He Came To Our Parties
Issue #25, March 1996
The English Department at UC Berkeley has been struck in the past few months by two unfortunate losses, with the deaths of James E.B. Breslin and William Nestrick. Jim Breslin was my first professor in graduate school, and I have counted myself lucky ever since for being the recipient of his tutelage in that formative first semester. He gave us budding scholars the confidence to think for ourselves and the tools to challenge the limits of our knowledge. His influence will be forever felt in his students, and in the students that we ourselves come across in our teaching careers.
Bill Nestrick's departure is particularly hard for us at Bad Subjects, and I would like to say a few insufficient and belated words about Bill in these pages. You see, Bill Nestrick came to our parties.
Bad Subjects was conceived in the Berkeley English department, and while we have watched with pleasure as our project extends itself across the globe, that English department still enjoys a special, if at times prickly, place in the hearts and minds of many of us on the Bad Production Team. From the start, Bad Subjects represented an attempt to move beyond the boundaries of an English department, to produce critical writing that was accessible and useful in ways other than those generally considered standard in academia. We still have a long way to go in achieving our goals; that we have been at all successful, we owe not only to the hard work of the Bad Collective and all the writers who have contributed to the pages of Bad Subjects, but also to those who provided moral support, not only through welcomed and overt encouragement but also through the examples they set with their lives. Bill Nestrick was certainly a member of that latter category.
Bill was different; that was obvious to anyone who met him. He was also successful in a variety of arenas, which made him a role model to those of us who also felt ourselves different from our colleagues. In the English department, he was an expert on the classics. He was also an esteemed professor in the Berkeley film department, where his playful side was perhaps more appreciated. And he had recently taken over the position of chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, where his mind-boggling knowledge of several languages could find a congenial home. In all of this, he was always, proudly, Bill Nestrick.
I was, myself, the happy recipient of his largesse on many occasions. From my graduation ceremonies as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where all of us with "special" majors in various interdisciplinary and independent studies were greeted by Professor Nestrick, an exemplar of the interdisciplinary and independent scholar (the highlight of that ceremony was the montage of film clips featuring graduation scenes from movie history, put together with a loving twinkle by the Professor); to the time Bill snuck me into a small seminar with Gregory Peck, because he thought he owed me a favor for some imagined dis from the past; to the film seminar I took with him in grad school, where we watched awful Grade-Z safari movies from the 30s because they were enlighteningly reflective of the American culture of that time (and then he had the entire class to his home for a banquet he prepared himself, and his astonishing house was as full of delightful clutter as his remarkable academic career, while the meal was as brilliant as that same career); in all of these and countless other occasions, I was lucky to work with a man who had the unfortunately rare ability to relate to students as human beings.
And, as I mentioned, he came to our parties. Our parties are not extravagant affairs. Mostly they offer a chance for the Bad team, friends, and contributors to get together as we release a new issue, to eat chocolate and gossip indulgently. These parties are held in the English department lounge, and it is perhaps a sign of the less-comfortable side of our relationship to that department that our parties are rarely honored with the presence of department bigshots. But Bill Nestrick came to our parties. To be fair, his appearances were sometimes inspired by something other than clear support for Bad Subjects. The first time he showed up at one of our parties, I spent a long time talking with him about this and that while he enjoyed the wine and picked at the food; as he left, he asked me, "By the way, what is this party for?", explaining that he had come in because he saw food and drink, not because he saw Bad Subjects. But he came back to other parties, and his presence was always appreciated not only for the wit of his banter but, in an odd way, for his presence in itself, as if he was offering his support through the simple act of attaching his presence to our own, in public. Others have offered support that is more concrete than this, support which is always much appreciated. But Bill Nestrick's support was very important, in its idiosyncratic way, just as his work as a teacher and colleague was very important, in its idiosyncratic way, to all of us who worked with him.
Others will have their own memories, and will honor Bill Nestrick in all the many ways he deserves. For me, though, it feels like an appropriate epitaph to say again, "He came to our parties." Thanks, Bill.
Steven Rubio can be reached at email@example.com. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC-Berkeley.