In recent years, as death has silenced the critical voices of too many people who have been important to me, I’ve found it necessary to read obituaries. Though I never took walks with philosopher Barbara Johnson (d. 2009) and her canine companion Nietzsche, lunched with “death of God” theologian Gabriel Vahanian (d. 2012), attended a jazz concert with the writer and music critic Albert Murray (d. 2013), or invited the sociologist Robert Bellah (d. 2013) to my family’s very American interfaith “Chanukmas” holiday celebration, their ideas were, as one friend wrote of Christopher Hitchens (d. 2011) in his obituary, “a central part of the landscape” of my life.
None of these people were my friends. But they were, like so many other significant thinkers who died in the last decade and whose books line my bookshelves, my interlocutors, my prods, my disturbers of the peace, and my sources of consolation. As literary critic Wayne Booth (d. 2005) put it, our books and our imagined relationship with their authors are the “company we keep.” So I’ve taken up the unhappy practice of trolling obituaries to find lost companions.
Not all obituaries are created equal. As a genre of occasional writing, some are composed without intimate knowledge of the deceased or deep reflection about their contributions. But the best of the obituaries written about these and other towering thinkers command our attention, for they invite us to reckon once again (and ever anew) with the political work and social location of what the historian Christopher Lasch referred to as the “intellectual as a social type.” Some are just a paragraph long; others go on for pages. But at their finest, obituaries of intellectuals attempt to resituate these thinkers and their ideas in the historical conditions from which they came and to which they spoke. And they invite us to recall how we put them to work in our own intellectual biographies.
No better can we see how obituaries of intellectuals invite us to think about thinking, its contemporary practitioners, and the nature and uses of its impact on our lives than in the stunning outpouring of appreciations for anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who died in 2006 at the age of eighty. His obituary writers document in careful detail how Geertz’s lifework on the role of symbols in giving meaning and order to people’s lives gave meaning and order to theirs. They quote his unforgettable insight that culture is the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Indeed, something similar can be said of these death notices in which Geertz and other intellectuals are remembered. In their comments on the deaths of intellectuals who have been such important sources of criticism, moral orientation, and political persuasion, they confess a view of the persistent perils and untapped possibilities of the life of the mind. They tell the stories we tell ourselves about our thinking lives.
Obituaries have long turned the deaths of intellectuals into an intellectual event. But the very public display of terminal illness slowly and remorselessly coiling the life out of Susan Sontag (d. 2004) and Christopher Hitchens placed new demands on the writers of their obituaries. Sontag lived with dying by denying its power over her, struggling through decades of various cancer treatments, and trying to fight its grip on our moral imagination in her writings about illness. Hitchens, by contrast, spent decades taunting, and yet dodging, death, until 2010, when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He spent the subsequent year and a half turning his personal suffering into philosophical material, finding whatever glimpses he could of the sublime, if not the sacred, in the profanity of his “pain management team,” morphine drips, loose stools, and deadened reflexes. Sontag and Hitchens died publicly, not as martyrs but as exemplars of our frail humanity.
In their comments on the deaths of intellectuals who have been such important sources of criticism, moral orientation, and political persuasion, they confess a view of the persistent perils and untapped possibilities of the life of the mind.
Yet no one knew better than Sontag and Hitchens the way a writer’s words live on, long after their authors are gone, without them to run interference with critics. They understood that, as much as they tried, they would not have the last word. In fact, the first of the last words came almost instantly on the very days of their deaths, reminding us of the prefabricated nature of too many obituaries. These obits-in-waiting are ever ready to close the book on our lives, even when we’re still trying desperately to add a few more pages.
As writers of obituaries themselves, Sontag and Hitchens certainly understood the power of their late writings about illness and dying to condition the response to their impending deaths. One doubts that Sontag got what she wanted when one obituary writer, straining to place her writings on philosophy, politics, and photography together with her explorations of the pornography of pain, concluded with the cliché that she “sought to explain what it meant to be human in the waning years of the 20th century.”
Hitchens was luckier when the atheist writer Jennifer Michael Hecht stepped forward on the day of his death to write, as if channeling him,
If life were a play, I could understand why people feel worried that they will be called to leave early. . . . You wouldn’t want to miss the punch line of the joke, the turn at the end of the sonnet, or the finish line of the race. . . . Life, however, is not a play. Nor is this life a joke, or if it is, it is the kind without a punchline. Life rambles.
Neither we nor some almighty God are going to have the last word. It will be left to some schlubby mortals to make meaning of our mean lives. But that’s okay, she tells us. Hitchens grubbed neither for an afterlife nor an afterword. His writer’s life and his writings on dying simply demanded that we “be present for [life] while it is happening.”
