In Memory of Michael Rogin

Stephen Greenblatt

‘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.

Mike Rogin was among those who disappeared. Having burned my bridges, I had no occasion or desire to return to my old haunts, and our paths never crossed professionally. So though we had once been friends, good friends, years passed without a trace of contact. Then, last year, the programme I chair at Harvard for the study of History and Literature was looking for a speaker who exemplified the integration of the two disciplines. We did not want someone who simply used literary works as decorative touches in a historical narrative, or deployed historical events as a vivid backdrop for a literary performance. We wanted someone who probed more deeply the role of art in shaping social and political life, and the role of social and political life in the production of art. Though he spent his career neither in a literature department nor in a history department – or perhaps because he was outside both – Michael Rogin was the perfect choice.

Within minutes of his arrival in Cambridge for a two-day visit, we were once again close friends. I don’t mean merely that we were genial and comfortable in each other’s company or that we enquired after each other’s families and projects. I mean something specific to Mike, something that he, in my experience, was capable of to a unique degree. It was as if the intervening years of separation and silence had not existed, as if – our custom years ago – we had been meeting every few weeks for a long lunch or taking a rambling walk after Representations board meetings. Mike always had the startling gift of being totally present when he was with you, an ability to focus all of his formidable energy on you, so that you felt you were the sole object of his passionate attention. No matter, as I discovered early on, that many others felt the same sense of privileged intimacy. I don’t remember his ever looking around or looking away when we were talking, except to light another of the small cheroots to which he was addicted. And the quality of his attention was remarkable: incidental details and chance remarks dropped away, and suddenly you found yourself confronting something at the centre of your life. Or rather, the chance remarks you made were magically transformed by him, sometimes gently, sometimes with a raucous laugh, into the revelation of something hidden, even from yourself.

Small wonder that in his work Rogin was drawn again and again to psychoanalysis. But in what he wrote, as in his conversation, the revelations were deeper and more interesting than the theory – which often struck me as slightly warmed over Melanie Klein and Erik Erikson – would have seemed to promise. Perhaps the theory at once released in him and gave order to a quality of mind, a fabulous empathic intelligence, that would otherwise have remained unfocused. Certainly, his energies needed and found discipline. He was a person of regular habits, such as a swim of a precise number of laps at the same time each day. And, though I never observed it for myself, he must have had comparable regularity in his reading and writing. I cannot otherwise explain how he managed to achieve so much. Though he was perennially short of money and hence compelled to take on extra teaching and other tasks, he seemed always to have time to mentor five more junior colleagues, to take on ten more graduate students, to read twenty more submissions to the journal on which we laboured together. His responses were intense and engaged, even to work that others found unreadable, as if he understood the truest version of whatever it was that the writer was trying to convey. Meanwhile, somehow or other, he poured out a succession of brilliant, controversial books and articles that demanded serious, sustained research.

From The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Spectre (1967), to his astonishing psychobiography of Herman Melville, Subversive Genealogy (1983), to Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996), Rogin’s writing was driven by the desire to expose hidden histories. He sought to burrow deeply into the strata where psychic fantasy and social identity merge, where private dream and national dream collude in darkness. He wanted to exhume and to document secret conspiracies and forgotten thefts. But given the nature of this lifelong project, there is astonishingly little anger, moralising or self-righteousness in his writing. It was not exactly a case of tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner: he had an unusual capacity to record, without forgiveness or nostalgia, the unfolding of a painful national story. And he understood that this story was his own – that he could not simply repudiate or claim exemption or pretend indifference. He and his whole culture were, he understood, heirs to the militant liberal egalitarianism that arose in Jacksonian America; he grasped the direct link between that egalitarianism and key features in his own life history. But he was determined to keep steadily in view, as his 1975 book Fathers and Children eloquently testifies, the fact that Jacksonian democracy was fashioned through the violent subjugation of the American Indian. So, too, he was determined to stay focused on the other great foundational trauma in the making of the nation: African enslavement and its enduring consequences. Here, too, he insisted that the story was his own, mercilessly probing the fraught relationship between African Americans and Jews, as rival entertainers of white Christian America, in his disturbing book on blackface and the movies.

American popular movies, about which Rogin wrote so brilliantly, enabled him to investigate the complex intersections of political, psychic, aesthetic and social forces that fascinated him all his life. The book for which he is probably best known, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (1987), is remarkably acute about the way a former movie actor, with an unnerving habit of conflating film and reality, succeeded ‘in making himself the benign centre of America and placing malignancies outside our borders’. ‘Having raised anxiety about the permeability of American boundaries,’ Rogin writes, ‘President Reagan splits the good within the country from the bad without. Evil, he reassures us, is out there in visible spots that can be identified and removed. It is not (any longer) in us or in me.’ This strategy, he argues, is an episode in the long countersubversive tradition that lies, in his view, at the centre of American politics, a tradition that deploys unconscious fantasies at once articulated and shaped by mass entertainment.

‘Each action taken by the Department of Justice, as well as the war crimes commissions considered by the President and the Department of Defense,’ the Attorney General John Ashcroft has just declared in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, ‘is carefully drawn to target a narrow class of individuals – terrorists.’ Does he go on to define this narrow class? Don’t be silly. ‘Our legal powers are targeted at terrorists. Our investigation is focused on terrorists. Our prevention strategy targets the terrorist threat.’ This ‘prevention strategy’ seems to involve overthrowing many of the basic protections that the Constitution and the rule of law in the United States seemed to guarantee. But Ashcroft has a message for anyone who is inclined to sound an alarm. ‘To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.’ Ashcroft was giving voice to the countersubversive tradition at its moment of greatest triumph, when fundamental civil liberties are being suspended by the Government and public anxiety is constantly heightened by vague Government warnings whose only practical purpose can be to silence dissent.

I want, of course, with an urgency I have never felt before, to phone Mike Rogin. I want to know what he makes of the massive intensification of what he called the national security state. I want to know what happens to his concept of political demonology when there actually are deadly enemies, when they seem genuinely demonic, and when American boundaries have indeed been revealed to be permeable. I want him to help me to grasp why the domestic opposition to the infringement of rights seems so weak and confused; to be able to explain at a deep level – not in terms of local political manoeuvring but of underlying national fantasy – why the one liberty that the Government seems intent on protecting and expanding is the right to the ownership of assault weapons. But, alas, Mike Rogin is dead.