A Letter of Recommendation
Creativity make us feel alive and the more creativity we practice the more alive we feel.
–– Jeremy Geidt, in response to Frugalis Creativus
Forwarding Note by Professor Robert Calder
The beauty of an almost perfect morning at the lake was muted by your news about the death of Jeremy Geidt. As you are aware, I didn’t know Jeremy at all well, having met him only at that wonderful time in Sausalito fifteen or so years ago.
I’m pretty sure that I saw him performing as part of The Establishment, because, unless my memory is really failing, that group appeared occasionally on American television in the 1960s.
In any case, it was a delight to spend some time with Jan and him in Sausalito, and you may remember that, one night there, Jeremy displayed the kind of chivalry you talk about. Sometime at dinner, apropos of something, he declaimed a line from Shakespeare that included a reference to a porcupine. To my horror my wife, Holly, immediately challenged his line on the grounds that there are no porcupines on the British Isles. She was right about that, but it seemed impertinent of her to be challenging a distinguished professor of theatre; and some academics in Jeremy’s position might have spat out a withering reply that would have squashed her like a bug. He was, though, a perfect gentleman, entering a discussion as if they were equals, pointing out that there were porcupines in England and Shakespeare, as we know, had a wide-ranging knowledge of the natural world.
I’ve always regretted that I never got to Boston to visit Jan and Jeremy in their home setting, and when I read accounts of people spending memorable evenings at their dinner table, I am envious.
I also deeply regret that he never had the opportunity to portray Somerset Maugham, on stage or on the screen, in a one-man show or in a play about Maugham. Physically, he would have been perfect, and I know that he could have impersonated the Grand Old Party superbly.
I also regret that I never saw him playing one of the tramps in Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”; what a night in the theatre that must have been.
I can well understand what a fine teacher and mentor he was.
In my long career in English at the University, I read thousands of letters of recommendation for students and prospective faculty.
It is a great deal of work to write a good letter of recommendation, and most academics fall back on easy formulas and cliches; or they fill a letter with half-relevant recollections of social occasions. Jeremy’s letter for you is masterful: original, pertinent, deeply-felt, and – if I’m not overstepping my bounds here – an astute summation of your talents and strengths. He was putting his reputation on the line with such a strong commendation, so he felt deeply about your abilities, and he was right. That is a letter to cherish.
All the best
Robert Calder is Emeritus Professor of English of the University of Saskatchewan and was, together with Jeremy Geidt, a very early supporter of The Brick Project.
A Letter of Recommendation by Karim
It is with a careful and respectful sense of privilege and honor that I would like to write this letter of recommendation for my dearly departed friend, and great and gifted teacher and mentor, Jeremy Geidt.
This is only fitting, since Jeremy’s own recommendation for me (see below) got me into the doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which in turn kept me in Cambridge, Massachusetts for many years, which resulted in my strengthening friendships with Jeremy and Jan and their daughters, Sophie and Niffer, not to mention fond memories of sumptuous meals and laughter at The Geidt’s home on Garden Street and even a summer vacation in southern France.
It began with a Harvard summer class in Shakespeare that Jeremy taught in 1986.
We were to perform a production of Henry IV Part One, and Jeremy had cast me in the role of Hotspur. I was really struggling with Hotspur’s monologue that began:
My liege, I did deny no prisoners.
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword
There was a lot I did not understand in it, such as the reference to “this villainous saltpetre” and so I called up Jeremy with my lamentations.
“Come over for dinner and we shall discuss it,” Jeremy said gregariously.
He was ever gregarious, imbued of what P.G. Wodehouse termed “a sunny disposish”.
I was surprised that my professor was asking me to dinner and being so generous so I fell silent. “You do eat dinner don’t you?” he barked, breaking the silence.
“Eh… of course.”
“Well, come over about six-ish – my wife Jan is a wonderful cook and you are in for a treat I can assure you!”
