There remains, as you may well imagine, a lot to say. That is why I have, once more, taken refuge in writing you a letter, selfishly perhaps, foolishly, yes, but it is for the sake of my own belated clarification, and to sustain the dialogue (henceforth, alas, a fictive one) we have been engaged in these past many years—and all without heed, I apologize in advance, of your undoubted desire to be done with the bother and burden of all this.
But there are now so many conversations left stranded in the middle, Stuart, by your lamented departure, cut off without ending, without prospect of an ending. Death does that, though, doesn't it, in an uncanny, unforgiving sort of way. Death is the sharp knife-edge of our finitude, the moment (however it comes, timely or untimely) when we are overtaken by the irreversible—and the ineluctable—fact of our mortal being. It is the last conjuncture, isn't it? As you once said to me, somewhat gravely, ruefully, apropos of what I can't now remember: Life unfolds in one direction only. It does. I take that to be an existential truth, with tragic implications. Whatever the Augustinian distensions of temporality we are inclined to imagine, whatever our hermeneutic desire to refute or refuse the linearity of time's arrow, we all round the corner on this particular crossroads—Papa Legba's—where we find ourselves summoned to render up what is owed for what we have spent. The one thing we are guaranteed: death is simply the price we pay for time. As we made our way behind you through Highgate Cemetery that bright and private Friday morning this past February, with strains of Marley's great elegy, “Redemption Song,” still plaintively resonant, we all, I think, noticed Marx pause his ruminations and nod his fraternal welcome, and, just next to him, our own Claudia Jones whispered a dread chant of greeting; and as I watched you being lowered caringly into the ground's reluctant embrace, I almost cried out with Derek Walcott, “O earth, the number of friends you keep / exceeds those left to be loved.”1
But it is finitude, Stuart, about which I want to talk to you on this occasion, the strange, haunting sense of a last conjuncture. Because this is something we talked about a good deal in the last years—sometimes directly, mostly obliquely—as talk about your life and your work (an admitted obsession on my part) came to be shadowed by talk about the immediacy of pain, the permanence of discomfort, the long, difficult nights without sleep, the creeping anxieties, the dispiriting experience of a body less and less under your command. We spoke, too, occasionally, about death—not only its frank imminence but also its peculiar immanence, how it comes from within as much as from without. And yet, even so, Stuart, finitude is not exactly a word many would readily associate with your name. Too lugubriously Heideggerian in feel, maybe; too complicit in a fatalistic sense of limits, constraints; too redolent of a realm of necessity. So much of your life was committed to the construction of new possibilities out of seeming dead ends, new times and new identities out of old, beleaguered, frozen ones, that there is undoubtedly something perversely paradoxical in this image of you face to face with your finitude, not a philosophic abstraction now, but face to face with what you might have called, with a slow, sardonic smile, the final play of contingency. So, I wonder whether finitude isn't precisely a word that bears reflection in relation to you because of what it illuminates about the tension between what you are given and what you can make.
I want to talk specifically about finitude and writing, more specifically, about my impression that the growing awareness of the coming end increasingly shaped the exercise of writing, especially the uncertain, or anyway not-so-straightforward, exercise of composing your memoirs—the last, definitive, story of yourself. What do I mean? I know you would have asked me that, Stuart, leaning slightly forward in your chair and regarding me with a resigned but skeptical air, trying to discern whether on this occasion our conceptual languages were overlapping, or at odds. I don't mean anything very mysterious, of course. You already know that it has always seemed to me that for you writing was a way of moving on, of not standing still; it was a way of not being the same, of occasionally changing yourself, of saying the next thing rather than the last thing. Indeed, there was never for you a plausible “last” thing to say. This was deeply a matter of the politics as well as the poetics of writing. For you, therefore, writing was always to have an orientation toward futurity. I don't think that the past as such ever much enchanted you; you certainly never reified it. The challenge of writing, then, was to subject the present to a form of redescription—what you famously called “reading the conjuncture”—that aimed to loosen its bondage to the past, to release it from its congealed assumptions so as to make possible a contingent practice of reinvention.
This is why, as I keep repeating, the essay-form so appealed to you as a genre of writing. The thing about the essay-form, it seems to me, is its embodiment of a mobile temporality so conducive to your temperament and the general ethos of your style. The essay is always, precisely, moving on. It has, in this sense, an active more so than a contemplative character; or rather, however meditative it may be, it always suffers an internal restlessness, an agitation of spirit that drives it in one direction or another—or in one direction after another. This is what enables the essay to evade closure and to defer its rendezvous with finitude. The essay is a thinking form—thinking that is inherently situational, occasional, embodied. One might say that the essay-form is a mode of presencing, of being present, of voicing presence, within writing. In this sense it is as close as nonfictive writing can get to the uneven grain of an audibly speaking voice.
Not so the memoir, or not equally so. The memoir may be as far as you can get from the essay-form. The very idea of a memoir is that you are obliged to adopt a sort of bird's-eye view of—an objectifying panoptic perspective on—yourself. You even joked about this from time to time, this “autobiographical” experience of encountering someone called “Stuart Hall,” or having to find him in order to learn something about what seemed to make him who he was. The memoir-form thus typically abjures the dialogical voice of the essay in favor of a spectatorial and monological gaze because, written at the end, it knows in advance how it all turned out. There are no more surprises. In it, moreover, you are obliged to orient yourself to the past from a present that will yield you no personal future. No contingency can alter the coming fate. The memoir-form confronts you, therefore, with the daunting question: How do you produce a form of writing that, however candidly you may describe the varied contingencies that shaped your life, will not itself be open to contingency or chance insofar as what it speaks of has already happened? It is a form of writing, then, that assumes that what properly belongs to you now is only the past, only memory. In other words, it assumes—pointedly, poignantly—that this is your last conjuncture. Here there is no postponement, let alone circumvention, cancellation, of finitude. The memoir is a way of wrapping it all up. Its very gesture is that of farewell.
At least as I have understood you, Stuart, you always resisted this foreclosing gesture and its moral-political implications. Incompleteness was a virtue with you. But as our conversations ebbed and flowed over the very last years, the pressure of finitude on the memoir writing—the pressure of writing in the last conjuncture—seemed to me to become more and more pronounced, more and more irreconcilably pronounced, perhaps. Am I wrong? Tell me. As though the memorial recovery of “Stuart Hall” from the past—not least the lost Jamaican past to which we returned so often, anecdotally as well as analytically, from Old Harbour to Port Antonio—was not, even for you, a self-evident process, a seamless, unencumbered matter of pure rehearsal or retrieval.
One morning, sitting in the chair in your bedroom, dressed but already exhausted from sleeplessness and pain, you said to me in what had become a familiar melancholy voice: David, don't grow old. I'm not so sure it's entirely up to me, Stuart, as it wasn't for you. We do not simply choose—or unchoose—these fates; we are not entitled. I'm reminded once again of Derek Walcott (whom you had gotten to know a little bit, you told me), as he began, many years ago, to reflect on the insoluble paradoxes of “winding up”:
Walk good, my friend.
15 May 2014
Derek Walcott, “Sea Canes,” in Sea Grapes (London: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976), 70.
Derek Walcott, “Winding Up,” in Sea Grapes, 80.