Mourning In Academia

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Death -- especially the death of a writer, artist, or academic -- promises an intimacy we never knew in life, a chance for others to leaf through our file cabinets and journals.
Ron Alcalay

Issue #25, March 1996


I wish I were dead. Almost daily, at random moments, I'll imagine my sudden departure and think of family members and friends lingering over the artifacts of my life. Death — especially the death of a writer, artist, or academic — promises an intimacy we never knew in life, a chance for others to leaf through our file cabinets and journals, to discover in the meticulous mess, secrets, intimacies, the humdrum and the idiosyncratic. Two recent deaths in U.C. Berkeley's English department have me feeling more morbid than usual, but I take the opportunity to meditate upon this truly bad subject, not as an elegy for my former professors, but as a sort of communion with them, a final toast to their inscrutability.

Jim Breslin and Bill Nestrick, both professors of English, shared something else: both were hard to get to know. Granted, I speak as a Ph.D. student, whose only contact with them was through classes (Breslin, my 200 advisor; Nestrick-Shakespeare and film); but the difficulty of getting to know these two, beyond being representative of the general institutional estrangement between professors and graduate students, also reflected aspects of their campus personalities.

I say campus personalities because because the university, for all its pretensions of an academic community, functions more as a home for individual projects; and popular professors quickly learn to prioritize their free time, often devoting this time to family and close friends. These ties affirm us, obviating the desire to die in order to be discovered, a fantastic desire born of loneliness, I suspect. Meanwhile, graduate students, seeking affirmations of their own lives and work, learn to separate these two spheres, developing their own guarded, "professional" campus personalities.

As a first year Ph.D. student in 1988, amused as I was with Professor Breslin's wry classroom humor, his presence often struck me as spectral. He seemed bitter about something-a departmental matter, I surmised-and it wasn't until he read from his biography of Mark Rothko at Alumni House that I saw him beam, recognized at last. Reviewers, the public, and fellow critics praised Breslin for his biography, but what struck me was the degree to which he unapologetically imbued the life of another with his own story, his own personal concerns and obsessions, drawing meaning from the experience of researching Rothko's life. In that intimate communion with the dead one, he found a life worth retelling.

But how many of us receive such loving treatment? The most we may expect-a few posthumous words-reduces the life we lived, though these words may console the living. So I don't pretend to know Jim Breslin, because I never did the research, while he lived or after he died. We discuss Toril Moi in the classroom and he jokes about her last name; we pass each other in hallways, smiling almost-collegial greetings; I break down in his office, distraught over a messy dissertation idea and the general lack of guidance; he signs off a friend's Ph.D. papers in his new Art Department office, smiles, and I never see him again. At a memorial service, some speak of his scholarship, others of his commitment to the cause of art; a few friends choke back the emotion of loss. I begin to feel that few knew him well, even some of those who shared Wheeler Hall with him for so many years. It makes me sad, and I wonder: is this just the nature of life-the interminably private self-or is this reaching for the man part of the problem with academia, the problem of disembodied critics writing authoritatively from behind veils of impersonal language, rarely revealing themselves.

At an M.L.A. panel a couple of years ago, Mr. Breslin spoke on the role of autobiography in criticism. He was for it, not uncritically, but with a conviction that the way would lead to something better; and in fact, the dialogue that followed the panel proved the most lively of any I witnessed. In a moving essay marking the completion of his Rothko project, Mr. Breslin blended criticism and autobiography, practicing in writing a fluidity between worlds he appeared to manage more easily in the department of art. Perhaps Professor Breslin had grown tired of the air in Wheeler Hall, where so many thought they knew him-a Modernist. He expanded that label: art historian, Rothko scholar, advocate for art on campus; and as a result of his work, many new friends entered his life.

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The ones who knew him best (and probably also gave him the most joy) didn't need to read his old notes or go through the archives of his life to develop their intimacy. They didn't have to, but they probably did anyway.

I imagine that task will prove more difficult in Bill Nestrick's case. The one time I visited his home, to celebrate the end of a graduate film seminar on the thirties and forties, the place looked like he had twelve projects going at once, in each room. But the Japanese dinner looked and tasted exquisite. Mr. Nestrick was a grand entertainer, and by far his most famous gift, his wit, stupefied me repeatedly. I once came across an essay that defined the difference between humor and wit. Humor it argued, was based more in narrative. Wit displayed itself circumstantially, in the remark. I knew at that moment that for me, Professor Nestrick was the King of Wit. I told him so one day in the hallway. His reply I cannot remember — witty though it was; but I remember that it left me speechless once again, a result no doubt of a singular lack of wit.

The last time I saw Professor Nestrick proves how little I knew him. Sitting near the last row of the Maude Fife room, listening to a historical novelist named Flanagan, I surveyed the grey heads of professors before me. There, ten rows up, off to the left, sat Bill Nestrick, head up, listening, a slight smile on his face. It was then I noticed: his hair. Of all the male professors, he had the longest hair. And he was bald! But below the gleaming hemisphere, long white strands flowed back, like reminders of some crazy youthful days; and I stared, wondering, "What was he like as a graduate student?" And answers formed in my mind, oblivious to the reading. Without research or knowledge, I concluded: delightful, decadent, blond. I mused for a few moments, drifted off, awoke, and snuck out.

Now I think of how they found the man. Living alone, no one else at home that I know of, and dying-how? Police snooping around after a call he missed class, break in and find the body. Where? I don't know. Why so morbid? Or rather, why are we so afraid to talk of a body, especially the body of an avowed sensualist?

But who will go through Bill's old stacks and what treasures will they find there-ideas for articles in the margins, an abandoned manuscript for a play, my old final exam? And who will empty Professor Nestrick's closets? (Some may say Bill kept very little hiding in the closet!) Nevertheless, these private matters belong to the Estate, and executors will exercise their rights. Many will speak about Professor Nestrick, and some will claim to have known him well. I do not make that claim.

Despite the glut, English professors are indeed a rare breed, and by and large reclusive. These recent deaths have me thinking about how we mourn in academia. I don't relish posthumous exhumations (unless it happens to be my own), but that's what literary critics do best. Pity we rarely celebrate the whole humanity of the living. As for me, while I live, this journal remains an open book.

Ron Alcalay teaches film history at UC Berkeley, where he is trying to write his surreptitiously autobiographical dissertation, "Adamant Immaturity," about US narratives in the 1950s. Reach him at ronal@uclink.berkeley.edu.

Copyright © 1996 by Ron Alcalay. All rights reserved.

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