It was a long and lovely evening and we talked of many things and I asked Jeremy about Hostpur’s reference to “this villanious saltpetre”.
Saltpetre, Jeremy explained, was an essential chemical compound that was used in the manufacture of gunpowder. The Chinese had invented gunpowder centuries earlier but it was only when the mining of saltpetre became commonplace that it was now feasible to make the transition to gunpowder-fueled cannon warfare.
“This was a massive change in technology, during the time of King Henry and Hotspur,” Jeremy explained, “rather like the changes in technology we have today. Technological changes can sometimes have unintended and dire consequences.
“In Hotspur’s day, noblemen like Hotspur were trained in the art and tactic of swordsmanship, and they fought according to a code of honor.
“When having the advantage over their enemy, if the enemy begged for mercy they spared a life. There was no rampant killing and senseless loss of innocent life.
“There was honor and there was mercy.
“But now – with this technological change to gunpowder and cannon warfare – any silly fool can light a match and blast a castle wall to smithereens – and kill innocent bystanders and women and children in the process.
“That is why Hotspur finds the mining of saltpetre so utterly despicable – men of honor have now become redundant and unnecessary:
“Chivalry is dead.”
Chivalry is dead.
That is exactly what has occurred here, dear reader.
Today, Tuesday, August 6th, 2013, is a day that not only marks the passing of Jeremy Geidt, it marks the passing of chivalry itself. Chivalry has passed.
Jeremy took chivalry with him, for he was the very last of a breed in a grand and noble tradition stretching back to Shakespeare’s Hotspur. That is the larger loss for all of us in the modern age in which we find ourselves.
Jeremy had the solid values and the Blitz Spirit that was part of his generation, The Greatest Generation, who had seen the ravages of war, the nobility of sacrifice, the scarcity and rationing of resources, the value of honest toil and ethical principles, the sheer pluck and indomitable courage of the human spirit.
He never complained, never explained. He enlightened. He never made excuses. He never accepted excuses. He demanded the best of himself and the best of others.
This was because he only saw the best in others. He refused to see anything less.
It was both infectious and comforting to know that such people existed in our modern world of casual compromise and coddled consumerism. It was empowering.
“And another thing!” barked Jeremy, with regards to playing the role of Hotspur:
“Your presence lacks both size and magnanimity! You’re playing a noble knight – you need to project a size! You need to fill the theatre with Hotspur’s spirit!”
I asked him how I might go about that and his one word answer to me was:
He dispatched me to various art museums around Boston insisting that only if I study the “paintings by the great masters” and submit to breathing in their magnanimous spirit, will I enrich my soul to the level that Shakespeare’s beautiful writing demanded – “nay, commanded” – for the role of Hotspur.
“Must they exclusively be ‘paintings by the great masters’ – can I not just study some really good paintings?” I ventured.
“No!” he retorted and swiftly pulled out a book from his towering bookshelf by his favorite historian who taught at Wesleyan College, William Manchester. Jeremy read me this excerpt from Manchester’s book, A World Lit only by Fire (page 87):
Five centuries after Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Titian, nothing matching their masterpieces can be found in contemporary galleries.
No pandering to popular tastelessness and philistine taboos guided the brushes and chisels of the men who found immortality in the Renaissance.
— William Manchester
“You need to study the masterpieces because these master painters never compromised,” emphasized Jeremy, quietly. It was a serious matter for him.
“Never compromise. Never, never, never! Compromise is the thin edge of the wedge.”
Jeremy writing me a letter of recommendation to the Harvard Graduate School of Education resulted, decades later, in my turning my doctoral thesis subject entitled The Brick Project, into a live project that connected schools around the world from India to Zimbabwe, and built multi-cultural school curriculum.
Furthermore, because the School of Education was right next to the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, we spent happy times over coffee at nearby Burdicks!
Jeremy became a pioneer of The Brick Project and he and Jan volunteered to spend seven weeks at the Doon School in Dehra Dun, India, where Jeremy worked with the school’s theatre department.
