Gerald Cohen (1941-2009)

Marshall Berman
24 August 2009

Alas, I have not been able to write a coherent essay on my dear friend Jerry Cohen. But I can offer some interesting notes. Most are from the first years of our friendship, in Oxford nearly half a century ago. Some are from the last years of his life, when he visited my wife and me every year in New York. I may have been the last person to speak to him, in a phone call he made from Oxford to New York on Tuesday afternoon, 4 August 2009.

Marshall Berman is an American writer and philosopher. He is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, teaching Political Philosophy and Urbanism. He is on the editorial board of Dissent

When Jerry and I first met, in Oxford, in the fall of 1961, we were lonely scholarship boys an ocean away from home. Our faces were open, very visibly what British writing called "plebian", free of the genteel cover that British education confers. From looking at our faces, you could have seen how we felt. We were also openly, even flamboyantly Jewish, in a place where there were plenty of Jews, but very few who were glad to show it. (Later that year, someone who saw us arguing in a High Street cafe said we looked like Guys and Dolls characters at Lindy's. We often talked to each other in the language of that show, and we were proud to be recognized. Ironically, the two of us were among the last customers in the history of the real Lindy's: one Friday there in 1965, we ate both cheesecake and strudel, and both were delicious; that Sunday, without warning, the place closed forever.)

When we met, we both were feeling blue: we had met many smart people in Oxford, but no one, we thought, with our world-embracing intellectual horizons, no one as serious as ourselves--we wanted the truth about life, see?--and no one as open to deep feeling. We were smart enough to know there was something absurd about this: twenty years old and already jaded? We lived in a state of yearning, at once yearning for home and yearning for more than we'd ever had (thought, felt, experienced, done) at home. We were stirred by each other, and we got close fast. Before we knew it, we were finishing each other's sentences, and at least half the time getting them right (and even when we got them wrong, we would use each other's endings to improvise new beginnings). We would tease and parody each other as if we had grown up next door. We would make lunch dates that would last all day, or stretch on into night. Neither of us had ever been so close to a man. We weren't prepared for the instant intimacy that sprang up between us, for the emotional openness we felt with each other, or for the floods of dialogue we let loose when we were alone together.

Before long, we began to think about our relationship. What was this thing, anyway? It was amazingly intense, but it wasn't sexual--at least not homosexual in the sense we saw and felt all around us. We both loved women, and wanted to make love with them and be loved by them; but we could talk with each other about sex and our love for women and our need for them, and we could mutually confess our desires and fantasies, including some we weren't proud of. We could excavate our past with each other, even our dreams, in ways we'd never done with anyone else. We could talk about how deeply we were attached to our mothers. In the spring of 1962, we realized that even though we didn't go to bed with each other, we were a couple. We worried about dependency and autonomy, in ways that many couples do; Jerry worried more than I did. (He: I'm seeing too much of you. Me: Fine, so don't see me for a week. See ya next week. He: But I don't want to hurt you. So it went.) When I read Women in love, the troubled intimacy of the male leads reminded me of us; Jerry read it and agreed.

More on Gerard Cohen:

Obituary in The Guardian

The Next Left

Crooked Timber

Another thing that brought us together in the 1960s was our very detailed knowledge of Russian and Soviet Communism, our shared belief that Stalinism was a tragic fate, the Revolution betrayed, and the way we cared. On our endless walks, in long meals in Indian bistros, in all-night close readings of each other's long unpublished papers--on Marx, on philosophy, history, culture--we gradually carved out an anti-Stalin left identity for ourselves; it was an identity we never gave up. Karl Marx played a big role in it. In college, we had both written elaborate essays on Marx, on philosophy, on culture; we felt appreciated, but rarely understood. We had both brought bolts of our college material across the Atlantic, in desperate hope of finding a reader; when we found each other, we both felt we'd struck gold. We thought that now--the 1960s--was the time for fresh and liberatory visions of Marx, beyond both the Soviet and the Western Cold War cliches.

We found an ardent and generous sponsor in Professor Isaiah Berlin. We abused the work he had done on Marx yesterday Karl Marx, in 1939, but this did nothing to shake his faith in the work we could do on Marx today or tomorrow. Berlin told me that Jerry and I, along with Bert Ollman, Steve Lukes, and other people I can't recall, were his opening to the left. We all did different things with Marx--Jerry helped to launch what was later called analytical Marxism --but Berlin's approval legitimized both Marx and ourselves, and helped create an exciting new wave of critical thought.

In our endless dialogue about the Russian Revolution, betrayal was a central theme. Our couple's shorthand word for betrayal was Kronstadt. This was the naval base where democratic sailors were massacred by the Red Army in 1922. We felt there were so many Kronstadts around us! (Most had nothing to do with Communism.) Many people shared our take on the USSR, but Jerry was the first person I knew who was haunted by its history the way I was. Soon I saw he was even more haunted than I was; anti-Stalinism cost him emotionally a lot more than it cost me. Jerry's whole childhood was saturated with Communism. His parents had been devout Party loyalists until they left in 1956 (maybe even after they left); two of his uncles had served time in prison; he had even been a youthful Commissar himself. In one of the high points of his life, he said, when he was twelve or so, he had proclaimed the word to a whole arena full of adults. (I imagined this scene years later when I saw the video of Michael Jackson, aged ten, holding the whole world in his hands as he sang.) To be what he had become, he believed, he had had to betray his whole childhood world, a world that had felt perfectly integrated (although it shattered after 1956), that had given him lots of love and recognition, and groomed him to be a star. I said Yes, but you became a star anyway without them. He said Yes, but it hurts. I said, But didn't you reject the CP because of its own self-betrayals, and its endless capacity for betrayal? Yes, but it hurt.

In 1969, Jerry betrayed me. Without argument, without warning, he stopped speaking to me. Why? I never found out. I was both devastated and mystified. (I'm still mystified.) He didn't speak to me for a decade. It was hard living with a black hole where my friend and our friendship used to be. But I knew lots of people had to live that way; I knew the black hole was one of the basic forms of modern life. In 1979, he wrote me in New York. His great book on Marx had just come out, the great catastrophe of his mother's suicide had just taken place. He told me his sorrow, asked me to forgive him and be his friend again. I told him I loved him, and I would love to be close. But he would have to make me a promise: if he had any sort of problem with me, we would talk it over together. I said, "no more betrayals." He promised, no more betrayals. I held my breath. And then, amazingly, our intimacy rushed back, and we became the couple we had been once more. In the next thirty years, we went through plenty, and we were there for each other. A couple of times I asked him about the black hole, He said he didn't understand it himself. But I should trust him, and "I'll sort it out when we're old."

Jump-cut to the mid-1990s. Jerry is at All Souls, gets recognition round the world. He travels a lot, but his life has settled down, and so has mine. Both of us are married to women we love who love us back, he to Michele, I to Shellie. The way we usually see each other is that Jerry comes to New York once a year, to speak, teach classes, and lead workshops at Columbia or Princeton or CUNY or NYU; Michele comes when she can leave her work, but she rarely can. Jerry in New York always has an impossibly exhausting schedule. But he always comes to our house, often we eat out on Broadway. He and Shellie really click, and it is a pleasure to see him relaxed with us. When he is at Columbia, he and I take afternoon walks. Sometimes we go to museums, and we talk about paintings, buildings, streets. We criticize each other's work, but gently. He says he prides himself on his conservative temperament, and I say the story of his life, the arc from the garment factory where his father pressed pants to All Souls College, is one of the most revolutionary stories I've ever heard. We argue about the goals of socialism: I don't think equality is so important, I say the crucial thing is the "free development" of the self. Sometimes he can't sleep, he calls me late at night, we talk and talk. It's the same loop of dialogue we started when we were young, except now we are both so much more open to the world, and we have so much more to say. It is one of the few advantages of being old.

Segue into the 2000s. Now we are in our 60s, creeping up on retirement age, or maybe it is creeping up on us. I say I love teaching, my mind is clearer than it was when I was thirty, I feel my students inspire me, I'm not leaving CUNY till they drag me out. Jerry says he is looking forward to retiring from Oxford, where they really do kick dons out at age 67. I ask Jerry, what then? His answers make me jittery, and we get into arguments. He says he's spent so much of his life striving and fighting for things that aren't really important. "Like what?" I ask, "like justice, freedom, equality?" No, like running seminars and setting exams. I have been in the same racket as Jerry for most of my life, and I can sympathize with any desire to escape those crushing routines. But wasn't he saying more than this? Yes, he was saying he wants to "become more spiritual. "Like how?" He says, "like the Gospels". I think to myself, "Another Jewish boy falling in love with Christianity?" I polemically reach for my revolver. I tell him, Remember, you grew up on the 1956 fight against "the cult of personality"; doesn't it feel weird that in your old age you've come around to being a fellow-traveler of the greatest personality cult in history? I see he knows no more of the Bible than he knew forty years ago. "All right already, so you'll give me a course in the Bible when we retire." I was eager for this encounter. I can see now I should've cared less for the manifest content, more for the latent: I should have tried to probe Jerry's deep dissatisfaction with himself. "You're such a sweet man," I would've told him, "and you've lived a wonderful life. All sorts of people feel you've made a difference to them, you've made their lives better. You have so much to feel proud of. Enjoy it!" Actually, I did tell him this, more than once. The irony of his life is that he felt intensely guilty about the stardom that put him in a position to make a difference to people, because he had got there, he thought, only by radically separating himself from "the people". But did he really think he could have grown up any other way? Sometime in the 2000s, Jerry said he was feeling gloomy, because he realized socialism was impossible. Why? Because even in the best possible world, people would still have the desire to transgress. I said two things: one, there was nothing wrong with lubricious or aggressive desires in themselves, Freud was surely right that everybody had them, the crucial thing, the basic social contract, is we agree not to act them out; two, we could imagine a socialism where everybody got the right to act out up to a point, and the social contract was not to go beyond that point. Jerry liked my second idea, and said it would be interesting to develop models of justice and equity in a matrix of universal transgression. I, who don't do philosophical models for a living, found that dialogue delicious; I'm sad we never got to flesh it out.

In February 2007, Jerry got me a gig at All Souls. I gave a couple of lectures and some workshops on Marx and Modern Life. It was a thrill for me to connect my adulthood (late middle age? early old age?) with my youth, to be a teacher in some of the same rooms where I had been a lonely kid. Shellie and our younger son Danny came with me, and we all had a ball. Jerry took us to dinner at High Table. Shellie was luminous and radiant; she seemed to float above the table. Jerry didn't go to many of these dinners; although he loved the idea of the ceremony, he got details all wrong (he was solemnly corrected); but it made him happy that he could help her lift off.

This summer, 2009, Shellie and I rented a number of DVDs--Dorothy Sayers' GAUDY NIGHT, Colin Dexter's INSPECTOR MORSE--in which the Oxford landscape was a major character. On Monday, August 3, I wrote Jerry an e-mail, asking him about what the landscape had meant to him over the years. The next day, Tuesday, August 4, our morning, his afternoon, Jerry phoned us. We had a delightful talk. He reminded me that when we met, he was mostly oblivious to the buildings and the cityscape. (On our walks, I would say, Look at this, Look at that, and he would roll his eyes.) It was only in his middle age, he said, in the mid-80s, just around when he got the All Souls job, that he went through an "inner revolution", and for the first time in his life became "open to the world". He recollected this inner transformation with great joy. I wondered if the love of Michele, also a hallmark of that period, might also have helped to open him up.

But I didn't get to talk about love, because Jerry began to talk about something else I'd asked him earlier: the "new spirituality" that he said came with his retirement. He invoked Jesus, and said the "Agony in the Garden", the melancholy scene in the garden of Gethsemane, immediately before Jesus' arrest and death, gave him a sense of where he wanted to be. (The scene comes from MATTHEW 26.36 ff.) In 2007, we had looked at Mantegna's and Bellini's beautiful versions of this scene, in London's National Gallery. But he wasn't in-the-pictures then. We spent a lot more time on Velasquez' Venus and Cupid, a couple of rooms away.) I said, "You want to be crucified? Jesus Christ Superstar?" I loved Jerry, I loved being in the world with him; I didn't want him to let the world go. He said I shouldn't worry: his essay, "One Kind of Spirituality", explained it all, and he would send me that essay right now. I only read the essay after his death. In fact, it explains nothing; it just announces, and tries to sanctify, the desire to let go. (I say to myself, If only I had known! But really, what difference could it have made if I had known?) We said effusive good-byes--it was really such a sweet conversation!--and vowed to stay in touch.

Shalom, Jerry!

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