John Gardner at Home

Memories from Raquel Barradas de Freitas

Dear John,

I have been forcing myself to write in the last week or so. It is funny: I am much more comfortable writing than speaking and yet I find writing very difficult. Taking my time doing this has given me the false but nice feeling that time itself can be stolen and stretched at will. This is what I have most wanted to do in the last two weeks: to steal and stretch time for you, for Jenny, for Audra, Annika, Henrik, Sylvia, David, and all who love you and are loved by you. As it turns out, I can neither steal nor stretch time, but I can write.

Your advice, as my supervisor, was always: write, write, write. “Start writing as soon as you have a sense of the shape of the problem you are thinking about. Or even before you do. Write to find your questions.” Instead, you may remember, I spent most of my time reading. I thought I would read everything first and then start writing. I still struggle with that today: when to stop looking at the architecture of other people’s ideas and start putting my own down on paper. It always feels so risky.

Anyhow, instead of a second video instalment in which I would miserably fail to be as witty and wonderfully sparky as Maris, I am doing just what you have encouraged and taught me, by example, to do with simplicity and clarity: write. So here are a few impressions, memories, stories of my years spent in Oxford as your student. Please bear with me.

(i) 5 emails, one reply

Sometime in the early Autumn of 2004 I sat at my desk in my small Campo de Ourique apartment in Lisbon and did something entirely out of character: I sent out 5 emails to complete strangers asking for help. I was applying for a scholarship and had a draft research proposal I was deeply unsure about. I also had a feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to do the kind of work that I wanted to do if I didn’t receive some specific guidance. I knew I was making mistakes and that some of those mistakes could be prevented by asking better questions, reading other things, etc. So I emailed a few people in Oxford (which I knew was *the* place for jurisprudence). One of those people was you. A little time later, I received one reply. The one person who replied to my email was you.

You had read my proposal, you said. You thought the topic was important and interesting. You gave me comments on my proposal and advised me on how to fine tune it. Somehow, we continued to exchange emails on the work that I was doing. At one point, you asked me to send you a piece of writing I was working on. So I did. I called it ‘Law, Interpretation, and Context’ and apprehensively waited for your response. It arrived shortly after and its opening lines were:

“Dear Raquel, I read your ‘Law, Interpretation, and Context’. I found it difficult to understand. I fear that it may have lost something in translation. The main problem is that it seems to be at too high a level of generality to help with the solving of any particular problem.”

You then went on to exemplify the difficulties you had encountered by picking on a few of my words and sentences- a method I would come to know well but had never before encountered. Here are a few fragments. They became lessons which completely changed my way of thinking, and writing, and arguing.

“Your subtitle: ‘The interest of interdisciplinary legal studies’. Are we supposed to be studying what makes Jurisprudence interesting? I don’t see why we should. If we are writing it and reading it, we are presumably interested in it. A paper telling us that it is interesting is preaching to the converted, and wasting valuable time that could be spent actually doing it, i.e. solving jurisprudential problems. It is the vice of procrastination to write papers about how we are going to solve philosophical problems, which techniques we are going to use, etc. You should simply solve the problems, and thereby demonstrate how to solve them.”

“P.5. ‘There is no such thing as a purely pre-interpretive moment.’ Maybe. But where is the argument? Wittgenstein wrote that, if there is to be interpretation, there must also be understanding without interpretation. He hinted at an argument based on regress. What is your counter argument? In general, this paragraph appears to contain much of the philosophical meat of the paper, but boiled down until it almost disappears.”

“P.6. The whole paragraph, including your summaries of other people’s ideas, suffers from the same opacity. The people you cited in this paragraph must surely be paying someone bribes to be able to get away with such obscurantism.”

“Page 7. The argument here struck me as circular, and the supporting remarks as largely platitudinous. The very precise disputes concealed under the platitudes are the ones that need to be solved. ‘One should be attentive to the subtleties of human behaviour and creativity.’ !!! Of course, but what does that mean? Does it mean thinking about how the text was intended, or not? Does it mean thinking about how the text is used by its users, or not? Which subtleties and with which implications?”

And so it went on. At one point, you wrote:

“You must express your question in clear words and set about breaking it into digestible sub-questions, each of which you must laboriously chew until it is solved and other people’s errors have been exposed. You must not boil the problems down until there is nothing left to chew, and it all turns into argument-free platitude.”

And concluded:

“Philosophy requires detailed work on small puzzles.”

I printed that out and put in on my wall.

To me, this was extraordinary. Not just what you were saying about what philosophy requires but also how you were engaging with my paper. I had never been given this kind of feedback on my work. It was blunt and painful but it was telling me something I really needed to know if I was to do any real work. At that point, of course, I thought this would be the end of our exchange. I thought you saw me as a lost cause. But, as I read on, I realised, with astonishment, that you thought something could be done:

“Before we proceed much further with your thesis, we need to cure you of this tendency.”

Did he say ‘we’? Yes, you had. It took me a while to digest it all. But eventually I did and, for the first time, you did something which you would continue to do, unfailingly, over the years. You were somehow able to change my thoughts from ‘No, I can’t do this’ to ‘Yes, I think I might just be able to do this’

(ii) 5½ Myths

The next step was to meet in person. I bought a ticket to London and took the coach to Oxford. You scheduled a meeting in your office in 9 Logic Lane for 6 pm. I was there at 6 pm sharp. We had a brief conversation and at one point you handed me a copy of 5½ Myths and said we would meet again at 9 am the next day to discuss it. I left your office feeling a mix of dread and zest. I stocked up on chocolate and water and immediately got to work on the article. I barely slept. I knocked on your door at 9 am. We had a long conversation, I asked many questions, you responded, and I asked a few more. At the end of our meeting you said:

“What you are really interested in is interpretation. I think you should drop the victim project and write about interpretation.”

Yes, I had a ‘victim project’.

And then you told me you would be happy to supervise me. I hadn’t dared ask. I left Oxford back to Lisbon telling myself, but not believing it, that our meeting had really happened.

‘Yes, I think I might just be able to do this.’

(iii) Portugal: Robert Burns and loose change pizza

A few months later, you encouraged me to spend a term in Oxford as a visiting student. During that term, I made more progress than I had made in a year and a half in Lisbon. You made sure I was fully integrated into the graduate student community, introduced me to Maris, Danny Priel, and others. You organised dinners and other gatherings and included me in the preparation of events such as the Complicity conference. I brought my collection of JG quotes with me to decorate the blank wall against which my little desk was placed, in the Stavertonia apartment that you helped arrange for me:

‘Don’t preach to the converted’
‘Write clearly and simply’
‘Death to platitudes!’
‘Chew, laboriously. Digest, digest, digest!’
‘Philosophy requires detailed work on small puzzles’

After I went back to Lisbon, I started planning your LP* tour of Portugal- the other half of your Iberian tour, which had started in Barcelona, with Maris, some time before. Your visit, which happened in December 2005, was memorable in many ways, but two things stand out. One was hearing you recite Robert Burns in Lallans, at our dining table in Lapa, a little village in Ribatejo, as close to the middle of nowhere as a Portuguese village gets. Your enthusiasm and joy were contagious as you cheerfully indulged my Mum, who kept asking for more poems and songs. The other was going out for lunch by the river on the last day of your visit- a bright, sunny December day. The Law School in Lisbon had given you an envelope with a stack of Euro bills (!) and you said, interrupting yourself with your characteristically contagious laughter, ‘I am rich now! Let me take you out for pizza!’

(iv) A balanced life

The following year, I moved to Oxford. You had persuaded me to apply for the DPhil, after I was awarded a scholarship, so I did. I was five months pregnant when Johan and I left Lisbon. You were nothing but supportive from the start and immediately introduced me to Jenny, who had also had a baby when she was a doctoral student. It made such a difference to be met with such support when I arrived. I will say little more about how much I learned from you intellectually. I hope you know that you were then, are, and will always be my most direct and significant intellectual reference. I could not have hoped for a better supervisor.

But I feel just as fortunate to have been able to witness the joy with which you lovingly built a new family life with Jenny and the children. It was wonderful to see how utterly devoted you were to them and how much happiness and meaning they brought to your life. You told me once or twice, in response to my worries about how best to harmonise my family and work responsibilities, that you thought I had a balanced life. To me, that was very important, but I also understood it, at the time, as an expression of your own wish to lead a balanced life. It was, for me, a joy to witness the extent to which the balanced life that you were building was based on generosity and love.

You often spoke enthusiastically about building your own kitchen at home with Henrik’s assistance, about your allotment and how delighted you were to be growing your own vegetables with the participation of all the family, and of how you much you enjoyed spending one designated day each weekend with Henrik and Annika, planning activities which each of them would particularly enjoy. You told me of your visits to Tate Modern with Henrik, who was interested in contemporary art, and of your Saturday trips to Borough Market. Indeed, we often spoke of your love of cooking and food. Healthy, yes, ‘but never under that description!’

