Remembrances of María Rosa Menocal

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From Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities:

The passing of Maria Rosa Menocal is an immense bereavement for her family, friends, fellow teachers, and her hosts of grateful students. She was the rarest of companions. Even when things were darkest she was light in heart and spirit. Her capacious consciousness embraced multitudes whose lives were enhanced by their contact with her.

Her books and essays were memorable and enlightening. Yet I believe her truest greatness was in her love for everyone she met who merited it.

Walt Whitman thought that the soul’s survival depended upon being stored in the memories of those it had enriched. For many of us the enlargement of our lives testifies to some of the ways in which Maria Rosa Menocal will go on living.

More personally, I myself have been sustained by our mutual love for more than a quarter of a century. I have never known anyone else whose presence lifted me instantly out of any self-indulgence in gloom. Rare and almost lyric in her sense of being, she seemed at certain moments a touch unearthly.

From Penelope Laurans, special assistant to the president and master of Jonathan Edwards College

Maria was nothing if not memorable. She was a truly memorable person. All I need do to see and hear her is to close my eyes. I can be back while she is introducing a lecturer from the stage at the Whitney, “herding the cats” at the Whitney lunch, making a point in a DS class, cutting through the nonsense in a CYCE committee meeting: along with Jon Butler she was one of those most responsible for the freshman seminar program and the need for its classes to meet twice a week (not once). I never understood her energy because I never could do what she did. She handled life in different cities and continents with ease. She could take a train in from New York in the early morning, after producing a big dinner the night before, get off raring to go, teach an energized class, see students, host a lunch, introduce a lecturer, plan a conference, go to a committee meeting, read and promote a new book, attend a dinner and then spend the night as a guest in a close friend’s house and be up at the crack of dawn, ready to go, before she flew off to give a paper or spend a vacation with Crosby or her family. While others do this in our busy world, she did it with unflagging energy, zest for living, hunger for more, and nary a complaint. She was a life force, stubborn, opinionated, and full of the “Never, Never, Never Give In” mentality. She had a passion for food and music. She made room for many, not only her adored husband, children and grandchild, because she had a gift for intimacy. She absorbed people and gave back twice what they gave her. Her last email to many of us, written in the midst of pain, surgeries, displacement, hospitalization, and inability to hold down food, encapsulates her life-giving spirit: “And opera season starts soon! My goal for this month is to see the Butterfly at the glorious new Kansas City opera house —two blocks from our apartment there!  What could be better? (well, yes, Wagner, but that’s in a couple months….) As always much love to all MRM”

From Ryan Szpiech (Ph.D. ‘06)

María Rosa Menocal’s passing leaves me, along with her family, friends, and colleagues, with a profound sense of loss.

She was a remarkable person who was always inspiring to be around, always engaging to work with. She was above all authentic in her enthusiasm for life, deeply engaged in her commitments and sincere in her passions.

She was my doctoral mentor and dissertation director — and dear friend. As an advisor, she was intense and exacting, but also always warm and nurturing. She taught her students the skills of research in our shared field, but even more significantly, she provided a model to emulate in the art of combining scholarship and criticism, always insisting that our work be not only true, but meaningful. She was pioneering in her arguments, and it is not an exaggeration to say that her vision redefined the parameters of our field.  

As a friend, she was unique and unorthodox, charming and beautiful. For all those lucky enough to know her, her presence was a rare and valuable gift.

From Anne Fadiman, Francis Writer-in-Residence

The death of someone who was ten times as alive as an ordinary mortal seems an impossibility.

María was my guide and my friend since I arrived at Yale in 2005 and became a fellow at the Whitney, a place she had transformed into a magical cross between Plato’s Academy and Madame de Staël’s salon. We later shared progress reports on our writing, stories about our husbands and children, gripes about our cancer treatments (hers, of course, was a thousand times worse, though she always made light of it), and many bowls of Scoozzi fettuccine bolognese, usually consumed on cold winter nights. When Scoozzi closed, we mourned the disappearance of our favorite food — until the chef moved to Mory’s and revived it. We planned to consume it together on some cold night this winter.

