Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Concerning Brave Captains: Jay Fliegelman, 1949-2007

“Rosen, you should check out this class with me. I hear this guy is amazing.” So said Noah Barron, my brother in arms in the English department, with little idea how prescient he would turn out to be. The spring quarter course catalog said only “Eng 138: Melville”, and I had never heard of the professor, Jay Fliegelman, though his name had a pleasant familiarity to it. It was an unseasonably warm day, and the seminar room on the edge of the quad was filled to capacity. A signup sheet went around, but there were no pleasantries or introductory remarks dispensed. Instead, as sweat beaded on his forehead, Jay Fliegelman read Melville’s “John Brown” with searing clarity, until, as he hit the poem’s iconic final line, “The meteor of the war”, a whole room trembled along with him. Judging by the look Noah and I shot each other as we filed out of that classroom, we had come home at last. Not everyone, however, was equally moved. Another friend remarked, “I dunno, I think this guy is a little too intense for me.” He was probably right.

For all his oracular qualities, Jay was also a lot of fun, especially in those early days of the quarter, which were ardently consumed in cracking his newest students open as thinkers. On the first day of class, he promised that an extremely long term paper would be required, then, on the second day revealed with no little mischief that he’d only said so to scare away the pretenders. Jay’s teaching recalled what Edward O. Wilson said about good science – that it consists of play disguised as serious work. Our work, nonetheless, was cut out for us. To follow Jay’s inquiries was to hitch a ride from the inscrutable to the sublime, often within minutes, as he coaxed each student from fogginess to intimation to discovery. The questions usually stemmed from somewhat counterintuitive focal points, and it seemed almost a game: what absurd political cartoon, tangentially related landscape painting, or 1840s household object would lead us closer to the truth today? Invariably, Jay supplied just enough revelation - any more and we might have started to take things seriously.

All levity aside, however, it quickly became clear that Jay Fliegelman’s teaching centered on a proposition more radical than any critical theory or political agenda: that his students had ideas worth seeing through. His penetrating brand of scholarship defied easy categorization, while rising above the fray that tends to dominate the academy. He opposed himself against no orthodoxies more violently than intellectual complacency and reliance on others to supply personal conviction. Jay’s guidelines for how to write a paper sounded innocent enough: Pick out something in the text that speaks to you, something that gets stuck in your head, and work inductively to get to the bottom of it. What Jay did not advertise, but what we all found to be true, was that he would help a student to attack the “pasteboard mask” of uncertainty with a vengeance worthy of Captain Ahab himself.

Jay was not given to overt political pronouncements, being both too wise and too jaded. All the same, it was clear how acutely he felt the sting of an age when America seemed to be turning its back – gleefully – on its own intellect. As someone who had dedicated his career to charting the evolution of the American mind, it was only right that Jay should be among its most jealous guardians. Having assembled the members of the Melville seminar in his home for an end-of-quarter pizza party, Jay exhorted us to strive to truly become intellectuals, and to wear that mantle without apology. At a time when Americans were being told in no uncertain terms to watch what they said, Jay raised the specter of unquestioning acceptance, and it was as terrifying as any of the more obvious demons thought to afflict us.

I spent two memorable summers assisting Jay with the researching of his long-awaited masterwork, Belongings: Dramas of American Book Ownership. Though we were nominally working under the auspices of Summer Research College, a flagship program with formal dinners and presentations, Jay quickly dispensed with all notions of supervision and turned me loose in the libraries with only faint clues for assignments. We would, so the plan went, check in once I had something. Like many American Jews of his generation, Jay regarded Chinese food as a panacea, and our more or less biweekly meetings invariably took place over Mongolian beef and moo goo gai pan at one of several familiar Palo Alto haunts. Though the majority of these “progress reports” seemed to focus on our respective dating lives (at least during the first summer), we usually made time to go over the findings of the previous few weeks. It always held an air of high adventure, as Jay no doubt intended. On a good day, a connection might surface that had escaped the notice of earlier scholars, and Jay would note, with barely restrained triumph, “That’s going in the book.” Having known him those few months, I understood, even then, that there could be no higher compliment.

