Remarks on the passing of Robert Paul Levine

Remarks on the passing of Robert Paul Levine

January 26, 2022

Emanuel Pastreich

I met Paul Levine at a point in my life when I thought I was full-formed, independent and well along on my way in my career. He certainly was not my father, although he would marry my mother and I would be tied to him, in one way, or another as a result. Or at least that is what I thought.

But I underestimated the power of Paul and I certainly did not imagine that by the end he played the role of my father on many occasions to a greater degree than anyone else. Perhaps it was precisely because he never assumed such a role that he had such an impact on me, and on my children.

That was Paul. Who he was, in a straightforward sense, was obvious.  But who he was in a spiritual and creative sense was a puzzle, a mystery, an invitation to something far beyond the ordinary—although he would never have said something like that. As spiritual as he was, he always presented himself as a strict scientist, of course.

When I visited his little house in University City, Missouri, back in 1991, he was not so easy for me to talk to. He was a bit gruff, a bit defensive and he was unwilling to discuss any but a few topics. But even at that less than perfect start, I could tell that there was tremendous depth in Paul. I noticed how he had arranged his items in the bathroom with tremendous care, and also with striking simplicity, suggesting a deep aesthetic sense that did not draw attention to itself.

I saw him reading a broad range of books in different fields, and I observed his ability to interact with just about anyone, to find in the depth of his learning the means to engage whomever he met.

I thought his gruff and laconic style meant that he was a typical elitist academic, something like what I tended to be back in those days. But that also was a complete misunderstanding.

Over the years I watched how Paul spoke to those around him, regardless of their background, with a deep sense of respect for everyone, and also an honest curiosity about how people thought.

I assumed that Paul wanted everyone to see the world like he did. But, in fact, he wanted to understand how others perceived the world.

I came to understand that although he had started at Harvard, there were deep principles that undergirded his interactions, above all a commitment to equality in the pursuit of truth.

I observed, over the decades, Paul’s skill as a teacher, not as a lecturer—as I never heard him teach—but as a poser of questions who engaged in a subtle Socratic method with those around him.

I saw the sophisticated manner in which he spoke with my children, Rachel and Benjamin. He imparted knowledge to them, but he was eager, at the same time, to learn about them, to learn from them.

He was teaching them, I believe, to teach themselves. Paul represented that tradition of teaching as “learning out loud.” 

In the case of Benjamin, his exchanges with Paul on science and the history of science were involved and included the reading of books and frequent debates that left me behind. There is no doubt that Paul played a tremendous role in Benjamin’s intellectual development.

Martha’s Vineyard has become the familiar site for interactions with Paul, meeting with him in his study where he wrote, read from his piles of books and articles, watched classic films late at night, and was able, remarkably, to step out of that tremendous rush forward of modern life and to stop and to observe.

He had a certain stability in his spirit so that whatever might have irritated him a minute ago quickly vanished and he went back to observing things as they are. No matter what the challenge, the crisis, Paul was always back on an even keel before the sun went down.

I feel that Paul was a scholar in a spiritual sense, in a sense that most professors today are not, and he continued to be a true scholar long after he retired.

Paul’s passing is, in a profound sense, the passing of a generation of intellectuals like Jeremy Knowles and Henry Rosovsky at Harvard, men who played such a central role in making scholarship human.    

Paul was clear-headed and insightful until his last minute.

I remember how he cooked salmon for us when our family visited and how he delighted the children with his odd jokes, and made them feel right at home because they could sense, without him saying a word, that they were important to him.

We assume that as people grow older, they become crotchety and inflexible. I do not know whether that is the case. What is clear is that Paul was the complete opposite. He was stubborn and difficult to speak with when I first met him, but in his eighties, and especially in his 90s, he displayed infinite patience and a kindness, an openness and a solidity of spirit, that is hard to find.

In the old days, when I called on the telephone, Paul would say, “I will get your mother.” The conversation was over. But later, he would not only engage me in a thoughtful discussion, but even displayed an uncanny ability to anticipate, and to respond to, what it was I had in mind.

I do not think Paul would want a tribute that piled up all his academic achievements like a marble mausoleum. He would not want us to list his famous textbook Genetics and his hundreds of academic journal articles. He never mentioned any of that research in any of our conversations.

He was certainly a product of institutions, and he enjoyed the processes by which events are planned and carried out. His planning for the troubadour performances in Martha’s Vineyard were fastidious and devoted. But the creative part was most important for Paul.

Even when he talked about his time at Harvard or Stanford, it was never about the big institutional structures, but the humous asides, the odd encounter with Julia Childe, or the humorous exchange at a boring faculty meeting.

To be honest, I have known many scientists in my 25 years as a professor, but I never met a scientist who had the degree of love for history, music, art and literature that I observed in Paul. It was not merely that he has read everything because he was a genius. No, nothing like that at all. Art and literature was at the core of what was Paul.

I am sorry I did not have the chance to spend more time with Paul over the years. I most certainly would have learned an enormous amount from him.

I would have learned about history and culture, about science and policy. Above all, I could have learned how to be human, how to listen and how to just be there, when just being there is one’s role.

Even if we cannot get out to Martha’s Vineyard regularly, Paul will always be there in his study, with his various objects on the shelves around his desk, devices for navigation, the stones picked up long ago, that he placed carefully amongst his favorite books.

My mother, Marie Louise, is the artist, but Paul is also an artist who creates a carefully-ordered ecosystem around himself. The difference, perhaps, is that he does not draw attention to his creations. You could walk by them, as I often did, without noticing what he had invented with such grace.

The loss of Paul is a hole in our universe, a rip in the walls of our reality. At the same time, however, it is also a door to something beyond. It is not only the case that Paul has gone somewhere outside the everyday—but that he opened a portal, like a black hole, that links us to another universe.

The truth is that Paul always offered a window to a deeper understanding of human experience. We just did not notice how remarkable an individual he was.

So, as a proper epithet to Paul, and so as to draw attention to what we have gained, I will close with a poem that sums up what Paul will mean to us going forward, a view of the world from Paul’s perspective. The poem captures how Paul, forever at his desk at the house, has also blended into the very landscape of Martha’s Vineyard.

Do Not Stand by My Grave and Weep

Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand
By my grave, and weep.

I am not there,
I do not sleep—

I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints in snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle, autumn rain.
As you awake with morning’s hush,
I am the swift, up-flinging rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight,
I am the day transcending night.

Do not stand
By my grave, and cry—
I am not there,
I did not die.

One response to “Remarks on the passing of Robert Paul Levine

  1. Mark Hahn March 8, 2022 at 11:24 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful post. It captures so well the Paul that I knew. I am so grateful to have known him for the past 30 years, after a chance meeting on the MV ferry that led to scientific collaboration and friendship. I learned so much from him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: