Part Four: Polemics and Personages
LIVIO CATULLUS STECCHINI
6 October 1913 - 28 September 1979
Oratio delivered 17 October 1979
Tentmate of the corps of intellectual guards,
he stuck to his post to the very end,
until, not giving up, mind you,
he turned his face peacefully,
for a respite, and died.
Diminished, the great bear, by then,
so that he might, like a fairy child,
slip through the keyhole of the otherworldly door,
to where all measures cease
to where the few corpuscules - or
are they waves? - that
sail about in abounding space,
organized in the peculiar human mode,
begin their free swim in eternity, infinity.
Beyond claim is Livio Catullus Stecchini.
Humanists, Catholics, Jews might find a
birthmark there but no sign of manacles.
No groups, except this, our own
non-group, can identify his body.
What a compliment, post mortem,
for a man:
That none owns him, none owned him
Such a great man, without claims and chains,
Never, nor, now, no more, ever.
We, the non-group, assembled once and for all,
attest to him, our man.
He was a professor
but this academy
and others equally distinguished,
were too limited for him.
They can boast that they
gave him a living, but better ought they boast
that he gave them more
than they were set to handle.
Stoicly he stood
for the puzzled students
to milk his patience.
He had his beloved families
but roared when he sensed
the trap of familial love
and edged out the doors
as daily the claims were assembled
for Livio to take care of this and that:
"Where are you going Livio?"
"To the library - To
bring Immanuel a book - To see Alfred."
Not really higher claims, but freedom.
He was a man without cliques;
you could take advantage of him.
He was powerfully observant
when his attention was called;
he acknowledged good food
between the artillery booms of his rhetoric.
He was restless,
but satisfied for the moment with whatever he found.
He was generous. His wealth of mind
is distributed around the world now
in my pockets and yours, without usury.
He was full of secrets that he
would give away to any interested party - secrets
of private lives, of history, of science,
of myth, of writings, of books.
He was full of politics
but emptied of actions
because he knew the way
and that none would follow it.
He would not set out to do good,
but good would ride on his back.
He would not seize upon a cause,
but would give honest words,
a comforting example, a plan of campaign.
His attention was everywhere.
You must seize his ear and eye.
For when you talk of General MacArthur
he is reliving the disgrace of Alcibiades.
And while you trace the route of Exodus
he is watching the Giants assault Olympus.
You receive your answer,
not where you clear a spot to snare a reply,
but out of an Amazonian jungle, or the labyrinth of Crete,
or deep from the pages of the New York Times.
He could not hate,
agree as he might that
in every particular,
this one is an evil,
that is a bad idea.
He turns upon it,
curious, contemplative, even grinning --
it is agreeable, yes, exterminable in abstraction,
but, remarkable, droll, typical
"as Cicero said when..."
"like the Maori tribes who..."
"like the Bible which..."
He was a writer of many books
who published but one,
all to the advantage of the precious pieces
in his manuscripts, articles and notes.
They live the life of the incunabula, and bits of papyrus,
the legends, the rumors,
the surviving numbers of baffling series
that he found, distinguished, and appreciated,
like wild mushrooms of the forest floor.
We must supply the ending:
"Pythagoras said, whom Plato cites,
as Plutarch quotes,
which Stecchini renders" - but here the manuscript breaks off.
And he is right, now as before.
The book is never fully written,
as the play never ends,
except by convention,
which insists upon control of the world,
lest we die.
If we could control the world,
you would live forever, Livio,
a never-ending book
for us to read,
whose pages of warmth and surprise
move through all ages of time
to all ports of call.
There we visit the gods,
and the fishwives.
Tall sails of new bold abstraction
moved quietly his boat of exigencies
carrying family, offices, friends.
Diffident teacher calmly correcting.
His papers stand in orderly files,
called to attention for the future salute.
Magna cum laude his life work ends.
Princeton, November 7,1979.
"Where have you been? I tried all yesterday to reach you," said my mother's voice early on the day afterwards. 'Of course, I was in the library stacks, ' I said, wishing she would not demand an accounting as greeting. I might go into the stacks one day, and come out to discover that a catastrophic world war had meanwhile begun and ended.
'Your friend is dead! ' I thought, 'Velikovsky! ' My Mother, of an age with him and long hard of hearing, did not trust herself to pronounce his name quickly. He died at 0800 hours on Saturday. Day of rest, a quiet death at daylight, his hand in the hand of his lifelong love alone. It had recently occurred to me more than once that he might live forever. But he did not. He glided off to sea.
I reflected foolishly and I could not be faulted for not maintaining a hot line. I was even justified - more foolish thought - in being undiscoverable, for in the labyrinthine Princeton Libraries, who could find me, and it was Velikovsky's fault; I might be in the religious section, or in archaeology, or the astronomy collection, or the art library, or in geology; I might be anywhere in the acres of buildings and shelves, thanks to Velikovsky. Survivor's guilt, compounding the loss and mourning, so tattooed are we by the ancient great losses - Noah naked drunk on the first post-diluvian vintage, the unworthy remnant brought out of Egypt, Ipuwer's lament of survivors.
The great man was buried on Sunday morning, his close family in attendance, at a small Jewish cemetery near the Atlantic Ocean, in a plot that he had selected just the year before. Elisheva, Mrs. Velikovsky, is quite in command; the friends telephone one another and mark time in place uneasily, wondering what is to be done now.
Before Velikovsky retired at eighty-four, he had stretched his large frame over a multitude of people and affairs. I think that from the beginning he felt destined to greatness. Out of Russia, but more than Russian, he absorbed Zionism, humanitarian Socialism, and the marvels of science. He grew into a doctor of medicine. He returned enthusiastically to Russia on the bright promises of the Revolution, only to be instantly repelled by the anti-semitism that has always cursed Slavic Byzantium.
He never went back but found another life and social promise in Palestine, and intellectual promise in the psychoanalytic circles of Central Europe. He began a series of booklets on what we might call unified science. He studied, he worked; he watched the mad world like a comet thrashing its head with its tail.
I have heard his reasons, and those which others give, for his next move. I think, however, that the moment to achieve greatness had arrived and he required the proper theater of action. At the decisive moment, Napoleon left Egypt for Paris. Velikovsky left Palestine for New York as the war began. There he practiced psychiatry - a brief, authoritative and evidently successful way of therapy characteristic of himself. He became a publicist, too, and wrote many articles on international affairs, the War, and Near East policies. But more and more he was digging into ancient history. For he had found reason, while in Palestine, for a basic Cartesian doubt of the chronology of ancient times. And he had grasped an almost mystical compatibility among his ideas of Freud and Moses, of his re-storying of ancient Israel and Egypt, of his perspective upon the contemporary turmoil of Palestine, and, yes, even on his view of the forces that drive the planets through the heavens.
Velikovsky had civil courage. He never lost political stance. He was not recognizably a politician of a democratic setting. He was more comfortable with a marshal's baton than with a smile and a trick. It cost him much to restrain his heavy political instincts during the numerous world crises of these several decades. But he had found bigger game and a more certain target - a revolution in mankind's view of man's experience. His ponderous, direct and clearly conceived kind of political action emerged in the politics of science. It was a sublimated warfare. He never suffered a defeat, although, to hear him talk, one would imagine total defeat imminent.
My former wife, Nina, with roots like him in Slavic culture, once said to me, 'You must not try to cheer him up. He is a Slav. You must tell him that things are even worse than he imagines, then he will feel better. ' So I did, once or twice, and it worked, but it's not my style. One time when he was perturbed by the clamor of his opponents and the diminishing faculties of old age, I exclaimed, 'What's the matter with you? Do you want to live forever? ' This worked, too, and he was amused when I told him that these ego-fracturing words were shouted at my platoon by our sergeant in World War II.
When the war ended, he converted his great energies totally to working out the implications of his several radical ideas. He reordered Near Eastern chronology. He brought to focus and fixed the causes and consequences of several cosmic catastrophes. He produced masterly critiques of conventional astronomy and geology. By now there was no question in his mind wherein lay his greatness nor, with the publication of his first books, was there any question in the mind of a million readers. The gripe was with the academic establishments.
Although prepared all his life for persecution, Velikovsky was startled and incensed at becoming a target of persecution by scientists. Here was a tragic irony for one who had believed and followed all the rules of the sciences to the best of his abilities. Here was the reputedly freest part of the free world turning upon him.
Thirty years of struggle to defend his ideas and character ensued. He fought magnificently. Even if there were not a valid sentence in his books - actually, several of the greatest works of the century - Velikovsky should achieve a respectful prominence for his work on behalf of scientific integrity.
Egocentric though he was (but who can deny him the right and need to draw up his embattled wagons into a defensive circle?) he maintained under the interminable attacks of those years an honesty, a personal correctness, a saliency, and a devotion to the ideals of science that made his assailants by contrast appear as howling savages. For a time, it seemed his defenses would be overrun and that he would be condemned as a heretic by the scientific establishment. As was typical of him, he chose from history the greatest intellectual heretics as his models, showing here as almost in every area a fine discrimination in taste, preferring Giordano Bruno, for example, to Galileo Galilei. The record is published in part, but there is more, much more, to come.
