In Democratic Individuality, I argued that at a high level of abstraction, modern conservatives, liberals and radicals believe that the best economic, social and political institutions foster each person’s individuality. Their differences are largely empirical or social theoretical. All clash with modern authoritarians. I will take up practical issues such as torture and the lineage of the neocons and link them to larger issues in how we conceive a decent regime, locally and internationally.
Hilary wrote to me (and talked to me much of this) – and over many years, when I began putting up poems on my blog, would often write to me a short note about each one – something that meant a lot. He spoke to me of poemsof Louis MacNeice and many others that he especially liked, sent me the news when Houghton Library put up the original manuscripts of Emily Dickinson poems (see Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson).When I was in Dharamsala this winter, I heard Tenzin Tsundue speak about the meaning to him of poetry. It saved his life against exile and torture and re-arrest even in India, and many friends and relatives being worried about or angry with him.I wrote a poem about it, which Hillary sent me a note about:
I love this poem.
Age and health related problems (mine and Ruth Anna’s) absorb all
my time lately, but a poem like this transcends them.
Hilary himself was a bit like the Brahmaputra, coming swiftly down from Tibet, being, creating life, watering our wider Asia.
This poem is now, also, for him.
Steve Wagner a wonderful friend of Hilary’s and mine, sent me news of Hilary’s death while I was in Chile.That same evening, he came across and then sent me a facebook page of Robert Reich’s about how an older boy, Michael Schwerner, had saved him from bullies in school.Andy Goodman, my friend from Walden School, went with SNCC and Freedom Summer to Mississippi.Mickey Schwerner was down there, James Cheney from there (he left his brother Ben with a promise to come back and play with him and went off that day…); it was Andy’s first day in Mississippi.They went to visit a burned out church where the minister had urged people to register to vote. Their car had a flat tire. They were abducted by the Sheriff and given, at midnight, to the Klan…
Hilary once wrote me of the pride that he and Ruth Anna felt, and that I should to, at the lives of fighting racism we had led.It was how I met Hilary.It was how I stood with Hilary against the wordy racism of Herrnstein and Murray (even bigger bullies, more blood on their hands…).It was how he (and we) stood against certain powerful prejudices about the Vietnam War at Harvard and in the Philosophical Association and in the elite.Somehow, the coincidence was very striking to Steve and he sent me a poem of Wallace Stevens’s.In “The Palm Tree at the End of the Universe,” Stevens imagines a mechanical bird – whose song, imitating the song of birds, has no reason to it, and yet we hear the beautiful music. For there is a connection of my friendship with Andy now long ago, and my long and dear friendship with Hilary, a moral and political (as he wrote so eloquently) and philosophical thing, of many fibers, but one also about poetry.Stevens often had marvelously sounding last lines:
its fire-fangled feathers
The sorrow that Hillary is gone, a dark hole in the universe for so many of us or the vanishing of a beautiful water-drop (Basho, also summoned by Steve) is intense.The warmth and kindness of his friendship and his being human and somehow fire-fangled – Hilary’s amazing singing and brilliance and compassion for all – will be with me, and I hope with all of us, its soul-echoes spreading out to infinity, in the great move into the future.
What are poems for?
For Tenzin Tsundue and Hilary Putnam
A serious man
lost along a roadway
raised away from parents
lost yourself in demonstrations
far from home
walked over the mountains
5 days into China
tortured and beaten three months
to lead resistance
Why have you come
Who do you know
Who sent you
all the way to Lhasa in a cell
I studied English at Mumbai
in another tongue
interrogators do not believe
words have power
clear as the sweeping headwaters of the Brahmaputra