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Between Past and Future

Thinking about life and death

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

I attended an interesting talk yesterday. Being a young scholar, the speaker was (of course) using PowerPoint. At one moment in the talk he referenced a “recent argument” that he would engage. As he did so, the reference to a text appeared on the screen. To a book published in 1999. I gently interrupted him with a joking observation: “1999 might seem recent to you in terms of modern intellectual history, but to me that is a lifetime ago.”

As I approach the age of 61, I think more about time than I used to. About its inexorability, and about the limits it imposes. About the ways that the past recedes further from view, and from memory, each new day. And about how the end looms ever closer on the horizon. I am no philosopher. But I do teach political theory. I am familiar with the profound reflections on these things that were offered by Martin Heidegger inBeing and Time (1927), and by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943). And as I now reflect back on my own intellectual trajectory, it is interesting to me that when I was a younger man — a middle aged man — I was drawn to two political writers, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt, whose writings were profoundly shaped by the experience of time, its unfoldings, its endings. Its inexorability.

My cousin Mick died this week.

He was 65. We were not close growing up. He was only four years older than me, but as a kid that seemed like decades. I always thought of him as much older, and indeed I was literally shocked to learn last week that he was only 65. And while he lived in Massapequa, Long Island, a mere 25 miles from my old neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, it seemed then like he lived a continent away. (I don’t want to get all Einstein, but it is true that while the distance was in retrospect laughably close, the typical congestion on both the Long Island Expressway — the infamous “LIE” — and the Northern State Parkway meant that the time separating the two places could be hours, especially on the weekends, the only time that my working class parents could possibly contemplate hazarding the long and trying journey beyond the limits of The City.)

Mick was always much cooler than I was. He was involved in the Vietnam War protests, and actually ran for mayor of New Paltz as part of the student protests there. Abbie Hoffman was one of his heroes, and he gave me a very cool Abbie Hoffman t-shirt, which is now the proud possession of my daughter Lisi. In those years he had a dog named “Boogie” that used to follow him around everywhere. I remember hearing stories about this legendary dog, who was apparently a New Paltz celebrity. Every dog I’ve ever had needed a leash. Mick’s dog, was, like his owner, unleashed.

Mick always seemed to have an awesome and beautiful girlfriend — at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah (I was 16, and so Mick was 20) he showed up with someone who looked like a young Melania Trump. Who knows? Maybe it was young Melania? As we grew up our paths would cross from time to time. We’d see each other sometimes at family events. I’ll never forget the time, in June of 1982, when I was attending the huge and important anti-nuclear march in Central Park in Manhattan, with my then-fiancee and now ex-wife and best friend Debbie, and there, in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people in the park, we came across Mick. It was cool to say hi to him. He was, of course, with another seemingly awesome, and obviously beautiful, girlfriend.

He eventually moved to San Francisco, and I to Bloomington, Indiana. I visited him there a few times when I was in town for a conference. We became much closer — at a distance of course, after 9/11, though linked eventually by this new technology called The Web. He discovered some of my writings online, reached out to me, and became incredibly and movingly enthusiastic about my work, my writing and teaching. Mick was brilliant, and charismatic, and very entrepreneurial. But he never really had a “career.” He was very much a free spirit.

During these years I was very much not that. I was a Very Serious young scholar and family man. I think that what he admired in me was in part those things that were also possibilities for him, but that he had not pursued. I think that what I admired in him were the things that were also true of me but that I had not pursued. And it occurs to me now that probably we became even closer in the past 15 years as a consequence of my divorce. As a single man who was now playing out a life as a musician, and experiencing my sexuality in a new way, I was experiencing aspects of myself that had long been suppressed, and I was being in the world in a way that was in some ways similar to the way that Mick lived his entire life. He and I had some deep conversations about these things.

Then sometime, maybe around 2012, he was diagnosed with a rare melanoma. He fought it, and it fought back, and he kept fighting. At around this time he met, and fell in love with, an extraordinary young woman named Shulin. I think this was the deepest and most serious relationship of his life. She supported him, and loved him, and fought that cancer with him.

In 2014, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Mick was very supportive. We talked about cancer, and life, and love. He told me about Shulin. I told him about my sources of strength.

Prostate cancer, if caught early and treated properly, is not very serious, surely not as serious as melanoma. With treatment I soon recovered. I beat cancer. I think. I am a cancer survivor. (I know. For now. I don’t know what the future will bring.) But I know that while Mick fought his cancer very hard, eventually his fight gave out. And he passed.

