I never set eyes on the single most significant clan ancestor in my life: Dr. Arthur Rochs, my mother’s father. He took on a mythic quality in my mind. Other cultures might well have said that his soul had entered my body. It did in fact, if you accept my idea of a secular soul. My mother was the most important influence on me and he was the most important on her; the continuity is clear. It didn’t hurt that when I was a small boy all the people would exclaim that I looked just like Doktor Rochs – to the extent that my first, and by no means worst, pun on record is saying that even the chickens said "doc, doc, doctor Rochs." (In the guttural German it sounds much more like chickens: "duk, duk, dukter ruks.")So wrote my grandfather's brother, Walter Goldschmidt, in his recent memoirs. He's an eminent anthropologist based in California; when as an inquisitive teen I read The Teachings of Don Juan, I was taken aback to discover that he had written the preface.
My great-great-grandfather, Arthur Rochs, took his doctorate in philology at Halle in 1880, writing his dissertation on mediaeval romance. It must have been an exciting time to be there; in 1817 Halle was merged with the ancient University of Wittenberg—where Hamlet had studied—and since the 18th century it had been home to such lupine titans as Christian Wolff and F. A. Wolf, an epicentre of the Enlightenment. Between 1873 and 1876, just before Rochs arrived, the great linguist Hugo Schuchardt was teaching Romance Philology there. The tradition remained alive.
At the time Rochs was still living in Erfurt, home of iconic mediaevals, like the scholastic grammarian Thomas, and the mystic Meister Eckhart. Rochs quotes Eckhart, a man of particular local significance, for an epigraph to his poem Wermud—"Die wollust der creaturen ist gemenges mit bitterkeit", the lust of created beings is mixed with bitterness. This poem was written when Rochs was 19—which goes to show how much more erudite was teenage angst back then. It is from the fourth volume of a set of poetic notebooks written in Erfurt, 1875-1877; as I noted here, these notebooks were sent me by my uncle, who had been in possession of them since boyhood. Reading them is a great challenge: the two barriers are my limited German, and Rochs' ornate but compressed hand. Still, I'm going to transcribe and translate a few verses from these volumes, one at a time, for your curiosity and delight. That's what humanists are supposed to do, after all. I'll start with the shortest, clearest pieces, and work my way up—this will be an ongoing series, and I hope to produce the first tomorrow.