One convention of obituaries is to use the death of the author to mark the death of an intellectual era, sometimes belatedly and, at other times, prematurely. The wildly diverging treatments of French philosopher Jacques Derrida after he died of pancreatic cancer in 2004 showcased the wildly diverging attitudes toward his theories of deconstruction and his academic superstardom. Obituary writers characterized him alternately as “one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century” and an “absurd, vapid and pernicious” thinker. The demand his writing placed on readers was either exonerated (“Derrida’s writing is strange and difficult because it has to be: to test the limits of what can be thought is to test the limits of what can be said”) or ridiculed (as it forces “too much perspiration for too little inspiration”). But all could agree (though not all took satisfaction in the fact) that his passing marked the passing of the age of deconstruction, even though it had actually ended years earlier in France and even in the United States. Similarly, Richard Rorty’s obituary writers characterized his death as the closing of the era when European postmodernism snuck into the academy dressed in American pragmatist clothing even though the neo-pragmatism Rorty pioneered remains a potent force across many disciplines.
For critics on the right, both thinkers became poster boys for various “isms” that had insinuated themselves in course syllabi and caused the moral compasses of college students to go berserk. Yet despite their repeated and unequivocal affirmations of their leftist commitments (for Derrida, his criticism of apartheid, the death penalty, xenophobia, and racism; for Rorty, his identification with a broad “reformist left”), the obituaries observed that they drew ire as much from the left as from the right. Both maintained that the philosophers’ suspicion of foundational truths left them legless, unable to take any firm stand in a “principled political philosophy.” Though appreciative reviewers sought to affirm their contributions to late-twentieth-century philosophical and political discourse, they agreed with the naysayers that the death of the authors marked the turning of a page in our intellectual history.
If obituaries reveal the temptation to mark intellectual movements by the comings and goings of their most prominent contributors, so too do they reveal a tension familiar to intellectual biographers who struggle to identify the moments of ideational gravity and cohesion as they construct the narrative arc of their subject’s life. Where to start the life story? Birthdates, birthplaces, and childhood are usually ticked off perfunctorily, as the first big idea or big book usually gets cast as the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover in the life of the mind. There is the occasional reference to a childhood disease that should have permanently lamed them but miraculously didn’t, as with Jean Bethke Elshtain (d. 2013), who, we learn, overcame polio at a young age. And then the obituaries are occasionally peppered with a little-known fact from a thinker’s early years, good material for a Trivial Pursuit question: “How old was Jacques Barzun (d. 2012) when he started teaching at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris?” (Answer: age nine. With the absence of teachers drafted to serve in the First World War, the “older students” like Barzun were charged with teaching the younger students.)
Endings are even trickier, as the obituary form seems to crave some kind of intellectual consummation on behalf of expectant readers. Does an author’s breakout book set the terms for understanding the course of the rest of her life? Do the influential books by Mary Daly (d. 2010)—The Church and the Second Sex (1968), on the Catholic Church’s systematic oppression of women and Gyn/Ecology (1978), on the history of sexual and cultural violence against women—help explain what led to the 1998 controversy over her refusal to admit men to her feminist ethics course and her eventual ouster from her teaching position at Boston College, a Jesuit school? Will her later exhortations in response to the scandal (“I don’t think about men. I really don’t care about them.”) obscure the nuanced and carefully researched claims in those earlier books? And what to say when a writer such as David Foster Wallace (d. 2008), who made his intellectual mark laying bare the torture of mental illness, takes his own life? Should it be, as one obituary writer put it, that “when a famous artist commits suicide, this suicide is their final statement”? Wallace’s example underscores a problem in drawing meaning from an intellectual’s life. What idea or event takes precedence?
This question clearly vexed those commentators charged with writing the obituary of Edward Said, who died of leukemia in 2003. They seemed in perfect agreement that Said should be remembered as a “literary critic and bold advocate of the Palestinian cause.” Yet they differed in their treatments of the connections between his scholarship and his activism. All noted that Orientalism (1978) established his reputation as an incisive critic of the Eurocentrism and romantic racializing of Asia and the Middle East that served to justify colonialism and imperialism, and that the book helped launch postcolonial studies.
What was contested was how to narrate the intellectual trajectory of Said’s books and articles on cultural imperialism and political dispossession, and his meditations on the figure of the intellectual, while threading it together with his impassioned advocacy of a Palestinian nation. How to write a life, as his obituary writers put it, shot through with notable though generative “contradictions”? Did his liminal status as one who grew up “privileged yet marginal” enable him to cultivate a brilliant “exilic imagination” or simply a “too-highly developed sense of injury and victimhood”? Was there a mutuality or inconsonance between his “moral energy” and his “political judgment”? Was he an “almost apolitical person,” who would have preferred a career focused on “loftier pursuits of music and literature,” or a “scrapper” who was perfectly comfortable “letting loose blasts of over-the-top polemic”?
Add the obit writers’ felt need to re-litigate the charges and denials from the late 1990s over the authenticity of Said’s claims that he and his family were forced from his birthplace in Western Jerusalem in 1947 into exile. Then throw in the highly publicized rock-throwing incident in 2000, in which a widely circulated photograph appeared to show Said at the Lebanese border hurling a stone at an Israeli guardhouse. As if Said could anticipate what writers charting his intellectual development would face, he devoted a book, On Late Style (1999), to the subject of the contradictions and curious evolutions of artists’ later work. No obituary cited this book.
When the attention to intellectual production goes, so too does our ability to understand the equally fraught process of intellectual reception.
The deaths of Sontag, Hitchens, Derrida, and Rorty alert us to the fact that it must be difficult for dying literary thinkers to resist drawing a relationship between their impending death and their intellectual life. Interpretation was second nature to them; they had spent their days as textual phlebotomists, massaging words to get a good antecubital vein to bulge with its lifeblood. And yet there must have been some temptation, despite Sontag’s warning, to take their own “illness as metaphor.”
It is hard to find in the enormous industry of Hitchens’s obituaries, even in the religious press, a suspicion that the “not great” God he spent the last years of his life deriding decided to shake off the rabid atheist nipping at his heels by smiting him with an atrocious form of cancer. Instead, they drew a much simpler conclusion: it likely had something to do with his steady intake of Rothmans (one obituary reports 130 a day) and vats of whiskey and red wine. In Jürgen Habermas’s remembrance of his friend Dick Rorty, he quoted the letter from the American philosopher in which he sprang on him the news of his pancreatic cancer. “Alas,” Rorty wrote Habermas, “I have come down with the same disease that killed Derrida.” Perhaps trying to “attenuate” Habermas’s “shock,” “he added in jest that his daughter felt this kind of cancer must come from ‘reading too much Heidegger.’” Habermas gave no indication of whether he thought Heidegger is a carcinogen. Nor did he indicate whether he thought the joke was funny. We are left wondering what stories dying thinkers tell themselves about themselves as death closes in on them.
Obituaries are sites of remembrance. But they are also testaments of our forgetting. What bedevils too many obituaries of intellectuals is their curious lack of curiosity about the production of ideas. The narratives tend to make the controversies, the resignations and firings, and the public stands the source of their action. Rarely do they provide a view of the intellectual’s labor with the words that were enlisted in those battles. We get very little attention to the “life” part of the “life of the mind.” We’re left with romantic images of the sui generis genius rather than a portrayal of the worker involved in the craft of writing.
We get precious little view of the rituals that structure the author’s reading and writing. There is no attention to the inventive systems devised for using stacks of books as furniture in tiny, overcrowded flats. No attention to her nights reading curled on the floor of the bathroom so the light from her bedroom desk wouldn’t wake the baby. There is no word about her failed efforts to separate jammed typewriter keys with a kitchen knife or to thin Wite-Out with nail polish remover. There is no mention of the 2 a.m. trips to the gas station mini-mart to buy the only overpriced, dust-covered ream of paper one can get at that ungodly hour, in order to make a deadline at the crack of dawn. And there is no discussion of the exchange of drafts with colleagues, friends, and editors, nor the wrangling and gnashing of teeth when the author is nudged to modify a claim or cut down on the adverbs. When the attention to intellectual production goes, so too does our ability to understand the equally fraught process of intellectual reception. And what goes missing is the story of intellectual labor as labor and how that labor has been a force in history.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that obituaries seldom emphasize the power of ideas, as many of the authors discredit their own intellectual work. In the New York Times obituary for “African Literary Titan” Chinua Achebe (d. 2013), we learn that after his monumental Things Fall Apart (1958), he produced several more novels before succumbing to a paralyzing twenty-year-long case of “writer’s block.” He attributed his painful, protracted dry spell to the lingering “emotional drama” of Nigeria’s civil war and his disturbing belief that novel-writing in a world so horribly out of kilter was a “frivolous thing to do.”
Thankfully, there are the obituaries for Adrienne Rich (d. 2012), which remind us of her conviction that our labor with words, whether poetry or prose, embodies “the will to change.” As Rich put it (and many of her obituary writers repeated it): “Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live.” One obituary noted that “for Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front.” She had no illusions that “verse alone could change entrenched social institutions.” But it is not merely therapeutic or decorative: “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy,” Rich insisted. Rather, it is “a keen-edged beacon” by which “consciousness . . . [can] be illuminated.” Rich and her obituaries make clear that intellectual work can and should be a political act.
There is a convention among academics when they are frustrated with doctoral students who are not stretching their thinking to grasp the broader implications of their work. We tell them to “imagine your ideal book reviews” and to write that book. What is it we want reviewers to say about our books when they finally leave our guarded protection and make their way into the world? Write that book, we say.
The obituaries, whether noisy screeds or touching love letters to the departed, make an even bigger claim on our imagination. When all our books are done, all our essays and articles and reviews are in print or posted to a blog, and all our unfinished manuscripts on a hard drive remain unfinished manuscripts on a hard drive, what worlds will be made from our words? We might try asking this question every time we are confronted with the obituary of a thinker with whom we kept company. What will be written over our dead bodies? Perhaps we should try writing that life.
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen teaches U.S. intellectual and cultural history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (University of Chicago, 2012).