Yesterday afternoon I went over to Ward’s Island off the Toronto waterfront to attend a memorial service for Sam Mallin who had died at the age of 72. Typical of me, I missed the hourly departure of the ferry by five minutes. I had a choice. Either wait almost an hour for the next run or take the Centre Island ferry leaving in ten minutes and walk to Ward’s Island. Even though it was raining, I chose to walk. I had not been to the islands for decades and forgot how long the distance was between the Centre Island ferry terminal and Ward’s Island. Though I regained a renewed appreciation of what a wonderful resource Toronto has across from its waterfront, I arrived a half hour later, very drenched (as usual, I had not bothered to bring an umbrella) and very out of breath for I had tried to walk rapidly – good for my heart I thought.
However, I was in good time to hear his son, friends, colleagues and students testify to their love and appreciation of Sam. I could have signed up on the posted list for speakers and also said something, but I did not. Though I probably knew Sam longer than the vast majority who were there, I decided not to say anything since I had really lost contact with Sam over the last decade. Though we had been colleagues in the same department for 34 years, we were not close friends.
But I woke up this morning feeling rather empty. I had been moved a great deal by the readings, poems – especially a poem by my other colleague, Claudio Duran, and the comments and reading from Sam’s diaries that Samantha read at the end. She was Sam’s partner and a former student of both Sam and myself. I felt I should have said things, not because I knew Sam better or had much to add, but because I had experienced Sam in a different way than they had. I could, I believe, have filled out the picture even more. I found the memorial service to be not only very moving but very informative for I learned a number of things about Sam that I had not previously known. However, I felt I had let Sam down by not contributing my bit of recollection to the memories of the others who were there. So I am writing this to share with Samantha and with Claudio and with Esteve and with others with whom they may want to share this, and for my other friends and correspondents who did not know Sam just to indicate that he was worth knowing.
Sam was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in May. He died on the 2nd of August. He had rejected palliative treatment for it would have bought a bit of time, but at great cost to the lucidity of thought and the clarity of his sensibilities. I completely identified with his decision. I learned of Sam’s death after the fact. I arrived home from attending the wedding of one of my sons on Vancouver Island on the 18th of August and had received a message from Chile. Claudio, who had also not known that Sam was terminally ill, phoned to tell me the news. Sam had kept the information on his illness close to his chest that had betrayed him and only informed those most intimately close to him. Claudio said that he would be back for the memorial service. I quickly wrote a few other colleagues and Esteve wrote me back telling me the time and place. Originally intended to be in Sam’s home on Ward’s Island, the service had to be moved to Shaw House on the island to accommodate the large number who had indicated that they planned to attend and who did attend.
Walter Carter had been the chair of the department when I was hired by York in 1966. Sam joined us in 1969. Sam was very different than I was. He had gravitas. He came from a small town in northern Ontario and had started in medical school as I had, but had terminated that effort long before I did in pre-meds and had not gone onto medical school as I had. Though he studied philosophy at the University of Toronto, I had not known him there. The fact that he was a few years behind me is an excuse rather than an explanation. When we first went out to lunch together, we compared notes on why each of us had abandoned medicine as a career. We had both been seduced by philosophy. We also talked about our Jewish background, but I talked far more than he. He seemed to have only the most tangential relationship to his Jewish background and seemed eager to leave it behind. We never broached that subject ever again. Certainly, no one mentioned it in the memorial service. That in itself said a great deal.
We also talked philosophy. He shared with me his thinking about Merleau-Ponty and, as a colleague, let me read his thesis which was published as a book by Yale University Press in 1975. I thought it was a very good thesis and book and, though I had also read and studied Merleau-Ponty, I had never undertaken Sam’s careful examination and learned a great deal from it. We also shared a mutual love of Nietzsche’s writings. We also argued about Heidegger whom he admired and I despised long before we had all learned about Heidegger’s Nazi past. I thought Germany’s alleged greatest contribution to philosophy in the twentieth century was a mystical and dogmatic brilliant blowhard who exhibited the worst traits of philosophy as a mode of intellectual seduction. He had seduced Hannah Arendt both physically and intellectually, probably intellectually first as a method of physical seduction, and I despised him most for that for I held him to be the primary source of Hannah Arendt’s limitations who otherwise was such a wonderful and original thinker. Sam defended Heidegger and never lost his love and appreciation for his thought. Henceforth, we bracketed Heidegger in our mutual discourse and had no other arguments in all the years we were colleagues.
That is not quite true. Arguments had been replaced by mutual teasing. However, he never did give up in trying to get me to attend to the minutiae of experience. Most of all, he tried to teach me to appreciate and sense and revel in every morsel of food I put into my mouth instead of wolfing my food as I was prone to do. His body hermeneutics extended to the immediate experience of everyday life. Though I was a terrible student in this sphere, I did appreciate his writings on prehistoric cave art which he shared with me and learned a great deal on a subject of which I knew nothing.
Most of all, however, we were faculty colleagues rather than explorers of the philosophical world together. As it became clear that Sam loved administration and was attentive to the details of the department and AtkinsonCollege, I gladly left those matters to Sam’s good judgment as he repeatedly agreed to take on the responsibilities as Chair. He sat on many committees and would frequently seek me out, keep me briefed, ask for my input, but I very rarely offered him advice for he had mastered the detail and the issues and pursued his perspective with a zealous energy that I could never muster over administrative issues which he treated in the same way he attended to the sensuous experiences of food. The immediate body politic was as important to him as art and its immediate appreciation and reflection in thought, whereas I was obsessed with destruction and disasters, with refugees, wars and genocides in which the immediate experience of mass graves in Rwanda left me with tactile and olfactory experiences that I would gladly leave behind but have never been able to.
So we lived in different phenomenological worlds, but what we did share was trust. I trusted him 100% with his care and attentiveness. He seemed also to trust me about university politics for he briefed me and consulted me often even though I never felt I had much to add. So it is that attribute of trust that I would like to celebrate in Sam and which was not mentioned by anyone else. The other additional trait I want to mention is tolerance. Although we lived in different philosophical worlds, we not only tolerated one another as colleagues but respected each other. I attribute that to the original chair of the department, Walter Carter. Walter was not a productive scholar, but he was a scholar’s scholar. He read widely and thoroughly and could always be counted on to be familiar with a reference far flung from his own field of interest. Further, he had imbued the department with a core value – tolerance of differences. In all the years in the department until I left for Princeton in 2003, I cannot recall as single case of the noted disease of many if not most academic departments – petty political fights. Sam carried on Walter Carter’s tradition superbly and I have always appreciated him for that.
A last word on gravitas! When others talk of Sam’s solitary reflections on his rock at Ward’s Island as he watched the sun rise, I recognize Sam. He was a very serious thinker whereas I considered our job to be the cleaning women of the intellectual enterprise. We were not philosopher kings but philosopher servants. What I had not recognized and, frankly, had never observed, was Sam’s playfulness, a trait that his son and a number of his friends mentioned. I was delighted to hear that and very much regretted that I had not known that side of Sam. I am the lesser for it.
When I got up this morning, the first thing I did was open a folio of poems that has sat for years on my side table that Claudio Duran had written and had kindly given me in 1988. It is an exquisite set of poems beautifully illustrated and printed on hand made paper with a dark grey cardboard binding. It is tied with a cord with a small bell that tinkles rather than rings. Since the poems are in Spanish, I have never been able to read them and always forget to ask my son, who is fluent in Spanish, to read and translate them for me. Because Spanish is so close to Latin, I get some sense of the subject matter, but miss the beauty. But I do sometimes look at the numerous illustrations, two of his lovely wife, Marcella, to whom he has always been devoted. The central subject matter of all the poems that go back to the seventies was of love. Claudio loved Sam and was devastated by the news of his death. He read a beautiful poem at the memorial service. And he exhibited the same sense of playfulness in the illustrations that Sam evidently had and that I had never gotten to appreciate.
Sometimes when we miss someone who dies, we miss what we failed to appreciate in life as well as what we imbibed from that life.