Eulogy for J. Richard Hackman

January 26, 2013, Battell Chapel, New Haven, CT
“What does anything matter compared to the reality of love and its span, so brief at best, maintained against such odds?” -May Sartan
 

In this moment, when the light of a life so resplendent has gone out, Bhaskar and I have asked: Indeed, what does matter, compared to the reality of love, so brief at best, maintained as it is, against such odds?

Love, unvarnished love, was the basis of our friendship with Richard. It came to be expressed in so many of the glorious ways in which we humans show it: love, through kisses and hugs which Richard showered on us from 6’ 6” high, and we doubly on him; love, expressed through teasing of the most deliciously wicked sort; but also, love, in his vigilance of our well being as individuals and as a couple; love, in the extraordinary trust that allowed us to bare our souls to him; and love, in his meeting that trust again and again, with a most honest tenderness.

The theatre of our love of Richard and his for us played out in our kitchen or his, where thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, opinions (plenty of opinions!) would fly around, all enacted as we chopped, blended, stirred, and elbowed Richard out as he loomed over to taste.

For 20 years, what a gift this man has been in our lives, padding around in our kitchen, shoeless of course, intensely curious about everything, especially the unfamiliar, ready to try anything we’ve cooked except eggplant, all the while carrying on the most delectable conversation.

Conversations over food in which we probed and poked each other, pestered and interrupted, spoke in hyperbole for the sheer pleasure of the shock it would register. Hundreds of conversations were had these past almost 20 years, marked by utter seriousness and hearty laughter in equal measure. For all this we are grateful, fatter but grateful, that a person with a mind so fine chose to share himself fully with us.

***

Richard loved May Sarton because May Sarton loved solitude. He read her diaries aloud to me when I was bedridden, he taped large parts of Journal of a Solitude because I found the sound of his voice reading the contents of her mind so affirming. Through our meditations on her writing, I came to understand for the first time, the meaning of solitude as experienced by these two connoisseurs of privacy, May Sarton and Richard Hackman. Richard knew his solitude was costly. As Sarton herself said:

“I can tell you that solitude is not all exaltation, inner space where the soul breathes and work can be done. Solitude exposes the nerve, raises up ghosts. The past, never at rest, flows through it.”

But for Richard “we have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” How to achieve a full sense of identity is the question, and Sarton had an answer that I suspect was Richard’s as well. In her journal she wrote:

“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”

***

In his work, which I came to admire and appreciate as his colleague, he had a most impressive ability to see connections across scientific levels of analysis that others were not aware could exist. He even named new levels, the mezzo level for instance, which until I met him I believed to be the floor between 1 and 2 in William James Hall.

Richard’s science was never safe. It didn’t happen in the well-tilled soil that others work in, where we add, if we are fortunate, a small new thing that grows here and there – a vine of beans, a cabbage or two, some parsnips, or Vidalia onions.

Richard loved big open spaces in research as he did the big open spaces of the Big Horn mountains; untilled land whose potential no other had seen. He looked at psychological phenomena as they unfolded in their natural habitat – symphony orchestras, airplane cockpit crews, hospital teams, intelligence teams. For Richard, groups of humans in the natural world, doing the essential thing they do, was where the magic of social life was at. He worked tirelessly, always seeking a perfection that was not within easy grasp and he embodied deeply Andrew Carnegie’s phrase “my heart is in the work”.

His independent interest in our work, Bhaskar’s and mine, transformed it. It came best in the form of disagreement always couched in a reassuring way. And it came in the form of just plain quirkiness and fun that was so much his style. When Bhaskar decided to go to Yale Law School later in his career, he expressed the worry that he, an engineer and computer scientist, didn’t know how to adjust to writing fat papers with many footnotes. A file arrived quickly from Richard, containing 140 footnotes culled from random papers, expressing the hope that Bhaskar would find a use for them at some point over the next three years!

For all this and more, we will miss Richard desperately. I will miss him as I circle around before taking any new intellectual leap, a moment in which he has held my hand. I will miss Richard saying “time for a retreat!” when he noticed that I was worn down. I will miss his whistle approaching as he came in to work, stopping at my office first, to deliver a “present” be it a donut or a thoroughly edited manuscript of mine. I will miss his impassioned outbursts at faculty meetings urging us, Harvard, to do the hard but right thing. I will miss his look of disbelief when at my goading, the new janitor started to call him “Professor Richie”. I will miss staring out together at the glorious winter sunsets we see from the 15th floor of William James Hall; his making funny faces at me from the balcony peering into my office, even on a day as cold as today. And I will surely smile, as I remember that he let me win on the basketball court, one-on-one, a more ludicrous image you cannot conjure.

Bhaskar and I will miss his hitting the low-hanging lamp in the kitchen. We will miss the reassurance of his powerful backrubs. We will miss his making rides to airports, doctors, and Home Depot adventures in themselves. We will miss puttering around while he napped on our long green couch, his favorite place; and we will especially miss the delight of scaring him regularly that we were going to give the couch away, usually to somebody he didn’t like very much. We are going to miss offering Richard tea to tease him, when we knew he really wanted Pepsi and chocolate; we are going to miss him saying "I’m only swooshing by, I absolutely can’t stay for dinner” and then eating a full meal from two plates, neither of them his own.

We're going to miss the many things he taught us. Among them, he gave us the gift of music. He taught me to admire the unexpected key in Sibelius’s 5th symphony, the final grand return to the home key, the staggered chords of the final section, to hear the separations marked by silence. Without Richard, Bhaskar and I would never have known Jacques Brel, sobbed as we heard If We Only Have Love, for the first time with Richard. He assumed the posture of conductor, arms extending from wall to wall, and sang the last line:

We'll have conquered all time, all space, the sun, and the stars

He introduced us to the voice of Elly Stone singing this song, of which we just heard a beautiful rendition. Ever since I’ve known him he has said, “I want you to play this at my funeral” and to decades ago, when mortality was a distant possibility and we could jest about such matters, I said, you had better make a note of this, otherwise who knows, we’ll end up playing your other favorite, Randy Newman’s, Bad Love.

To remember this good love, brief at best, maintained against such odds, to our friend, sweet Richard, elusive Richard, full of love and life Richard, we say with Jacques and Elly

If we only have love
Then Jerusalem stands
And then death has no shadow
There are no foreign lands