Eva Brann seems to have a refreshing effect on all who meet her. This must have something to do with her openness to the world in all its manifestations, her spritely and generous spirit, her mischievous love of play, and her gift of friendship. Today, she still looks like she is experiencing a giddy delight in getting away with something…
Reflections on the Occasion of Eva Brann’s 90thBirthday
Eva Brann is today 90 years young. There are many reasons she is beloved by all, not just respected for her wisdom.
Eva came to St. John’s College in 1957 and says she fell in love with it “at first sight.” Her mentor, then dean of the College, Jacob Klein, is said to have described her as “a fish in water.” It seems to me that nothing has changed. The fish has not aged, and the water is still fresh, fresher for her swimming in it for these past six decades. Indeed, she seems to have a refreshing effect on all who meet her. This must have something to do with her openness to the world in all its manifestations, her spritely and generous spirit, her mischievous love of play, and her gift of friendship. Today, she still looks like she is experiencing a giddy delight in getting away with something.
I am not sure that I have ever met anyone who lives so fully in the present, seeming to live a life without clutter. This may help explain her fondness for what she calls “the bad boys,” students who have perhaps too little regard for the consequences of their own way of “living in the moment.” One year during her deanship, she was asked by students to play Yoda, the Jedi master, in a playful skit with a Star Wars theme. This was “because [students explained to me] Ms. Brann IS Yoda.” And sure enough, she went on to vanquish the midshipmen of the neighboring Evil Empire with her light saber.
Her hero? Another one of those bad boys: wily Odysseus, “the man of many mechanisms and long patience” with a “readiness, even some relish, for listening to tales and resourcefulness in resolving imbroglios.” Also for telling tall tales, true lies, and for helping to create those same imbroglios. Odysseus: Seducer of Athena and Eva.
Living in the moment has a few rather wondrous consequences: to think a thing is to have it accomplished. One day, I wanted to run by her a thought I had about a possible way to tackle a problem we needed to deal with. It was a “thinking out loud exercise” for me. She argued against my idea and I asked if we could meet in the morning after I had time to think it over. I arrived the next day to find that the idea had become a reality and had already been implemented the day before. “I thought it over and decided you were right.” No further discussion required!
Eva’s version goes like this: “Clear the desk each day. Piles are incubi, and of the devil.” OR perhaps: “’Getting things done’ means curtailed deliberation and ill-founded decision. Why on earth does it tend to work?”
If she knew that she had a talk to give 10 months hence, she would simply sit down and write it out today, taking it out of the drawer again only when the event came around. No mucking around with revisions. Her thoughts seem to come out whole and complete.
One of Eva’s colleagues has said of Plato’s dialogues that “they do not tell us things but instead provoke us to do something. The dialogues are more concerned to prompt the reader into a condition like that of Theaetetus, perceptive, wondering, and making an effort with philosophic activity in prospect, than to record the residue of thinking already done by the author” (Joe Sachs, Introduction to his translation of Plato’s Theaetetus). Eva manages most wondrously to provoke her interlocutors with this sense of wonder, but she has also taken this activity of anticipatory resolution into the realm of student problem-solving and discipline. Example: student comes to talk to the dean about a problem. Solution: dean gives student a project to work on and report back with his or her own resolution. The student always leaves the office with an assignment of something to do. Also with a deadline!
Nonetheless she does dispense advice: sage, pithy, memorable.
“Small slips should be admitted with stupefying alacrity; big mistakes should be mitigated by the most industrious generosity.”
“Try for prudence, the virtue of purpose-led good sense that puts principles into practice without much intervening theory – the royal lesson of The Republic.”
“The higher hypocrisy: try to respect even fairly implausible claims to virtue, since the wish to appear good is not without grace.”
“The springs of energy are forms of love…”
More seriously: “Refreshments soothe the driven body and settle the savage beast; cookies are conducive to consensus.” So, all meetings on instructional matters would be accompanied with cookies.
I frequently turn to Montaigne for help in shaping my thinking. Each time I read the following passage from The Education of Children, the visage of Eva appears in all its clarity:
“The soul in which philosophy dwells should by its health make even the body healthy. It should form in its own mold the outward demeanor, and consequently aim with graceful pride and active and joyous bearing, in a contented and good-natured countenance. The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness; her state is like that of things above the moon, ever serene….”
To put this in Eva’s own words, appropriate to this occasion, as we celebrate her birthday:
“People kindly ascribe the serenity of (approaching) old age to wisdom, but the apparent effect comes much less from life’s lessons learned than from the wearing-down and filling-in of the soul’s snags and fissures. This smooth imperviousness is neither quite reliable nor always adequate to the sorrows of the young. Yet who wants to quarrel with so pleasant an arrangement – being held in esteem from being more often comfortable than not?”
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