I was recently informed that a long-time mentor, academic advisor, former professor, and close friend of mine passed away. As an Ivy League graduate with longstanding ties in the philosophical community, this man’s monolithic knowledge of philosophy was unrivaled among his peers and throughout much of the world. He specialized in twentieth-century Continental philosophy with special attention to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and the philosophy of art. He was a friend, former student, and colleague of towering figures in the intellectual community such as Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Emmanuel Levinas.
I spent many years under his instruction at the university. He was more than a friend to me: he was family. The news came as a shock to our philosophy department, his former students, and the lives of those whose razor-sharp humor, chimerical anecdotes, and unequaled knowledge marked one of the surest and truest flags of wisdom I’ve ever encountered. Having patiently and caringly illuminated the complexities of the world around us, he taught me the means and method of making the invisible visible in a way that the occult world has only ever dreamed of: in prophecy, in doubt, in the hidden truth beyond all thought.
Here was a man who understood the meaning and value of culture and education, a man who embodied wisdom and inspired others to seek it with nothing more than the inflection of a word or the incendiary passion he emitted in his effortless attendance to things that matter. The energy and magnetism I felt in our seminars was about so much more than thought – it unified the heart and mind in the music of the soul.
He was loved and will be dearly missed. I am honored and humbled that his life’s work will live on in my own, both in the myriad territories of thought, spirit, and instinct that remain unexplored, and in my commitment to inspiring others to see the artistry and majesty of what it is to love and to be human, all too human. Like my mentor, I will carry that flag until the day I die – not as an afterthought or theoretical exercise, but under the banner of what it means to die well from a life well-lived. Rest in peace, old friend.
With that said and in the spirit of his many riveting anecdotes, I would like to continue his legacy by sharing one of my own. While what follows is a work of fiction on the trail of truth, I leave it to the reader to sort out this playful paramnesia in lockstep with our love of wisdom.
Such and such
By Nameless Therein
Once upon a time I took a philosophy of art seminar. I was a young man, still a budding undergraduate preparing my metamorphosis as an intellectual instar into a glorious cocoon (“cow-tipping for deontology,” the elders warned). We explored the nature of art and its role in human affairs with an eye for some of its more absurd and radical contexts: theater pieces without a plot or character development, paintings covered entirely in black or white, atonal music, the grotesque, the transcendent. We studied the usual suspects: Plato on the beautiful, Kant on the sublime, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Samuel Beckett, Merleau-Ponty.
One day late into the semester, something interesting happened while we were examining Hegel’s views on art. An inquisitive and precocious Albanian student eagerly raised his hand, interrupting our professor’s train of thought like a flash of lightning interrogating the classroom. A sudden stroke of silence. The lights seemed to dim. An intensity of thought circled the room and made its way to this eccentric student, whose hand remained erect like a pole without its flag, marking the last survivor among a pack of wolves. Who dared interrupt our erudite professor? Who dared to break the ferocity of his concentration, fixed with fervor beneath an orchid of eyebrows, wispy and nebulous like a cat’s whiskers before a meal? An air of suspicion: “Yes? You have a question young man?” he inquired, eyes wide and slightly extinguished like a fire caught in a wind and soon to return home.
“Uh, yes, yes,” the student replied, tripping over his syllables in a glissando accent that sounded as if he were swallowing his vowels while folding laundry. “So how can we … the-the birth of art: how shall we define it?”
Our professor’s feral eyebrows seemed to grow thicker with every word, now furrowed like an armadillo, visibly perturbed. “I’m sorry, I can’t-I didn’t follow,” he gasped like a man looking for water but finding only air.
“The birth of art – the birth.”
“The birth of ART?”
“How can we define it?”
Drawn and quartered in a wave of outrage and confusion, our professor stumbled across a sea of misdirected syllables. “Who’s-what-wa– I’m not-who’s talking about the birth of art?”
“If we define it …”
“B-but we’re not asking about the birth of art,” our professor interrupted in a single blow.
“From where it came from then?” the student responded, barely parrying the attack. “If somebody points you the question: professor, where the-the art came from?”
“Now wait wait wait,” our professor inflected, building momentum like a desert rollercoaster struggling to breathe, “we can’t just pick questions out of the BLUE, I mean …”
“We can, because this is what Hegel says.”
“What d-WHAT does he say?”
“Animistica, religious … such and such.”
The room went silent. Our professor’s dreamy intensity, earlier lost in the enchantment of centuries of opulent thought, now took on the characteristics of a violent storm cloud. The inquiry of the innocent transformed into an inquisition of the condemned. “Such and such?! SUCH AND SUCH?!” he bellowed like a baritone kazoo. “Excuse me … but we can’t answer questions about ‘such and such.’”
The room stood still again. Confused but excited at how a simple miscommunication had electrified the air of the classroom with tangible outrage, I watched the laundry-folder hang his surprise and shock on the clothesline of his mind. No words were necessary, no rebuttal possible; only the echo of tacit withdrawal as this Holy Inquisition gave way to a realization: beneath the prickly gaze of our professor’s thorn-bush eyebrows, it turned out our grade-school teachers were wrong – there is such a thing as a stupid question.
In loving memory
March 12, 2023