Today is Robert Lax’s 100th Birthday!

I took the picture posted here twenty years ago, in the spring of 1996 when my friend Bob Lax was 80. To mark his 100th birthday today (November 30), here are a few excerpts from journal entries I made during that visit. At the time, I was studying and teaching at Columbia University in New York, Lax’s alma mater, and reading French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. These entries give some idea of what my visits with Lax on Patmos were like:

March 10: I arrived at 2:30 this morning, having traveled for almost 30 hours. Bob had arranged for a room for me at the Rex and supplied it with two bottles of water, two candy bars, a package of cookies, some peanuts, plastic cups, and a small bottle of Metaxa. The woman at the Rex had been expecting two people so she had given me a double bed. She had also put a heater and extra blankets in the room. I said a prayer of thanks for my safe arrival, put an extra blanket on the bed and poured out a small amount of the Metaxa.

March 11: I stayed at Bob’s until about 12:45 a.m. last night. One of the things we talked about was the Deleuze book I’m reading. I mentioned Deleuze’s distinction between memory and remembrance, which I find especially interesting. Memory is mere repetition of an initial event, he says, but remembrance conceptualizes it, placing it in perspective and context: historical, emotional, developmental, etc.

Bob started talking about Cézanne. Perhaps he’s been thinking about him, picturing his work as if it were present in the room, because he gestured several times toward the wall where he tapes up pictures. Cézanne, he said, was only trying to paint woods as objectively as he could, as he saw them, but when they appeared in his paintings they appeared unique because Cézanne saw them only as Cézanne. This is why a writer should try to write objectively, to get down exactly what he perceives. What results will not be some non-personal, “objective” piece but one imbued with all that the author is, how he truly perceives the world. This should be the goal of art: to reveal the individual.

Both Sartre, in an excerpt I gave to my students, and Deleuze write about the sign or symbol in writing. A painter or sculptor creates an object; a writer creates only a symbol or manipulates symbols. A piece of writing, then, is only a symbol–or a collection of symbols–of the object, which is the writer himself. If the writer is exacting and faithful, that symbol or collection becomes an accurate projection of the object: more accurate than an encounter with the object–the author–in reality because the author is more focused in the creation of his art than in day-to-day living.

Later, Bob and I were talking about New York and what a wonderful place it is for anyone who likes meeting people. Bob said that each person we meet reveals some new part of ourselves. If we are alert and perceptive, the more people we meet, the more we learn about ourselves.

One of our subjects last night was the question What Is Art? We decided that it involves some combination of absolutely free expression and the constriction of form. It also involves some paradoxical combination of refined ideal and basic, unfiltered instinct. It combines the handful of dirt with the expanse of the universe, the center with the surface of the sphere, the specific with the universal.

This morning I began the day with Deleuze. He has shifted from talking about repetition to talking about difference. He defines the different not as that which is opposed to the original but that which differentiates itself by a determined movement away from the original form. The different defines itself in response to the original form but the original does not define itself in response in return. He gives the example of lightning, which flashes through the night, striking a counterpoint to what was before it but having no effect on what exists after it. It shows itself as different and yet the original remains unchanged.

This picture of difference differs greatly from that which has dominated Christian thought, which has equated difference with opposition. If difference is distinctive but not opposed, then difference becomes not opposition to God (embodied in the Christian mind, since the middle ages, as the social Christian congregation) but determined response to God. It becomes not antithesis (sin), not synthesis (syncretism) but pristine thesis. God created Adam not go be God, nor to be not-God, nor to be half-God, but to be Adam. Eve is not Adam, nor not-Adam, nor half-Adam, but Eve. When a person seeks to resemble (whether through obedience to laws or imitation or conformity) rather than embody, he or she does not bring God into the world but instead becomes a pale reflection–even a distortion–of a remote Idea.

(Although they aren’t about a conversation with Lax, I’ve included these last two paragraphs because they describe [in a Deleuzean way] how I see Lax’s life in relationship to mainstream Christian life.)

Happy 100th, Bob!