As I write this blog post, the American public anxiously waits for news of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s health. Reports of his death from cancer circulated widely on on-line news and social media such as Facebook earlier this evening, only to be quickly refuted by his family. If he is still alive, his famous fighting spirit conjurs some hope.* There is a strong sensitivity to the tragic dimension of this death as it follows so soon after the university administration fired him due to the Sandusky scandal that received so much media attention less than three months ago. The deep sadness that we feel reminds us that this is possibly the end of one of the greatest coaches in football (not only the winningest coach in division one football, but also the coach who cultivated the intellect and ethics of his players as well as their abilities on the field.) The tragic irony that we sense — “loss piled on tragedy” as one of my friends put it on Facebook – is that, after a shining 46 years as head coach, his death might occur immediately after the one low point and in the light of his most troubling mistake. Because of the interruption of his career by the scandal, we also feel that Paterno’s long career was not quite finished — that there was something more he might contribute to our lives.
It may seem odd to some people for me to respond to this tragedy intellectually, and it may seem odd to think of a person’s death in terms of the intellectual labor it spurs us to undertake, but I believe that this is how Paterno would want it, given that his own generosity sponsored the Paterno Family Chair in the English department held by professor of contemporary literature and cultural theory Michael Bérubé (who was a professor of mine when I was a graduate student.) As the philosopher Jacques Derrida reflected on the deaths of his colleagues in one of his last books, The Work of Mourning, the death of a friend, parent, coach, or writer one has read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them, the debt of our own existence that we owe to those who preceded us. These are the people through whom we think about our ethical relationship to the world, and in a sense our mourning is how we keep ourselves alive as we attempt to continue speaking to the dead and to our loss and to the possibility that their work will eventually be realized — a work that is always incomplete and unfinished just like any life, a work for which they have struggled, a work that they hoped, and we continue to hope, might possibly and actually come to be. Almost a year ago, I wrote blog posts about the novelist and philosopher Edourd Glissant’s death and about my own professor Marshall Grossman’s death as an occassion for reflecting on our complex relations with the world – “the totality of Relation” is Glissant’s philosophical concept for this reflection – as our own lives are constituted by these relations, not all of them positive yet nevertheless still part of who we are and who we are becoming.
Joe Paterno inspires such work, because of our debt to him and because of the work he called upon us to do. As another of my Facebook friends honored Paterno’s memory by quoting him: “Believe deep down in your heart that you are destined to do great things.” For me, this was not about football or about Penn State pride. For me, this was about Paterno’s committment to his players and to the principles of the modern university. When I was teaching at Penn State, it was well-known that the football players were always good students, and that was certainly my own experience when they were in my classes. Much of the intellectual life at Penn State was encouraged by Paterno’s financial support of the library and professors and by his moral support of its teachers. And he did this at a time when faculty felt attacked by politicians who accused us of corrupting the youth and cut the university’s budget and by the media pundits who questioned the relevance of the humanities in the twenty-first century. Paterno’s ethics and his work demonstrated to coaches across the country that it was possible to succeed both on the field and in the classroom — that a coach did not have to sacrifice one for the other. These are some examples of the complex and multifaceted “totality of Relation” (as Glissant put it) that call us to a work of mourning and to an ethical responsibility not just to act but also to think.
The scandal and Paterno’s other ethical failures over the course of his long career do not undermine this work but actually heightens its meaning and focuses attention on the question of thoughtful action. As Michael Berube suggested in his op-ed on that scandal for the New York Times, the complexities of the event demand that the public, the faculty, and the administration dialogue together openly to build upon Paterno’s legacy, take it in new directions, and address systemic problems. Likewise, the event galvanized a political response to child abuse as Penn State students thoughtfully put their ideals into action through a “Blue Out” that reminded the public to support the victims of child abuse. These are examples of the always unfinished “work of mourning” and the open-ended possibility that inheres in the “totality of Relation.”
* Addendum: I wrote the above post late last night, and this morning, around 10 a.m., it was announced that Joe Paterno passed. His family released this statement to the press. Also, Penn State graduate Tori Bosch published these thoughts on Slate.com.
This past Tuesday, Marshall Grossman died. He is remembered fondly on the University of Maryland English department’s website [here]. He was my professor for just one year, from the spring of 2000 to the spring of 2001, when I completed my masters degree in English. I met him again a few years later at a conference where we talked at length about the book he was then working on, Reading Renaissance Ethics. Though my time with Marshall was brief, his effect on me has been enduring and powerful – his rigorous scholarly work, his brilliant way of reading, and his challenging style of intellectual engagement. He was a model that I still aspire to emulate. So, I don’t know why I was surprised that when I heard the news of his death I spent the evening crying as I attempted to read some materials about pedagogy that my department was going to discuss the next day; death doesn’t usually affect me that way, as I tend to think of it as part of the natural order of things, but Marshall’s death hit me harder than I would have expected it to. I am crying a little bit even now as I write this blog post, five days later. Perhaps I feel deep down that my intellectual work with Marshall was not yet finished. I always assumed we would meet again soon and continue our conversations. So, I am writing this blog post today in honor of him, because I miss him, but it is of course also about myself — a literary connection between two selves that Marshall appreciated in his masterful book, The Story of All Things: Writing the Self in English Renaissance Narrative Poetry about the way we attempt to narrate historical events and personal experiences through figurative language.
To put it another way, I want to perform the ethical work of mourning that I described earlier this year on the occasion of Edouard Glissant’s death [here]. Back then I wrote that the death of a friend, parent, or writer we have read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them — the debt of our existence, and of our own thinking, and of our open-ended becoming that we owe to them. It is through them and their work on us that we imagine the possibility of our ethical relationship to the world. This, I think, is the project that John Donne’s many poems about death and mourning (about which I wrote for Marshall’s class) encourage us to undertake.
One of the things I liked about Marshall is actually summed up nicely at the conclusion of this YouTube video of him, made a few years ago by one of his undergraduate students, which splices together some bits of one of his lectures on Shakespeare’s Hamlet with an interview.
At the end, in answer to the question about what he wants from his students, he says he can’t ever know what that is in advance, and it would be even unethical for him to pretend to know that, because ultimately he doesn’t want the students to discover something about him, or even about the Shakespeare plays he teaches. Rather he wants them to discover something about themselves and their world. This, I think, epitomizes his scholarly and pedagogical style that resisted merely situating literary texts anecdotally within their historical context but instead encouraged readers to think about what kind of work these texts do. I remember him criticizing the kind of New Historicism (which I’ve also criticized at length [here]) that was in vogue at the time by noting that this method couldn’t explain why the literature was any good or even worthwhile. For Marshall, the wonderful literary qualities of the text mattered — mattered politically, even – for it was those literary qualities that prompted us to think about the contingencies of history and our ethical and figurative relationship to it.
And Marshall was also one of the most clearsited cultural theorists. What I remember so often admiring about Marshall is how he could mention a recent pop song or simply look out the window, describe what he was seeing in great detail (as he does in the epilogue to Story of All Things), then use that detail to explain a complex theoretical question (Lacanian psychoanalysis, for instance), and then start talking about a poem by Shakespeare or Milton, and somehow all of these three topoi (the mundane object of our present-day reality, the theoretical discourse, and the poetry) would illuminate each other and each shine all the brighter at the end of Marshall’s witty and lucid commentary. For those who have taken my classes in literary theory or who just read this blog once in a while, this might sound familiar, or at least I hope it sounds familiar, as one of my aspirations has been that you are always getting a little bit of Marshall Grossman whenever you read or listen to me.
Lastly, what I loved about Marshall was his acerbic and challenging wit. He was somewhat well known for his tough and sometimes sarcastic engagement with both his students and his colleagues. I remember some of my fellow graduate students being a bit afraid of him, but this too I loved even when I was the object of his criticism. Criticism is an ethical project, and we can see this project in all of his scholarly work, and also in the political blog that he wrote for the Huffington Post [here]. As one of his colleagues said about him, “To know him well enough was to see an underlying sweetness to his disposition that expressed itself mostly by indirection. Beneath his sometimes sardonic persona, he was an incredibly kind man.” Marshall’s tough engagement inspired me to think harder and do better, but even more important than that, I think most who knew him would agree that any discussion, no matter what the subject, was never more alive than when he was participating in it.
Two days ago, the world-renowned theorist and poet Édouard Glissant died. He was 83 years old, and his death was honored publicly by the Prime Minister of France [here]. Coincidentally, last semester, I taught Glissant’s book Poetics of Relation in my Caribbean literature and theory course, though I can’t claim to have much expertise since I taught the class in order to learn what I didn’t know and almost everything I assigned was by authors I hadn’t read before. Glissant’s death has provoked me to think about the recent deaths of other theorists, poets, historians, and cultural critics who have been inspirations to me – Howard Zinn in 2010, Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2009, Aimé Césaire in 2008, Edward Said in 2006, Jacques Derrida in 2004. Reading the obituaries of such outstanding theorists and public intellectuals is perhaps in itself a subject for theoretical inquiry. For most of these writers, their deaths became occasions for heated and sometimes even vicious public debate in mainstream newspapers about the significance of their intellectual legacy, and consequently their deaths also became occasions for further reflection and theoretical work.
It may seem odd to think of a person’s death in terms of the intellectual labor it spurs us to undertake. As Derrida himself reflected on the deaths of his colleagues in one of his last books, The Work of Mourning, the death of a friend, parent, or writer one has read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them, the debt of our own existence that we owe to those who preceded us. These are the people through whom we think about our ethical relationship to the world, and in a sense our mourning is how we keep ourselves alive as we attempt to continue speaking to the dead and to our loss and to the possibility that their work will eventually be realized — a work that is always incomplete and unfinished just like any life, a work for which they have struggled, a work that they hoped, and we continue to hope, might possibly and actually come to be. Like Derrida, for Glissant too death is an occassion for reflecting on our complex relations with the world, the totality of Relation, as our own lives are constituted by these relations, not all of them positive yet nevertheless still part of who we are and who we are becoming.
For those of you who don’t know Édouard Glissant, he was born in Martinique and travelled to Paris after the second World War to study and get his doctorate. He was influenced by the Négritude cultural movement begun by his elder Martinican Aimé Césaire, but Glissant is most famous for his criticism of Césaire’s Négritude as too fantastically essentialist. Along with other Caribbean writers, Glissant instead conceptualized creolization, which emphasizes both the rootedness of Caribbean culture and its complex relations to world cultures — in other words (always in other words, we might say), Caribbean identity as a becoming, not a static thing to be compartmentalized. Before formulating his theories in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Glissant participated in a separatist political movement in the 1950s for the independence of the French colonies. This led Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle to bar Glissant from returning home between 1961 and 1965. From the 1980s until his death, he was professor at universities in Martinique, France, and the United States, and tended to divide his time between these locations. He was shortlisted for the Nobel prize in 2002, which was instead awarded to another Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott.
In 2006, Glissant was asked by France’s president M. Jacques Chirac to oversee the establishment of a new cultural center devoted to the history of the slave trade. You can read Chirac’s speech at this event [here]. The establishment of such a center perhaps speaks to the work of mourning. We create these centers not simply to record the centuries of past horrors or to feel glad that we no longer live in those times, but in order to work towards a more just civilization. Part of that work involves recognizing our debt to the past, our relation to it — how our being is constituted in part by something so horrible that we would prefer to see it as determinately other or outside ourselves. The legacy of the slave trade is still with us, not only as a past event but as a still present reality, as Chirac had the courage to admit. And this is why remembering the work of Glissant is also important for our own work.
Returning to the list of recently deceased theorists in my first paragraph, all the giant figures whom I was assigned to read in college, I can’t help but wonder what the next generation of talent will be. Who will follow these poets, philosophers, and historians who came into being during the postcolonial moment and civil rights era, 1947 to 1965, when colonies and people of color across the world were asserting themselves and demanding their rights? Our moment now might be called the moment of globalization or globalism, and has been called that by various theorists (including myself), but I’m not sure that name explains much. Glissant has provoked me to think harder about my own work. And I suppose that’s why I felt I should read him last semester. At the beginning of this blog post I mentioned that I am no expert and read Glissant for the first time just last year. And so, we might think of the unfinished work of mourning not only as a literary engagement (the double meaning of engagement is intentional) with those friends and writers with whom we already know and have established relations, but also as an engagement with those people whom we never got to know when they were alive. It is our debt to that larger Relation – the relation we have to people we’ve never met or never read before — that I think is the ongoing and never finished work of mourning.