Monday, January 3, 2011

Eulogy

I spoke at Denis's memorial service on Friday. The rough text is below; delivery may have varied. I loved hearing the Denis stories - especially the emailed story read by Sonia from Denis's brother about youthful experimentation in home brewing and home gunpowder manufacture.

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We were walking along the rocky beach at Ngakawau Tuesday afternoon when my phone picked up the email from Denis. Except it wasn’t from Denis – it was from Ben. That wasn’t awfully surprising. The last couple of emails I’d received from Denis’s account had been from Ben, noting that Denis was in hospice after a bit of time in hospital. But the news this time was rather worse.

Richard Dawkins lamented Douglas Adams’s sudden and unexpected heart attack saying, “Douglas, you cannot be dead.” Denis, we knew this was coming but we thought we had a few more months together. You can’t be dead yet. Back in May when you told us about the cancer, we’d reckoned on another year or two. Before Christmas, Simon Kemp and I had finished up a list of people to ask to contribute to a Festschrift. But Gedenkenschrift isn’t Denis’s style. Time flies.

But talk about going out on a high note. At a stage in his life most rest on past achievements, Denis instead has been clogging up both my inbox and the links on Arts & Letters Daily with his recent triumphs. Two years ago he emailed noting that he’d just been made Professor and had been invited to give a talk at Google. The former was nice. The University never quite knew what to do with Denis, who spent his time cultivating an odd website (which outranked the University’s own page in terms of web traffic, even within New Zealand) and working on odd projects rather than churning out journeymen publications. The University appreciating Denis was good. But the latter was seriously big news – Google had quietly been putting together a seminar series of the most interesting people in the world, their talks then all available online. And my friend Denis was invited. This wasn’t the first or the last of the victories that Denis shared, but more of those later.

Denis and I hit it off by having some arguments at the University Staff Club and continuing those arguments over email. He was developing an interest in evolutionary biology and the arts that led to some really important work; I had an interest in evolutionary biology and economics that’s still not led to much. Maybe it’ll get there someday. But one fewer distraction on the web to greet me every morning is massively outweighed by one fewer sparring partner with whom to bash ideas around.

I’ve seen others who’ve described Denis as being very happy to agree to disagree, but when Denis and I found something to disagree about, we tended to prefer knocking things around until we’d found agreement. I’ve always preferred things that way; Denis did too with folks who were keen to box. He just had more sense than I have in knowing who likes more vigorous arguing. But we mostly agreed before having to argue: if about the arts, he’d put the meat on what was more na├»ve and intuitive on my side. I’d note vague problems in the casting of one of the principals in Travatore in Christchurch; he’d reply with her precise technical faults. I tried to do the same for him in economics.

Denis loved sharing his victories. One of the earlier emails I’d received from Denis was simply a link to a story in Canada’s National Post, the byline now gone but likely written by Robert Fulford, talking of the wonders of ALD and of its author, improbably situated in Christchurch. I teased Denis that I hadn’t thought him a fan of hagiography; he replied in classic form “I despise hagiography, except when I’m the hag.”

Denis got to play the hag an awful lot since the book came out. The TED Conference, the Edge Foundation “New Age of Wonder” dinner, and the Colbert Report were all seriously impressive accolades. And the book reviews haven’t been too shabby either. Not that Denis was shy about posting those on ALD – especially those reviews where the author noted Denis’s humility. But it was never boastfulness. Rather it was a call to play. He’d link on ALD to all the fun that all kinds of interesting people were having; why should he leave himself out?

We usually chatted and argued by email or phone except on Fridays when he’d make the rounds at the Staff Club. My two year old, Ira, has been a fan of the graphic novel version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Denis, a Wagnerian, loved hearing the two year old’s rendition of Alberich stealing the gold from the Rhinemaidens. Ira was impressed that Denis’s dog was named Loge and seemed to have decided that if Loge could show up in Denis’s house, then Denis could show up in Ira’s stories. So he started telling us stories of how Scarface Claw from the Hairy MacLary books would bustle Denis and insisted on warning Denis about Scarface Claw. If only Scarface Claw had been the problem.

One thing Denis hated posting to Arts and Letters was obituaries. Or, rather, the lobbying and rent-seeking that would ensue after some minor notable had died – his inbox would be flooded with emails from fans demanding links to their hero’s eulogies. So I teased Denis a bit when the creator of Dungeons and Dragons died by putting in my best obnoxious lobbying effort. But it hasn’t taken any lobbying for either Arts & Letters, or the international press, to give Denis his due.

Denis was a liberal and a humanist who saw how much progress we’ve made and who railed against those who would thwart it through pseudo-science and superstition. He loved beauty and, in explaining it to us, helped us better to appreciate it. Thank you, Denis.

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