Some deaths of 2010

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine was the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue, containing essays on the lives of a couple dozen people who died during the year. Several of these were people whose work I admired: for example, mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, singer and songwriter Kate McGarrigle, and caricaturist David Levine.

One was someone I knew (and had not realized she’d died): the philosopher Philippa Foot, who was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences with me in 1981-82. I was somewhat in awe of her — she was 20 years older than me and famous as a moral philosopher — but her great charm and outgoing personality won me over. Early in the year, on one of the walks in the foothills that we took with a small group of other fellows, I remarked to her that the only friend from my Princeton (and grad school) years that I was still close to was the philosopher Tim Scanlon, and then she was in awe of me; “Oh,” she said, “I think Tim Scanlon is the smartest man I’ve ever met!”

An entirely characteristic remark. From James Ryerson’s piece on her:

Looking back, she seemed to appreciate the connection between her distinctive talents and the long arc of her career.”I’m a dreadfully slow thinker, really,” she said. “But I do have a good nose for what’s important.”

Two who didn’t make the issue, possibly because their deaths were so recent, are Don Van Vliet, known as Captain Beefheart, whose remarkable Magic Band 1969 album “Trout Mask Replica” “makes Tom Waits sound like Julie Andrews” (in the words of a December 21 NYT appreciation by Verlyn Klinkenborg); and Jacqueline de Romilly, “one of France’s leading scholars of Greek civilization and language and only the second woman to be elected to the Académie Française” (Marguerite Yourcenar was the first), who “spent much of her life championing the humanities, in particular Greek and Latin, whose waning role in the French education system distressed her greatly” (from the William Grimes obit in the December 21 NYT). Alas, the humanities are threatened all over, some specializations (paleography and philology, for instance, which require very long training and apprenticeship and often-expensive access to sources) more than others, but in all cases because humanistic scholarship produces nothing of immediate economic value (see Anthony Grafton’s enraged “Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities”, New York Review of Books for March 9, 2010).

[Added just after posting this: a death notice for my friend and colleague Ilse Lehiste.]

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