By Jason Zweig | June 18, 2017 7:31 pm ET
Image credit: Irving J. Zweig (right), in 1961, on Lake Eden in Belcher, N.Y. with sons Stefan (left) and Jason (center); photo by Felice A. Zweig
My dad, Irving J. Zweig — farmer, semi-pro baseball player, history teacher, war hero, scholar, reporter, editor, publisher, art connoisseur — died the night of Oct. 26, 1981, when I was 22 years old.
Because I find myself missing him today even more than I usually do, here is what I wrote about my dad right after he died.
My father was untidy, sometimes sharp-tempered, absent-minded and unhandy, but nevertheless he was transfigured and rendered extraordinary by the variety of his wisdom, the tidal power of his feelings, his radical fascination with the world. Even in his lesser moments my father was more than a man; he was a natural force, a secure season against the lesser turmoils of daily weather.
He held a central and abiding belief that perseverance of mind, bond, and spirit could drive back the deepest adversity. When he encountered injustice, he fought against it with every weapon at his disposal — his words if possible, his fists when necessary — and never swerved a single inch aside until the battle was won. If he encountered apathy, he assaulted it until it either shrank away or rose up into something real. If he encountered ignorance, it was only a short time; he was a teacher by profession, a preacher by inclination, and no mind could long remain dark in his vicinity.
He armed himself with knowledge; he could tell you what the Albigensian Crusade was, quote from the speeches of Cicero and Demosthenes, explain Schopenhauer, tell you why Napoleon lost and George Washington won; he knew the entire Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart. But his highest and truest wisdom was the knowledge that investigation leads to emotion, and on long walks through the fields and forests my father taught me to see: which is to wish to learn: which is to learn: which is to love. He believed, in some unspoken way, that some universal energy, some spark of descendant spirit, sang mutually in all things. I picture it as a mystical vision, as though the way to understand the world were to see all things dusted inside and out with a powdery brilliance, a pollen of life, circulating over and around and through all the world like an ectoplasm of pure radiance. My father sensed this tide of light everywhere he turned, and it gave him a strange, almost miraculous affinity with animals, trees, and the land — as though, in their turn, they could sense the same brightness moving in him. He could turn from the most abstract or contrived mental exercise in philosophy or history, step out into the open air, and with a single whistle beckon a dozen wild birds to eat sunflower seeds from his hand. He could tell tomorrow’s weather by the feel of the sky; he knew and loved and taught me the name of every tree and flower in the fields. His passion extended even to “inanimate” things; he taught me to love antique furniture, the look of the years on old wood, the love in the hands of the men who made such things and made them endure. He taught me to love books, and words, and to realize that ideas, not things, are the sovereign forces of the world.
The magnitude and vitality of my father’s spirit came from his fanatical conviction that he would not live like the greater mass of men who work and die wholly undedicated to the pursuit of any ideal. It wasn’t that he was contemptuous of money or of earning a living: It was rather than he was disgusted at the thought of doing nothing beyond those things. He never had a “job”; he had destinies. He never worked out of some material motive, he never chose a career in order to put meaning into his life; he worked only to put his meaning into life at large. Sometimes it seemed to us that for him the entire universe was composed only of principles, beliefs, goals, scruples, and ideals, not things or places or substances. He didn’t “believe” in giving birthday presents; he didn’t “believe” in watching television; he didn’t “believe” in large parties; so in our house we had none of those things. On the other hand, when my father became a teacher he did so because he believed in it; he saw the resurrection of minds as a holy mission, the open crusade of democracy. My father renounced his exemption from military service to fight in World War II, and returned for three hitches of duty, because again he saw a crusade and made one. He bought and edited and wrote and published his own newspaper because again he believed he could use it as an instrument of moral passion and creative force. And in all these things he succeeded because he was a driven man, impelled past whole reaches of quieter life by principles and ideals crying out for expression. He was determined, as all great men are, to extrapolate himself onto the world, to reshape what he found until it attained higher goodness, to wring order from chaos, to bear beauty out of the darkness, wounded but yet alive.
He was not an idealist, not if that word means “dreamer,” because he saw people and the world as they are — as shadows cast and moving between good and evil, light and dark. In fact, he believed that man was predominantly a sinister animal. But he knew that such a realization only increases the obligation and necessity to love. He starved through the Depression, worked his way through school, fought in the jungles of the South Pacific, sloughed off bomb threats to his person and his property from political opponents, wrought decades of ideological warfare for which he paid dearly; and yet, after having seen so much sorrow, so much loss, so much world, my father could still love so many people and so many things so richly that it seemed a supernatural gift.
Once I quoted to him a line one philosopher had written — “No man can assist or save the age; he can only express that it is lost” — and my father said very calmly, “That’s true. Which is why the wisest man insists on believing it’s a lie.” My father always fought to save the age, to consecrate his energies and to subordinate all else to the pursuit of the ideal.
In that sense and for that reason he has not died and cannot die. Only men who live as strangers to principle, only those men die. The controlled passion of my father’s beliefs lives on in all who heard him speak, or read his words, or watched him live. His abhorrence of the unideal life lives on his family and friends. We have selected goals greater than the numb pursuit of mere things; we too have become driven, as he was driven like Galileo or Columbus, toward discovery, creation, the animation of the ideal. Even if we fail in our pursuit, our least reward will be immense: the bestowal from beyond the grave of his love, his infinite, infinite love.
October 28, 1981
For further reading: