I was sitting on Black Rock Beach on Block Island recently, having climbed down a slippery trail holding onto an old piece of rope. The beach was covered in smooth stones, and the waves were crashing with force, the waters spilling up over the rocks and retreating with the sound of a million stones clacking against one another. I tried half-heartedly to build a cairn, stacking five or six stones until they toppled. I found a flat black rock and used another one to etch the initials “R.J.B.” onto the surface. My former teacher, mentor, and dissertation advisor at The New School for Social Research, Richard J. Bernstein, had died the day before on the Fourth of July.
Dick (as he was known) taught at The New School since 1989, the same year he served as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association and delivered a keynote address entitled “Pragmatism, Pluralism, and the Healing of Wounds.” I was only fourteen at the time, unaware of Dick but reading Nietzsche in the library of my public high school. Before that, he taught at Haverford College, and earlier still, at Yale University, where he was infamously denied tenure in a landmark case that sparked student protests and led to reforms in the tenure procedures.
Everywhere he went, he was in conversation with the leading philosophical figures of his time. He was close friends with Richard Rorty, who was his classmate at the University of Chicago, and later with Hannah Arendt, with whom he taught at The New School and whose work he wrote about in his 2018 book, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now. He knew Derrida, Gadamer, Habermas, and a host of others. Dick’s work was focused around putting thinkers from disparate times and traditions into conversation, and he facilitated those dialogues in real life as well as on the page.
How lucky to find a beach of stones on July 5. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t even know it existed. Other beaches on the island are covered in sea grass and yellow sand. But here I was on a perfectly uniform stretch of rocks rolling right into the waves. There weren’t many other people around except my family and our friends. One of the kids in our crew was fully clothed and trying to climb onto a giant rock in the break, her tiny body washed backwards in a spray of water with each attempt. I was looking for a sharp flat stone to skip into the waves, hoping for a sign, some perfect stone that might skip seven or eight times out to sea.
A magic pebble. That was the subject of a book that Dick retrieved from a bookshelf in his apartment in New York City several years ago when I was visiting him. He wanted to find a book for my daughter to read, and he had the perfect one in mind. He disappeared into a side room and emerged looking triumphant, a slim, soft cover copy of Sylvester and The Magic Pebble (1969) by William Steig in hand. He and my daughter, Cora, sat down to read together, and that is how I first heard the story of a young donkey named Sylvester who loves to collect pebbles. One day Sylvester finds a luminous red pebble that can grant wishes. Almost immediately thereafter, scared by a fierce lion, he grips his magic pebble and wishes himself into a rock. The rest of the story chronicles his life as a stone and his parents’ desperate search for their only child.
Even without the lion, I could imagine wishing myself into a rock. It’s not a bad wish in a crisis. True, Sylvester makes a rash choice that leaves him with few options (and no hooves to hold onto his magic wishing pebble—which requires contact with the wisher and rolls away as soon as Sylvester turns to stone), but he succeeds in transforming into something impervious to attack. Yes, he is sad and hopeless and bored in his time as a rock. But the stars shine bright above him at night, and the sun warms him by day. I suppose part of the moral of the story is: be careful what you wish for. But I can’t help thinking that the moral is also about the possibility of finding a magic pebble if you look hard enough, and the chance (however slim) of retrieving someone you love when it seems they have disappeared forever.
Long odds. But I have looked for magic stones since I was a child wandering Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod, searching for rocks ringed with a perfect white line. Those are wishing stones someone told me, and to have one in hand meant you could make one wish. Easy enough I thought. And I collected as many as I could to have a store of wishes saved for emergencies.
I’m not sure what happened to my wishing stones. Lord knows I could have used a wish or two in an emergency along the way, but it is rare to find oneself equipped with the right rock (or the right wish) at the right time. Rarer still to find a stone like Sylvester’s—one that instantaneously grants a wish. And the rarest of all: to find someone again who has gone missing.
I remember Dick’s white hair bent close to Cora’s head, and the gleeful way he disclosed the end of the story, the part where Sylvester’s father finds the red pebble and gently, unknowingly, places it atop the rock that is his son at the same moment that Sylvester, hearing the voices of his mother and father, wishes that he were himself again. Presto! He turns back into a donkey, and they all embrace.
I stacked the rock with Dick’s initials atop a pale pink stone on Black Rock Beach. I found several pebbles in shades of orange and yellow to make a ring around the letters, and I left the pile there to sit in the sun. Wishing stones. Magic stones. A whole beach of indifferent rocks in a world without Dick. When I got home, I reread Sylvester and the Magic Stone, and I could recall Dick’s voice reading all of it, especially the line when Sylvester’s father entreats his grieving wife to go out for a picnic on a perfect May day, telling her, “Let’s try to cheer up, to live again, even though Sylvester, our angel, is no longer with us.”
There was nothing surprising about Dick’s death. He was ninety years old. A titan of American philosophy, he lived a long and amazing life. He had only just retired last semester from teaching at The New School, and he had just finished writing he last book. Oddly perhaps, I dreaded the idea of his death from the moment I met him when I started graduate school in 1999. Maybe this was because, from that time forward, he was my champion, something I have only known in his guise. He helped me through graduate school and in negotiating and getting my first job in philosophy (“It’s a crazy department,” he told me, “But I think you’ll be ok.”). He encouraged me in my work and in my wider life, especially as an artist. He seemed to be my guardian angel—a comic, pedestrian, savvy angel like Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life (1943). I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way about Dick, because he was genius at making people feel important. And I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how to cheer up and live again now that he is no longer with us.
