Archive for March, 2011

March 8th, 2011

For Lester

I’m not much for euphemisms about death. People don’t pass (either on or away); they die. I think the man I’m about to eulogize would have agreed with me.

Not that Lester Mazor (1936-2011) was above a good euphemism when it suited his purposes. Lester was, among other things, a master of subtle language–of making direct statements that also embraced a particularly enigmatic psychic space that made it hard to tell what he really thought. As a person, his views on humanitarianism, justice, equality, and power were all crystal clear. (He was for the first three of those, and generally skeptical of the latter.) As a teacher–and he was a master teacher–he managed to cloak his own views in ways that forced his students to think, to confront their own (mis)perceptions and prejudices, and to dig a little deeper.

I first met Lester when a friend convinced me to go to a “Law Lunch” that Lester and some of his students had organized in one of the Master’s Houses on the Hampshire College campus; the speaker was someone from Eastern (then Soviet) Europe. “Law Lunch” was definitely a euphemism. There was lunch, that was literally true. But “law” was part of it only insofar as a discussion of what it was like to live under totalitarian rule is actually about “the law.” As a professor of law and legal philosophy, with an interest in Eastern European culture, politics, and history, Lester knew what he was doing. He made the the system at Hampshire work for him, and he used it to attract and build out programs and student participants across the spectrum of his and their mutual interests.

For me, that event was a hook from which I couldn’t wriggle off. Through one vehicle or another, he introduced me to people who remain friends to this day, all while pushing–sometimes gently, sometimes less so–towards the intellectual and academic areas needed to help us grow. When a friend and I expressed an interest in Kafka–an outgrowth of a reading for some other class with him–he encouraged us to teach our own class on it, and taught us how to learn even more in the process. When the study of Dead White European Males seemed in danger of being overthrown completely, Lester helped some of us organize the “DWEM Sem.” Then by co-teaching it with us, he stirred in all the radicalism needed to keep the conversation lively and the academics sharp and relevant.

This was all during an era of turmoil, the last great moment of revolution before the one we’re in now, from the reunification of his beloved Berlin, to the liberation of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, the first Iraq war, and the election of the first Baby Boomer president. Through all of that, Lester remained a stabilizing force, that rare kind of person with whom you can study history as it’s being made. And now, as then, it makes me mindful–amidst the exhilaration of freedom–of the ways in which justice can be brushed aside. Lester was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t in it for the fervor.

There’s something euphemistic about the term “memorial service,” too; I’m not sure what Lester would have thought of that one. Calm and sometimes paternal, I had seen him cry and I knew his larger-than-life exterior was a container for a larger-then-life heart. Still, I think he would have readily signed on to the idea that we do these things–memorials, public eulogies, remembrances of those just … passed–for ourselves more than for the dead. And if I’d ever said I’d write such a thing about him when he was gone, no doubt he’d have shrugged his shoulders and given me one of his little “hmm-mmms” that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside, and then suggest that I check both Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Norman O. Brown‘s “Life Against Death.”

I have mine right here, Lester, and Brown quotes Jespersen quite clearly: “Men sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts.” Consider this my song.