You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Remembering Needleman

Gerald Israel/Archives/Getty Images

At the cremation.

It has been four weeks and it is still hard for me to believe Sandor Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation and, at his son’s request, brought the marshmallows, but few of us could think of anything but our pain.

Needleman was constantly obsessing over his funeral plans and once told me, “I much prefer cremation to burial in the earth, and both to a weekend with Mrs. Needleman.” In the end, he chose to have himself cremated and donated his ashes to the University of Heidelberg, which scattered them to the four winds and got a deposit on the urn.

I can still see him with his crumpled suit and gray sweater. Preoccupied with weighty matters, he frequently would forget to remove the coat hanger from his jacket while he wore it. I reminded him of it one time at a Princeton Commencement, and he smiled calmly and said, “Good, let those who have taken issue with my theories think at least that I have broad shoulders.” Two days later, he was committed to Bellevue for doing a sudden back somersault in the midst of a conversation with Stravinsky.

Needleman was not an easily understood man. His reticence was mistaken for coldness, but he was capable of great compassion, and after witnessing a particularly horrible mine disaster once, he could not finish a second helping of waffles. His silence, too, put people off, but he felt speech was a flawed method of communication, and he preferred to hold even his most intimate conversations with signal flags.

When he was dismissed from the faculty of Columbia University for his controversy with the then-head of the school, Dwight Eisenhower, he waited for the renowned ex-general with a carpet beater and pelted him until Eisenhower ran for cover into a toy store. (The two men had a bitter public disagreement over whether the class bell signaled the end of a period or the beginning of another.)

Needleman had always hoped to die a quiet death. “Amidst my books and papers like my brother Johann.” (Needleman’s brother had suffocated under a rolltop desk while searching for his rhyming dictionary.)

Who would have thought that while Needleman would be watching the demolition of a building on his lunch hour, he would be tapped in the head by a wrecking ball? The blow caused massive shock, and Needleman expired with a broad smile. His last, enigmatic words were, “No thanks, I already own a penguin.”

As always, at the time of Needleman’s death he was at work on several things. He was creating an Ethics, based on his theory that “good and just behavior is not only more moral but could be done by phone.” Also, he was halfway through a new study of semantics, proving (as he so violently insisted) that sentence structure is innate but that whining is acquired. Finally, yet another book on the Holocaust. This one with cutouts. Needleman had always been obsessed by the problem of evil and argued quite eloquently that true evil was only possible if its perpetrator was named Blackie or Pete. His own flirtation with National Socialism caused a scandal in academic circles, though despite everything from gymnastics to dance lessons, he could not master the goose step.

Nazism was for him merely a reaction against academic philosophy, a position he always attempted to impress on friends and then would grab at their faces with feigned excitement and say, “Aha! Got your nose.” It is easy to criticize his position on Hitler at first, but one must take into account his own philosophical writings. He had rejected contemporary ontology and insisted that man existed prior to infinity though not with too many options. He differentiated between existence and Existence, and knew one was preferable, but could never remember which. Human freedom for Needleman consisted of being aware of the absurdity of life. “God is silent,” he was fond of saying, “now if we can only get Man to shut up.”

Authentic Being, reasoned Needleman, could only be achieved on weekends and even then it required the borrowing of a car. Man, according to Needleman, was not a “thing” apart from nature, but was involved “in nature,” and could not observe his own existence without first pretending to be indifferent and then running around to the opposite end of the room quickly in the hopes of glimpsing himself.

His term for the life process was Angst-Zeit, loosely meaning Anxiety-Time and suggested man was a creature doomed to exist in “time” even though that was not where the action was. After much reflection, Needleman’s intellectual integrity convinced him that he didn’t exist, his friends didn’t exist, and the only thing that was real was his IOU to the bank for six million marks. Hence, he was charmed by the National Socialist’s philosophy of power, or as Needleman put it, “I have the kind of eyes that are set off by a brown shirt.” After it became apparent that National Socialism was just the type of menace that Needleman stood against, he fled Berlin. Disguised as a bush and moving sideways only, three quick paces at a time, he crossed the border without being noticed.

Everywhere in Europe Needleman went, students and intellectuals were eager to help him, awed by his reputation. On the run, he found time to publish Time, Essence, and Reality: A Systematic Reevaluation of Nothingness and his delightful, lighter treatise, The Best Places to Eat While in Hiding. Chaim Weizmann and Martin Buber took up a collection and obtained signed petitions to permit Needleman to emigrate to the United States, but at the time the hotel of his choice was full. With German soldiers minutes from his hideout in Prague, Needleman decided to come to America after all, but a scene occurred at the airport when he was overweight with his luggage. Albert Einstein, who was on that same flight, explained to him that if he would just remove the shoe trees from his shoes he could take everything. The two frequently corresponded after that. Einstein once wrote him, “Your work and my work are very similar although I’m still not exactly sure what your work is.”

Once in America, Needleman was rarely out of public controversy. He published his famous, Non-Existence: What To Do If It Suddenly Strikes You. Also the classic work on linguistic philosophy, Semantic Modes of Non-Essential Functioning, which was made into the hit movie, They Flew By Night.

Typically, he was asked to resign from Harvard because of his affiliation with the Communist party. He felt only in a system with no economic inequality could there be real freedom and cited as the model society an ant farm. He could observe ants for hours and used to muse wistfully, “They’re truly harmonious. If only their women were prettier they’d have it made.” Interestingly, when Needleman was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he named names and justified it to his friends by citing his philosophy: “Political actions have no moral consequences but exist outside of the realm of true Being.” For once the academic community stood chastened, and it was not until weeks later that the faculty at Princeton decided to tar and feather Needleman. Needleman, incidentally, used this same reasoning to justify his concept of free love, but neither of two young coeds would buy it and the 16-year-old blew the whistle on him.

Needleman was passionate about the halting of nuclear testing and flew to Los Alamos, where he and several students refused to remove themselves from the site of a scheduled atomic detonation. As minutes ticked off and it became apparent the test would proceed as planned, Needleman was heard to mutter, “Uh-oh,” and made a run for it. What the newspapers did not print was that he had not eaten all day.

It is easy to remember the public Needleman. Brilliant, committed, the author of Styles of Modes. But it is the private Needleman I will always fondly recall, the Sandor Needleman who was never without some favorite hat. Indeed, he was cremated with a hat on. A first I believe. Or the Needleman who loved Walt Disney movies so passionately and who, despite lucid explanations of animation by Max Planck, could not be dissuaded from putting in a person-to-person call to Minnie Mouse.

When Needleman was staying at my house as a guest, I knew he liked a particular brand of tuna fish. I stocked the guest kitchen with it. He was too shy to admit his fondness for it to me, but once, thinking he was alone, opened every can and mused, “You are all my children.”

At the opera in Milan with my daughter and me, Needleman leaned out of his box and fell into the orchestra pit. Too proud to admit it was a mistake, he attended the opera every night for a month and repeated it each time. Soon he developed a mild brain concussion. I pointed out that he could stop falling as his point had been made. He said, “No. A few more times. It’s really not so bad.”

I remember Needleman’s seventieth birthday. His wife bought him pajamas. Needleman was obviously disappointed as he had hinted for a new Mercedes. Still, it is the mark of the man that he retired to the study and had his tantrum privately. He reentered the party smiling and wore the pajamas to the opening night of two short plays by Arabel.

Read more articles by Allen here