I can hardly believe we will never eat fettuccine bolognese together again.

If there was ever a more agile, more original, more warm, more wide-ranging, or more sympathetic mind than María’s, I have never met it. And I know I never will.

From Haun Saussy (professor of comparative literature, 2004-2011)

Marîa Rosa lived what she studied, and studied what she lived: conviviencia, or coexistence. It wasn’t just toleration, but something warmer, friendlier, and more constructive, in which disagreement had its place. I learned a lot from her, and not just about medieval Spanish literature.

From George A. Abdelnour, vice president of the Yale Arab Alumni Association (YAAA), in a letter to alumni and friends of YAAA

More than any other figure at Yale, María Rosa Menocal focused her scholarship on the dialogue between Arabic and European medieval literature, breaking down the notion of the seemingly irreconcilable western and Arabic traditions. In so doing she argued that great literary achievements are often the product of cultures coming into contact, and consistently asked us to reassess our understanding of the medieval past. In light of YAAA’s mission of building bridges between Yale and the Arab world, and of offering a forum for Yale alumni with a professional interest in the Arab world to connect with one another, I cannot think of a better spokeswoman for the values and mission shared by both Yale and our Association. I am sure I speak for the score of students, past and present, which had the privilege to experience the originality of a teacher not easily forgotten. May she rest in peace.

From Katherine Fein (Pierson College ‘14)

As Professor Menocal’s student assistant, I conducted research for her latest book project; heartbreakingly, it will remain unfinished. It was to be a family memoir, a history of Cuba, and above all a story of memory, longing, loss, rebuilding, and exile. Her tales never ceased to capture my imagination: her early childhood in Cuba, her ferry boat escape following her father’s defection from a high-ranking position in Castro’s young government, and the building of her life in the United States. I was struck by how much that exile shaped her academic career, and, romantically, how she would return to her family’s remarkable heritage as the culmination of a distinguished career of scholarship.

Thanks to Professor Menocal, the Whitney served as a haven for me: she had the ability to make the rest of the world disappear, and in the confines of her cozy, book-filled office, I was only aware of her, me, and our spirited conversation. I always looked forward to her unique charm, sharp wit, and unmatchable enthusiasm for all things “humanities.” Her mind seemed to occupy a beautiful, separate world of ideas and poetry, so it always startled me when she recalled minute details of my life that I had shared with her earlier. But remember she did, and she offered advice and wisdom for every project I worked on and intellectual problem I faced, from my history essays to my internship applications. Even with her seemingly endless responsibilities and her distinct poetic sensibility, she never failed to prioritize her family, friends, colleagues, and lucky student assistant. She will be greatly missed.

From Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan Professor, MIT

Maria Rosa Menocal was the truest of humanists in both her life and scholarship.  Her studies on al-Andalus and its cultures and literatures are exemplary in their breadth, probity, and deep sense of justice for a still misrepresented history.  Her challenging interpretations will stay with us for decades to come and will inspire younger scholars to probe further and deeper to recapture inspiring moments of convivencia, living together, a value that Maria Rosa brought out of historical memory and adopted in her own life.

From Myriam Wissa (Docteur d’État), senior research fellow, SOAS, University of London

It was more than 10 years ago when I met María Rosa Menocal in Yale and Princeton. I didn’t know how I would react. María Rosa turned out to be a really nice academic who encouraged me to work on religious pluralism in early Islamic Egypt using religious diversity in al-Andalus as a paradigm. She ended up being a good friend. What is it that we remember when we think of her? Everyone who knows María Rosa would agree with me on this. It was her scholarly dedication and generosity. María Rosa was well-loved, and she had achieved so many things. All the memories I have shared with her will forever be cherished and remembered.

