The son of the late philosopher-mystic Perelmann, who was writing a biography of his father, used to say at our weekly brown-bag colloquiums that he wore two hats: that of Perelmann’s son and that of his biographer. We assumed that this was just a figure of speech until a graduate student who happened to be renting an apartment across the street from him told us that he really wore two physical hats: the son-of-Perelmann hat was a Boston Red Sox cap, and the biographer-of-Perelmann hat was a brown fedora. Some evenings he wore the Red Sox cap, some evenings he wore the brown fedora, and some evenings he went back and forth, more or less rapidly, between the cap and the fedora.
Word circulated, and before long the chair of the department knocked on Perelmann’s son’s office door. The chair urged him to take some time off, please, for his own sake.
“Bill,” Perelmann’s son said, with a knowing smile. “Is this about the hats?”
The chair admitted that he was concerned.
“Bill,” Perelmann’s son said again, touching the chair’s wrist. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not going crazy, at least not yet! The hats serve a purely functional purpose.”
It looked silly, he knew, but the hats helped him keep separate his two conflicting roles—first as a son still grieving for his father, second as a scholar trying to understand, to historicize, and, yes, to critique, as dispassionately as possible, his father’s ideas. Before hitting upon the two-hat system, he’d lived in a state of perpetual self-reproach: when he thought of Perelmann in the way that a son thinks of his father, the scholar in him condemned his lack of objectivity, and when he thought of Perelmann in the way that a scholar thinks of his subject the son in him condemned his lack of loyalty.
The hats put an end to all that.
When he pulled on the old Red Sox cap, its snug fit and familiar smell had a Proustian effect. He was returned to the grandstands of Fenway Park, beside his father. He was suffused with compassion and pity, with respect, love, and acceptance—for his father’s flaws no less than for his virtues. He wanted to annihilate his father’s academic detractors and slaughter those who would attempt to understand him as a product of his milieu. Such was the effect of the Red Sox cap. But under the weight of the brown fedora, beneath its sober brim, he could put aside his childish devotion and scrutinize his father’s thought with the skepticism required of an intellectual historian. He investigated the genealogy of his father’s ideas, examined their internal consistency, considered their presuppositions and limitations.
“Bill, I admit it’s a strange system!” Perelmann’s son said, laughing. “That what happens in our heads should be so affected by what happens on top of our heads. But, for me, this does seem to be the case.” He shrugged. “It helps me proceed. I do not question it.”
The department chair went away intensely impressed, even moved. Word went around that Perelmann’s son was not crazy but brilliant.
At our next brown-bag colloquium, Perelmann’s son claimed to wear “four hats.” He was Perelmann’s son, Perelmann’s biographer, Perelmann’s philosophical interlocutor, and Perelmann’s estate executor.
The following morning, the graduate student reported that two new hats, a black bowler and a purple yarmulke, had entered the rotation. From what he’d seen, he hypothesized that the bowler was the executor hat and the yarmulke was the interlocutor hat. Perelmann’s son had spent most of the early evening going calmly back and forth between the Red Sox cap and the bowler. At around eight o’clock, the yarmulke had gone on and stayed on until just after nine. From then until midnight, he’d frantically switched among the yarmulke, the Red Sox cap, and the brown fedora. He had ended the night with forty-five relatively relaxed minutes in the black bowler.
“I’m fine, Bill!” Perelmann’s son said, touching the chair’s wrist. “How can I summon memories of my father one minute and deal with his taxes the next? Impossible, unless I physically put on the bowler hat. One minute I’m recalling the sensation of being up on his shoulders, the next I’m attacking his peculiar interpretation of Kant? The purple yarmulke. Who taught him this idiosyncratic Kant, and when? Brown fedora.”
By the next colloquium, Perelmann’s son wore sixteen hats. He was Perelmann’s son, Perelmann’s biographer, Perelmann’s philosophical interlocutor, Perelmann’s estate executor, Perelmann’s publicist, Perelmann’s usurper, Perelmann’s housekeeper, Perelmann’s zealot, Perelmann’s annihilator, Perelmann’s designated philosophical heir, Perelmann’s defector, Perelmann’s librarian, Perelmann’s gene carrier, Perelmann’s foot soldier, Perelmann’s betrayer, and Perelmann’s doppelgänger. Twelve new hats joined the repertoire, including a beret, a bandanna, a small straw hat, and a sombrero.
Naturally, we were a little alarmed. Perelmann’s son’s evenings, the graduate student reported, were now mere blurs of hat transitions. Nothing stayed on his head for long. But reality, we assumed, would sooner or later impose a limit on his mania. There are only so many kinds of hats, just as there are only so many relations that can possibly obtain between a father and a son. In due course Perelmann’s son would run out of either hats or relations, we thought—probably hats—and thereafter he would return to reason.
But soon there were relations we had never considered, hats we’d never heard of. He was Perelmann’s old-Jewish-joke repository, Perelmann’s voice impersonator, Perelmann’s sweater wearer, the last living practitioner of Perelmann’s skiing technique, Perelmann’s surpasser, Perelmann’s victim. He wore an eighteenth-century tricorne, a deerstalker, a round Hasidic kolpik, an Afghan pakol with a peacock feather tucked into its folds.
By the end of the fall semester we knew something had to be done. The explosion of hats and relations had not abated. Left alone, we realized, Perelmann’s son would partition his relationship with his father ad infinitum, and for each infinitesimal slice of relationship he would purchase a hat. Ultimately, he would turn his relationship with his father—by nature, one simple thing—into something infinitely complex, and his hat collection would, correspondingly, grow without bound, and he would wind up destroying himself. His analytical tendency, along with the huge hat collection that resulted from it, would obliterate him.
So, one morning, in an attempt to save Perelmann’s son from himself, a group of graduate students and junior faculty members slipped, with the department chair’s blessing, into his apartment. (He was at a Perelmann conference.) We gathered all the hats and put them in garbage bags—a hundred and twenty-eight hats in twelve garbage bags—and got them out of there.
But in our hearts we must have known that we were treating the symptom, not the cause. Yesterday, according to our informant, Perelmann’s son spent all day and all night in a ten-gallon hat of thus far unknown paternal associations.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs, (2016) Two Hats - The New Yorker Feb 1, 2016