim to famine and neglect there in 1943.

But it is also about the nature of culture, and the birth and evolution of psychology. Peter carefully reviews David's life, work and philosophy. David was a classical scholar, and sometime friend and collaborator of Sigmund Freud. His knowledge of classical Greek mythology appears to have contributed substantially to the linking of myths and dreams, and the characterisation of conditions like the Oedipus Complex.

However, David left Freud's circle in support of Alfred Adler - partly out of personal affinity but also because he believed that Freud placed too much stress on sexual conditioning, at the expense of assessing other influences on character and neurosis like a perceived / re-inforced sense of inferiority - and external social forces.

Peter also has much of value to say from his own personal viewpoint on the skein of life - and the ways in which it constantly throws up challenges to our understanding, compassion and ethical assumptions.

In a final chapter, he quotes from one of his grandfather's unpublished essays 'Views of Life from Early Greece'. The quotation concerns Solon's clash with Croesus on the definition of a 'good life'. Croesus like so many of our modern economists and fellow citizens viewed a good life as one that had maximised acquistion through competition.

In contrast, Solon quotes the life of Tellus - an obscure Athenian - who enjoyed:

1. a period of peaceful prosperity in his own country
2. a life long enough to see one's children and grandchildren
3. death before one 'loses the complete vigour of a valiant man'
4. a comfortable income
5. well-brought up children
6. assurance of one's line through numerous thriving offspring
7. a quick death
8. victorious confirmation at some points in life of one's own strength
9. the highest funeral honours
10.the preservation of one's name.

Interesting to check these off for our ancestors (and for ourselves, insofar as the scorecard is already available).

Peter also muses on the tenth point that it raises deep philosophical issues about whether a positive review of a person's life, after their death, can make a difference as to how well that life has gone. He states that he felt that, in writing the book, he could do something for his grandfather to mitigate the wrongs that had been done to him by the Nazis.

Peter says that 'I cannot entirely dismiss the feeling that by allowing David's writings to reach across the years to me, I am doing something (personal) for him'.

This is a thought that is fairly widely shared by those involved in Family History, I suggest. We work partly to 'preserve their names', within a celebration of the (non-material) good in their lives.


Australian-born philosopher Peter Singer is frequently acknowledged as a major force in modern bio-ethics. The publication of his book Animal Liberation in 1975 is credited with launching the animal rights movement.

He is currently a professor of bio-ethics at Princeton University and has taught at, among other schools, Oxford University, The University of Colorado, University of California and New York University.

His Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and Rethinking Life and Death received the 1995 National Book Council's Banjo Award for non-fiction.

Peter Singer is also the co-editor of the journal Bioethics and a founding father of The International Association of Bioethics. His most recent book is Pushing Time Away. He currently lives in New York City and Princeton, New Jersey.

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