Neil hertz remembers
Neil Hertz, a long time friend of Jonathan's, who taught English at Cornell from 1961 to 1983, offered this reminiscence at Jonathan's memorial.
Neil in 2005
Jonathan and I arrived here in 1961 and shared an office for the next five years, GS 239, later Archie Ammons's office. Sitting there, looking up from grading papers, or in-between seeing students, we talked a lot. We discovered we admired some of the same books - Middlemarch, Doughty's Travels in Arabia, Wordsworth's Prelude. And that we both had had our sense of ourselves as teachers shaped by time spent at Amherst College, he as a faculty member, I, some years earlier, as a student. Indeed, it was in part out of our conversations about the idiosyncratic Amherst College Freshman English course that, the next year, Jonathan and Taylor Stoehr and I launched the autobiographical writing course that stayed on the dept's books, usually under Jonathan's supervision, until the 1980's. In those first years, just before Freedom Summer and the anti-war protests began to focus the energies of many college students, being asked to think and write about their experiences at Cornell struck a chord, spoke to their hopes and disaffections-and produced some fine work on the freshman's part, and some exhilarating and memorable moments for their teachers.
In our conversations, and in the classrooms, Jonathan was intensely declarative. Words like "perhaps" or "apparently"- necessities, one would think, of East Coast Elite Intellectual discourse -- were not part of his lexicon. He could be funny, ironical, whimsically extravagant, he could shape subtly inflected propositions, but always in the declarative mode, as sayings he stood behind. This was invigorating for his office mate, and not a little daunting. Until then, I'd never met anyone so intelligent who was also so sure of his judgements. Not that his judgements were always correct, or that he couldn't revise them. When we first met, Jonathan was in the process of embracing Catholicism. We didn't talk about that, but we did talk a good deal about Wordsworth and the Romantic sublime - and at one point some thing Jonathan said made me realize that he was assuming that my interest in writers like Wordsworth was likely to lead - as it had in his own case - to some Spiritual awareness and, possibly, to a full religious conversion. No such luck, but our friendship had no trouble surviving that misapprehension.
I had a not from Mike Colacurcio recently that spoke to this intensity of Jonathan's. "He was the single most conscientious - least careerist - academic I ever met" Mike wrote, "with a heart so purely willing one thing that it was almost scary. He believed in the truth, found only part of it in British and American literature, and went looking for it everywhere else, whether he ever got a raise or not." Mike adds, "Or does that mean that he had some private money?"
Mike was joking, but he was right. In fact, "private money" was what Jonathan used to publish two of his six books. Harvard had brought out Emerson on the Soul in 1964, a beautiful and wise book that Jonathan later referred to wryly as "my tenure book...Emerson (on the Whole)"; at Mike Abrams' suggestion, a distinguished New York house, George Braziller, had published Something Else in 1972. But Jonathan was suspicious of the costs of distinction. In the fall of 1974, I had a letter from him that said:
"I spent the summer re-writing and re-writing my Who is Who book, coming to some sort of an end just as classes started. I wrote Braziller, to whom I was supposed to show it, discouraging them from taking anything so impossible; and then they didn't answer, which topped my self-destructiveness with theirs. I inherited some money from my mother's death last spring, so I plan now to go ahead and get it printed locally in 200 or so copies. That ought to be some kind of fun; whatever the hassles, one is able to choose more of what goes on then with a publisher."
I was in Paris that fall, and, knowing that Jonathan had begun working his way through the Old Testament, a Hebrew dictionary and grammar at hand, I'd written him that my apartment building had a Hasidic rabbi and his family living in the courtyard. His letter closed with a reference to this:
"Meanwhile I plug away daily on Genesis, having arrived at the chapter where Lot and his daughters misbehave. Could there be a movie version of that? Daddy in a shrimel, the fur hat of your neighbour, Jane Fonda for the eldest daughter, what's-her-name Schneider for the younger - and who for the leader of the mob of Sodomites?"
Six books, then. Emerson on the Soul (1964), Something Else (1972), Who is Who (1975), The Covenant: A Reading (1982), Some Bodies: The Eucharist and it's Implications (1992), and In Time (1999). It may surprise some of his former colleagues that, in addition to his teaching, in addition to his stints at the shelter in soup kitchens of Rochester and Ithaca, Jonathan was one of the most "productive" (as administrators like to say) members of the College of Arts and Sciences. But anyone who looked him up in his third-floor office could see him at work, winter and summer, calligraphy pen in hand, taking notes in those large unlined notebooks, the plan of his current writing project diagrammed & tacked to a nearby wall. He read in order to write, and his reading had an astonishing range. In the ten years it took him to compose Some Bodies, for example, he read the pertinent saints (Paul and Augustine and Thomas) as well as dozens of theologians and scholars of the Eucharist. That was to be expected, but he also read -- and incorporated into his argument -- works by scientists (on the Big Bang, on Cellular evolution), by philosophers (Parmenides, Plato, Frege, Heidegger, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Derrida), by theorists of metaphor (Max Black, Paul Ricoeur, & Jonathan's Goldwin Smith neighbour Dick Boyd), by historians like Ernst Kantorowicz and M. H. Abrams, by feminist scholars of the body (Elaine Scarry, Luce Irigaray), by poets like Seamus Heney and Richard Wilbur. And he did not exclude personal anecdote, ending the work with two stories, one about a recent walk around Walden Pond, the other about his rescue and burial at sea, in Beebe Lake, of a dead goldfish he'd found floating in a Kendal aquarium.
I want to close with some words about Jonathan's particular gift, most evident in the distinctive blend of anecdote and reflection that characterized all his writing. Jonathan actually turned his mind to what happened to him, He thought about it. That cast of mind, I've found, is rare enough. Rarer still is the ability to weave one's experience and one's thinking about it into articulate form. Not all writers, not even all good writers, can do that; Jonathan could. I thing he learned it from Emerson; it's certainly what he responded to in Emerson, what he wrote eloquently about in that early book, and what he practiced in his own later works, which are invariably at once speculative and autobiographical. Commenting on some lines from an Emerson essay he had written;
"We all know our experience as progress through a universe of events that is charged with the quality of our minds and repeats the structure of our psychic constitution. But this cloudy motion is too often downgraded to a blur, an ineluctable static interfering with our perception of "objective", that is, conventional reality. But let us attend to the details of what is inevitable until it becomes meaningful, Emerson answers in rebuke and encouragement. Examine what happens anyway, the stones on which we do in fact stub our toe -- to these our line of vision is naturally perpendicular, and we can see, if the spirit wills, exactly what they are."
Let us attend to the details of what is inevitable until it becomes meaningful. A lovely phrase from this next-to-last page of Emerson on the Soul. There, it was intended as a valedictory. I think it can serve here to gesture at what Jonathan had to teach -- in class, in his writings, and in his dealings with his friends.