From Alina Rocha Menocal and Christopher Rossbach ‘94

Maria Rosa has been a source of light and joy in our lives since we first met her when we were students at Yale. She was Chris’s teacher in Directed Studies. Her talk about the story of Yusuf and Zuleika and how it appears in one of the greatest rock songs of all time inspired him to broaden his thoughts, to burrow through Beinecke library and to write his thesis as a Humanities major on the Arab and Persian inspirations of Goethe’s West East Divan, for which she was his advisor.

She was also Alina’s cousin from the Menocal family, one of the oldest in Cuba. Maria Rosa is part of a long line of Menocals who have contributed to Cuba and elsewhere as politicians, artists and academics. Her family and her travel to Cuba inspired her to write the memoir of the Menocals that she was working on until now.

When we moved to New York after Yale, Maria Rosa took us into her whirlwind circle of friends, family, food and laughter. We were overjoyed when she agreed to become Godmother to our first son, Teodoro. Her present to him was a row of her books and a certificate for a month of travels with her, the best gift we could possibly imagine. We were alarmed when Maria Rosa invited the author of the definitive cookbooks on Middle Eastern and Spanish food to our home in London and insisted on cooking herself and making paella, but in her inimitable style she managed to pull it off.

Yale, Cuba, friendship and family: In everything Maria Rosa did, she was an inspiration, an example of passion, determination, grace and courage. Above all, she radiated a kind of happiness that was contagious, and she had the ability to find joy everywhere she turned. She did so much, and had so much more to do, books to write, places to go and adventures to share. Her memory will endure as an inspiration for us all.

From Sharhabeel Al-Zaeem, senior partner, Al-Zaeem & Associates Attorneys at Law & Legal Consultants and a member of Yale Middle East Legal Studies.

“Missed are those who leave; but remembered are those who live forever.”

Maria Rosa Menocal was a great person. I knew her closely, during the Middle East Legal Studies Seminar, which was held in Cordoba, Spain. I can still hear her voice, while she was reading different poems in Arabic, written on the walls of Al-Hamra Palace. With all her knowledge about Al-Andalus and that historical era, she made me feel that she is the one who witnessed the history and not only read or write about it.

She will always be remembered, as a great professor, writer, historian and a very good friend, indeed!

“What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from our sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of Splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be.”

[“Intimations of Immortality” — William Wordsworth]

From Roger Boase, University of London

María Rosa de Menocal was a real star in the world of medieval Hispanic studies, and a person with whom I had a special affinity because she shared with me an interest in the culture of Muslim Spain and a conviction that this culture played a central part in the birth of troubadour poetry in Provence and theconcept of ‘courtly love’, which she explored in her article ‘Close Encounters in Medieval Provence’ (Hispanic Review, vol. 49, 1981: 43-64). Her work is intellectual in the best sense of the word, not dry or narrow, but passionate, imaginative and often highly unconventional. Starting from a base in romance philology, she demolishes cultural and racial stereotypes, breaks down barriers between academic disciplines, and sees connections unseen before, between popular and erudite, sacred and profane, modern and medieval, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. This is illustrated in her Shards of Love, in which she finds theroots of modern rock music in the medieval lyric, or in her work The Ornament of theWorld, which reads like a novel and has made al-Andalus relevant and accessible to a vast readership. She was dynamic, rebellious, generous and young in spirit, and it is hard to believe that she has died.

From Roy Sellars, University of St Gallen, Switzerland

I had the good luck, as a visitor to Yale many years ago, to get to know María Rosa Menocal. I was deeply shocked to hear of her untimely death. She helped me — and her example continues to help me — in ways I can barely express. I still cannot believe that someone of such strength, knowledge, wisdom, skill, enthusiasm and grace is no longer there. Irreplaceable as she is, she will surely live on, as Harold Bloom suggests, in the memories of those many whose lives she touched and enriched around the world.

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