Monday, February 14, 2011

Remembrance and Resting: For Alan Segal

This morning as I read Jim Davila’s blog, my heart sank. I saw that my advisor, friend, and colleague had passed away yesterday. I felt the wind being knocked out of me. Reading April DeConick’s moving blog post later, I felt appreciation and grief over the brilliant fragility of a life who was known to most of us as an important scholar, but who was also known as a father, husband, son, and friend.

April’s posting took me back to his last published book, Life after Death. She quotes the last full paragraph, but it was the penultimate paragraph that caught my eye:

Besides being intellectual adventurers, our ascending souls serving as symbols of our lives’ journey, we are all also martyrs as mortality eventually defeats us. Shakespeare tells us what our religious imagery tells us: the victories of our life outlives its difficulties. The effort to transcend ourselves is all. “The rest is silence.”

That his final published book was on Life after Death takes on an appropriateness that only retrospect could know. Alan’s latest book was about how the afterlife is a topography of society’s hopes, dreams, desires, as well as our fears. Often tales of ascents to heaven is a glimpse into that afterlife that has a social function to validate one’s beliefs in the afterlife.

Heaven is the mirror of our souls and our souls are the creators of the landscapes of heaven…. Humans have been traveling to heaven to see what was there before heaven was a place where the beatified and sanctified dead went. But that is no guarantee that they are true. (LAD 711)

In terms of the hereafter, Alan would say that we need a healthy dose of doubt, that faith without doubt is fanaticism. But he would also say that the very fact they are unverifiable and vibrant indicates their importance.

…the very speculation that an afterlife exists seems like a human need and an ideal—again, like love, beauty, or justice—that exists in our minds rather than in the world and gives meaning to our lives. Like beauty and justice, life after death is no les important for being unverifiable. (LAD 713)

“The rest is silence.” This is a phrase that has haunted me before. They are Hamlet’s final words. Much hinges on what we mean by “rest.” Rest as that which remains, or rest as repose, a silent repose—a repose of peace. I have heard that Alan died peacefully; I truly hope his rest was silence. Alan placed the importance on the effort to transcend ourselves. While this transcendence of self is often taken to be a continued personal existence after death—the unverifiable—it also occurs through memory. While Alan has now entered his Sabbath rest, the rest of us remember, and through that remembrance he continues.

Driving to the university today, my memory fragmented and the fragments raced and collided in a chaotic chorus, moving from memory to memory without any clear direction: the way he signed my copy of his life after death book, comments he has given about my work, the first words he ever said to me, advice about life, his exuberant love of tea, his equal love of electronics.

All these memories, superimposed upon one another, now formed a single mass, but had not so far coalesced that I could not discern between them--between my oldest, my instinctive memories, and those others, inspired more recently by a taste or "perfume," and finally those which were actually the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them at second hand--if not real fissures, real geological faults, at least that veining, that variegation of colouring, which in certain rocks, in certain blocks of marble, points to differences of origin, age, and formation. (Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

My mind raced between personal anecdote to parties at conferences to visiting him this past fall in his home to his work and contributions. Today I have been telling stories to my colleagues and students—things you cannot get from his books.

There are too many things to talk about and think on. I met Alan in the fall of 2002. I was in my final year of undergrad at Illinois Wesleyan University and was visiting Columbia University because I was applying to be his student. I was his student from the following September to this past August. Seven years. Sevens years obsessed with Sabbaths. When I defended a dissertation on the relationship between the Sabbath and the Sanctuary in Jewish and Christian literature this past August, I became the last student he saw through to completion. As Alan’s health deteriorated in the past year and months, I had prepared myself for this possibility. Finality carries with it a responsibility of continued remembrance.

Today I threw out my class notes and just talked about Alan’s contributions and thoughts and insights to my classes. I told my Bible class about why Ehud was Alan’s favorite Judge (hint: because both Ehud and Alan were left-handed; also because Alan found the story hilarious. He also found the Adam and Eve story to be very funny). I told my mysticism class about his thoughts on the relationship between ecstatic experiences and beliefs about the afterlife.