One afternoon, driving to lunch downtown, I asked Jay if he was a Beatles fan, and his voice quavered and slowed as it did whenever making a particularly impassioned point. “I saw them live. Three times!” Encouraged, I popped in a mix, beginning with a shaky but especially ethereal bootleg of “Across the Universe”, and went silent, stealing furtive glances at Jay as John Lennon intoned “Jai guru deva om”. Neither of us spoke for the length of the song, and for some time afterward. Looking over to my right, it was clear that Jay had been transported, by forces stronger than a ’93 Volvo, to somewhere far beyond Palo Alto.

Not surprisingly, my education broadened when it was Jay’s turn to pick the music. One muggy July evening, on the way down University Avenue, he at first cranked up some standard Motown classics, then reconsidered, asking if I’d ever heard of Laura Nyro. I had not, and sat, mesmerized by her voice, as he pulled his Chrysler Sebring into a parking lot. With the devotion of someone who remembered his teenage years and still honored them, Jay kept the car on for the full length of the song, and began to sway, at first imperceptibly, and eventually with rhythm and gusto few would have thought possible. Turning to me, he exulted, “Is that a song, or is that a SONG!”

Between his New York roots, taste in restaurants, evangelism of Melville’s novellas, and talent for self-deprecation, Jay felt like a member of my own family, even in the early days. The effect was at once paternal, fraternal, and avuncular, and represented a sort of coming full circle for me: finally, thanks to Jay’s guidance, I could discuss Benito Cereno with my own father, who had been urging me to read it for ten years before I finally experienced it under the fierce torchlight of Jay’s seminar. Although my college graduation was almost entirely a blur, the one image that remains absolutely clear is that of stumbling, dazed, out of the main entrance of Memorial Church, and finding Jay at the head of the crowd of well wishers thronging the quad. Without speaking a word, we embraced, and then I ran over to summon my father away from the extended family, to meet the professor I had raved about in almost every call home since the first week of English 138. Fixed in the benevolent gaze of two of the most indelible influences I’d ever known, I felt my true graduation ceremony was taking place, and for a few seconds I stood as proudly as in all the twenty-two years that went before.

Jay and I last spoke in early November, 2006. I was at the height of optimism, fairly gushing about my various projects and prospects, though feeling a touch the prodigal son – after all, there was not too much evidence I was using the many gifts imparted to me by this titan of professors. On the other hand, he was the same man who, upon being informed that I would not be applying to graduate school, grinned ever so slightly and told me “Get out while you’re still young!” Jay, for his part, sounded as ebullient as ever. Typically the Rembrandt of self-effacement, he was finally permitting himself a bit of triumph. He was in high demand on the lecture circuit, at home and abroad. The by-then legendary manuscript of Belongings was developing apace, and promised to be the apotheosis of his lifetime of thinking. Finally, he had found, in Christine Guth, love, light, and wholeness.

We concluded our chat on a note of mutual admiration, and I vowed to visit the next chance I got. That I never did is a sin a thousand Yom Kippurs won’t erase, but, then again, neither teacher nor student ever set any records for synagogue attendance. Jay’s world was one of few pieties - and almost infinite reverence. Knowing his distaste for easy consolations, perhaps Jay would remind us that, as with the annihilation of the Pequod, the sea simply rolled on this time as well. Yet, to leave it at that would likewise be too easy a consolation.

Neil Young, writing in the spring of 1970, knew it all along: We’re finally on our own. It’s an ambiguous line, equally an expression of liberation and bereavement. All of Jay’s teaching held the conviction that we must take our own compass readings, however wavering or imprecise. Like all great captains, he prepared his crew, whether consciously or not, to someday sail on without him. That is our only solace today, as the North Star disappears over the horizon and unknown leviathans approach. We have always been free.