Last night, at the very beautiful and moving and deep memorial for my late friend, the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, we heard a wonderful keynote address by Lauren Berlant followed by a roundtable of intellectual and personal tributes (both, and brilliantly combined in Eve-esque fashion) from Lauren, Tyler Curtain, Maurice Wallace, and Robyn Wiegman. Afterward, some of her friends also made brief remarks. I told my story of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Linus Pauling and I repeat it here for anyone who knew her or knows her work and would like a smile today.
I met Linus Pauling when I was 17. I was living in Orlando, Florida, and a dozen of us from around the state, kids who had their eye on a science career, were lucky enough to be bussed at dawn each Friday to Cape Kennedy where we spent a morning in an interdisciplinary science lab taught by scientists at the Cape and their profs and other distinguished visitors. Dr. Pauling came a number of times and took interest in our work. I had never met anyone like him before. He not only had a brilliance surpassing anything I'd experienced, but he could see your potential, he saw not only my work but my aspirations for that work (and the other students' of course, but they didn't matter to me at the time and don't now as I retell this: he took interest in my work! do you know what that means when you are 17?!). He was a teacher through and through, an activist and a scientist, and he knew how to push me towards not only what I was trying to do in my experiment (it was on resonance structures) but in the experiment of my life. He took interest in both and made me see how they worked together, the details in the lab, the dreams of a lifetime. It was an astonshingly interactive intelligence, deep and fittingly resonant. He was my hero. It's pretty fair to say I idolized him.
No one displaced him in that revered combination of genius and insight into others, firmness and gentleness, resolve and inspiration, until I met Eve. Instantly, quite literally the first time I met her, when I came to Duke in 1988 for my job talk, I thought back to Dr. Pauling. Her fearlessness in the face of controversy, her energy in promoting unpopular and important ideas and causes, the interactive and inspirational brilliance of the true teacher who is ever a true learner. Her courage, in all matters intellectual and moral. Pauling-like.
So, always in awe of my friend, it took me a while to actually tell her how much I had loved Linus Pauling and how much she was like him, a singular comparison in my eyes. I told her I'd never met anyone else even close to Linus Pauling before. She seemed embarrassed when I told her, uncharacteristically befuddled, and gave me a hug and changed the subject. I assumed that something of my 17 year-old's school girl adulation must have made her shy and she let it drop and we didn't bring it up again.
It was probably two or even three years later that Eve and I were having lunch one day and she said to me, "You told me something once that I've been trying to figure out ever since and I just can't understand it. Why did you compare me to Linus?"
I said it was because he was the most brilliant and courageous and compassionate person I'd ever met. Who else would have won not one but two Nobel Prizes, one for quantum chemistry and one for peace. She was the only other human being I had ever met who compared to him.
She startled to giggle in that high girlish way. "Oh, Linus Pauling!" she said. "I didn't hear the 'Pauling.' I thought you meant Linus the Peanuts cartoon character. I've been trying to figure out some connection but couldn't make it."
Anyone who knows Eve knows she had an amazing grasp of popular culture as well as Proust and James and high literature and culture of all sorts. She could always make a connection. So I imagined her struggling for three years trying to figure out why her new friend, moist eyed with admiration, had compared her to Linus, the cartoon character. To make matters funnier, I have a quirk where I find it hard to read cartoons, the words and the images are confusing to me, so I'd never read Peanuts. I'm not even sure that, at the time, I had ever heard of Linus. (I was told last night that I was wrong about him being the one with the piano, he's the one with the blanket, just in case, like me, you've lived in a cartoon cave for decades and don't understand this story because you don't know the Peanuts reference.)
We had a good laugh over that at the time, and more than once afterwards too. Although she did joke that she always had read Linus as queer.
So that's my tribute, Linus Pauling and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. If they gave Nobel Prizes in literary theory and queer activism, she would have two of them like that other Linus too.