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On the Death of Marcuse

Gone from his perch above UCSD's Revelle Library

Marcuse. Virginia called two weeks ago. “He’s gone Greg.” I cried.
  • Marcuse. Virginia called two weeks ago. “He’s gone Greg.” I cried.

Nietzsche observed: “Speaking is a beautiful folly: With that man dances over all things.” Both Virginia and I were readily charmed by words, fascinated like ancient Greeks with myth and telling. New words helped the birth of new realities. A story told had public substance. We had wandered the continent for the pleasures of motion in summer, important to graduate students figuring out what to do with words in the world.

From studying political theories at Rutgers in New Jersey we had made it through Chicago and wildflowers to the cafeteria at UCSD. On a very still, muggy afternoon we waited to meet Herbert Marcuse, wondering what he might say face-to-face. He had studied, published, lectured, employed a technical vocabulary: the word-crafts of all professors. Secondary scribes, they progress unlighted and unbothered, obtain tenure, and relax. Nietzsche again: ‘‘Blessed are the sleepy ones, for they shall soon drop off.” But Marcuse had exceeded professorial custom, startled imaginations, wakened the dead. He had quickened hundreds of students worldwide, urging them to refuse assignment as instruments of marketing and warfare. The “transformation of sexuality into Eros” was to energize such mighty resistance and ground “new and durable work relations” in industrialized civilization.

I had phoned Marcuse, named a Rutgers academic, arranged a time to visit. Virginia joked about the secretary’s reluctance to disclose the whereabouts of the office. Absurdly and with a British accent the secretary had remarked, “I’m sure I have absolutely no idea.” Should we rattle every door? Was Marcuse surrounded by dull-witted hangers-on? Was the secretary embarrassed? We did look a little ragged. During a similar visit to Princeton we had turned the heads of numerous strollers including well-mannered dogs. But this was California. We learned the reason: Marcuse had received several death and bomb threats.

In 1964 he had theorized: ”... erotic as well as logical cognition break the hold of the stablished . . . and strive for a truth incompatible with it.” Marcuse felt unknown possibilities with the upwelling of critical spirit later in the Sixties, the rage and humor against conformity, monster states, and engineered slaughter. He warmed to the energy of the growing resistance to imperial arrogance, the refusal to go along. And what better place than California for Eros to try some political experiments? Crucial to human freedom was “non-repressive sublimation” or play unabsorbed by domination. We could know that with waves, basketballs, words, or other bodies.

It was 1974. The nation hadn’t settled down yet; neither had we. Virginia sat with me because she was falling in love. And we were both on the lookout. For what? We weren’t sure. We were untied. She had cut loose from the Deep South and a pacific marriage, asking the wrong questions as a child and then wife. I raised the wrong questions everywhere. A stern Catholic priest denied me absolution. A pot-bellied construction foreman fired me with, “Who do you think you are. King Kong on a pedestal? I'm the boss!” A group of liberal college administrators had cast me forth from the Ph.D. program at Rutgers, summing it up behind closed doors, “You don’t play the game our way, you don’t get a Ph.D. ” Since I had planned on teaching in a university, I puzzled: What comes next?

Maybe Marcuse could give me some effective advice. After all, he now lived creatively and strongly, loved in the present even with an eye on the future, never slandered high hopes — these things though he had had to flee Nazi Germany, see socialism sour in the Soviet Union, and now, where “the empire is simultaneously the factory and the barracks” (Camus), relentlessly posed the wrong questions. Defiant without bitterness, he was living well Camus’ “struggle between grace and justice.”

Or so I thought from the excitement of his words in print. Of course authors could draw strong and beautiful images in books to compensate for their own languor and dreariness. Beautiful talk itself is rare enough. Yet one hopes for, if not expects, a certain coincidence of character and art when meeting an admired writer. Marcuse himself had described ”... the contrast-character of beauty, which breaks the circle . . . and opens (for a short moment) another reality...”

It was an uneasy time of restless scrutiny and efforts to make a place to be in the social order and disorder, a time that lasts through life for some. And Virginia and I were seeking company too, others who asked impolitic questions. Six years ago as we approached Herbert Marcuse’s office such attitudes seemed not so irrelevant as they might in 1979 when pleasant Southern Californians dread friction above all. In 1979 we can “philosophize” by jogging, evade confrontation by alluding to “opinion,” blink, or shrug our shoulders. “Philosophy” means the class one attends for tips on how to run the body-mind smoothly with a little fine tuning.

To ask, I had learned, is to disturb. To disturb is to shake the conservators of the social systems controlling human aspirations, labors, visions, and productions. Opponents from every political system fearing interrogation had maligned Marcuse. Virginia and I stood at the door to his office over the Revelle library. Officialdom in the United States and the Soviet Union had cringed before this intellectual dissident. Various guardians and bureaucrats cleared their throats, adjusted their glasses, campaign promises, and party lines, their bank accounts and press, to respond to this one man. They swallowed a little more tensely. Just as I knocked I thought of Socrates, who had shone a light so strong it had driven the Athenian state to murder. Marcuse, of course, had no intention of drinking any hemlock. . . .

The door opened. Marcuse, larger, older, and straighter than I had assumed, led us into his office. But first he looked at us and commented as if ill-prepared, “Oh. There are two of you. ’ ’ On the way to our seats Virginia and I glanced at an electric heater. I knew that Marcuse liked to swim and walk, but I realized sadly that no grueling hikes lay ahead. Photographic and ceramic facsimiles of hippopotami decorated the room. Whether he retained these because of their value as ancient fertility symbols I couldn’t have said. Perhaps this was an eccentric rival for the Eagle, Bear, and Tiger? Marcuse declined shaking my hand. It was smeared with the juice of fresh plums consumed in the last hour, and, after all, he was at work with books and papers.

Immediately I fell into old ways: I asked the wrong question. But you could not have guessed that from Marcuse’s response. He showed none of the symptoms. He did not draw back, fume ridiculously, prepare his fortress, or dismiss me. He did not switch from dialogue to monologue. Actually, he graduated from grin to smile to laugh during our exchange. And there was no ice in the laughter.

I had sketched myself as a hypothetical “anarchic poet.” What, I had demanded, would he do with me under his socialist organization, where would he put me when I didn’t fit? I replied for him: in jail. No. Yes. No. Marcuse handed me a paper towel. With clean hands I searched Critique of Pure Tolerance to locate the damning passages. I couldn’t. He did admit that he might deny me a free press. And I persisted: That led step by step to jail for violators. Ultimately, how did he plan on “denying” me press?

Virginia says she recalls Marcuse and me “nose to nose,” glaring at one another, my calling him a liar. He assured me he would be glad to review any manuscripts I had. All through our discourse he had repeated that we should not expect others to interpret our experiences. If I had had the experiences of an anarchic poet I should be apprising him how I would deal politically with such a fellow. Communication, talk itself about alternatives enthused Marcuse and relieved his alarm over “an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action.” He was no simple ideologue.

Brimming with his own discoveries and apparitions for another time, Marcuse nonetheless chided like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “‘This is my way; where is yours?’ — thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way.’ For the way — that does not exist.” In one flesh lived a philosopher and a committed social theorist.

After Marcuse had evaluated my manuscripts, I think he saw in a flash why I had theorized about the anarchic poet. It wasn’t much of a leap. He suggested a little forbearance; “You don’t run nude down Broadway. Don’t show these as they are to any graduate schools anywhere at any time." Marcuse wrote me a letter of recommendation and I was admitted to a well-known graduate school. First I had to sign a green form stating I would not request a copy of the letter. Marcuse sat down, closed his fist, and hit his knee as he spoke: “Never, never give up the idea of becoming a professor.” The wrong question fell away.

When I had sat in on some graduate classes in Princeton and grown contentious over the term “knowing death,” the professor had suggested that probably it would be best for me not to return. “You know what I think. After all, you’ve read all my books.” (I had read nothing but some of his translations from German.) The following week when I showed up anyway, he did apologize. A few years later I stopped by at UC Santa Cruz to speak with an expert in classical literature with a philosophical bent. Did he think I could manage a graduate program at UCSC? He pounded his desk: “Do you think people TALK to each other in the university? We don't even walk through each other’s doors. They’re kept closed. They’re Nazis!” By this I had concluded he meant the instructors were cramped, frustrated, authoritarian nonsharers. Just what I needed, right?

I did some landscaping. I did some welding. I did some proofreading. I did some editing. But I never returned to graduate school. Nor did I ever become Marcuse's student in a formal administrative sense. But i became a student of his ideas and character. He didn’t even flinch as Californians turned to fashion jeans, disco, happy hours, and the mellow tongue. Through his seventies he continued revolting while the noise on the campus faded and exhausted adults fell silent at thirty.

Virginia and I attended most of Marcuse’s lectures around San Diego to find what strange new textures he wove from customary philosophical terms. Once he spoke about a poem by Rilke and was a poet himself, painting the two women on a rock more impressively, more appealingly — more beautifully — than the author. "The happy moment wants eternity,” he said in that talk and several afterwards. We noticed that he had begun to stoop. To the last lecture at UCSD I brought my visiting father who is a Republican.

Often I pictured Marcuse’s minor place of study above the Revelle library stacks: It was a sustenance to know that he was in the world. Once I could not persuade my legs to spring from a severe cliff jutting into Flathead Lake in northern Montana. Referring to Marcuse’s inspirations, a friend yelled from a boat infinitely far below, “Do it for Eros! ” And I sprang into the longest fall of my life.

I last met Marcuse privately as he walked along the beach at Torrey Pines with his son (and grandchildren?). He still expected something, if not graduate school: “It’s been such a long time. I’ve been waiting. Where is your manuscript?”

Virginia called two weeks ago. “He’s gone Greg.” I cried. It is not true that the ideas one leaves behind are more important than the loss of being-in-the-world. That’s too philosophical a notion for me. The secretary of the philosophy department said, “Greg, so many people who didn’t even know him have called.”

Nietzsche helped a little: “O my brothers, what I love in man is that he is an overture and a going under.”

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