Seth’s death is a very great loss.
Our world has become a poorer and a darker place; he kept inquiring of it in ways that helped guide us to occasional clearings; with him gone, we’ll find it harder to thread our way.
We met in 1949, my first year at Chicago. I don’t recall a particular occasion of our meeting; it must have been in a class of Strauss’s; I do vividly recall the long discussions a number of us regularly carried on after those classes. We sensed from the very first how special our encounter with Strauss was, even if we did not realize from the first how deeply it would mark us for life.
Seth always stood somewhat apart. He cut a distinctive figure: tall, rather gaunt, head cocked somewhat quizzically even when he just stood or strode across campus, and I seem to recall him always clad in dark grey or black. Even as a very young man he projected confidence, authority, aloofness. Not that he was dour. He was animated; he always laughed freely, often, and with evident pleasure. Sometimes he’d guffaw, shake his head and throw up his hands to convey his utter disbelief that anyone would say or do whatever they may happen to have done or said.
After Chicago, our paths crossed only occasionally: we saw a certain amount of each other in the mid-sixties, when he and Jane lived in Cambridge. He was now at Brandeis, and we were at Wellesley. We read Sein und Zeit together at that time. Being and time are again — or still — the dominant concerns of his last reflections and writings. In the course of the next few decades we saw each other only occasionally, but in recent years, after we moved to New York, he and I would meet and talk two or three times a year.
We had never been really close in any of the ordinary senses of that expression. But in recent years he was, in a decisive sense, the one of my contemporaries to whom I felt closest: he was the only one with whom I sometimes talked about the most important issues openly, freely and, at least to me, helpfully.
He was voraciously curious. In his Cambridge days he was full of natural history lore, about camels and fish, and ants and spiders. He read everything, from modern cosmology to the latest Goethe biography and Harold Nicholson’s memoirs. And always he kept his store of gossip and anecdotes well stocked. But first and foremost he was, of course, extremely learned. He was not simply learned. The gods and heroes and men, the texts and the arguments about which he kept thinking and writing, were his companions. He and they inhabited one world. He did not so much think and write about them, as he allowed us to listen in on his thinking and talking with them.
He was fully aware of how deeply alive the tradition was in him. Not long ago I was recalling how David Grene, when asked why he farmed with beasts instead of with tractors, had answered that he wanted to stay in touch with how men had lived since time immemorial; which prompted Seth to say how fortunate we’d been in our teachers, not only because they were men of such vast learning and humanity, but because their culture reached deep into the nineteenth century, and so provided us with direct connectedness to tradition. I said that he must have got something of this in his family, and he said “Yes, back to the fifteenth century.”
Seth was from the very first known as occasionally obscure, even oracular. Sometimes he was defiantly so. At times he spoke, and often he wrote in enthymemes. He clearly strove for economy and elegance, an aphoristic, even haiku-like conciseness. I’d not be surprised if he wrote poetry. But for the most part his conversation and his writing were clear, and often they were wonderfully perspicuous. The issues and the texts which he studied are many-layered. In his writing about them, he tried to do justice to their density by imitating it at the same time as he analyzes it. As I have said, he conveys his involvement in the argument and the action which he happens to be considering by giving them voice and having them speak in the medium of his exposition. And clearly, he greatly enjoyed the play of his mind as he traced the complexities, the ambiguities, even the contradictions in a given text or phenomenon.
More than anyone I have known, he explored the bounds of the ordinary and familiar in quest of what lies — or lurks — beyond it. And insofar as the familiar is the political, he kept probing for what might lie or lurk beyond the city’s parapets and the poets’ puppets. I recall his saying upon his return from Greece that the crossroads where Oedipus killed Laius really was uncanny, ominous. From first to last he explored the uncanny: the heroic, the brutish, the sacred; and whatever patches of intelligibility might lie beyond them. He sought to see what human things might look like from the perspective of the demiurge or of the gods; from the perspective which Job ultimately adopts. Recently I had the impression that he was thinking about Genesis and perhaps planning to write about it.
He aimed high, and he reached high. Sometimes he judged people from on high, as if from a very great distance.
He was perhaps less driven than any of the rest of us by moral concerns.
I recall his saying, some time ago, that Blanckenhagen bore his hunchback like folded wings. It may be the most beautiful thing I ever heard said. It is also good and true. Wings inevitably put us in mind of soul and of eros, which Seth exhibited so richly, and about which he thought and wrote so searchingly.
He lives in our memories and in the impressive body of work he leaves behind.
Thank you and, as you used to say, “Fare well,” heu prattein.
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