May 8th, 2005

Remembering Julian Boyd: What I Read At His Memorial Service, 5-7-05

Many of you knew Julian a lot longer than I did. But there is one area where my knowledge likely exceeds your own, so I will focus my attention there. Because I took courses with him as an undergrad and graduate student, then served as his reader and T.A. – eight courses in all, if you can believe that – I became an authority on taking notes in his classroom. Back in the summer of 1990, when I was taking his "Literature and Philosophy" course as a junior, I struggled mightily to preserve a record of his meandering brilliance. He made me laugh out loud from the first minutes onward. But he also made me mad. Why couldn't he get to the point? Every few minutes I'd feel like I was on the verge of understanding where he was headed, only to suddenly find myself on an entirely different course. I drew arrows all over each page, trying to compensate for my failure to keep my notes in order.

And then one day everything changed. Julian was discussing Ernest Hemingway's "The Big Two-Hearted River." I'd read the story with interest, sure that something deep was going on underneath the surface, but unable to see it clearly. We were talking about the passage where Nick Adams prepares dinner at his campsite. "Nick likes to open cans," Julian repeated over and over, getting more animated each time, exaggerating the Cs and Ks to the point of absurdity. "That's the whole point of the story," he continued, "why Nick likes to open cans." The next five minutes of class time were among the richest of my intellectual life. Later, after I'd attended several of Julian's courses, I came to recognize that his take on can-opening was one of his best teacherly set pieces. Back in July, 1990, though, it was all new to me. As Julian proceeded to explain the significance of the Greek word telos and its cognates, he opened me up to a whole new way of looking at the world. And he also showed me why I was having such difficulty taking notes in his class.

"Opening a can, your starting point becomes, once you've begun, your telos," he concluded. I don't know whether he was being intentionally self-reflexive in that moment, but it became clear to me, as the course went on, that all of our work in the course was, in a sense, about "opening cans," whether we were thinking about them in relation to "shoulds" and "musts," or discussing the philosophy of action, or distinguishing between tense and aspect. My sense, at the beginning of the course, that we weren't ever reaching our goal gave way to the realization that we were always passing it by as we made another circuit through these interrelated topics. Or, to be more precise, that the goal was simply to circle, with all that motion implies. The point, in short, was that there was no point out there in the distance for us to reach because every point we covered could serve equally well as the point depending on the circumstance. It all depended on where you stood.

In later years, when I served as Julian's reader and T.A., I spent many hours putting this apocalyptic insight to good use. I invariably found myself talking to students who were as baffled as I had initially been in the summer of 1990. Frequently, the harder working the student, the more frustrated they were by Julian's apparent refusal to get to the point. "Look," I'd tell them, "This is not a class where you copy down the professor's outline from transparencies on the overhead projector. Copying is not thinking. In this class we think." It wasn't easy to persuade them to adopt this point of view. They were too well-ruled to abandon the comforts of the linear. But something in Julian's manner told them, just as it had told me, to be patient. The obvious delight with which he would leap across years of learning in a flash of chalk, the energy radiating from his restless body, and the care he took to make everyone in the class feel like experts made room for revelations that would only come later. Looking back on my notes from that first course back in 1990, I'm struck by how many of the names I wrote down then were unknown to me at the time. I knew very little about Heidegger. Wittgenstein was merely a name I'd seen at the bookstore. And I didn't have a clue who Carnap, Quine, Austin or Searle were. Because Julian mentioned these and other names casually, though, as if everyone in the room would be familiar with them, and told stories that revealed their bearers' humanity, I was more inspired than intimidated. I wasn't ready to read their books yet, but the mere fact that I wanted to was a testament to Julian's special gift for clearing a space for future revelation.

I realize the irony in making this claim of someone who spent a good deal of time explaining that the future doesn't exist. It's an irony, however, that Julian would appreciate. By circling back over the same places in his teaching, accreting details with each pass, he showed better than anyone else I've known that the future is always in our past. During his darker moments, Julian often bemoaned the fact that he wasn't able to satisfy those students who were clamoring for a linear presentation of the material. "I tried, but I just can't do it anymore," he complained. What I eventually came to realize, though, was that his "can't" was really standing in for "won't." He could have made things more linear. But he was no longer willing to do so. And it's the moral force of that resistance that I remember most vividly. "I used to be a real asshole," he would say, sometimes with regret, sometimes with glee, and frequently with a peculiar combination of the two. Clearly, he identified the "asshole" stage in his life with a kind of thinking he had spent his latter years trying to restrain: focused, incisive, to-the-point. Julian could still be all those things when necessary. Yet he had learned the hard way that the only progress that matters takes you back to where you began.

It always surprised his undergraduates to learn that their professor was sitting in on other professors' classes. "Why would he do that?" they would ask me in office hours or section. That was one question I had no trouble answering. Julian knew the value of starting over, not in order to get somewhere new, but in order to learn more about the places he had been before. It takes courage to be that open to the past. It takes even more to find the future within it. Julian did both, brightening thousands of live in the process. If we can follow him on that journey, we will show him the honor he so richly deserves.