The Dif­fi­cul­ties of Writ­ing a Eu­logy

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Leonard Quart

Hav­ing en­tered my late seven­ties, I con­tin­u­ally re­ceive the painful news of friends dy­ing. This fills me with com­plex and painful feel­ings and mem­o­ries, but I am at the same time of­ten called upon to write a eu­logy to read at the me­mo­rial service where I try to con­vey, in a few care­fully cho­sen words, some ap­prox­i­ma­tion of who my friends were.

The eu­lo­gies tend to recall my friends’ var­ied ac­com­plish­ments, virtues, and the pub­lic per­sonas they pro­jected, and my sor­row about their loss. If there is time, I in­clude a hu­mor­ous, telling anec­dote that con­veys some­thing about their best self—the one I feel they would have wanted to be re­mem­bered by. I try not to deal di­rectly with their flaws, for it seems point­less and gra­tu­itously de­struc­tive to di­min­ish some­one when he/she is gone. But I also want to avoid be­ing emp­tily rhetor­i­cal and un­true to their essence, sound­ing like many rab­bis, min­is­ters, and priests who mawk­ishly eu­lo­gize the de­parted (whom they may have never met) of­fer­ing boil­er­plate plat­i­tudes and clichés (e.g., ‘He was a de­voted fam­ily man and gen­er­ous to a fault’).

I re­mem­ber when my fa­ther died, we al­lowed a rabbi who barely knew him to de­liver the eu­logy. My brother and I primed him with a great deal of in­for­ma­tion about my fa­ther’s life. And the eu­logy he gave was nei­ther egre­gious nor plat­i­tudi­nous. But it re­mained im­per­sonal. For de­spite all his fine-sound­ing learned phrases, the rabbi failed to make my fa­ther come alive. He said all the right things, but I wanted some­thing more com­plex, con­crete and in­di­vid­ual—a eu­logy truer to my fa­ther’s mem­ory and life. My eu­logy would have cen­tred on my fa­ther’s in­abil­ity, for a com­plex set of rea­sons—his com­ing to the US at six­teen and hav­ing to live in near poverty, his con­fronting un­em­ploy­ment in the 1930s De­pres­sion, and his ul­ti­mately set­tling for se­cu­rity and a pen­sion by tak­ing a job as a Post Of­fice clerk—clos­ing him off from re­al­is­ing the full­ness of his rich in­tel­lec­tual

po­ten­tial. I could feel my fa­ther’s frus­tra­tion when I was grow­ing up— do­ing a job that barely tapped his tal­ent— but he never voiced what he felt. Hope­fully, my eu­logy would have touched on cen­tral truths about my fa­ther’s life, and I still rue the day I didn’t de­liver it.

When my mother died, I de­cided to de­liver the eu­logy at the gravesite. In that eu­logy I at­tempted to cap­ture the quirks of her per­son­al­ity, and to con­vey a bal­anced por­trait of who she was. I didn’t want to gloss over the truth, and cover over all her flaws and foibles—her pro­found in­se­cu­rity, and neg­a­tiv­ity. (She had a pen­chant for see­ing the dark side of every achieve­ment, and dous­ing with dis­ap­prov­ing re­marks much that gave one plea­sure.) How­ever, it would have been un­fair to a good hu­man be­ing to pro­vide too crit­i­cal a eu­logy and leave as a fi­nal mem­ory a dis­torted im­age of who my mother was. I know I’m bi­ased, but I think I suc­ceeded in strik­ing the proper tone by be­ing care­fully se­lec­tive. I avoided cen­tring on her weak­nesses, and in­voked her charm, warmth, and even po­etic qual­ity, avoid­ing un­der­min­ing her mem­ory. It struck me af­ter I gave the eu­logy, how dif­fi­cult it was to grasp and sum up a per­son’s char­ac­ter and life, es­pe­cially some­one I loved.

But think­ing about parental eu­lo­gies, many years ago I at­tended a me­mo­rial service for a fa­mous film critic, at which her painter daugh­ter de­liv­ered the kind of eu­logy I could never at­tempt. The eu­logy ex­pressed gen­uine love for her mother but was clear-eyed, forth­right, and con­tained a crit­i­cal strain. She un­der­stood that her mother’s strength as a critic de­rived from ‘her supreme free­dom to speak her mind, and to find her hon­est voice.’ But the mother’s cer­tainty about her crit­i­cal judg­ments, car­ried over to her life where she ‘be­lieved that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that be­cause she meant well, had no neg­a­tive ef­fects.’ In the daugh­ter’s words, her mother lacked the ca­pac­ity for ‘in­tro­spec­tion and self-aware­ness.’ Still this strain of ‘self-cen­tered­ness’ was bal­anced off by her gen­eros­ity—help­ing young crit­ics get jobs and even of­fer­ing loans and gifts to peo­ple in need.

