I learned in the news 3 weeks ago that a great Harvard philosopher had died. He was in his ‘90s and had lived a full life. A very full life! He was a man of many talents — a Hollywood studio musician and a music composition student at Julliard. He was a film and literary critic as well as a philosophy professor. He was the first in academic philosophy in my lifetime to write about Thoreau and Shakespeare and Emerson: a man after my heart, a beacon for the decades of my philosophy career.
I always lamented that as the son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant he felt he had to change his name to the non-Jewish Stanley Cavell. Was that a death of part of him? If so, he was also grandly reborn.
His death was a loss yet much more, it was, for me, an occasion for gratitude – for giving thanks that he had lived, had illuminated my life and the lives of so many others.
I shared news of his death with a friend in the neighborhood who also knew Cavell’s work. On a Saturday we reminisced over his impact and passing. I was headed for the door when my neighbor mentioned, off-handedly, that his wife was in Vermont with her nephew, Tyler Roberts. I startled. This was Tyler the religion teacher and writer I knew from Grinnell. My neighbor had no idea I knew him. I had no idea Tyler had an aunt now my neighbor. We hadn’t been in contact for a decade. I was overjoyed he had come into view.
This rediscovery of a forgotten friend, his rebirth, came with our memorializing Stanley Cavell. It was renewal amidst loss. Tyler and I had been close, then lost to each other. The death of a common ancestor brought us alive to each other.
Of course, renewal amidst loss is the central motif of the Christian drama — as central as death and resurrection.
Two of my heroes, Thoreau and Emerson, tell us that hope (or faith) is the infinite expectation of dawn – that morning light is a resurrection of the world from the dark; it’s also the resurrection of our friends and neighbors from the neglect of disattention.
Emerson puts it this way:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature [or God], but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
Gratitude can take the form of memorial words and memorial deeds. Six months after his sudden death, I lit a candle for another friend at a church here in Portland.
Thoreau reburies his brother, dispensing with any coffin, making death the occasion of a gift to earth. Freed from any coffin or tomb or sarcophagus, released into a graveyard swamp, his brother sanctifies and replenishes creation. The reburial adds hope for the infinite expectation of dawn.