There will be many remembrances of Dick that highlight his intellect and his philosophical ideas. In the context of all of that, it may seem odd to be thinking about rocks and a children’s book. I think one of the things I loved most about Dick was his complete indifference to any demarcation between the high and the low. I take this to be a part of his Jewish heritage—a sensibility I also find in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. The divine is not distant or otherworldly, it is right here before us, below our feet. For Levinas, it was the face of the other person. For Dick, it was assuredly in the shape of children—his own and anyone else’s. He lit up in the presence of any small child. After having my first child, he swooped down with open arms to gather her up and tell her that, within his own family, he was known as “The Kissing Bird.”
Peals of laughter. It was absurd, but somehow not at all surprising that Dick would have an avian alter ego, that he was really a mythical cupid (with a Brooklyn accent) sent to deliver love. Cora loved Dick too. He was the kind of grown-up who understood children and wasn’t in the least bit afraid of them. This was a part of Dick’s magical alchemy and integral to what made him such a good person and an important philosopher. A serious philosopher who was also seriously devoted to family, to friendship, to fun. My memories of him in the seminar room at The New School include him pounding his first on the table and yelling “I only want the truth!,” but also—equally—shucking corn in the sunshine on the steps of his house in Jay, New York, seeing him walking arm in arm with his beloved wife, Carol, along a green hillside, watching a Fourth of July parade where he displayed all the excitement of a child seeing a firetruck for the very first time.
If he were still alive, I would have serious questions for him about philosophy and my own future, about the world, and what might become of all of us, about Hegel and Dewey, Arendt, Derrida, and Gadamer. I can imagine him tipping back his head, his eyes closed in thought, his arms folded high across his chest, his glasses perched in his abundant white hair. I can still hear the way he’d start every sentence as if it was already in the middle, his high-pitched voice saying, “The thing about it. . .,” and the strange repetitions that peppered his speech, making it sound musically elliptical, circuitous. But if he were still alive, he wouldn’t be asking me about philosophy. He’d ask about my kids. “One child is an extension of your romance,” he once told me, “Two is a family.”
In Madrid, one year at a conference, we walked to a playground to push Cora on the swings, after which Dick picked her up and carried her on his shoulders all over the park. He must have been over eighty at the time, sauntering in the summer heat with a twenty-pound toddler on his head. A few years later when my second daughter, Violet, was born, Dick interrupted a conversation we were having to impatiently ask me, “Yes, OK, we’ll get to that, but when are you bringing the children?” When are you bringing the children? The question was at the center of every conversation we had in recent years. Dick wrote about crucial issues—about evil, nature, politics, action, pragmatism, fallibility—but he remained focused on the here and now, the things that mattered: the fleeting time of childhood, the seasons, friendship, family, good food on the table, a book to read, a hand to hold.
A few years ago, Dick told me how much he liked an article I had written about death and dying. “I’m the last of a dying generation,” he told me. “I’ve buried so many friends.” We were at his house in Jay, strapping an old wooden cider press to the top of our car. My husband and I were taking the press home because Dick was worried that no one would ever use it again. It needed some repairs. He seemed so happy to see it fixed on the car and heading toward new apple trees. “I’ll send you pictures of the kids pressing cider,” I promised him. And in the fall, I did.
There is a Jewish tradition of putting a small stone atop a headstone to remember the dead. I have heard that this is a way of displaying your presence at the grave, paying respect, but also a way of holding memory, placing it in a stone. Better stones than flowers if you want things to last. I have often wished that I could be as steady as a stone, sitting among them on the beach or walking beside a lopsided stone wall. In times of grief, one sinks like a stone, and perhaps one seeks the company of weighty beings, of dirt and rocks. Really we are just looking for gravity, something steady and reliable that won’t go away. I remember Oliver Sacks writing about minerals and stones near the end of his own remarkable life as “little symbols of eternity.” They are reminders of a time beyond the human scope, of life in other forms. Now I wonder about placing a pebble on a boulder and having it turn into something else—a donkey or a kissing bird. I wonder about Dick’s spirit and where it has gone in the universe and whether I’ll ever find the wishing stone to call him back.
If it’s true that there are multiple ways of retrieving someone who has been lost, then I will keep looking, like Sylvester, for a magic pebble. Not to be an ass or bring anyone back from the dead, but because life circulates in mysterious ways, and it is so easy to overlook the things that are right beside you or lying there on the ground. Dick’s own philosophy pointed us toward each other, to our own time, to our lives, and our responsibilities. Can you face what’s there? It’s much harder than facing the unknown. Can you love well? It’s much harder than it seems. Dick did both and showed generations of us, his students, how to do it.
Never write your words in stone someone told me. But it wasn’t Dick. He was adventurous and alive like no one else, unafraid of words or stones or time. Thank goodness we have his books to keep us company, even if they pale in comparison to the electric flare of his being-there. It seems fitting that he died on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, a day of parades and fireworks lighting the night sky. A day to celebrate the fragile union of a country newly born, a country he believed in through all its dark and darkening times.
On Block Island this year, we went to a parade on the Fourth of July where strangers tossed candy, necklaces, and flags from passing floats. Later we discovered we had left the sparklers at home, and so there were no burning streams of light as the kids danced and twirled on the lawn. There were no fireworks. It was oddly quiet and dark save the stars. I wouldn’t know until the next morning that Dick was among them, or that I would feel so suddenly alone. A world dimmed in his absence, silent as a stone, so unlike him, so new.
Megan is an artist and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University, where she teaches course in aesthetics, phenomenology, and twentieth-century continental philosophy. Her research interests include color, synesthesia, autism, psychoanalysis, and embodiment.
She is the author of Levinas and James: Towards a Pragmatic Phenomenology (2009), co-editor with Marcia Morgan of Richard J. Bernstein and the Expansion of American Philosophy: Thinking the Plural (2016), and currently at work on a book on Levinas, Derrida, and palliative care in America.
You can also find her work at Water Street Projects.