Arthur Szathmary, professor emeritus of philosophy, passed away on July 1, 2013
I never realized this, but I must have been in one of his last classes, because I graduated in '86. His Philosophy of Art class was one of my favorites at Princeton. If memory serves me correctly, my father Ruben, '56, also took Philosophy with him and remembered him fondly. He was an extremely interesting person and a thought provoking Professor. RIP.
Professor Szathmary was indeed a thought provoking professor. He strove to teach Philosophy through clear and well reasoned discourse. Although he was a very learned person and a challenging teacher, he was always humane and compassionate. His door was always open. In the winter of 1989, I came back to visit the 1879 Hall with my wife and young son. I was going to ask the Department for Professor Szathmary's address. when in walked a man with a French beret and a wry smile that I could not miss. Professor Szathmary warmly greeted us and we went to his favorite Japanese restaurant for lunch. While we were busy getting reacquainted, Professor Szathmary did not lose an opportunity to play with my son. He loved people and ideas. He sometimes could be the toughest of critics. He has always been the kindest of friend and mentor.
I had the great fortune ( through an administrative error of the Dean) to have Arthur assigned as my academic advisor. I will never forget my first impression meeting with him in his office in 1879 Hall: a noble man with deep, rich, and intelligent eyes. I felt that I was in the presence, not of a professor of philosophy, but a philosopher. Arthur was a wonderful and inspiring teacher who required effort and self discovery by the student. He was a skilled mid-wife who opened my mind and imagination through posing difficult questions or suggesting a relevant reading or work of art to consider, always related to my own concerns and interests. Arthur was very generous with his time and was always available during my low moments taking walks around campus or along Carneige Lake. We became friends over the next thirty years. I miss him terribly and his memory is a blessing.
Arthur had a warmth that is rare in an adult, let alone an academic. Spending time with people, enjoying them, sharing ideas and music and spaghetti with them, was more important to him than money, renown, or any other such reward. I never saw him happier than when he was having tea, Japanese-style, with two little girls, the daughters of a friend. And they were entranced by his reverence for the beauty of the ceramic teacups and the rituals of friendship.
Arthur could not be impersonal. If there is a syndrome that’s the reverse of autism, Arthur had it. He was unnaturally attuned to the feelings of everybody he met. Which meant he often was so engrossed in talking to someone after class, he would leave a pound of chopped meat on the desk in his office and take a new textbook home for dinner. If he was absentminded about his belongings, it was because his mind was always a hundred-percent present to whomever he was talking to.
He loved art but he hated cant. I remember going with him to a lecture given by one of the most lionized continental deconstructionists of the day. The lecturer spent a great deal of his time at the podium reading something he had written which “read” a chandelier as a “text.” In the Q and A, Arthur asked him something like this: “How does describing – at great length – a chandelier as a text help someone enjoy a chandelier and appreciate the craft of the chandelier-maker? Isn’t it just kind of spinning plates?”
I’m a few years too young to have been present at Plato’s symposiums but Arthur’s classes were the next best thing. As Plato shared his ideas with individuals, with friends, instilling affection in the collaborative process of questioning and debating, so Arthur brought warmth and, well, love, to his classes, his bumping into people, his dinners, his friendships. Arthur especially loved his children and his siblings. And in the last decades of his life, he was lucky to have found a woman who loved art and people as much as he did, Lily Hayeem. Thanks to her and them for sharing him with us.
Arthur was one of my favorite professors, and a dear friend. When I took his class in 1979 (?), he addressed us all as "Miss" or "Mister." I remember how honored I was when he and I graduated to first names. He was generous with his time, his humor, and his sarcasm - which was intensified by his permanently crooked smile. He beat death a few times before succumbing at 97, and I'll take some credit, having performed the Heimlich maneuver on him once.
My deepest condolences to Lily and Arthur's family. I will miss him greatly.
After swimming this morning, I read a wonderful selection ( "On Judging Works of Visual Art") from a book Arthur sent me as a gift. As I read, I thought how Arthur's mind was attuned to a different realm and that he placed very little value on the practical.
The author of this piece, Conrad Fiedler, talks about the realm of the visual world as an infinitely fertile field of investigation. But, only a rare individual "who has advanced to the free and independent use of his perceptive faculties" is aware of the infinite possibilities for the visual comprehension of the world. Arthur had this perceptual comprehension in abundance.
And Fiedler explains why such a person ( free in his use of his perceptive faculties) disavows the practical:
" As long as perception serves some purpose, it is limited, it is unfree. Whatever this purpose may be, perception remains a tool, and it becomes superfluous once the purpose is attained."
And later on writes: " To the artist, perceptual experience is from the begnning an impartial, free activity, which serves no purpose beyond itself and which ends in that purpose. "
So in the eyes of the world or the many, so called eccentric or impractical individuals are viewed with humor. Rather, I see it as a strength of character which values the "music of the cosmos or earth" above the struggle for success or making money.
