Hayden White, who passed away this week at the age of 89, was a teacher and friend of mine — and a role model to me, intellectually and personally. I treasure the memory of our many conversations in California and Italy over the years. Knowing that I am far from alone in mourning his loss — and that his writings and institutional efforts will continue to bear fruit — makes the task of mourning his passing somewhat less painful, but only somewhat.
Those who knew Hayden will remember his affable humor and his deep sense of irony and self-irony. Not arch ironic detachment, but the irony of the master rhetorician who knows how the vicissitudes of the literal and the figurative demand a non-reductive mixture of concepts. Hayden was a dialectical thinker, for whom truth and fiction, knowledge and error, past and present were not oppositions but modes of understanding to be thought together. This led him to approach human history not as a field in which sharp lines between fact and fiction must be drawn but rather, like Nietzsche, as a field for which human beings have needs and uses — political, moral or practical.
Hayden laughed easily and often, and he made others laugh. But I suddenly remember two occasions on which I was struck by his earnest seriousness. One was over twenty years ago: it was the day that the community at Berkeley learned that the great scholar Amos Funkenstein had died. Hayden was clearly grief-stricken and found himself unable to conduct our scheduled seminar. He spoke to us, his students, movingly about Professor Funkenstein’s commitment to a life of scholarship, about what he had done for all of us through his work. The other occasion was the last time that I saw Hayden, in Rome; his entire demeanor changed as he spoke to me in hushed tones about what reading — what texts — had meant to him throughout his life.
Hayden was one of the most widely read people I’ve ever met — not only in the ‘classics’ of literature or philosophy, but also in contemporary scholarship across the humanities. In conversation and in his written work, he continually pointed everyone around him to the latest works of scholarship from an astonishing range of fields, whose insights he found intriguing — never with overbearing pedantry, but with the enthusiasm of someone enamored with an idea or thought or discovery he couldn’t wait to share. There were texts he read with lifelong devotion: Vico, Hegel, Marx. These were works to which he submitted. But there were also texts he dominated and plundered, including many of his structuralist and post-structuralist contemporaries. And there were texts — historical novels, contemporary novelists — that he read, as he put it, with ‘the critical lights turned down’ so as to better let them reveal themselves to him. Even when Hayden skipped reading something, well that, too, was a kind of reading. No text that crossed his path escaped his censure.
In the novel White Noise by Don de Lillo — whose novels Hayden admired — there is a scene in which the main character, a careerist professor of “Hitler studies” who can’t speak German, encounters a nun. She baldly tells him, finally shouting at him in German, that her job, as she sees it, is to do the believing that makes his non-belief possible. Those who dedicate their life to the practices of the ‘belief,’ she tells him, make secular life for the rest of us possible. Analogously, Hayden believed that humanists do the serious reading for the rest of the human community. He had no patience for jargon-ridden, ideologically motivated scholarship. The human sciences depend on the preservation of a reading public. And humanists in the University owe it to the broader community to help people come to know texts well enough to understand what it is to love them. If we fail in that, because we disdain the humility the job requires or because we don’t ourselves love reading, then we are failures or fakes. Hayden was as successful, authentic and inspiring a humanist as one could ever hope to meet.
I remember, too, once talking with Hayden about Joyce’s story The Dead — and about the larger issue of what the dead require of us, about the demands that the past makes upon the present. Gabriel — the protagonist in Joyce’s story — has just learned, after many years of marriage, that his wife, Gretta, actually loved another man, Michael, who died many years ago at the age of seventeen. He reflects that he cannot perceive or even remember Michael,who lies buried on a lonely hill under a snow that has begun to fall. He can only imagine him. The past, as Hayden liked to say, can no longer be seen or heard or smelled; it is no longer open to our sense perception. And after enough years pass by, memory, too, fails to connect us to the past.
What does it mean, really, to tell the true story of the past – of a life, of a marriage or a friendship, or of the enigma of an event? After our senses and memories fail to revive what is bygone, all we can do with the past is to give it our attention, to study it, to try to imagine or understand it. We can try to understand the dead — while perhaps asking ourselves how, and with what implications, we go about such attempts at understanding.