Iarrived in London on 28 July and gave to Verso the next day a floppy disk containing some three hundred pages of a new manuscript, assuming that a copy of them would be sent to Michael in due time. Then I travelled further, into North America, and called him from New York, on 5 August, to say that I was planning to drive up to Boston to see him, on the 7th. Loud and cheerful as ever, he told me that he had just received those pages. Then, for good measure, he added, ‘and I will have read them by then, my friend!’
I went, worried, because, for the first time in all those unspeakable years of mortal struggle against an evil illness, he had confided in me, upon much coaxing, in the very last written communication I received from him while he was still alive, that, as he put it, ‘but the body is now beginning to give way’. When we met, I saw with sorrow that he was now moving very little. I was consoled to see, however, that the face was bright, the energy perhaps a bit more than the last time I had seen him, some six months earlier, and the brain agile as ever. And, of course, he had read all those pages, had pencilled them, and he then went on to discuss them with me carefully, on the morning of the 8th. I, in turn, sought his opinion on withdrawing two chapters from the manuscript I had given in only the week before; he saw the point and agreed that I should suppress those, for other uses, if I wanted. We discussed many other things, other projects, and I then departed, believing that there was still time, quite a bit of time. My children, who had argued with him for some two hours before we left, thought the same. Four days later, on the 12th, he was dead.
My grief was great but I also felt jealous. That was the way to go: argumentative as ever, and surprising everyone else but not perhaps himself. For me, then, a week or so went into doing one thing or another. When I opened my e-mail next, some ten days after he was gone, there was this immaculate letter, written two days after I last saw him—but also two days before he was to so suddenly go—full of practical details, with so characteristic a will to help and instruct.
Why dredge up so private a memory for purposes of print? Ours had been a proud friendship, on both sides, and therefore a peculiar mix of warmth and reticence, mutually confiding about some things but also a friendship full of discretion, indirection, and just so many stubborn silences in the face of no one knew what was to come, when, how quickly. For me, personally and not so very personally, what that memory picks up, as if in a little handful of ashes, is what Michael was and preferred to be—chose to be, in the face of death. And, that’s several things.
First, a certain protocol—an ethic, an impatience—of friendship. He had not previously seen that material, though he well knew the rest of the manuscript, and was keen to see it and to participate in its final shaping, down to the last comma, and part of the reason was that I, his friend, was the author; what mattered was a certain quality of personal, immediate attention. And there was also now, on his part, a sense of urgency: as the end drew closer, he wanted to do more, not less, even as the body grew much weaker than his resolve. That rush to go on working against the clock was, in part, a revenge against the gathering failures of the body, so that the mind, at least, would remain as luminous as a star. But the other part of that urgency was more impersonal, an almost coldly resolute sense that, as an intellectual of the Left, his own work was implicated in the work of others of his own kind, as a sort of communal interweaving, so that he could do his own work best if he also went forward into the world, in quick step, as his brother’s keeper. Hence came his extraordinary devotion to the work of those others in whom he believed.
Michael was fond of citing Althusser’s famous characterization of philosophy as ‘class struggle on the level of theory’ and he knew that that kind of struggle, even in the shape of intellectual production, and no matter how narrowly defined, could never be merely individual or even personal. He of course did a good deal of his own writing, and the evidence, published and yet unpublished, is that the illness did not manage to slow him down, not entirely, not even in appreciable measure. But perhaps the larger part of the energy went into helping—as editor, critic, teacher, friend, advisor, and as an owl of late nights—in the wider dissemination of the work he considered valuable for the Left and in the formation of a new generation of left intellectuals, out of the young men and women who came into his circle, to carry on the good work. Unlike most academic writers, who tend to be self-centred, as if selfishness came with the territory, there was, in Michael’s intellectual ambitions, something fundamental that was beyond the self, the friendships and the hostilities.
And there were hostilities! Michael was not a patient man, was punctually quarrelsome and regarded most forms of politeness as so many expressions of a widespread repressive tolerance. Most work that gets