May 22, 2017
Blowing Tom’s Mind
When I was earning my BFA in Film and video at Rice University in 1984, the Fine Arts department expected me to take the same art history pre-requisites that were required of the BFA printmakers, sculptors, and painters. These demanding courses were also used to weed out incoming students who did not have the means to succeed in Rice’s esteemed architecture program. So along with the challenging two-semester survey of art history, I had the chance to take several courses from Thomas McEvilley. This opportunity delighted me.
Among Rice students interested in art and the ideas behind it, Tom’s courses had a fervent following. Rice University was primarily and famously a highly competitive science and engineering school, so art history students were a small minority, but among this group, Thomas McEvilley was held in very high esteem. No one was more in awe of Tom than I was.
I had first encountered him years before as a freshman. Tom was in his late 30s at the time and his hair, parted on the side, hung down below his ears. He was a clearly a counterculture veteran and very hip. His lectures evinced both comprehensive scholarship and a close personal familiarity with some of the great creative artists and intellectuals of the day.
Tom’s most popular course at that time was Art and the Mind, which rejected many of the themes later presented so masterfully in his magnum opus “The Shape of Ancient Thought”.
My initial course with Tom, History of Silent Film, was a revelation. For the first time I began to understand the individual artist’s goals and obligations as a creative entity. Additionally, I came to appreciate the collective role over time that artists played within a civilization. These two concepts had never really existed for me and they coalesced almost simultaneously during one of Tom’s lectures. I had begun to comprehend what art, at its best, could be. It was perhaps the most powerful experience I ever had in a classroom. The insight Tom had given me applied not merely to the subject matter at hand, but it made accessible every work of art I had ever seen or would see in the future. It was a genuine epiphany.
For some of his less diligent students, Tom’s film courses could be a kind of trap. Among those who didn’t know any better, here was a course that met once a week and the class consisted of listening to a talk and watching a movie. A good number of students, many of them jocks, were enrolled because they needed a humanities course for distribution or because they thought it would be what we used to refer to as a “Jellyroll,” an easy pass. These desultory students were often taken aback at the assigned readings and came to fear what might await them in the Media Center auditorium. Many of the films we watched were quite challenging and some students found a few of them absolutely excruciating. Would they get to chortle at William Wegman’s antics or have to endure the garish indignities of Kenneth Anger? If they were lucky, perhaps it would be Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Masculin féminin by Godard. If they were unlucky it might be L’Avventura by Antonioni or (God help them) Last Year at Marienbad. Sometimes in the darkened theater you would hear these students squirming in their seats and sighing or groaning as if they were being tortured. And then eventually (finally!) the lights would come up, Tom would step up to the podium, look around and ask us what we thought.
Well, typically, almost nobody thought anything. Except for me, I usually had something to say. And so for weeks on end the classes tended to turn into extended discussions between the two of us. I wasn't always the only one with an opinion but I always had the most to say. Tom was a skilled interlocutor and quite open to his students’ ideas. For all of his astonishing erudition he was not intimidating or pedantic. At the end of my last semester in the BFA program I remember writing a review of one of his classes calling him my favorite professor of all time.
In 1996, about 12 years after earning my BFA, I ran into Tom again in Eckerd’s drugstore on South Main. I approached him and identified myself as one of his former students. He immediately said he remembered me and we had a nice conversation. In parting, I asked him what he was teaching that semester. He said, "I'm not going to tell you. You have to audit my class." I assured him that I would.
The course he was teaching was about horror ?lms and as always, he took the subject seriously and prepared assiduously. The reading list included Jung, Freud, Aristotle, Euripides and Edmund Burke. This for a course that featured screenings of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the post-screening discussions, Tom and I picked up where we had left off, although it seemed that the other students were a bit more lively and involved than they had been in my undergraduate days.
Over the next few years I would audit his classes at the Media Center or visit him during his office hours. As I was getting to know Tom, he was getting to know me too, and he seemed to look forward our visits. I suspect that the novelty factor had something to do with my appeal as I am simultaneously stereotypically Texan and something of an anomaly. The other Rice students with a serious interest in art history were mostly prepschool girls from nice families in the northeast but I’m pretty sure that Tom hadn’t run into many male students like me either. I’m 6 and a half feet tall, I grew up surrounded by cotton fields, I wore boots, and I drove a pickup truck.
So when he and I were talking about our various common interests, I sometimes felt that Tom had an anthropologist's slightly bemused acknowledgement of the cultural distinctions between us. He had previously lived in Texas for a number of years and I think he appreciated the place for what it is, perhaps in the same way he related to India or Greece or any of the other places where he felt comfortable away from home.
Inspired by my exchanges with Tom, I began to seriously research the archaeology of Paleolithic Europe. I eventually came to the conclusion that Cro-Magnons, more properly called Magdalenian culture, were the direct lineal ancestors of Indo-European culture. My analysis was largely iconological but also made use of various archaeological, linguistic, and mythical evidence. Tom, who was familiar with all of the relevant material, listened patiently and encouraged me. “You’re working on some wild stuff” he told me. He would tell me later that my idea about Magdalenians and Indo-Europeans had “blown his mind”. As it turns out, I would blow Tom’s mind once more before we parted ways for good.
