Sunday, September 19, 2010

Farewell Michael Eldridge, a Sad Song.

In the summer of 2006 I was taking my first class at UNCC after a long time away from school. A hot wind blew through the city that summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the sand in Wilmington would be in Charlotte, would have drifted over the rooftops and stopped only when it hit the uptown area where no wind ever blew. There was nothing much to do that summer except for my job at the Deli, so I attended, four mornings a week, a philosophy class titled "Ethics" at the college campus.

It was taught by a man who frowned a lot and had a sense of humor called Michael Eldridge, who fell asleep during his student's presentations and dragged his feet when he walked. That summer of 2006, while the hot wind blew outside and the rest of my life was a constant unstable mess, I sat on a heavy chair inside a freezing, air conditioned classroom, and listened to Michael Eldridge's readings of western philosophy. I heard him tell a student that his task as a philosopher was to "reconstruct philosophy." Heard his grumpy voice for months until it became a footnote to all my readings. Heard him tell us students about the philosophy of John Dewey, which at the time sounded like a very refreshing line of thought. Heard him tell me about his days at Yale Divinity school, about the Vietnam Warm, and about American Pragmatism. Heard him ask me, again and again, as I presented my different topics to him "Yes, but why does this matter?"

Heard him announce how the traditional substance/accident distinction, along with the sharp division between doing and knowing, and between body and mind, were all humbug.
Heard him repeating again and again that these distinctions were the big problem of philosophy. And then at some point he convinced me, and my ideas after him were not the same.

And I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to show you that, when Michael Eldridge taught me philosophy that summer, he determined somehow, the shape and end of certain of my ideas in this discipline. It all seems so far away, and most of his teachings have become almost intuitive now that I am doing graduate work. But something I can say is that, since that summer of 2006, I have been thinking and re-thinking philosophy somehow differently than the way I would have originally thought of it. Had Michael Eldridge not stood there in that freezing, air conditioned classroom to argue against most of my naive conceptions about western thought, I don't think I would be doing (or trying to do) useful philosophy right now.

I only tell you this because tonight I received a phone call from my friend Hannah, telling me that this man who passed through the footnotes of my mind, who taught me so much that summer, who had a good sense of humor, unexpectedly died last week. And even as I write here, I can still hear his grumpy voice from the back pages of my mind. See him walk through the hallways of the Philosophy department at UNCC, dragging his feet, smiling that familiar smile and waving at me from a distance. And I have the sense that his voice, his face, is still more familiar than those of my current professors here in New York. If I may confess something to you, it is that I regret one thing: I did not keep in touch ever since I left Charlotte. And I never got the chance to tell him how all of it, all of his lessons really mattered to me.

So farewell dearest Michel Eldridge, the grumpy philosopher, the hopeful skeptic. You made a difference in my life. I wish you the best in pragmatist heaven, in the heaven that works for you, in the heaven that matters after all, or not. And even as I write here, I still see you walking through the hallways of that small philosophy department at UNCC, smiling and frowning all at the same time, waving at me and saying "Hello" with that familiar voice. I will miss you Michael Eldridge. Farewell.

4 comments:

subjectofnietzscheantendencies said...

That's a very nice farewell Carolina!
Although I did not know Dr. Eldridge, I can tell by your words that he was really great philosopher, and person in general.
It's too bad that I didn't get to take classes with him; he sounds like a philosopher I could have related to.
May he rest in peace.

Shane said...

This is a wonderful piece by a former student. I'm sure that Mike would have been glad to know that his teaching made a difference in your life. Though I was not his student, I still thought of him as an intellectual mentor. I've put a short piece in Mike's memory over on my blog: http://www.personal.psu.edu/sjr21/blogs/shane_j_ralston/blog/

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