My feeling, however, is that by the time these latter works are printed, they will be read wonderingly and happily. I think that Robert Jastrow's article on Velikovsky, carried by the New York Times on the heels of a poor obituary, practically constitutes diplomatic recognition. For Jastrow accredits to Velikovsky an impressive array of scholarly skills and theories that carry a legitimate and considerable scientific force. When the opposition consents to argue on the facts, a new juridical order comes into being.
So much of Velikovsky is alive, it is conceited to call him dead. One needs to remind oneself, even here, even a few yards from his home, that he has departed. What is to be published of his now? There is much, none of it quite ready for the presses. His exchanges with Einstein are almost in final written form; here his advocacy of electromagnetic forces in astrophysics is on stage. His book on the Saturn catastrophe needs only modest attentions. The two remaining links of his reconstruction of ancient history -- dealings with the Greek 'Dark Ages' and the Assyrian conquests -- are nearly completed. Several volumes of materials concerning the first decade of controversies over his published works are finished, but not the two past decades. His manuscript on Mankind in Amnesia requires much work. In addition, individual pieces and, I believe, any notes of value should appear. Under favorable conditions, perhaps fifteen years of further publication from his pen may be expected. Beyond all of this, there will exist an archive useful to scholars in many fields. Professor Lynn Rose is to act as literary executor of his will, under the general direction of Elisheva Velikovsky, whose knowledge of Velikovsky's archives may exceed that of her husband. Together, his already published books and articles and his publishable works fashion a monumental scholarship of the age.
Apart from a few notes, autobiography is lacking. Velikovsky did no like the idea of someone writing his biography. He wanted to do the job himself, and thought about it much. He was half-convinced that no one would say the right things about him, but further he was a poet and literary master for whom the task would be an aesthetic pleasure. Far less would he like our obituaries, I am sure, for we are bound to be dull or in error or inconsequential.
When my father died, Velikovsky sought to console me by predicting that, following his own experience after his father's death, I would enter upon a period of heightened productivity. I did no agree; nor did the predicted happen; we were too unlike. Nevertheless, Velikovsky's death impels me to repeat his prediction, this now concerning his many intellectual sons. It is a large brood. Even if half of them have linear temperaments, like myself, there will rest a generous half who are like Velikovsky and who will bring the next two decades to burgeon with revolutionist primevalogy.
Death is schizo. First it confiscates our dearest assets. Since billions have lost meaning in today's financially inflated world, we cannot decry the loss of billions in knowledge from the death of a man. Rightly we can say that the death of Velikovsky is irreparable. When I think of the extra matter that we must all discover and learn now that this prodigious man is gone, I am in despair.
One day, shortly before he died, we were talking of my own finished study of Moses and His Electrical God, and of Freud's identification with Moses and assignment of Carl Jung to be Joshua, I grumbled: 'Freud didn't know 'Joshua! '' Velikovsky turned his rugged face and pale brown eyes full upon me and said evenly, like a weatherman reporting: 'Joshua was working as an executioner in Egypt. There is a midrash. ' I hate the robber death.
But death releases the miscreants from school. I think not only of those sons of Velikovsky already appearing in print - perhaps they will carry forward more energetically the best of the new - but too of those persons around the world who have been hidden, sheltering contentedly under the great oak, imagining that their offerings are puny. And how these persons will now appear here and there and should be immediately recognized and greeted as authentic, hitherto silent students and advocates of the new science. Like the men who wrote letters to the Washington Star commenting on an editorial obituary of Velikovsky: 'No one knew who they were, ' but one might perceive that their letters were of an expertness and understanding that could not be called momentary nor were they incidental to the passage of Velikovsky. These types are ready to do something. They must do something now; no more free rides. Thus works death for the greater good.
When all is said and done, I feel sorry for the many scholars and scientists who did not appreciate Velikovsky in his lifetime. They labored often and deviously to bring up some discovery to send crashing down upon him. By now it should be painfully evident to them that they are sons of Sisyphus, condemned for their intrigues to push huge rocks up the hill only to have them fall back to the bottom, times without end. They might have enjoyed, as we have enjoyed, to live in communion with a great intellectual adventure and its leader.
Notes (Chapter 26: Eulogies to Three Quantavolutionaries)
1. Princeton, November 1979 First published in the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies Review IV 2/ 3 (1979-80) 29-31