Wednesday, October 18, 2017
In Memoriam M. J. C.
Michael Curschmann (1936-2017)
I am not big on trigger warnings, but since I am aware that what I have to say today is not particularly amusing or uplifting, I might as well tell you that in advance. In general I do my best to fulfill the affirmative role of a “senior citizen” that is assigned to my particular sociological subdivision. You see photographs of such people, gray to be sure but tanned and beaming, especially in advertisements for insurance policies and retirement communities. That is, I am “active”. I have “interests”. I am “engaged with the community”. The motion of the molecules is incessant. I frolic with my grandchildren. Yet my subject today is a disquieting aspect of the aging process—namely the proximity of old age to death. I do not refer merely to a heightened personal apprehension of my own mortality, though I am not so foolish or mendacious as to deny its relevance. Every person alive this morning will be one day closer to death tomorrow. But as you get old, you find that death’s intrusions become more frequent, more disturbing, and more cruel. Your childhood friends, your old classmates, colleagues and companions with whom you have spent decades of shared labor or shared aspiration—these people begin to disappear. At first it seems random and aberrant, and then you look at some membership list of something from 1950, or 60, or even 70—and you realize that some or many or even most of the people on it are now gone. You find yourself reading obituaries and—if you have even so little a public presence as I do—writing them. You observe and in some measure enter the sorrow of friends who have lost husbands or wives.
We got back from a stimulating trip to Michigan, reported on a couple weeks ago. That was late on a Wednesday. We anticipated the happy prospect of a brief visit from our dear friend Jim Magnuson. Jim arrived just before noon on Saturday at the train station, whence we collected him. We were still in the first couple of hours of animated, jovial debriefings at our house when the phone rang. On the other end of the line, calling from Delaware, was the daughter of another close friend, Michael Curschmann. She was distraught. She reported that her father had just died.
Michael lived in a house probably less than five hundred yards from my own, literally on the next street. In recent years he was a widower, and he lived alone. It was probably a sudden massive heart attack that killed him. When exactly the blow struck I don’t know. It may have been not very long after our plane was touching down at Newark Airport. After a couple of days, suspicious inactivity at his residence alarmed neighbors and led to the discovery of his body. You read about such things in newspapers.
Michael was a most distinguished scholar of medieval German literature. The praise of his professional accomplishment will rightly occupy the necrologies of the learned academies of which he was an ornament. I shall no doubt have some part in composing one or two of these, but his scholarly attainments have little to do with the sorrow we are now feeling. I might go so far as to say they are irrelevant to it. Michael and I were almost exactly of an age. We joined the Princeton faculty at almost the same time. We were friends for more than half a century and for at least the last three decades close friends.
Augustine, who is so expert in pointing out the obvious in its most unwelcome forms, somewhere says that all our obsequies and funerary rites, our tailored reminiscences and memorial meditations, while they may pretend to honor or to magnify the beloved dead, are in fact but palliatives, and often enough rather feeble ones at that, for the living. Few things are more complete than death, but it is precisely from that point of view that Michael’s death seems to me particularly wrong and objectionable. I went away for a few busy days and returned to something awful, sudden, immobile, and definitive. You want to regard it in some way as tentative or provisional. Absurdly you want to search about for something negotiable in it.
I may be among the last admirers of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” written in response to the sudden death of his intimate friend Hallam in 1833; but for all its Victorian embarrassments I do admire it. It took Tennyson fifteen years to finish the poem, and even then one of his principal themes was the impossibility of finding the right words for the task at hand. “I sometimes hold it half a sin to put in words the grief I feel,” he writes. “For words, like Nature, half reveal and half conceal the Soul within”.