Jerrold Katz: A Personal Memory

W.C. Dowling

I got to know Jerry Katz personally when I was writing a book based on his work in philosophical semantics. I'd been following his theory of decompositional sense structure ever since Language and Other Abstract Objects, but it wasn't until I read The Metaphysics of Meaning that I saw that his work had important implications for the theory of determinate meaning in literary studies -- more than that: a way out of the weak-minded indeterminacy and "social constructionism" in which my own and practically every other English department in the country was then mired.

I sent Jerry a letter out of the blue, explaining who I was and what I was up to, feeling a bit trepidatious in light of what Bernard Williams had only recently called the "pod theory of English departments" -- i.e., that the most probable explanation of what was going on in English departments was an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario in which serious literary scholars had been replaced by alien pods that, left in their vicinity while asleep, duplicated their external appearance while replacing them in the morning with creatures who muttered endlessly recycled snatches of Bourdieu and Lyotard and Homi Bahba

To my enormous relief, Jerry didn't know much about what was going on in literary studies. He was endlessly patient with my inquiries about a complicated body of work he'd been developing over the previous 20 years. When I finished the manuscript and sent it to him, he delayed and delayed -- "I'll get to it, I'll get to it" -- and then proceeded to demolish it and suggest an alternative ground plan from which it might be built back up again right. I gathered the fragments and went to work and, two years later, came up with a version that earned his stamp of approval.

In the meantime, I got to know Jerry personally, which turned out to be one of the great events of a life in which, as I supposed, I'd gotten too old to meet what my wife calls "new people." I'm reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon, Hamilton I think, in which one young Junior League type is saying bubblingly to another, amidst the stylish surroundings of a posh Manhattan apartment, "It's so nice when summer friends work out." Jerry worked out, and Ginny too, and there were larks to be had before it all ended.

I said that Jerry, when I'd sent him a copy of my manuscript, delayed and delayed. By then I knew him well enough not to take it personally. He was, about his own work, the most single minded person I've ever known -- just relentless in pursuing the logical implications of some criticism of an argument that somebody had made about a recent article, chuckling delightedly as he saw yet another chink in the armor of Quinean holism, trying to see how Peter Kivy's arguments about the ontology of musical form matched his own intuitions about semantic space in linguistics. When he and Ginny went off to France for a year I called while he was packing, and he said, more or less distractedly, "We'll continue this by e-mail."

That was fine with me, except that I didn't have e-mail at that point. I figured this was the time to do it if I were ever going to, so I set up an AOL account, did my best to figure out how this amazing new technology worked, and sent an e-mail to Jerry at the address he'd given me in Paris. Then another one, and another, and -- still sure that there was something I wasn't getting about this magical new system where you typed out a message and it popped into someone's computer 3000 miles away -- another.

I never heard from Jerry that spring. When he got back, I went into New York to have lunch with him and said to the effect of "Sorry my e-mails never came through. I figured out how to get them to friends here in the States, but there's something wrong with my connection to France."

Whereupon Jerry confessed that (1) all my e-mails had in fact gotten through, but that (2) he hadn't actually checked his e-mail until close to the end of their stay in France, at which point (3) there was no use in answering me because he was going to be seeing me in a week anyway.

Me: "Why didn't you check your e-mail?"

Jerry: "Well, you know, you go on the computer meaning to, but then you call up the page you were working on when you knocked off yesterday, and then you get all absorbed, and then you wind up changing this sentence and adding that sentence, and before you know it it's time to turn off the computer and go to bed."

At Jerry's memorial service people were eloquent and moving about his range of interests -- music, literature, theater, art, food, travel. All this is true. Jerry was a genuine and delighted cosmopolitan in what is becoming, in our age of global MTV and MacDonalds, an old-fashioned sense: someone who loved getting outside his own mind in the way that only good company and food and art and music permit. But what struck me was the effortlessness with which he moved back and forth between that absorption in the outside world and an equally intense absorption in the philosophical problems that continued to occupy him right up to his last days.

In the final months I'd call Jerry once a week or so, counting on him to tell me when he was feeling too unenergetic to talk. There was, as there had always been, no chitchat: we would always go straight to some problem that he'd been working on, or some question that I'd been worrying about in my English professorish way, and within a minute or two we would be back in the midst of an intense conversation that had been going on, really, for all the years I'd been lucky enough to know him. Today, quite by happenstance, I was reading the Crito, the point of which lies not least in the spectacle of Socrates never ceasing to do philosophy right up to the moment of his death. I've been reading the Crito since I was a college student, but this time there was something haunting the fringes of my consciousness that hadn't ever been there before. Then I realized: listening to Socrates this time, I had been in a wholly unconscious way revisiting the last conversation I'd had with Jerry the week before he died.