If we are to speak of Elliot Cohen with truth, the first thing we must say about him is that he was a man of genius.
Whoever, at any time, experienced the power of his mind, and the quality of his mind, knows that this is so. He had the direct intuition of genius. He had the unremitting passion of genius. He had the peculiar charm of genius. And he bore the heavy pain of genius.
His genius found its chief and characteristically brilliant expression in a strange and wonderful pedagogy. He taught his friends: and I have long thought of him as the greatest teacher I have ever known. If I may speak of my own particular case, I would wish to acknowledge him as the only great teacher I have ever had.
In speaking of Elliot Cohen as a teacher, and a great teacher, I am not using a mere fashion of speech. Some undue diffidence, which his friends long ago learned not to question, kept Elliot from undertaking to be a teacher in an actual classroom, but he often gave expression to his belief that the teacher’s function was the greatest that a man could discharge and that the teacher’s name was the proudest that a man could bear, and he loved to think of himself as giving instruction: he delighted in any occasion that allowed him to assume the teacher’s role.
How often he assumed that role, and to what effect, there are many of us here who will testify. If any of us, by the respect we have learned to bear to language, have acquired some control over it, much of whatever power of communication we may have was given to us by Elliot Cohen. He believed that no idea was so difficult and complex but that it could be expressed in a way that would make it understood by anyone to whom it might conceivably be of interest. He was able to instill this belief in many, and he painstakingly demonstrated how it could be implemented. No man in our country in our time had a greater respect for the virtues of English prose, and better served them and all that they may stand for in the life of the mind—that life to which Elliot Cohen gave an unending devotion.
His belief in the communicability of virtually all ideas in part accounts for his acknowledged greatness as an editor. It was the expression of his passionate democracy. It seems to me that the time has gone by when we easily speak of a man’s democracy as a greatly honorable trait of mind and temperament, but I think that we do not speak truthfully of Elliot if we do not apply this word, in all its old effulgence, to him.
And then there are many of us who, if we live our intellectual lives under the aspect of a complex and vivid idea of culture and society, owe that idea not to the social sciences but to Elliot Cohen. Elliot’s own mind was dominated by his sense of the subtle interrelations that exist between the seemingly disparate parts of a culture, and between the commonplaces of daily life and the most highly developed works of the human mind. Long before the sociologists made the study of mass culture and popular culture part of their stock in trade, Elliot taught us to think about them with seriousness. Indeed, he taught the younger men around him that nothing in human life need be alien to their thought, and nothing in American life, whether it be baseball, or vaudeville, or college tradition, or elementary education, or fashions in speech, or food, or dress, or manners.
He himself seemed to find nothing in human life alien to him. His power of affectionate acceptance was extraordinary—it was startling, indeed, in our time when it more and more becomes our habit to define ourselves by our exclusions, our calculated indifferences, our disapprovals.
It is important to remember of Elliot how much of life he accepted, and not only accepted but loved. That impulse of revulsion from the human, which has often been noted as a characteristic of our culture, was wholly foreign to his nature. Just as it was necessary to say of him that his mind was suffused by a feeling for democracy, so it is necessary to revive for him the once bright phrase, “love of humanity”: to the astonishment of many of his friends, he loved humanity, he loved the human.
But in his general love of the human, he gave a special love to that which was most highly developed in our life, to that which was the expression of the human wish for the free, the gratuitous—for what proposed the possibility of liberation from the bonds of necessity. He loved grace of all kinds, especially the grace of wit, and he himself was the wittiest man we shall ever know. He had a peculiar esteem for elegance of style in life as in thought. He valued whatever ministered to, or seemed the expression of, an appropriate human pride.
Perhaps he was licensed to give so much feeling to what in life is gratuitous—to what is finely free—because he had so much natural awareness of what in life binds us, whether for good or for bad.
If we speak of Elliot Cohen as a man of genius, we have no right to remain silent about the suffering that genius may endure—to do that would be to ignore the courage of the endurance. No one who knew Elliot as a friend through his mature life could be unaware that the pain of existence was darker for him than it is for most of us. I know of no response we can make to his pain other than that of our silent humility before it, and before the mystery of this great pain being bound up with so much delight in human life and with so much power—no other response than this, and the increase of our love for Elliot.