By now our friendship had lasted into the 21st century. I had learned that eBay was a good place to find rare books, including out-of-print books by the illustrious Thomas McEvilley. One such book was Party Going, Tom’s first novel, published when he was 24 years old. There it was on eBay, a pulp paperback with a lurid painting on the cover of a middle class couple on a sofa in an awkwardly posed embrace, eyes closed.
I don't remember what I paid for it, maybe fifty cents. When it arrived it turned out to be virtually pristine. When I presented it to him, Tom was amazed. After all those years, he expected the book to be extinct. He had been so mortified at the cheesy cover art the publisher had chosen that he refused to even own a copy of the first edition. The second edition had a psychedelic cover, much more in tune with the subject matter, which was heavy on sex and drugs.
By this time I had acquired just about all of Tom’s written works, but I still had a saved search on eBay for anything with his name on it. The automatic search function would occasionally send me notices of Items up for sale and most of the time I deleted them. However, one day there was an auction listing for a Phi Beta Kappa key. On the back the key was marked: Thomas McEvilley, University of Cincinnati.
I resolved to buy it. Apparently some people collect Phi Beta Kappa keys and I got into a little bit of a bidding war but I wasn’t going to let it get away and I wasn’t going to tell Tom about it either. I eventually knocked it down for about $115 plus shipping. If Tom was surprised to see a copy of Party Going, just wait until he saw this.
The Phi Beta Kappa key arrived in the mail in virtually new condition, not a scratch on it. That week I was waiting for Tom when he arrived at his office. He invited me in, we sat down and he began to roll cigarette. I should've waited for him to finish but I couldn't help myself. I got the key out of my pocket and held it out to him. "Look at this”.
His cigarette was rolled but unsealed. He took the key, said “I've seen one of those before” and put it down on the table to his right. Then he finished rolling his cigarette and looked up. I gestured to the Phi Beta Kappa key. ”You should look at that a little closer”. He picked up the key and looked at it again, then he turned it over. He stared at the back side for several long moments, then he looked up at me. “So this is mine.”
I nodded. I must have looked pretty pleased with myself because indeed I was. He asked where I had gotten it and I told him. As he listened, he kept looking at the key. Then he told me how he had come to lose it. As closely as I can remember, this is what he said:
“I was a senior with a new baby and I couldn’t afford to join Phi Beta Kappa. My department took up a collection to pay for my membership and when I got the key I hung it on my vest. I was showing it off and kind of making a joke out of it. Then we went to the motorcycle races. We were sitting in the stands and when we got up to leave, it was gone. And I was really disappointed.”
We mused briefly on who might have found the key and where it might have been over the intervening years. He asked me if he could buy it from me and I refused. I told him it was my gift to him.
We sat in silence for a time. Tom was holding the key in his right hand and gazing at it steadily. Then he said the following four things, each proceeded by a change of facial expression:
We talked a little longer, until it was time for his afternoon class, but I don’t remember what else we said.
Tom retired from Rice in 2008 and we stayed in touch with occasional calls or emails. I kept him apprised of my research and he provided me with a letter of reference when I applied to business school in 2011. My quest for an MBA only lasted one semester, though, as my older brother died suddenly within 10 days of the beginning of classes. Everything in my life changed abruptly and I was compelled to reevaluate my goals. Realizing I had no deep affinity for or interest in business, I decided to withdraw and concentrate on my art historical and archaeological research.
The following year, 2012, marked Rice University’s centennial. Part of the celebration would include a panel discussion on the history of the Art History department featuring Tom. I went to the Media Center early to say hello before the panel began. When I couldn’t find him I called Brian Huberman, my film-making professor. “I guess you’re looking for McEvilley. Well, he’s not doing so well,” he told me.
When you hear something like that about a 73-year-old man it’s generally very bad news, and so it was in this case. Tom McEvilley had a terminal cancer. Immediately I realized that, preoccupied with the aftermath of my brother’s death, I had never even thanked Tom for writing my letter of reference. I was humiliated and wanted desperately to thank him for everything he had done for me. Brian told me that Tom was still answering his cell phone and that I should call him.
So I phoned Tom and expressed my regrets and my deep gratitude for his mentorship and encouragement. There was one last insight I wanted to share with him, I had found a pre-dynastic Egyptian icon on a different continent in a very surprising context. Might I send him a couple of pictures and links via email? He accepted my apology as if it were unnecessary and said of course, he’d be happy to see what I was working on. I didn’t want to keep him on the phone too long, so I thanked him again and bade him goodbye.
We never spoke again, but he responded to my email with his customary enthusiasm, calling my find “quite fantastic” and asking for more details. I answered his query in detail, knowing it would be the last time we would communicate in this life.
Several months later, in March, I had a dream about him. I was sitting in a darkened movie theater, presumably the Rice Media Center, and Tom walked by. I was excited to see him and I stood up and called out to him but I couldn't get his attention. He finally looked at me but said nothing. Then he walked out of the theater.
I awoke at the end of the dream and saw that it was morning. I immediately arose and went to my computer. I looked up Tom’s Wikipedia page and discovered that he had died a few hours earlier on that same date.
Tom had gone from being a virtually Olympian figure in my mind to being a personal mentor and, eventually, a friend. I’m grateful for the time and attention that he gave me and I’m glad to have this chance to share my experiences with others who cared for him.