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Salim Kemal Remembered
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Salim Kemal Remembered

Ivan Gaskell

I first met Salim Kemal in Cambridge, England in 1983 at a College dinner. We were both members of Wolfson College. I had come from London University’s Warburg Institute, and Salim had been teaching at the American University in Beirut. We soon fell into a habit of lunching in College together, usually with others who had lived outside academia. Salim’s experience of the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion had given him an affinity with those who had captained ships on the high seas, or sent dispatches from war zones.

Salim was then working on two seemingly disparate projects: the text that was to become Kant and Fine Art (1986), and material that would lead to The Poetics of Alfarabi and Avicenna (1991). His range of reference was unexceeded, his curiosity seemingly boundless. Yet invariably he wore his learning disarmingly lightly, even when pouncing, tiger-like, on some flaw in a luncheon companion’s argument, whether the topic was how to read Heidegger, or how to prepare hoagies.

The factor that cemented our friendship was a complex interlocking of our family pasts. Although up to that time he had spent much of his life in England, Salim was, and always remained, Indian. Generations of my family had served the Raj. When we discovered that his old school in Ootacamund had been within my great-grandfather’s purview, our mutual understanding was complete. It was as though we had fulfilled the conditions for friendship between Indian and Englishman outlined in the last pages of A Passage to India. On visits Salim never tired of examining my inherited Indian art works and nineteenth-century photographs of my imperial forebears, but he rarely neglected to remind me of Indian Independence Day each year.

As is usual among alpha males, our bonding also occurred through sport: neither golf (too bourgeois) nor squash (too macho), but croquet. Croquet involves a peculiarly precise meanness which, if one accepts it as part of the game and no more, cements trust between players. Summer afternoons after lunch would find us on the College croquet lawn, and it was there that Salim suggested we undertake an ambitious project together.

We had long agreed that the human sciences had been stimulated yet failed by critical theory. Might philosophy – in all its variety – help to advance thinking in the human sciences? Might philosophers be coaxed out of their self-referential prison-house of purely theoretical problems if invited to consider practical issues in a wide variety of fields? We came to the conclusion that a book series, each volume treating a topic amenable to illumination from within philosophy – again in all its variety – and also from within the human science disciplines, would be a worthwhile experiment.

We sold the idea to Cambridge University Press and the series was born as Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and the Arts. We reached out to our wide circle of academic acquaintance and found a generous readiness to contribute. While we were both still in Cambridge we literally wrote together, sitting at a keyboard, tapping in sentences alternately. In that process I discovered finally that our intellects were fully complementary. I have never felt an intellectual rapport with another person so complete and so seemingly effortless in its expression.

Soon, Salim accepted a position at Pennsylvania State University. An idealist, he was determined that if he were to teach in the USA. it would be at a state, not at a private, institution. When, in turn, I was recruited across the ocean, I regret that I had no such scruples. Our books began to appear in the year of my own move, 1991. Then, in 1995, Salim accepted the chair of the Philosophy Department at Dundee University. He had mixed feelings about returning to Britain. It gave him opportunities to build a department, and state support remained strong for Scottish higher education. In anticipation, he wrote to me: “There is also the general shabbiness and poor relative appearance (and substance) of most British universities to get used to again, when you have to be prepared to give your left arm in order to get a pencil, let alone a computer. But, given that I shall have a PC and email, contact with America and things American should continue from Dundee almost as easily as it does from this island of State College.”

This proved to be true, and our collaboration continued – largely by email – through the production of ten volumes of our series, six of which we edited ourselves (including Nietzsche, Philosophy and the Arts with Daniel Conway). When visiting the USA Salim would stay with me and my family in Lexington. We would catch up on work, write, and go running together. From 1998 onwards we were winding up the series and laying plans for new projects. I last saw Salim in the summer of 1999 while he was a visiting professor at Princeton. My wife, son and I drove there to spend the Fourth of July weekend with Salim and his family. It was furiously hot and humid. The temperature hardly dipped below one hundred degrees and their rented house had no air conditioning. Yet Salim offered me a devastating philosophical critique of several chapters of the typescript of the book I had written during my own sabbatical, and we spent as much time as possible in the public pool (along with the rest of the population).

Others can say more authoritatively than me that Salim Kemal’s agonizingly unexpected and premature death has deprived aesthetics of a fine and daring thinker. I know this; but more than this, I know that I have lost a friend. Whether talking of how it felt to be a person of color in the Princeton Senior Common Room, or playing with his son and daughter, or explaining some abstruse point of hermeneutics that I had failed to grasp, a quiet smile would radiate from his countenance; his eyes would narrow benevolently, and he would seem at peace with the entire world.

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