Getting ready to present at the Awe and Attention Symposium put me in mind of my very on-again-off-again time at the University, and I decided to write a couple of brief (and belated) appreciations.
I have been very fortunate in my teachers. I have no academic certification, no diploma on my wall, no letters after my name, because during the years most people spend in college, I was doing other things -- mainly playing rock and roll, falling in love several times, living in a long-lived unofficial artists' commune (though we never called it that), and working in bookshops. (I also worked for ten years in a group home for a population which was then called "developmentally disabled;" I assume this is one of those phrases one "no longer says," but I have not kept up with the lingo.) Along the way I read a not inconsiderable amount (though far less than I am suspected of -- and far less than I wound up owning!), and I began writing in earnest. I did also manage to take a few classes at the University, thanks to the very kind forbearance of a couple of professors. I took the last course ever taught by the late, great Fred Hagen -- a class on Nietzsche, which was filled beyond capacity, but to which he very kindly admitted me simply because I had engaged him in coffee-shop conversation a few times. Hagen was a genteel, old-school pre-Stonewall queer. He enjoyed -- maybe a little too much -- hiding his keen acumen behind the persona of village atheist, much to the scandal of local Mormon culture; many times he took what seemed to a be purely provocative pseudo-blasphemous stance, only to pounce with an uncompromising rationality that was scary if you were the one it was thinking about eating alive. He had honed his logical chops in higher mathematics -- I remember trying unsuccessfully to follow as he walked some students through the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem -- and his mind was the sort for which the cliché about the steel trap was invented. Slightly more terrifying was his wit, which somehow managed to be as fast as the crack of a whip, and yet delivered in the lilting, aristocratic Texan accent he still had. There was a legend -- cultivated by Hagen himself, but based in truth (I have independently confirmed it from other sources) -- that in one lecture he blasphemously taunted the heavens during a thunderstorm that raged outside, upon which a bolt of lightning struck quite close, with a loud thunderclap. (In one version of the story it struck a nearby tree, but that at least may be apocryphal.) Unfazed, Hagen lifted the window and bawled out into the wind, "Your aim is getting worse and worse!" with a few other choice words about the divinity's increasing senility. A few days later, when called into the dean's office -- some of the more pious students had been scandalized -- Hagen raised an eyebrow and said, "But I don't understand the problem. Jehovah isn't the wielder of the thunderbolt, after all. That's Zeus."
But he could be astonishingly generous if he knew you were not a fool. I wrote an essay which was decidedly antipathetic to Nietzsche’s overt conclusions, a paper of which I am still very proud, most of all because despite how it provoked him, Hagen pulled me aside quietly to praise it, and gave me an A for the course. Once I said something about believing in deus absconditas. Hagen took a long draw on his long cigarette (he is the only person I've known who could pull off the affectation of a cigarette holder), let out a meditative plume of smoke, and hmmmm'd. "Well, He's gone somewhere, that's for sure," he said. For all his disdain for small minds, Hagen's bark was worse than his bite. He prized kindness above brilliance and knew that the victories of argument were often shallow and short-lived. What I have managed to track down of his published output is slight, and buried in old journals. I deeply wish this were not so. He was a fine scholar of culture (especially German) and was ignoring the analytic/Continental divide way, way before it was cool. He called himself an unabashed generalist. In the reminiscences of people who knew him better than me, I have consistently heard anecdotes of a surprising gentleness of spirit -- though not without a sometimes wicked sense of humor.
Fred Hagen died in 2002. May he forgive me, I still sometimes pray for his repose.
I had been going to end this post there, but yesterday after I finished my brief talk (essentially an expanded version of this post) and the panel discussion had wrapped up, I was talking to someone about a point that got raised in the Q-&-A when a woman walked up to the table and put a small note down on top of my sheaf of papers. I didn't get a good look at her because I was still engaged in what the other fellow was saying and there was a lot of milling about, but I wish I had been more attentive (and at a conference with "Attention" in the title, what could possibly be my excuse? I'm sure I knew her, but it's been a long time. I hope I get a second chance, but...) When I picked up the slip of paper I read: Fred Hagen would have loved that. I really can think of no greater compliment.