She also loved her mother’s vi­tal­ity—‘her in­tense re­spon­sive­ness to the

world of ideas, peo­ple, and nat­u­ral beauty.’ Even when she be­came ill and frag­ile, she was suf­fi­ciently strong-willed to at­tempt to keep up with the most re­cent films, books, and in­tel­lec­tual cur­rents. In short, she was a per­son whom the daugh­ter found at times emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult, but clearly re­spected and loved.

Her eu­logy struck me as a model for how to con­vey the com­pli­cated feel­ings we have to­wards our par­ents. Her con­cise, per­cep­tive por­trait brought her mother to life, while avoid­ing the maudlin—though I know that when it came to my own mother, I of­fered a less bal­anced more pos­i­tive homage, skirt­ing around some un­pleas­ant truths.

If it’s dif­fi­cult to eu­lo­gise par­ents, it’s even harder to eu­lo­gise friends. I un­der­stand some of my friends bet­ter than oth­ers. Ei­ther be­cause I have known them for a longer time, or have been in­volved with them at work or in po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity—sit­u­a­tions that of­ten re­veal more of their selves than most of our per­sonal en­coun­ters. With a few oth­ers I have had the kind of in­ti­mate talk where much more of one’s in­ner life is ex­posed than the nor­mal com­mon­places of daily con­ver­sa­tion. Of course, that hap­pens much less with men of my gen­er­a­tion, who tend to avoid prob­ing too deeply into the rough edges of their in­te­ri­ors, but it does oc­cur.

Still, I feel con­fi­dent enough in my pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion to spec­u­late on as­pects of my friends’ lives that we have never dis­cussed. At the same time, I know it’s merely spec­u­la­tion, and there ex­ists some­thing mys­te­ri­ous and un­know­able at the core of everyone we in­ter­act with, even those we know most in­ti­mately.

In the best fic­tion and mem­oirs char­ac­ters are de­picted and an­a­lysed in rich de­tail, but good writ­ers usu­ally also con­vey that no per­son can be sim­ply summed up, that everyone is suf­fi­ciently com­plex that they can’t be re­duced to some sim­ple ty­polo­gies or set of ad­jec­tives. As Pene­lope Lively, a pro­foundly ob­ser­vant and sub­tle oc­to­ge­nar­ian English nov­el­ist, has writ­ten about one of her char­ac­ters: ‘Be­hind and be­yond her looks, her man­ner, there had been some dark malaise. But no­body ever saw

it, back then, he thought. All you saw was her face.’ And writ­ing about re­la­tion­ships: ‘It’s the one thing you’re con­stantly con­fronted with: other peo­ple’s re­la­tion­ships—how wrong you can be about them, too.’

Still, in spite of this, I know that I will write more eu­lo­gies, for I know none of us is im­mor­tal, and that time’s pas­sage can­not be re­versed. I also feel it to be im­per­a­tive to pro­vide emo­tional clo­sure for friends.

How­ever, I will con­tinue to hold back writ­ing about cer­tain as­pects of a friend’s char­ac­ter—leav­ing out, for ex­am­ple, how a warm and gre­gar­i­ous friend could at times be ma­li­cious in his per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, and how a car­ing, so­cially com­mit­ted friend loved to ex­er­cise power over sub­or­di­nates at work. Or how a hu­mane, hon­est, very in­tel­li­gent friend, could also be blind and masochis­tic when it came to ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships. I try to evoke my friends in a way that grants them some in­di­vid­u­al­ity and tex­ture, al­ways un­der­stand­ing by choice and by ul­ti­mate lack of knowl­edge that I have merely scratched the sur­face, and con­veyed a par­tial truth about who they were.

As for when I my­self die and some­one writes my eu­logy, I’m not sure what I want said. Ob­vi­ously, I de­sire only true things to be ex­pressed, but do I want a tough-minded eu­logy that gives my myr­iad flaws a cen­tral place? I clearly don’t. What I wish is for the eu­logy to avoid the sen­ti­men­tal, of­fer a few crit­i­cal words, and de­fine who I was through my ac­com­plish­ments, pas­sions and per­sona. I doubt that will be suf­fi­cient, for I’m the only one who can por­tray who I am, and alas I won’t be there.

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