In the late nineties I was studying political theory and living in New York City. I had just finished my first year at the New School for Social Research, and wanted to explore what the City had to offer and take advantage of the university consortium the New School had with the Graduate Center at CUNY and other universities. Looking at the course catalog, I noticed that a seminar on Modern Political Thought was been offered at the GC by Marshall Berman. I still remember how nervous and excited I got. This is it, I thought. This is the kind of opportunity I came to NYC for! I had read All That Is Solid Melts Into Air about a year before. I still remember my first read of that masterpiece. After finishing the Preface, I instantly knew that I had in my hands a very powerful book. I had never been introduced into a scholarly work by such an open and honest narrative. Those first two pages reveal a man with a profound aesthetic sensibility, a writer whose beautiful prose and extraordinary intelligence are only matched by his encompassing solidarity. As we all remember, Berman concludes the Preface dedicating the book to his son. As Marshall tell us, “Shortly after I finished this book, my dear son Marc, five years old, was taken from me…His life and death bring so many of its ideas and themes close to home: the idea that those who are most happy at home in the modern world, as he was, may be most vulnerable to the demons that haunt it; the idea that the daily routine of playgrounds and bicycles, of shopping and eating and cleaning up, of ordinary hugs and kisses, may be not only infinitely joyous and beautiful but also infinitely precarious and fragile; that it may take desperate and heroic struggles to sustain this life, and sometimes we lose. Ivan Karamazov says that, more than anything else, the death of children makes him want to give back his ticket to the universe. But he does not give it back. He keeps on fighting and loving; he keeps on keeping on.” The strength and vitality of this hopeful outlook in the face of such immense tragedy was something I had never experience outside of literature. I was engrossed by the reading of All That Is Solid. I had never been so moved by any work of political theory, never felt so close to the subjects and the experiences Berman so masterfully analyzed. The read was a rollercoaster of theoretical excitement and political adventure. I felt as if the dialectic of modernity, in all its triumphs and catastrophes, was laying right on my hands on those exhilarating pages. So the following year, when I saw his name on the course schedule, I definitely had to enroll.
The first day of class was a Wednesday September 9. My memory is not that good, but I still have my dated notes of the seminar. We were a small group of around ten students and met at the Grace building on 42nd Street across from Bryant Park. I am a bit embarrassed by my reaction when I first saw Marshall coming into the classroom. At the time people did not look for pictures of intellectuals on the Internet, or at least I didn’t. So I had no idea what he would look like. Upon his entrance I thought, ‘Holy shit, he even looks like Marx!’ Marshall introduced himself and asked the same of everyone. Throughout the semester the discussions revolved around canonic political theorists and the lives and times of the students. He was so into what we thought of everything! Marshall wanted to know where we came from, where we wanted to go, our expectations, and our take on the city, on theory, on politics, on life! For someone like me, and others in the classroom, this was pleasantly surprising. We all knew of him and had read some of his work, so for us his importance and stature was a given.
Our first class discussion was on Machiavelli. Until then, I had been taught to look for a theorist’s conception of human nature, of political institutions, and of political change to assess the work’s internal structure and cohesiveness. The first thing Berman pointed out was the problem of redemption in the Christian context that Machiavelli was fighting against. We were to pay attention to and see the part emotions played in political life; and how Christianity had created a public realm of loneliness and solitude, which Machiavelli was fighting in order to reconstruct. What is modern in Machiavelli, Berman taught us, is that redemption won’t come from someone send by God, but from ourselves. Suddenly to read Modern Political Theory was to read the story of ourselves. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and certainly Marx, became our interlocutors and not just distant texts to be analyzed. The ways in which we were modern and how that came about became the experience of that semester and a lesson for a lifetime. Modernity was as much about the idea of putting a King against the Wall for betraying the people and saying he had obligations for the people, as it was about the idea that I can marry whoever I want to marry. Private happiness as well as the desire for leisure, which were both considered shameful in the ancient world, not only entered into our modern consciousness as a legitimate aim, but it was politicized as well. Hobbes’s Leviathan was not just about security versus liberty, or the right to live against dying for the state, but it was also about sexuality and its relation to peace. I remember bringing up C.B. Macpherson’s book on Hobbes, and Marshall’s immediate response: the problem with Macpherson is that he trivializes the importance of ideas such as happiness to be as bourgeoisie’s protection of private property. Then, there was the discussion of Montesquieu. Now, that was something! Corey Robin recently mentioned that anyone who reads the section on the Persian Letters of Marshall’s first book, The Politics of Authenticity, would never read Montesquieu the same way again. Well, at the time I hadn’t read, nor knew of, The Politics of Authenticity, but it didn’t matter because the live discussion was one for the ages. As Berman saw it, the story told on The Persian Letters was that of the emergence of a radical European individualism understood through the relation between the search for a liberal education and the tightening of a despotic regime. The way Marshall would distill the themes and their political import was nothing short of brilliant: how subordination was predicated as the basis of all relationships and the emotions surrounding these relationships as essential to the perpetuation of despotism; the capacity of the Persians for self-reflection, as Montesquieu imagines them, can push the Aristocrats into feeling how the social structure that they dominate is unjust; how the romance of nakedness, of being naked together, is political, and opens the possibility for the recognition of each other. What a ride! Once I saw the way he looked at the history of political theory, I also understood the way he related to us, his students.
As I reflect back on that period of my life, I also have to ask what are we to think of Marshall’s death. These last few days I have been re-reading some of my favorites essays of Marshall. Rediscovering the past is part of what death sometimes brings. One of my favorite essays, which I have read probably a dozen times, is “Walter Benjamin: Angel in the City.” Marshall also asked himself what we are to do with the death of an extraordinary mind, and I think his response regarding Benjamin can be made ours regarding Marshall: “…we should revere him not for his death but for his overflowing life. File him under Eros, not Thanatos…Enjoy his largeness of vision, his imaginative fertility, his openness to the future, his grasp of the comedy that was part of the tragedy of modern times.”
As I finish writing these words, I cannot help but smile thinking how Marshall would have looked at this scene: a Puerto Rican student of his, father of a Colombian girl, nowadays a university professor, who came from a rural area and who´s mom was a store cashier, writing about a ‘freethinking’ New York Jew and his take on western political philosophy. I think he would have liked it. I think we would have thought, once again, “modernity is alive and well.”
University of Puerto Rico