Eulogy for James Patrick Devlin

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Impossible. Impossible to believe that we will not hear Jim’s voice anymore, see his ebullient and unsettling smile. As a student said, hearing of his death, Jim seemed immortal. Why so? Because he was as alive as life itself. No smile of more masculine sweetness and tenderness than his—indeed this smile, when it came, was so revealing and intense that he often felt the need to rein it in. Then there was the demonic smile. And the imp-grin that, as my brother said, seemed to say, “Caused any anarchy lately?”

Dr. James P. Devlin, 1943 - 2010

Pacing, strutting, gliding, gesturing with wide gestures. Picking up a piece of paper delicately, with thumb and forefinger, shaking it slightly—why did he do that? His glee-smile; the thought-puzzled smile. Smile of happiness at something recollected, or the huge premonitory smile at something he was about to say—elegante! The fatuous clown-smile when he was imitating stupidity. Stalking, swaying, shuffling, suddenly stiffening his entire body to make some point about human existence. Circumnambulating a podium, arms outstretched, bowing and bowing to Socrates. The slow almost wary walk with which he sometimes approached you. His mocking ironic smile seemed to twist the air; it hurt; it was too big. When he felt pangs of sadness, the room seemed to dissolve as his eyes dissolved. Penetrating eyes. You never knew when he might reach out and grab your arm or your shoulders. His hugs were light and twice over. He believed in very suave handshakes, something I think he inherited from his father. Moving so graciously when he wanted to. Talking while leaning on or against something; or standing, and bending down to hear, since almost everyone was shorter than he was. Ducking under doorways. At one point my wife [     ] said, “We can’t buy this house, the ceilings are too low for Jim.” Picking up his children with incredible ease, carrying them with his great strides, setting them on his shoulders or down on the roof or in the car or in a booth or in bed. No one more on the move than Jim, yet he could sprawl for hours in a chair, longer than anyone else could. He could sit at the computer for hours and hours and hours. He loved to lie in the sun, to float in the ocean or a pool looking up into the sky. He seemed to think of that as a moral or mystical experience, something one ought to do just as one ought to try many different kinds of food. Movies that he loved he watched five, six, ten times—usually, I think, for the characters in them and the writing. He devoured books of all sorts.

A person of extraordinary vividness and vitality, these being the outward signs of—a mind, high, capacious, restless, relentlessly active, engaged; no one had to tell him about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the mind of its hero, he understood that play and that character instinctively, and in his sophomore year in college wrote what his professor called “one of the best essays on Hamlet in existence.” Deeply learned in the philosophical tradition, he was a worthy son-in-law to [         ], his mentor at the University of [        ]. Jim was a true philosopher, that is, a person for whom thought and imagination were at the center of life, and who thought for himself about—everything, as Socrates says the philosopher must: about literature high and low, about technology, mathematics, logic, art, about TV shows and movies—his Academy Award parties—about justice, politics, consciousness, freedom; about personalities public and private, about nature; about God and what He might have in store for us—as Father Sassani said, Jim had Hope; and all his thinking and imagining a search for the true and the beautiful and the good.

Jim was, I think, different from Socrates in this: I don’t know that Socrates ever loved anyone. Jim’s vividness and vitality stemmed not only from his mind but, I believe, and I knew him, from a heart as deep as a well, fathomless and good. He loved intensely, one is tempted to say helplessly. His love seemed to me to be back at the origins of love, complete concern with another person—its essence not one’s own pleasant feelings but the captivating being of the other. He would quote I think it was Heidegger, that what one loved finally was the existence—the mode of existence—of the other person. He was deeply fortunate in love, in that he found [       ], a soulmate who understood him and loved him for who he was, and had herself a thousand qualities he could cherish and admire. Jim loved his children, and he loved his brothers and sister, [    ], [    ], [    ], his aunt and uncle [     ] and [    ], his cousin [     ], his Uncle [   ], his mother and father, and [      ] and [     ] and the great clan he married into. He loved his great friends the [        ]s. These are the people I recall, and I heard a great deal about them, their accomplishments, who they were. He was a man who cared deeply about family and friends’ families.

