In Memory of Michael Rogin
‘After the first death,’ Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘there is no other.’ I know what he is getting at, I suppose, but it isn’t true, at least not for me. I have had other deaths, but the death last month of my friend Michael Rogin was a shock. It’s not that we had, in recent years, spent much time together. I left Berkeley, where we taught together on the faculty of the University of California, in the mid-1990s, and almost immediately lost touch with most of my network of friends. That sudden dropping away of a whole world is strange, but, though it feels like a personal failing, I cannot be the only one for whom or to whom it has happened. People I saw every few days, people who constituted my social medium, people with whom I shared jokes and work and secrets, were gone, utterly vanished. Of course, it was I who was gone, having moved three thousand miles away, but though it was my own choice and a happy one at that, it felt irrationally like an expulsion. I tried to stay in contact through e-mail and phone calls, and with a few intimate friends it worked. But most simply disappeared from my life, as if they meant no more to me than the person who took my toll on the Bay Bridge.
Vol. 24 No. 3 · 7 February 2002
One thing left unmentioned in Stephen Greenblatt’s tribute to Michael Rogin (LRB, 3 January) was that Rogin was an unforgettable classroom teacher, not least because of some of the attributes pointed out by Greenblatt: the enormous vitality, the deep and empathetic intelligence, the subversive imagination, the humour, the honesty. Especially to be treasured was his year-long course on American political thought, a brilliant if disturbing journey which over the years became a Berkeley institution. Part of Rogin’s trick was the inventiveness of his ideas: he would illuminate Jefferson’s politics through Jefferson’s triangles, Melville’s writings through the notion of an American Marx, Lincoln’s Presidency through images of Lincoln’s changing beard, the American 1968 through the European 1848. There was also his charming and inimitable lecture style which brought an urgency and intensity to the proceedings. Raised in a socialist milieu and informed by the Berkeley of the 1960s, Rogin was a critic of prevailing forms of political and economic liberalism, and shaped his ideas from a remarkably wide range of sources, with the traditions of Freud and Marx especially important. He kept in view both the material and the symbolic, the public and private, the ‘outer’ culture and ‘inner’ psyche, while also insisting on the interpenetrations between these terms. He was intent on showing how the problematic aspects of the American political tradition formed the basis for our relations and our selves, and I think he wanted us to feel the discomfort of this fact, to work through its implications, and, with luck, to be transformed in the process.