As part of this schoolwide multi-cultural initiative, Jeremy taught Shakespeare at Doon and he in turn learned Sanskrit plays by Patañjali, Kālidāsa and Bhavabhuti.
Teaching and learning. Learning and Teaching.
Since my roots were in the Indian Subcontinent, and since Jeremy went to Wellington College in England, we often discussed the British Raj in India.
Moreover, since Wellington in the UK was a feeder school to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and since the Doon School in India was a feeder to the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, Jeremy and I spoke often about military men from Henry Hotspur to Hamilcar Barca, from Ashoka to Arjuna, and about war and conflict, conquest and colonialism, imperialism and empire. Epic conversations!
A year after his Shakespeare class, in 1987, Jeremy and I travelled down to New York to see Peter Brook’s production of The Mahabharata and Jeremy became enchanted with Indian mythology and literature. He pestered me with questions about the Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads. The role-reversal was refreshing:
I was now his teacher and he was my student.
Well, not quite.
For in his earnest willingness to learn new things, in his gentle humility and openness toward understanding more about my Indian culture, in his profound respect for the diversity of humanity, he was teaching me invaluable life lessons.
He was still the masterful teacher, even when he was being the curious student.
What is needful?
Learning and teaching.
Teaching and learning.
— Taittiriya Upanishad, 6th Century BCE
“You see!” Jeremy enthused, “Arjuna, the princely warrior, is really Hotspur the knight in another form – and Lord Krishna is really King Henry, isn’t he?”
He saw it as symbolic that in all cultures, in all traditions, from The Mahabharata to Henry IV Part One mankind aspires to rise above itself, to seek a higher and more noble standard. He rejoiced in the universality of civilizations.
He saw a need for vigilance against modern forces that ensnare us and make us captive to complacency and compromise, that dumb down and downtrodden our dignity.
He saw a need to arise out of that quicksand of compromise and to stand for something of purpose and principle. He saw this as a sort of war which is why his classes were riveting. He made us fight our own spiritual lethargy and be better.
If we just fought our wars within our own souls, he would often say, then there would be no need for any more wars. There would be only peace. Can you imagine?
He was not afraid of imagining the unimaginable. He had no boundaries and no barriers in his love for his family and his students and his love of humanity.
“You cannot have peace – or anything at all – unless you can first imagine it.”
“Arise, great warrior, Arise!”
— Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita
“It all comes down to the loss of chivalry,” he lamented quietly to me at his sunny home on Garden Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was referring to our contemporary world and the values we live within today, which made him despair.
“It all comes down to Hotspur. And Arjuna.
“Do you know that the young men who train for the army these days use video games as part of their training? Do you know they can kill hundreds of people indiscriminately by pushing a digital computer button? Villanious saltpetre!”
He quoted Hostpur because it comforted him:
This villainous saltpetre should be digged
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good fellow had destroyed
It made him sad to see the loss of so many honorable values that he held dear.
It made him angry to witness the cowardice and coddling of consumer culture.
It broke his heart to see that young people were not encouraged enough to cultivate creativity and enrich their souls through art and literature.
As usual however, he picked himself up from his despair back into the warm glow of the smiling J. W. Geidtian and P. G. Wodehousian “sunny disposish”!
The sunshine beamed boldly through Jeremy’s soul and the Geidtian baritone boomed bombastically filling the quiet room: “I have a book I wish to gift you with!”
He said it with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye. He handed me a copy of a book he treasured when he was a schoolboy at Wellington school in England.
It was a book by Rudyard Kipling about Kipling’s days in the army, entitled ‘Departmental Ditties and Barack Room Ballads‘. Jeremy read me these lines he had quoted in the inscription to the book – lines that make me think of him today:
Tho’ East is EastAnd West is West,There is neither border,Nor breed,Nor birth,When two strong menStand face to face,Tho’ they came fromThe ends of the earth.