Ted Cohen Remembered
I arrived to the University of Chicago in 1977 as a graduate student when Ted was Chair in Philosophy. The first time I met him he gave me an extended lecture on the problem of penile frostbite and how it affects joggers in the Chicago winter. A dazzling array of riffs followed over the next thirty seven years, about which university gyms have stained glass windows, why Americans enjoy fast foods, the way the lapels of an Italian suit should be tailored, the reasons why Poles are so funny and Dubrovnik is so beautiful, the nature of the beautiful and why Hegel was a million miles from understanding it, how being a Cubs Baseball fan is an exercise in altruism, whether one has a moral duty to visit Auschwitz, about America’s ambivalence towards Europe and how this is expressed in Hollywood movies, about why, if he were the Czar of Russia he would be richer than the czar of Russia, which is my favorite of the millions of jokes I learned from Ted.
Two Jews from Odessa are talking and one says to the other:
“If I were the Czar of Russia I would be richer than the Czar of Russia”.
“That’s impossible,” says the other. “It’s ridiculous. If you were the Czar of Russia you would be the Czar of Russia, ergo you would be exactly as rich as he is.”
“Oh no, not at all” the man says.
“So how would you be richer Mr. Big Shot?”
“It’s very simple. I’d teach Hebrew lessons on the side.”
Many of Ted’s riffs ended up as essays. He was a master at inflecting philosophical ideas through deftly discussed ordinary examples. He wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s film North By Northwest, Hitch’s monument to America. Ted was fascinated by the use of razors in that film. How the tiny razor Cary Grant (aka Roger Thornhill) uses to shave after he exits the night train in Chicago magnifies the size of his face, preparing its merger with the monumental faces of the Presidents cut from the granite of Mt. Rushmore, upon which a vertiginous chase scene takes place at the end of the film. He said that for Hitchcock, a Brit, America’s vast spaces appear either too crowded or too empty, and share with cinema the astonishment and anxiety of the larger-than-life. He wrote a wonderful short story about driving, which featured his grandfather, and another about an old philosophy professor’s encounter with a know-all student, casting the old professor as an unblemished version of himself.
Ted grew up in a tiny Illinois town where everyone played basketball. He was brainy. The aloneness made him a lifelong joiner, wonderful in James Joyce or Torah study groups, President of the Quadrangle Club and the Temple, eager to share experiences with people in whatever currency. He abhorred condescension towards ordinary people and celebrated ordinary life for its inventiveness. Some of his finest ideas were about the ways prosaic uses of language in jokes and metaphors turn out to have the crystallized power of works of art, superlatively imaginative, cultivating intimacy, refining and deepening emotion and recognition, allowing one person to take up the world of another. His books on jokes and metaphors are wise, funny and absolutely unique. Only he could have written them.
Then there was the wit. I once had occasion to mention the old adage that it takes all kinds. He said, “I don’t know if it takes all kinds but there certainly are all kinds.” To Nietzsche’s famous remark, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” Ted replied, “Apparently Nietzsche was not thinking about being shot in the stomach or the knees.”
When Ted showed up for our wedding in 1991 he was recently divorced and very lonely. He came with us to the flower market in San Francisco and traipsed around with us for most of the day. Then he met Andie, someone as zany, vulnerable, comic, talented, and pixilated as Ted was. They found each other, she a society dame who worked as an artist for the Chicago courts, he a man from the world of Aristotle and the rabbis. Turning from sketching John Wayne Gacy and other serial killers on trial, Andie followed Ted to American Society for Aesthetics meetings where she drew gray-bearded philosophers talking about music appreciation. Together Ted and Andie were something between Abelard and Heloise and the Odd Couple. On their tenth wedding anniversary Ted read out a list of all the places they’d travelled together: Paris France and Paris Indiana, St. Louis and Austin Texas, Portsmouth Maine and Montreal Canada, and on and on. I had the feeling Ted and Andie could find adventure anywhere. Ted never lost his boyish enthusiasm for the wide world, even if he brought a grown up’s ironic twist to it. He felt if you study the world with a bemused, humane, honest attentiveness, you can find something to philosophize about more or less anywhere: in reading the newspaper, drinking your morning coffee, wandering the malls of southern California or the bazaars of Istanbul.
Ted taught philosophy like a tennis-pro plays tennis. He helped you to play a better game. The essay he wrote about the aesthetics of virtuosity really did apply to him: about how the virtuoso makes the difficult seem effortless. He wore his tutorial virtuosity easily, like one of the ten or twelve Brioni suits he’d purchased on Twelfth Street and Roosevelt Road when the collapse of the Japanese economy led to an overstock in size 36. He never wanted acolytes. Ted wanted me to become me, not him. I shall never thank him enough for that. He set me on a lifelong journey. I have never met another person who celebrated my own becoming before the fact of it.
I am proud we were life-long friends. It will take me the rest of my life to imagine to the world without him in it.