Love meant that Jim took you more seriously than you took yourself, and felt the things you did and thought more intensely than you might have liked. He could be disappointed or angry with people he loved. He could expect everything of them. He wanted them to share his opinions. He wanted them to succeed, to be recognized, to accomplish things. He brooded on them, trying to discover who they were, why they were excellent, what they should do. He could not help idealizing, and this sometimes brought on clashes and crashes.

Jim’s goal was to not hate anyone, but he did hate—he hated dullness, fatuousness, pomposity, sadism, bureaucratic mechanism, selfishness, duplicity; he hated what certain people did with themselves, even as he would be hurt that they were not better people, or that he and they could not get along. He hated what my daughter calls the lies of the world, meaning those lies by which the world gets by, gets its business done, thinks well of itself; so Jim did not always fare well with the world, because he could not live peaceably with the lies of the world. He just couldn’t.

Jim was a founding member and guiding spirit of the Core Curriculum we worked in together at [             ]. He was the one who gave it its fire, its range, its priceless pedagogical madness. It was as if there were a separate declension of the word “teacher,” belonging only to Jim. Many students felt this. Most of us in the profession try to fit ourselves into the mold of good teaching. Jim WAS great teaching, outside of any mold, one of a kind, the thing itself. Watching him in the classroom or on the lecture platform or tutoring you knew you were at the heart, at the source, at the living essence, of what teaching is, the dangerous, ever-shifting triangle of teacher, knowledge, and student. And for Jim, teaching some particular thing was teaching everything.

I have no time to expand on Jim’s brilliance as, and his significant and substantial accomplishments as, a computer programmer and a teacher of programming. He was among the very best at both, and he changed many people’s lives, including that of my son [         ], as he changed lives through Core and philosophy in other ways. No time to consider his mechanical and constructive abilities.

Jim was a brilliant conversationalist. He had many more than a hundred rhetorical ploys and, as someone said, in any situation he took upon himself the burden of being interesting. And, as in his teaching, every subject was connected to every other. The universe and its contents seemed to be there, hovering over his mind, to be brought in at any moment.

Jim and I met during our freshman year at Notre Dame. We both lived in Farley Hall where, in those days, the lights went out at 11 and came back on at 5 a.m. The light in the room I shared with another student was simply a bare bulb attached to the ceiling. One night, Jim came down the hall, and, as often, a conversation began. At 11, the lights went off, and sometime after that I fell asleep. At 5, the bare bulb came back on, in my face (I had the top bunk), and there was Jim, striding and still talking. And it was not blather; it was amazing stuff to wake up to. Aristotle says that certain rare friends may become another self. I felt, I was, I am, this way with Jim. Many of my best thoughts, words, feelings, are his, my mind is very often in silent dialogue with someone who turns out to be—him. Montaigne, when asked why this happened to him, said, famously, “Because it was he; because it was I.”

We talked about everything, but I want to mention one thing in particular. Jim was obsessed by the past, by the power of time, by memory. And he would sometimes start on the old theme of going back to live your life over, doing it better, knowing what we know. We never got very far into this. It would be a very short time before he would become a little breathless, nervous, hushed, even choked, sometimes looking around as if it were about to happen to him. “What about your children?” he would say. “How could you ever make sure, given nature, given the delicate causations of reality, that they would ever be born, that they would exist? [  ], what if [      ] did not exist? [    ]? [    ]? How could things possibly be better without them? What if [      ] never had [    ]? [      ]? [     ]? [   ], what if [     ]—no; no! [  ]—how would I make sure I met [    ], and that she liked me? Do you see it? It can’t be done. You would go crazy, trying to make it happen. Reality is always better.” ((Maybe.)) And then we would talk about each of them. But in our decades-long conversation, he was the one who fell asleep first.

This is hard to bear.

Bryan Jorgensen
22 November 2010
Our Lady Help of Christians Church
Newton, MA

Tags: philosophy, Doctor D, about

Coding the Wheel has appeared on the New York Time's Freakonomics blog, Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror, and the front page of Reddit, Slashdot, Digg.

On Twitter

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to Coding the Wheel by RSS or email. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook. And even if you didn't enjoy this post, better subscribe anyway. Keep an eye on us.

Question? Ask us.

About

Poker

Coding the Wheel =
Code, poker, technology, games, design, geekery.


Hire

You've read our technical articles, you've tolerated our rants and raves. Now you can hire us anytime, day or night, for any project large or small.

Learn more

We Like

Speculation, by Edmund Jorgensen.