Memories of Marshall Grossman, by Orrin Wang

To profess what we as scholars, critics, writers and thinkers do and to know Marshall—or to know of Marshall—was to be comforted.  It was to be inspired.  It was also to be provoked, unsettled, puzzled, and yes, at times annoyed.  But it was to be comforted because Marshall reflected back to us the best in us.  His intellect was formidable: learned, passionate, unsentimental, and wry.  With Marshall you knew at least one person in the room knew his stuff.  We were smart because we had Marshall.  And now, we—his friends, colleagues, and students, this department and this world—are less so.

My sadness over Marshall’s passing has many sides to it.  One is certainly personal: we showed up at Maryland the same semester over 21 years ago; I was fresh out of graduate school and Marshall had moved his family down from New York, after teaching at Fordham.  We shared that sense of starting a new life here and both first lived on Capitol Hill, not far from each other.  We got together socially at times—I still have a Screaming Jay Hawkins vinyl disk that Marshall somehow got me for my first birthday in DC and I helped him move to his place on Connecticut Ave., which is the only reason why I saw his plaque from the Milton Society for his first book, which was tucked away with socks in a drawer. When I needed someone to teach my Derrida Lacan seminar class so that we could go to China to adopt our daughter, I relied on Marshall.  As our lives got busier and more complicated I mainly saw Marshall on campus, in the halls of first Susquehanna and then Tawes.  But throughout all our time here we had another side to our relationship, which was intellectual.  It was an enduring part of our friendship that I now feel painfully honored to have had.  To suspect that Marshall might actually think you knew your stuff, no matter your own opinion on the matter—that was something many of us treasured in a way that I don’t think Marshall ever fully knew or understood. 

For Marshall and me our intellectual relationship didn’t have so much to do with our respective literary fields. There wasn’t much that I could tell Marshall about Milton and while Marshall did respect the Romantics—we had Kant and Hegel after all, and Marshall once mentioned to me how much he enjoyed the three days he spent reading all 17 cantos of Don Juan for his comprehensive exams—I always felt that in a traditional way the Romantics were for Marshall belated crashers to the party that the early Modern had started. 

Rather, our intellectual relationship was based on an abiding, shared interest in critical theory. For Marshall, I think, critical theory was part of the wager that serious thinking was a difficult, complex, enterprise.  It got us out of our comfort zone and routine ways of thinking, but that was the point.  At times Marshall’s thought could certainly seem overly complicated, but that was a risk I believe he was willing to take.  Theory was also a place for argument, which of course, Marshall loved.  I always thought that for all his cutting wit there was something innocent or idealistic about Marshall, insofar as he truly believed that winning an argument with someone was always the same thing as persuading that person.  Perhaps most important for Marshall, though, theory was about reading.  For Marshall reading was never to be taken for granted: it demanded expertise, patience, and an openness to the power and contingencies of language and history.  Reading was never rote and in that sense for Marshall, reading and theory were about the possibility of the future, a future sense of our selves and our past.

As many of you know Marshall especially felt that promise for a long time in the workings of psychoanalysis.  But for Marshall psychoanalysis was not really about discovering the past external events and people responsible for the compulsive patterns of our behavior.  To the contrary, for Marshall, psychoanalysis was about owning, taking possession of, taking responsibility for your desire.  For Marshall the fragile absolute was not to be had through either an empirical or ontological inquiry; rather it was found in the courage of subjective choice, the possibility of which Marshall was drawn to by his own intellectual and personal disposition, and of which he found modeled for him both in the writings of Lacan and in the early modern authors that he loved so much.  For Marshall psychoanalysis promised an ethics for modern, and postmodern, life.

Marshall was thus skeptical about the other form of ethics coming from contemporary, Continental thought, a Derridean or Levinasean provocation that involved being open to difference and the Other.  For Marshall Otherness could simply be an alibi that allowed you to have some external Master, the big Other who authorized and was responsible for your desire.  For Marshall difference generated by the Derridean play of language only begat more difference, which gave you no way to judge what was important, who you were and what you wanted.  Marshall and I debated this position in exchanges that now seem painfully few.  We once had a long email discussion about these matters that involved not only Derrida and Lacan, but also Hamlet’s inability to stop playing with language and his avoidance of a talking cure that would enable him to confront Gertrude’s sexuality.  As Marshall put it, “The boy needs help, not more binaries.”  I want to conclude by sharing with you a bit more of what he wrote in that email, which seems appropriate not only because of the way it reminds us of the distinct seriousness and quality of mind that was Marshall’s, not only because of how it shows Marshall’s own sense of himself in the world, and not only because of how it fondly defines for me an important part of my own relationship with him, but also because I want to give him the last word, which he always relished.

So this is Marshall—these are his words, if not that exceptional voice we all knew and loved: “I still like Lyotard's idea of rejecting the grand recit in favor of  petits recits--another way of dwelling in the particular. Instead of calling for action, this practice [this dwelling in the particular, what Hamlet needs to do] calls for attention. Now, the objection I usually get is that this is a recipe for doing nothing. I don't see it that way because I think actions are always called for. On the contrary, once we understand that we cannot ever have the whole story or have it wholly, we have no excuse for inaction. Constrained, even in our partial and divided state we have no excuse not to take responsibility. We cannot say, Milton teaches us, or Shakespeare tells us, or as Derrida has shown us--but rather 'Because I have, possibly in error, construed these things in this way, I take an act which will remain irreducibly arbitrary, but which will have a consequence which will mark me indelibly and which I can neither escape nor predict.’

Who is . . . calling [for this action], however?  I am, but from the future. I act to do what I think will make the world better. I imagine myself in the historical future and call back to me to make it so.”

Orrin Wang, Professor, Department of English, University of Maryland