Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Remembering Peter Euben

Being hooded by Peter, May 2010

“Hello, this is Peter Euben from Duke University.” I can still recall the Bronx accent, the calm delivery, the unhesitating friendliness. I was sitting in my cubicle at Cadwalader, Wickersham, and Taft on Maiden Lane a few blocks from Wall Street. Peter sat, I imagine, in the Perkins Library Building office on Duke’s campus, where he often held long office hours amid piles of books and papers towering towards the third floor eves. A narrow leaded window overlooked the Chapel green and its patinaed statue of James B. Duke.

In that first conversation, which took place before I ever met Peter, I experienced his interest in others as well as his strategic modesty. Despite my having so clearly advertised myself as a Straussian with Continental interests – those were the days! – Peter inquired about my thesis, listened to my interpretation of Plato’s theory of education, asked the appropriate questions. When the dialogue lulled, Peter offered his intervention: “I don’t normally do this,” he said, “but I think you’d be interested in my most recent book, Platonic Noise. It’s something we might talk about.” I thanked him and bade farewell until we’d see each other again when I visited Durham in a few weeks. And like a diligent student I did check out the book. I’ll never forget it.

I had no library privileges, but I managed to persuade the guard at Columbia’s Butler Library that I was a prospective applicant. He let me pass after signing the register and I followed signs to the open stacks that filled the columnar citadel at the library’s heart. Peter’s book, a quick catalog search revealed, rested among the PAs of ancient literature and interpretation. It had chapters on Arendt and Sophocles, the Stoics and the Honeymooners, and Plato’s Phaedo. These came interspersed with ruminations on Jorge Luis Borges and Philip Roth, interlineated with reflections on cosmopolitanism and the politics of mourning. The digital Table of Contents hastened my exploration of the thing itself among the miles of books.

I found the dustjacketless hardcover where it belonged and repaired to a scuffed wooden desk near the book’s location. It wasn’t thick and each chapter had an unexpected epigraph – not some gnomic phrase from Aristotle in the original Greek but recent writers and even phrases from contemporary popular culture. I laughed aloud when I read the epigraph to Chapter 7, which quoted Jack Nicholson in the film Prizzi’s Honor: “If he’s so fucking smart how come he’s so fucking dead?” Now I can hear Peter repeat the line to himself and chuckle with pleasure.

Reading Peter’s chapter on Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Plato’s Phaedo, I knew in my gut that I had to study with him. A discussant of my work years later commented that she knew I was “a Peter student” because of the energy evident in my writing. Peter created this energy in the chapter and everywhere in his work through the tensional relationships he crafted: Aristophanes and the Simpsons, Foucault and Greek theater, Plato and DeLillo. The juxtaposition was his key move, and he used this to dramatic and galvanizing effect like a poet uses line breaks. In the titular chapter to Platonic Noise, this juxtaposition also took the form of the theoretical and the practical. After an introductory few paragraphs relating the chapter to the foregoing ones, Peter suddenly took a different tack. He wrote:

To study the interrelationship of politics, political theory, and mortality is daunting in the extreme. This is due not only to the stature of those who have engaged, if not anguished over, the subject, or to the fact that one can trace the beginnings of “Western” literature and philosophy to Achilles and Socrates. It is due to the simple fact that I am a man in the last years of his life. Whatever the academic conventions that govern my story, the stakes in it are not only academic. Perhaps they never are.

The stakes were never only academic for Peter. Rereading this now as I often have over the past fourteen years, chills ripple up from my stomach. Peter never ceased to think and to write from the life in which he found himself. He bequethed to me not only a pursuit of the productive – or what he would call the “generative” – tension but also a sense that we theorize for life. Or, as was said in his beloved Hellenic antiquity, that to philosophize is to learn how to die.

When drafting my own work, I often reach for Platonic Noise to remind myself of how Peter sustained his tensional inquiries. His transitions among chapters, sections, paragraphs, and even sentences have breathtaking and borderline hubristic gaps. Here juxtaposition was also at work. What does Peter mean by this allusion to Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor? Peter Burian, who taught Greek drama at Duke, once asked me when we were discussing Peter’s chapter on “Antigone and the Languages of Politics.” I had no idea. That text was as deeply interwoven in Peter’s soul as the Torah in a Rabbi’s. Peter’s writing could elicit your wonder as well as your frustration and incomprehension. Each could be the starting point of new lines of thought and reflection.

Once I arrived at Duke, I experienced this thinking most often while sitting around Peter’s dining room table at his house on Westchester Road. (“Westchester!? Can you believe that?” Peter would laugh. “They must not know who I am.”) Peter would lubricate the conversation with his wicked sour apple martinis and we would tuck into Bernard Williams or Foucault’s late lectures or Wendy Brown’s essays on history. This was less seminar than symposium, a chance for us to celebrate even while we argued, to take pleasure in these diverse and curious voices assembled simply for the sake of thinking. When evenings wound down, Peter always reminded us of our good fortune. We had something he had only known twice before in his 70 years, Peter would say – once at Berkeley as a graduate student and then later at Santa Cruz with Jack Schaar and Hannah Pitkin and others. Perhaps these evenings were recreations of nights in the Santa Cruz mountains or the bars of Berkeley, yet Peter never seemed nostalgic. He exuded and exemplified the taste into which he would initiate so many of us – the sweetness of good talk, its comraderie and friendly competition, and, yes, joyful inebriation too.

When I took my first long term academic job at Deep Springs College, Peter could not have been happier. On the phone again, he rhapsodized about Jack Schaar’s experiences there – but then he warned me. “You’re going to be in Dyer, Nevada, Joel. Dyer – that doesn’t sound good!” Always the student of the Greeks, Peter had an ear for speaking names. I assured him that Dyer was simply the closest post office box, that the college was across the state line in California. He was not convinced. Is it that much better if you’re neighbors with a place called Dyer?

Ten years ago I supervised an independent study at Carleton on Greek Tragedy and Politics. My student, Dan Schillinger (who is now a political theorist himself), and I would often walk over to the dining hall after our late morning conversations to continue over lunch. One time, lined up in the subterranean entrance to the cafeteria, I mentioned something that Peter had once observed about a particular moment in the play we were discussing. I think it was Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play to which Peter introduced me and which has long featured in my thinking about many of his most important themes of loss, war, ethics, and political hope. Dan exclaimed with youthful ardor and admiring jealousy: “It must have been amazing to work with Professor Euben. I can only imagine!” It was – and it takes imagination now to realize that my being Peter’s student has now concluded by one measure. Yet in truth, I’ll never lose Peter’s imprint. So long as I seek tensional energy, so long as I study the Greeks (and battle with what Peter gleefully called “polis envy”), so long as I practice the art of generative juxtaposition in the pursuit of more vital political life, I think Peter will be with me. He’ll be pushing for more complexity, more texture, and more movement, indefatigable as he leans across the table. “I have 17 questions,” Peter might say when we began a meeting to discuss the latest chapter of my dissertation. He’s given me far more than 17.