Norm of the Norm

I didn’t think I would write anything. I was not friend or family to Norm Geras, and so could speak nothing of the private man that those to whom he truly belonged had known. And how many were there who could say at least as much as I – that though I had never met Norm Geras, I felt somehow that I knew him, that he had made an addition to my life, that I cared for him? I knew there was nothing I could say that many others would not say as well and more personally. I knew this even before I checked the blogosphere and social media, and when I did, it was as I knew it would be, the outpouring, from so many quarters, of so many admirers who had been encouraged, inspired, and affected.

I thought, then, that I would confine myself to a tweet or two of my own and to tweeting links to the expressions of others.

It took, what – a day? – for Normfest to arise?

But the weekend passed, and Monday came, and I was still thinking about Norm. I was missing him. I felt, from all he had offered of his sharp, lucid, and rigorous intellect, and of his enthusiasms and his moral being, that I had actually a sense of the man – though I did not know him personally – and that I could hear his voice. The absence of his voice to come.

I recalled younger years, before I had ever lost anyone for whom I truly cared, when I would sometimes morbidly imagine what it would be like, what the finality of the death of another meant. I imagined how when the time came that my mother or father died, for instance, it would not be like a long, even very long, absence from them, which I had experienced and suffered well enough. It meant, I vivified for myself, that I might search the world wide over, in every corner of the earth, and never find them. They would be gone not just from me, but from everywhere, never to be found again in some apartment, even in some far place, sitting beside each other on the sofa.

This was what I kept thinking about Norm’s voice – his wry, reasoned and humane voice. After ten years of its sounding daily in the minds of those who wanted it through his blog – beyond the illustrious scholarly and pedagogical contribution that came before – it was now silenced. What almost immediately became a common cry of longing from so many, answered before on so many subjects of these and former days – what does Norm think? – was now never to be satisfied again.

This is what I have been feeling – loss, and the missing that comes with it. I have been feeling it about someone I didn’t “really” know, someone I never met, someone I knew only through the internet: in the blogosphere, on Twitter and Facebook, via some email exchanges.

I have had something like this experience once before.

In my early days on those various media, encountered via Twitter and then in some email exchanges, a young man named Christopher Al-Aswad offered gracious guidance about how to use them all. Operating in very different, artistic circles from those of Norm’s UK-based and international political ones, Chris founded the wondrously titled internet arts magazine, Escape Into Life. When Chris was lost to his demons at far, far too young an age, the outpouring of affection and grief across social media was a revelation. So admired was Chris, by so many who never “really” knew him, that the mantle of EIL was taken up by others and continued in his memory. My good blogging, Twitter and Facebook friend, poet and art connoisseur Maureen Doallas, for instance, (whom I have never met) now serves as EIL’s Artist Watch Editor.

How did it happen? What is it in the nature of human relation that enables it to form so profoundly in the absence of any physical presence, in a transmission through what develops before our eyes as an expanding social ethernet? Is it even, as we think it, something technological and new, or merely an old contact of being to being facilitated in new forms? In thinking about my own relation to Norm, I found my answer.

Like so many others who blog, I took my Normblog profile as a badge of recognition. (Mine was number 359, August 6, 2010, not so very long ago. The last was 386, just this September.) I felt earlier honored when Norm invited me to contribute to his Writer’s Choice series (number 237). I wrote about Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, but what work I chose is less important here than why I chose it. I chose it because it saved my life. Amid “the dark mental forces that oppressed me” in my very young manhood – not unlike, perhaps, Chris Al-Aswad – it “gave me a way to live.” Through writing, the contact only of mind and mind, across cultures, oceans and years – how often is it across continents and centuries – one human being (here, a French Algerian) entered into a most private kind of communication with another (a New York Jew) and influenced his life.

The power, the relational element of ideas and language, and what they carry in them, an intrinsic cargo, of a person. To a person. All those who mourn the loss of Norm Geras mourn the end of that carriage in words, of ideas about the world, and through their expression, an example of how to be and speak in the world.

When Norm co-authored the Euston Manifesto, right-thinking people of the left everywhere – people who felt abandoned on a progressive path that had, in reality, abandoned them almost from the start – spied a tall marker for the way forward, and a post around which to rally. In smaller increments, day by day for his ten-year blogging career, Norm offered more of the same: finely tuned, clearly and carefully constructed arguments of reason and insight that never lost their concern for the human in their vision of humanity. There are thousands of examples over the years. Here, among his very last posts, just nineteen days before he died, is some of just one among those many.

It’s not that, being a Marxist myself, I begrudge Howard [Jacobson] the judgement that no one of feeling should be a Marxist. He’s perfectly entitled to it, given how many Marxists, past and present, have used Marxist categories for precisely the kind of excuse-making on behalf of the killing of the innocent that he laments. For my own part, I happen to think that this isn’t the only kind of Marxism possible, since like any other tradition of ideas Marxism is capable of change. There are Marxists who understand the necessity of embodying human rights norms at the heart of any morally acceptable political outlook today and who reject absolutely the violations of civilized constraints in the interests of some highly speculative future good. Still, as I’ve argued at some length before, there are different meanings of being a Marxist, and Howard won’t be short of material in finding ways to justify his own expressed preference.

What surprises me in the above-quoted judgement of his is how lightly, by implication, it lets off other doctrines and their adherents. Allah and Jesus would not forgive. As if that ever stopped anyone from adapting religious belief to suit their murderous or oppressive purposes. Fanatical commitment, or what Howard himself identifies as ‘an unswerving conviction of rectitude’, finds many different homes.

And as if the purveyors of excuses for modern terrorism were confined to ever-smaller groups of Marxists, rather than coming – as they do – from practically every shade of so-called progressive opinion and beyond: liberals, greens, anarchists, Guardianistas of every stripe, anti-imperialists, anti-Zionists, and plain fools by the cartload.

Add to this his passions for cricket, jazz, country music (Emmylou Harris division), Jane Austen and Anne Tyler and fiction of all kinds, new technologies, New York City, and old-fashioned decency and you got what seems deserving of a name. Regular readers of Normblog will have gotten the title above right way. Much in the world of Normblog was puckishly “of the Norm.” Adele Geras, Norm’s wife, was WotN – “Wife of the Norm.”

All I wrote of here, all the virtues, all the smaller and greater humanities, the ideas that touched and influenced the lives of so many, they were and will remain the norm of the Norm.


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5 thoughts on “Norm of the Norm

  1. He approached some sort of ideal, I think. An extraordinary ability to find the truth in dross, and withall carry his values through without being hampered by them.

    He gave me good advice regarding the understanding of cricket (for a US citizen), and answered kindly my occasional emails about political matters.

    A gentleman, and sorely missed.

  2. This is so beautifully expressed, Jay. I’m privileged to know you (and I’ll use that word know without any quotation marks around it).

    Like you, there are people I have met through blogging, you among them, who have touched my life in ways I would not have imagined when I started Writing Without Paper in late 2009. I don’t presume to understand fully how friendship via technology works; I just know that it does, and the relationships, though they can be, for me are not shallow. I’ve had the chance to meet in person a few of those with whom I share a love of writing and of ideas and have not been disappointed in any way. I have been enriched.

  3. A lovely and thoughtful remembrance, Professor! Was familiar with N Geras from my grad school explorations…sorry i didnt realize that Normblog was his…so many blogs, so little time…gone too soon at 70!

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