I read. My students heard Alan’s words through my lips. We read the passages quoted above. We read about Alan’s views of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as twins born of the same mother:

The social order for Judaism and Christianity had both a divine and a human context. In both Judaism and Christianity, the Torah, the national constitution of Judea, was the basis of historical being. Both attempted to preserve it after the collapse of national unity. The fact that they chose such different ways reflected their different social origins in the Judean state and presaged their later roles in history. Their different histories do not alter the fact of their birth as twins in the last years of Judean statehood. They are both truly Rebecca’s children, but unlike Jacob and Esau, they have no need to dispute their birthright. It can belong to both of them together. (Rebecca's Children 181)

One of the things I most appreciated about Alan’s work and that I have tried to emulate is his disregard of scholarly and traditional boundaries. Whether between Jews and Christians and other groups in antiquity, heaven and earth, this life and the next, Alan’s work from his dissertation to his most recent research consistently sought out interrelationships between groups often through the socially, religiously, and psychologically fraught process of crossing over from one group to another through conversion, ascents to heaven, and that ultimate crossing into the afterlife. As academic mystagogue, he assisted me in that most mysterious liminal process of crossing from graduate student to professional scholar.

He expresses such crossings well in his final paragraph of Paul the Convert, whether between two different religious groups (Pharisaic Judaism to Christian Judaism), psychological transformation (in both ancient and modern senses), and the relationship between us as readers and the ancient lives we encounter:

Paul’s Christian career began with his ecstatic experience of the Lord. It was his vision that convinced him of the need for the transformation of all believers. He sought to realize that vision in his career as an apostle, understanding the meaning of being in Christ as his life unfolded. Though he used his intellectual gifts and his education as an orator and Pharisee, he did not have the confidence in reason that systematic theologians have attributed to him. He began his career because of an experience, a conversion. His mystical vision of metamorphosis left much unexplained. He began as a Pharisee and became a convert from Pharisaism. He spent the rest of his life trying to express what he converted to. He never gave it a single name. Whatever it was, he never felt that he had left Judaism. Like the early rabbis, Paul understood that God’s ways are mysterious, hence human understandings must always leave room for ambiguities. Paul and the rabbis understood as well as anyone before or after that the truths inherent in the biblical text are manifold, complex, and sometimes opposing. Scripture is a gem that gives off a different glint each time it is turned in the light of analysis. It is time for us to realize this. Perhaps no single point of view can do scripture justice. (283-4)

Alan was quite a polymath, bringing sociology, history, psychology, and literature to bear upon the questions he had about Jews and Christians in antiquity—such as in his Paul book. Although his writing could at times have a Proustian quality that refused to be succinct, he often wrote moving and beautiful prose. While many scholars have boring, unnecessary, and vacuous conclusions, his conclusions tended to expand one’s vista of thought and, in a line, nurture one’s reading emotionally and intellectually.

It was with deep grief that I read to my students Alan’s words about the afterlife at the time that he was himself passing into “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / no traveller returns.” Hamlet was right: it “puzzles the will.”

In my copy of Alan’s monumental book, Life after Death, he wrote while I was still in coursework: “If being a graduate student is like being in hell, then it’s good to remember there’s a heaven out there.” Doubt and hope do not have to be mutually exclusive; they can be symbiotic. While rationally we may doubt the afterlife and emotionally hope for it in some sort, we can know that Alan persists through his written works, through our memories, and through his family. Right now the grief is fresh. In time it will begin to fade only to flare up again from time to time. Now and then we will continue to share anecdotes, privately and publicly, as the neurons fire in our brains to bring them to light, taking new shape in our memories.

The rest is silence.


Ken Schenck said...

Beautiful memories. Thank you for sharing. I can only imagine the stories you have to tell...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks for bringing "meat" to the table of memory. I'm sorry for your loss, but am reminded that he lives on in your life. And such a beautiful impact and memory he has left. Thanks for sharing!