The last time we corresponded was on Facebook, on January 5. He was upset about Trump, and wanted to vent (being strongly against Trump was something we shared, and he often re-posted my Facebook rantings and my Public Seminar pieces). I wrote him back, and never received a reply. Then I learned last week that he was in hospice. He suffered greatly at the end. And now he is at peace.

Mick lived his life freely. Like all of us, he had demons. But he seemed to me to be very much at home in the world, in his body, with himself. He was very vital. I believe he lived his last days in this way, with dignity, and with the support of his loved ones, including our cousins Jackie and Lonnie, and including especially Shulin.

Why do I write about this here? Because death is always an occasion to reflect on life, on the frailty and precariousness of human existence, but also on the joys and the possibilities of being alive, and on the different paths we take. Because Mick was very much a “child of the sixties,” and this generation — I am part of its tail end! — is now aging, and passing; and while new generations are facing new challenges, at the same time it is important to reflect on one’s own history and the lessons learned.

But mainly I am telling you this story because I write a weekly column, and my cousin died, and so life and death are on my mind in a very personal way. And it would be inauthentic to me to write about something else right now.

The personal both is and is not political. Serious reflection on life and death necessarily leads us to reflect on the ways that these experiences, and the very possibility of living a meaningful life or dying with dignity, are shaped by our very unequal and very unjust world. What draws me to writers like Arendt and Camus is that their deeply ethical sense of politics is profoundly shaped by their own experiences of displacement, exile, and fear in the face of totalitarianism, and also shaped by their experiences of dignified rebellion against the sources of human oppression. I admire the ways that their commitment to freedom was joined to a commitment to elemental human decency, to an awareness of limits, to a refusal of nastiness and arrogance and a politics of demonizing others — all of those things that our current Bloviator-in-Chief have turned into staples of our political discourse.

My cousin Mick was, I think, a rebel of this kind. Tough but also gentle, knowledgeable, he was also very aware of what he did not and perhaps could not know. I think that Mick’s sense of politics was akin to that extolled by Vaclav Havel — a combination of deep moral seriousness, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, and dramatic flair. And I think he would have related to this passage from Havel’s Letters to Olga:

Again, I call to mind that distant moment in [the prison at] Hermanice when on a hot, cloudless summer day, I sat on a pile of rusty iron and gazed into the crown of an enormous tree that stretched, with dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars and watchtowers that separated me from it. As I watched the imperceptible trembling of its leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once, I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things I had ever seen and experienced existed in a total “co-present”; I felt a sense of reconciliation, indeed of an almost gentle consent to the inevitable course of things as revealed to me now, and this combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced. A profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being became a dizzying sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbounded joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact that everything has a deep and obvious meaning — this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the finite”; I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. I would even say that I was somehow “struck by love,” though I don’t know precisely for whom or what.

I think Mick shared this spiritual sensibility. He was aware of Being beyond himself. And he was a rebellious soul nonetheless. That Abbie Hoffman t-shirt he gave me years ago symbolized his youthful opposition to war and the combination of rebelliousness and playfulness that characterized his life. Mick did not have children of his own. He leaves behind many loved ones. My daughter Lisi never met him. But she has his shirt. Indeed, she wore it to the Women’s March in 2017. This seems right to me.

The blues is a music of mournfulness and a music of exuberant vitality.

There are a great many famous tunes composed as tributes to those who recently have passed.

One of those that most moves me is Lennie Tristano’s “Requiem,” a solo piano piece composed to mourn the passing of Charlie Parker, the founder of bebop who died, of many illnesses, in 1955 at the age of 35:

As powerful, though slightly less elegiac, is Bennie Golson’s “I Remember Clifford,” composed to mourn the passing of the great trumpet player Clifford Brown, who also died young, killed in a car crash in 1956 and the age of 36:

But at this moment the tune that seems most appropriate to the link between endings and new beginnings is “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with its exuberant celebration of life and of what lies beyond its passing.

Here is the most famous rendition of this tune, by Louis Armstrong:

But I close with this version, by Bruce Springsteen, for it is truer to the way I am feeling at this moment, and I can imagine my cousin listening and watching this performance and being moved by it:

As Hannah Arendt teaches us, every end “necessarily contains a new beginning.”

Last Friday my cousin Mick passed away.

Last Friday thousands of young people across the U.S. organized their own “day on, not day off” by participating in a National School Walkout to protest gun violence.

Yesterday a little boy across the ocean named Filip was baptized. I am pretty sure he is one of the youngest people to have participated in the recent Romanian protests against corruption.

Every end contains a new beginning. We are all connected in a single garment of destiny. And life goes on.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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