I wanted to share how Arthur is in my thoughts this morning.
The "In Memoriam" comments above are themselves a deep tribute to the education received by being in this remarkable man's presence (and thoughts). All of the above are mesmerizing - blindingly true and redolent of the love and respect and continuing valuation of his impact(s).
Arthur was very respectful and humble, but worldly, which informed his pedagogy, permitted the use of re-enforcing anecdotes to open the cortex to receive experience constructively, to internalize and add to one's mind the essence of his point. He was capable of linear and non-linear thinking, and I believe intuitively knew and often deployed same effortlessly & simultaneously.
At the time,and ever after, I considered him the best at PU, a singular pillar upon which the university's purpose and performance could rest. We are all graced to have known him.
R.I.P. Dear Arthur.
How Do You Say Goodbye
In Memory of my Friend and Mentor, Arthur Szathmary,
Professor Emeritus, Princeton University
2013.11.28 Thanksgiving Day
There was a legend once of a man who meets a Sage on a bridge.
The Sage drops a shoe to the riverbed and asks the man to pick it up.
Astonished, the man picks up the shoe and puts it back on the Sage’s foot.
The Sage then says, “I see you can be taught. Come back in five days.”
The man comes in the morning of the fifth day to find the Sage waiting.
The Sage admonishes the man and tells him to return again in five days.
The man returns the next time earlier but finds the Sage already there.
The Sage admonishes the man and tells him to return yet again in five days.
This time the man returns to the bridge at midnight and waits for the Sage.
In the early dawn, the Sage finally arrives and so begins his teachings.
In time the Sage completes his teachings, he then advises the man.
“I am the Yellow Rock. Return here and you shall find me.”
The man then goes back to the world and accomplishes many things.
He returns after thirteen years to the same bridge.
There he finds a yellow rock, where the Sage once stood.
He reflects upon the last words the Sage spoke to him.
So when the man finally completes his own life’s journey,
He instructs that he and the yellow rock be buried together.
The air is freezing, ahead of the winter solstice.
I go out in the darkness to walk alone.
The light of onrushing cars blinds me.
I lower my hooded head and push my gloved hands into my jacket.
Under the lights of the silent stars, I find my way to the station.
The platform is empty, the ticket booth had been closed years ago.
I shove coins into a machine that spits out the ticket for my ride.
There are no clocks to measure the wait for the next train.
I draw my breath and stare up at the quiet night sky.
I see the face of an old friend and teacher I will not see again.
I struggle to come up with the words to somehow say goodbye.
My mind drifts back to the time, when we first said hello.
It was four decades ago, I was young, lost and troubled.
I had become unsure of myself, in search of direction.
Though his field was outside of my main area of study,
His course became a forum for connecting the ideas fermenting within me.
He taught about Aesthetics, that mysterious field that has attracted so many.
And has doomed so many challengers along its meandering paths.
His message was deceivingly simple: “See things as they really are.”
He showed us many “signposts” along the way of discovery.
To Clive Bell’s essential conception of “significant form,”
To Meyer Shapiro’s meaning of style as “constant form,”
To Coleridge’s essay on the “willing suspension of disbelief,”
To E. H Gombrich’s “Meditations on a Hobby Horse.”
He was a modern day Socrates, a voice of Reason in a chaotic world.
He critiqued common preconceptions of Beauty, Art and Truth.
Encouraging us to think critically beyond “conventional wisdom”,
Unfettered by norms of taste, accepted theories or artistic dogmas.
He used the metaphor of the simple lens and taught about the paths of knowledge.
The Transparent lens, used by Descartes to clarify principles of science and math.
The Translucent lens, used by Poets to infer things, too difficult to be directly perceived.
The Opaque lens, used by Mystics to speak of mysteries, beyond human comprehension.
He warned us of the temptations of the senses, of being lost in one’s emotions.
He taught of the subtle difference between the Sensual and the Sensuous.
The fine line between the arousal of the senses and emotions as an end in itself
And the appeal to the senses that leads us to a different place or state of mind.
He enlightened us with many examples of commentaries on Art.
By Panofsky on Durer’s engraved depiction of the melancholy genius.
By Freud on daVinci’s creation of the Mona Lisa.
By Jung on the meanings of Signs, Symbols and Mandelas.
We reexamined many familiar works of Art in a new Light
We discovered unfamiliar works that challenged well kept assumptions
We eschewed borrowed perceptions, and sought a more intimate understanding
That would be clear, coherent and true to the works of Art themselves.
We breathed Hamlet’s painful final soliloquy to his friend, Horatio.
We sighed with Brutus, during his tender farewell to his wife, Portia.
We reflected on Dante’s parable of love, during his tiered circular journey.
We contemplated on Pousin’s lucid landscape setting for the Burial of Phocion.
