By William Deresiewicz
December 4, 2011
I write this on the second anniversary of the death of my graduate school advisor. That I even know this ought to give you some idea of my feelings for the man. As it happened, I didn’t get the news for several weeks. The book I was writing at the time was going to have a chapter constructed around our relationship when I was in school. Really, in some sense the whole thing was an homage to him, and one of my deepest hopes for the project was that he would get to see it before it was too late. He was old, and he’d been sick, really sick, for several years, yet I was sure, somehow, that he would hold out long enough. Which was nothing but magical thinking. But I’d begun to correspond with him again a few months earlier, and I was simply unable to imagine that he would die before the book was ready. That he would die at all.
The day I sat down to begin the chapter, I started by checking out his Wikipedia page. I knew that I would talk about his energy, his productivity, and I wanted to remember how many books he had written. I didn’t even get that far. As soon as I googled his name, I saw it there, under the link: “Karl Kroeber (1926-2009).” Even now as I write this I still can’t comprehend the finality of that second number. My own father’s death, the previous year, had not been as difficult. Not because I loved Karl more, but because our conversation wasn’t finished. But then, it never would have been. It seizes me, suddenly, still. Something crosses my mind, and I call to him in thought, needing to hear what he thinks. And then I remember: he isn’t there anymore. I know he’s dead, but I can’t quite accept that he’s really dead.
A memorial was held a few months later. A lot of people came. It made me jealous to realize just how many students had loved him over the years—to realize that I wasn’t even in the inner circle, in the long run—but larger than the jealousy was simply gratitude that I had been allowed to know him at all, along with awe that one man had blessed so many. Our minds were asleep, and he awoke them at a touch.
I had a dream about a year ago. I was standing in a large room, a little elevated on a set of bleachers that ran along the wall. Other people were about. Then I saw him walking through the room in front of me. He was bearing a sheaf of papers before him, and his eyes were fixed ahead. There was something stately about it, and something inhuman, too. I called to him as he passed, then called again, but he didn’t hear me or didn’t respond, only kept on walking with that steady, almost trancelike purpose. He approached the far wall, and before my disbelieving eyes, and to the swell of unappeasable grief, he disappeared straight through it.
If I believed in God, I would say that Karl was bringing Him his final manuscript. But I don’t believe in God, and neither did he. He believed in the future. He believed in us.
I think of Socrates and Jesus, if only because I have to think of something else. I multiply my grief at losing Karl by a thousand, and imagine what their students must have felt—what Plato must have felt, and Xenophon, what Peter and Thomas and James. And so, to keep their teacher with them, they wrote down what he said, preserving the memory of that sweet discourse. And we’ve been straining for the echoes of it ever since.
My book was done—too late. My book came out. And to my fellow students, to the members of his family, I inscribe it thus: His spirit lives in all of us who knew him.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.