I especially treasure one memory. One day you emailed me asking if you could drop by in the early evening. There was some news you wanted to share. So you came over to our apartment in Summertown for tea. Francisca was just a little over a year old and was just starting to walk. You sat on our sitting room floor with her, stacking cubes and playing with her. You then told us your news: Audra was on the way! I remember being struck by the pure excitement and joy that I saw in you. It was wonderful to see. You asked:

“How do you do this?”

We talked about all sorts of things, including nappy changing and storytelling and sleep deprivation. My Mum offered her own advice. I felt it was my turn to be reassuring and say ‘Yes, John, you can do this!’ I knew you would do it well.

Some time later, shortly after Audra was born, we had a little birthday party for Francisca and the Gardner family was there. Without hesitation, you took on the role of party entertainer, leading the way with pass-the-parcel, singing songs, and revealing some serious face-painting skills. It was a baptism of fire, but you smashed it.

(v) Bolstering and detours:

As a supervisor, you always managed to combine rigour with a positive, constructive attitude to the work that I produced. I think this is a special talent and have often wondered how you could sustain it, without fail, for the duration of my time as your student. I was always doubtful of the quality of my work and you always found a way to bolster my confidence. But you did it whilst, at the same time, pointing out how its many failings could be worked on and eventually corrected. I left our usually very long meetings with more ideas than I could ever hope to pin down and the sense that, though the bar was set extremely high and I was far from reaching it, there were things I could do to improve my work and exciting new avenues to explore. What do I do with all these new ideas, I thought. I must go back to my desk and write them all down now- I don’t want to run the risk of letting them escape! It was exhilarating. And a gift.

‘Yes, I think I might just be able to do this’

Here are a few more examples of things you said to me over the years:

“Your writing is very Anscombean”
Oh, gosh. Really? Something of Anscombe in my writing!!!!
‘Yes, I think I might just be able to do this’

“Why don’t you write a short appendix on Wittgenstein and Heiddegger on meaning?”
Really? Do you think I should? Do you think I can? Well, why not indeed.
‘Yes, I think I might just be able to do it’

“You could never disappoint me"
Being the over thinker that I am, I wondered what this could mean. Does it mean that his expectations of me are so low that disappointment is not an option?
No, no, no, it means that he really believes I will live up to them.
‘Yes, I think I might just be able to do it’

You encouraged me to make detours and never despaired, even when it seemed that I would never return to jurisprudence after spending a year reading and writing about musical meaning and interpretation. You taught me that it is okay not to know where you will end up when you start working on something. It was so much fun, and such a genuine privilege, to spend hours thinking aloud about questions such as ‘Why law? Why not tabu?’, discussing the artistic status of driftwood and the meaning of Duchamp’s Fountain, or whether birdsong was music. ‘Blackbird!’, you exclaimed once. I went home to listen to The Beatles.

(vi) No pressure

I should note, however, that being your student has brought along some hardship. It hasn’t been easy to face people’s reaction when they learned I was being supervised by you. For years, I have had to endure and have come to dread the ‘Who is your supervisor?’ question. When I say ‘John Gardner’, the response is usually ‘Wow, you are really lucky!’ Or (even worse!) ‘You must be really smart!”. How is one to grapple with this level of pressure? Indeed, I have developed a nervous twitch as a reaction to it, which I am only now, after 14 years of struggle, beginning to learn how to control, with the precious aid of zen meditation and forest bathing.

Despite these hardships, however…

I am deeply grateful to you for so much more than I could list, even if I were trying to list all the ways in which I am grateful. But let me say one more thing. It is remarkable that I never felt in any way defined by my gender in the way we worked together. It was when I finished my thesis and went out into the real world that I started to feel the weight of male dominance in the academic world. As my supervisor, you shielded me from that, effortlessly, simply by being yourself and by encouraging me to believe that, if I worked hard enough, there were no ceilings or fences or barriers I could not break through. ‘Just identify one small puzzle at a time, Raquel. Chew it. Digest it. Do the detailed work at your own pace. Solve it, then move on to the next one.’

Yes, John. That is what I will do. It sounds straightforward enough. I think I might just be able to do it!

With love, admiration, and gratitude,