He would introduce us to the rigors of philosophic thought
To Descartes’ clear systematic descriptions of emotions
To Kant’s rational critique on moral and aesthetic judgements
To Langer, whom we had the pleasure to meet, and her theory of symbolism and Art.
Our coursework would soon be over.
Final papers would need to be written.
His final instructions were simple as always.
His gleaming eyes and wry smile were reassuring.
I knew I had not done well as a student, despite my good intentions.
I knew I had much more to do. But doing well was not to be the point.
He had given us but a taste of knowledge, to help us start on our own paths.
He left us with an abiding thirst for wisdom and I was grateful for that.
His field was narrow as a gateway, but his teachings were broad as the sea.
He rarely provided simple answers, but asked of us many fertile questions.
He taught us for a brief moment in the springtime of our lives.
But his lessons would last a lifetime of struggle and self discovery.
Amid the pomp and circumstance of commencement,
We said our goodbyes to friends and fondly remember the 1879 Hall.
It would be time to leave those safe shores and jump into the river of Life.
We knew the road ahead would be long, but we were too eager to be afraid.
I would leave my home town for a while to live in the heartland of America.
I was alone again finding my way in a windy city like many others in my class.
My artistic aspirations and interests would buoy me during the cold winters
When the winds howled over Lake Michigan and snow drowned the city streets.
Over the years, I would write back to my old mentor and friend from time to time.
Not every letter was answered. But I appreciated those that were.
I would write about the artistic commentaries I heard every Sunday by a Claudia Cassidy.
Or the restored Louis Sullivan Trading Room or the Art Nouveau show in the Art Institute.
I would visit my professor on occasion. They were usually brief and unplanned.
I remember one to his house on University Place, when I presented him a print of Maillol.
He was always eager to know if I was doing well. I was always happy to see him.
I always left with gifts of recommended readings, places or artwork to see.
There would be a long decade when we were not in touch. Life became hectic,
As I allowed myself to be distracted by the din of the daily work schedule.
Finally on a cold winter day, when the first snow was touching the ground,
I ventured back to 1879 Hall to visit my professor’s old office and classroom.
My teacher had recently retired but I had no information of his whereabouts.
While I was inquiring the receptionist, as if by providence, I saw Professor Szathmary.
He was wearing his signature Basque beret. He had just come by to pick up his mail.
He greeted me warmly, while I introduced my wife and one year old child.
We would keep in touch over the following two decades.
While we were not in constant contact, he seemed to be always there.
Giving me support or encouragement, when I needed to change directions.
Critiquing me when I got lost in my own words and wayward thinking.
I would attempt writing on Architecture and Aesthetics several times.
To expound on themes I had espoused during my years of practice.
My professor was careful to caution me against using borrowed voices.
To speak honestly with my own voice on clear narrowly defined topics.
In the summer, he enjoyed his afternoons sitting outside in his beautiful lawn.
We had many chats there on Art, Architecture, Poetry and Life in general.
His mind was always sharp, clear and coherent.
His heart was always imbued with a romantic spirit and endearing humanity.
He loved life. He lived it passionately. He sought the joy and beauty of living.
He loved his wife, Lily, a lovely, gentle and thoughtful woman, who also loved him.
Who read his favorite sonnets, stories and poems when his eyes could not see.
Who spoke to him and attended to him when he could no longer hear or walk.
As his health became more frail, I would call, though knowing of his difficulty hearing.
I held my breath waiting for his answer and sighed when I heard the sound of his voice.
He was always “reasonably well” and inquired how I and my family were.
Though our chats were brief, his humanity and warmth never left him.
When I received the fateful news in July from his wife, Lily, of his passing,
I found it hard to believe that such a long chapter of my life was closing.
Sadly I looked back at the many things I would have wanted to share with him.
How do you say goodbye to such a wise, dear and gentle friend?
The glare of light coming around the bend interrupts my reverie.
The quick rhythmic whistle announces the arrival of the coming train.
The train stops with a sharp shriek and the doors roll open.
I pause a moment, looking backward at the road I had just traveled.
I breathe the cool air one more time, as the doors close behind me.
I wrote the above on Thanksgiving, reflecting on our wise and gentle mentor during our season of Gratitude.
I share with you below one of the most memorable and reflective of Shakespeare's sonnets and a favorite of Professor Arthur Szathmary.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
I remember taking Prof. Szathmary's course and finding it challenging and wonderful. He could take a wonderful work and with a "seeming" side comment make you realize that you had to go below the surface. We had an amazing opportunity when a master of the Japanese tea ceremony was visiting and was a friend of his. The Master did a short ceremony with one of our fellow students. We watched as this wonderful and beautiful ceremony was done. Prof. Szathmary pointed out that strictly speaking our fellow student had made several mistakes in what she did. But, he pointed out since the point of the ceremony was to make your guest feel welcome a true master will not only never comment on this, they will make it almost impossible to realize it happened. The beauty had a purpose. I keep that in mind more than I expected to at the time.