In a way, my life since then has been a distant reflection of those boyish
hopes. I switched from physics to mathematics, and in fits and starts, after
hanging around Ithaca for eight years, I finally got a BA. I moved to New York
City, and with more fits, more starts, in 1985 I finally got a Ph.D. in
mathematics from the City University of New York. My field is dynamical
systems, the qualitative study of differential equations using tools from
topology. I chose it because it is rich in interesting problems both pure and
applied. After two years at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and three
years at Tufts, and one year at Trinity College in Hartford, I got a job
crosstown at the University of Hartford where I have been ever since. I am
currently working on a mathematical model of two interacting pools of neurons
which is called the Wilson-Cowan model. Well, neurons are in the brain, which
has something to do with the mind, which has something to do with the
humanities. In the Spring 2001 issue of The Mathematical Intelligencer, I have
an article on the philosophy of mathematics, which also has something to do
with the humanities.
Here is the place where you talk about the wife and the kids. For some
reason, no wife, no kids. At least not yet.
In the spring of 1969, as Cornell cracked up, so did I. By June of that
year I was out of psychiatric hospitals. Since then I have never taken any
medication nor have I sought any professional help for mental illness. I
mended my soul by thinking about it. It took a while.
The greatest influence on my life in my Cornell days was my teacher Allan
Bloom. He went on to write the bestseller THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND and
to be the model of the character Ravelstein in the Saul Bellow novel of that
name. Bloom followed his teacher Leo Strauss in claiming that the best human
life was a life dedicated to philosophy understood as inquiry about the whole
of things, natural and human. After I left Ithaca, I continued these kinds of
studies by attending for ten years the classes of my brother Seth Benardete.
Seth taught classics at NYU and philosophy at the New School. He died this
past November. To learn more about this unusual man go to the website
In the fall of 1989, after years of atheistic/agnostic nonbelief, I called
out to god to help me in the middle of severe anxiety attacks brought on by
fears of academic unemployment. And god was there, immediately. And has been
there ever since. Seek and you shall find says the gospel and the tune. I like
to use the lower case, following Melville in a letter to Hawthorne, who states
that the upper case smells of flunkeyism. Along with my prayers, I continue
with inquiries in speculative theology, trying to figure out who or what this
god is. I am too far gone to rest content with any kind of traditional belief,
though I still honor the Judaism I was brought up in.
I remember all sorts of fun things from my days in the Res Club. Howie
Bursen could do a dead-on imitation of Allan Bloom, stutters, gestures, and
all. I remember tossing pillows back and forth from my perch on the second
balcony. I remember Joe Savago getting the idea of us calling some radio talk
show, pretending that we were concerned parents, wondering whether to send our
kids to the Six-Year program or to a good university. Can it really be that
Joe is dead? How I remember him dismissing uncool things as ``oh, norko''. I
suppose I was very ``norko''. I remember taking late night rides down through
the cemetery and over to the State Diner. I remember us crazy kids getting a
pile of bricks and erecting some sort of altar in the lobby, and then
prostrating ourselves in worship.
I believe that the Res Club was one of the first coed dormitories in the
country. People were reading then Robert Rimmer's book THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT
which told of all sorts of wonderful things which would come of such
innovations. I think it was a good thing for someone like myself who was
totally inept with the opposite sex. At least I got to talk to you over
breakfast, gracious ladies.
There were also our studies. After breakfast, we would head off down
Triphammer Road to the main campus. We were supposed to fulfill our general
education requirements by taking special seminars which had six credits
attached to them. Mattjes Jolles of the German Department taught one of them.
We read Goethe's YOUNG WERTHER and Schiller's LOVE AND INTRIGUE. Jolles
confessed to us that he himself had once tried to write poetry but that he
lacked the talent. I remember that one day Mike McFarland spoke to me after
class, and told me that I was mistaken about poetry. It was not just emotional
expression but it also had a cognitive component. James Marchand taught
another seminar, this one devoted to the Middle Ages and to Wolfram von
Eschenbach's PARZIVAL. Marchand, who hailed from the Appalachian hill country,
and who was proud to be a hard-shell Baptist, was also a fantastically erudite
man who claimed to have read all medieval literature up through the eighth or
was it ninth century. He made a distinction between hoity-toity folks and us
good plain people. He thought of Allan Bloom as hoity-toity. We learned about
the different kinds of courtly love such as something called hohe-minne. We
learned about the sixth century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville. Marchand was
charmed by Isidore's fake etymology for aves, a via, no path, which is how
Not to neglect the other side of things, one of the faculty in residence
Michael Balch from the Department of Mathematics. One day he brought in
someone else from the Department to talk about the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality.
On reading the announcement of the talk, even Fred Kardon expressed fear that
it would be way over his head. Or at least so he pretended. Later Fred and I
were lab partners on a project in a physics course, measuring the Johnson
noise in a resistor and using that to compute Boltzman's constant. I was
assigned the task of presenting our results. I had difficulty because I did
not understand the complex version of the Fourier transform.
I wasn't a good student. I very often skipped class and went off to read
in the stacks of Uris Library or in the Browsing Library in Willard Straight
Hall. If any of my students should try to pull such a stunt on me, I would
drop them from the course immediately.
In the browsing library I would read periodicals which discussed the
growing war in Vietnam. I do not remember much discussion of the war in the
Res Club that first year, except for one occasion when a group of us gathered
for an informal teach-in in Michael Balch's room at the end of the corridor.
Timothy McKibben was a graduate of Phillips-Exeter. In his senior year
there he had taken a tutorial on T. S. Eliot's FOUR QUARTETS. He set up a
study group for the poem. He explained that the lines ``Garlic and sapphires
in the mud/ Clot the bedded axle-tree'' refers to the Cross. He liked Bob
remember a group of us gathering in his room to listen, oh so carefully, to
the newly released BLONDE ON BLONDE. He had a little portable record player,
nothing fancy. Timothy was a serious and noble young man. He died that summer,
climbing in the Alps.
The night of April 5, I was working late in my room on a paper for Allan
Bloom's Government 462 course. I was writing on the character Polus in Plato's
GORGIAS. I had open in front of me the translation by Jowett in a two volume
set from the Random House Modern Library which I had taken to Cornell from my
father's library. I heard a noise in the corridor and went out and found
smoke. I tried to set off the fire alarm, then I knocked on several doors to
wake people up, and then I made my escape out the window in my first floor
bedroom. Some of us tried to get a ladder from a nearby fraternity to help the
people on the second floor. We also crawled around to the top of the kitchen
in back of the Club in order to see if we could help anyone there. I was alert
and wide awake, so I could do these things. Most of the students were drowsy
from sleep and dazed by what was happening. I still have that Jowett Plato,
stained by smoke on the page to which it was opened.
I will try to come to the reunion in June.