For Daniel Albright

research, modernism, Fictions of Autonomy

Over the winter break came the terribly sad news of the sudden death of Daniel Albright. His own web site has a notice and a brief biography of this remarkable scholar and teacher; the Harvard Crimson also published an obituary. (If I find other notices and memorials I’ll edit this post.) I’m thinking of him and of all the people close to him.

He was my teacher for one semester in my last year as an undergraduate, when I took his seminar on Beckett and Auden (“Early Postmodernism”). I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep in touch after I graduated, but in thinking about Daniel Albright these last few weeks I’ve realized he made a big mark on me, which I wanted to briefly trace here by way of tribute.

When I took the Beckett/Auden course in the fall of 2003, I was applying to graduate school in English and testing the waters by taking graduate seminars. Though I hardly knew it at the time, the course was something like the platonic ideal of the graduate seminar, an incredibly wide-ranging and exhilarating experience. Albright had designed presentation topics for each week of the course, and I volunteered (eager beaver) for one of the very first, on Beckett’s Proust. That was my first foray into Proust studies and an intoxicating experience. I found myself chattering away about Beckett in Paris and enjoying Beckett’s alternate model of graduate study (handout passage: “I have written my book in a cheap flashy philosophical jargon”).

In the classroom, Albright leapt between literature and music and made sense of the connections in ways that compelled me even though I was, and am, insufferably pedantic about both. There was a magic moment when, describing Molloy’s sucking-stone permutations, he said: “it’s a stone row.” That was my Schoenberg-lover’s reward for somehow making it through the Trilogy in a week. (Though it was in fact Film that really stuck with me. It’s embarrassing to admit I went to Albright’s office hours and declared that, after Film, I wanted to know what else I could read that would be relevant to “subject and object.” But Albright hardly blinked, and suggested…Nabokov’s The Gift and Ada.)

The Crimson piece quotes a student relating Albright’s Emersonian advice to follow “Whim.” He told me that too, and it has long stuck with me. I’ve even repeated it to other students. Though perhaps I didn’t understand then the kind of intellectual depth and range that undergirded Albright’s whim: what I heard then, with the ears of the Harvard undergrad, was an endorsement of antiprofessionalism and amateurism (and, hence, an endorsement of my own decision, similar in some ways to one Albright made, to switch from an undergrad science training to graduate literary studies.) But it now seems to me his engagements across the arts were not highbrow amateurism but the fruit of deep professional training in two disciplines, sustained and synthesized by his incredible memory and imagination.

It was in one of those innumerable displays of that capacity for connection that Albright mentioned to the class that we might look at Adorno and Said on Beethoven’s late style. (I think this must have been when we were talking about late Auden.) That thread was impossible not to tug on. I had never seen anything like Adorno’s “Beethoven’s Late Style.” The essay became a cornerstone for a whole chapter of my book on musical late style as a fiction of autonomy.

So I owe an apology to Albright’s memory. My intellectual debt to him is considerable, but I did not acknowledge it in my book. Too late, I record it here: without Albright’s teaching, I would never have discovered that essay of Adorno’s or the whole question of lateness as a specifically modernist phenomenon. And without his inspiring example, I might not have even tried to link music and literature in my scholarship, though, unlike Albright, I am certainly guilty of amateurism about music. In short, I learned from Daniel Albright in more ways than I knew.

Most of all, I am sorry I never had the chance to talk with him about these subjects again, to try out on him my own version of an argument across the twentieth-century arts, or to hear his latest thinking. We have Panaesthetics. Alas, we have to read it now as his own Spätwerk.