Arthur Naething Remembered.....
Hackley Review Winter 2014-15: He is remembered fondly, and with gratitude, by former colleagues, students and friends: Eugene Jarecki ’87.
There is an uneasy feeling to eulogizing Arthur Naething. Foremost, of course, is the loss of an idol, a kind of timeless giant one cannot imagine having lived without.
There is another kind of unease because, loved by so many as he was, one fears flattering oneself that one’s experience with him was at all unique.
But for me, the real unease -- the one that cuts to the core -- is to imagine the withering precision with which Mr. Naething might, if still with us, detect any cliché, malaprop, or forced melodrama in my words.
I speak from experience. We all have our own story of how Mr. Naething responded to our notorious “tragedy paper,” the first magnum opus we attempted in our lives, required of us by this towering figure in order to graduate high school. I’ll avoid citing the grade I received on my paper, for fear that Mr. Naething’s single, skeptical eyebrow might yet rise in distaste that I was either boasting or spilling the suspense of an otherwise interesting tale. All I will say is that his comment, while on the whole positive, closed with the phrase, “the ending [of the paper] is, I fear, a bit romantic.”
So it was with a man who immersed his life and career in the unlikely marinade of tragedy, his primary literary focus. He never could suffer small talk, flattery, or the danger of imprecise sentimentality. He was, to all who were awed by him, a target of great affection, and yet he eschewed any mention of it. Admiring remarks were brushed aside. His boyish smile, which would occasionally illuminate and send a shock wave -- “he likes me!”—through the recipient, would vanish as quickly as it came, replaced by the brooding, existential aspect -- part Ahab, part Lear -- that was his trademark.
One had the feeling with Mr. Naething that the medium was indeed the message, that this enigmatic man was deep down a kind of walking embodiment of the theme of tragedy to which he devoted his life. One had the feeling too -- and there was rumor of it -- that behind the extraordinary lines carved into his brow like marbleized granite there also lay a story of loss, heart-break, and personal tragedy of some kind. The truth of this, like the grade on my tragedy paper, seemed a story better left unsaid.
What can be said of this “grand, ungodly, god-like man” (to apply to him, reasonably, I think, one of his favorite passages from Moby Dick) is that, over decades, he imbued in me and thousands of other students a sense of personal destiny -- that man’s relationship to his universe mattered, that literature was the prism through which he contemplated it, and that the literature of tragedy, which he called “the wonderful world of tragedy,” offered, in specific, a captivating and strangely life-affirming vision of man’s existential struggle.
Along the way, we learned rigor, the value of craftsmanship, and that, in whatever lives we might choose, the God of quality and passion lives in the details.
But if we were listening closely, there was another lesson, one far deeper and more philosophical, one that thousands of dollars of therapy today can’t replace. In one particular class, I recall how Mr. Naething, by way of illustration, posited that the masks of comedy and tragedy -- the smiley face and the frowny one -- were, to him, reversed. A comedy, he said, ends on a high note -- boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again -- that left him personally feeling petrified of what might happen next, of how the proverbial other shoe might yet drop. Tragedy on the other hand, he offered, despite its inexorable path toward death and blood-shed, provides in the end a kind of closure that leaves the viewer to sigh at what’s past, to accept questions that have been answered, and to look ahead now to the dawn of a new day.
Over the course of the story, vital questions about the slings and arrows of existence have been explored, but a resulting moral and situational purge has perhaps left matters a bit better than they were before.
And that is where I now find myself, with a mix of profound sadness and strange contentment, addressing the loss of a teacher and mentor. For few of us have lived or will live lives like Mr. Naething that touch so many that, after the dust of life’s impermanence has settled, we can truly say we left things a bit better than we found them.
I fear of course that he might judge that last paragraph to be, once again, “a bit romantic.” But it is after all the dawn of a new day.
May Arthur Naething rest in peace.
— Eugene Jarecki ’87
Eugene Jarecki is an award-winning filmmaker, author, activist, and public thinker, influential in a wide range of fields. His films include Reagan (Emmy 2012), Why We Fight (Grand Jury Prize, Sundance 2005 and Peabody 2007), The Trials of Henry Kissinger (Amnesty International Award 2002), and most recently, The House I Live In (Grand Jury Prize, Sundance 2012, 2013 CINE Golden Eagle Award, 2014 CINE Special Jury Award, and Peabody and Puma/BritDoc Impact Awards 2014). A Soros Justice Fellow and Fellow of Brown University’s Watson Institute, he is the author of The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril.