by Richard Fein
(“Hilary Putnam was one of the greatest philosophers
this country has ever produced.” —
Martha C. Nussbaum)
I can’t read you, Hilary, though your table talk must have equaled
Coleridge’s or Dr. Johnson’s, your vigorous quips —
“The function of sex is to have grandchildren”; “God doesn’t know God” —
turning personal, re-shaped in the garbs of my own obsessions:
My deterioration in old age stares at the bodies that are growing;
If God is a puzzle to Himself how can I (or anyone) speak in His name?
You left traces in my mind like seeds on receptive ground.
Like a young Abraham you threw yourself into your beliefs, at the end
bolstered up in a hospital bed angled into a study,
touched by and touching back children and grandchildren around you,
bestowing last-breath blessings sweeter than those of the Patriarchs,
smiling at and saying “hello” to the three Haitian women
in their agency-blue, trained both to be nearby and to hover in the background.
Yet I can’t read you, Hilary — “Philosophy must be scientific,”
your former student said you said. For us ordinaries —
we poets, social workers, rabbis, physicians, lawyers, architects —
you might as well have been a scientist, for around
the shabbes candles (you lit), the challah (you baked), the wine (you
selected), the fish (you prepared), the dessert (you concocted)
you so explained String Theory that I thought I understood it;
then you read to us, showing why Louis MacNeice was one of your favorite poets,
but when you dismissed Santayana or played down Nietzsche — I thought —
just the philosophers poets like to read. Then you sailed off again,
quoting Middlemarch, musing on Paris in the 20s, praising the Southern
Poverty Law Center.
Yet I can’t read you, Hilary, as I can James or Dewey,
you the only polymath I have ever known, and when you encompassed
Jews and Judaism the walls of parochialism crashed down to reveal the
Even when, I red-facedly admit, I was afraid to argue with you,
I breathed in your words — learning, learning, enjoying, sent back to
experience and reading; yet
I can’t read you, Hilary — though I tried out your choices in wines,
cheeses, coffees, movies, recipes, admired your ability to sail,
and listened hard when you breathed life into dull passages of Talmud, you
polymath with the common touch, soul-mind with whom we reasoned and sang.
Yet I can’t read you, Hilary. For me your best “thought experiments”
were around the challah Friday nights.
It didn’t matter then that I can’t read you, Hilary.
Oh, major man, you who knew the chemistries of gusto,
your life possessed an art I want to know even more than read you.
Copyright © 2019 by Richard Fein.