“Like as May Month flowereth and flourisheth in many gardens, so in like wise let every man of worship flourish his heart in this world.”
– Sir Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur”
It may not be possible to understand Felicia Nimue Ackerman without first understanding her love of Malory’s compendium of Arthurian legends. Ackerman, who has been a professor of philosophy at Brown University since 1974, recites that quote to me from memory, prompting me to ask about her connection to Malory’s work.
She explains that Malory wrote about “the wonder of living your life fully and emotionally, instead of trying to be ‘well-adjusted,’ the way people seem to be nowadays,” and about characters who “flourish their heart and live with a great deal of passion and excitement.”
Ackerman has previously been quoted as saying that Malory is “the intellectual and emotional center of my life.” That passion and excitement are evident as she speaks in a tempered Brooklyn, New York, accent, enthusiastically and precisely, about all things.
Malory’s influence has suffused Ackerman’s life to the point that she named both herself and her cat after Arthurian characters. The cat is named Palomides, whom Ackerman characterizes as a trusted friend and confidant. Her own name, Felicia Nimue (“a double first name,” she’s quick to note, “like ‘Mary Jane’ ”), is after Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. She explains that she changed her name “partly because I like her and partly because it was pretty,” and follows with, “I named myself. After all, your parents have nothing to go on when they name you, because they don’t know you!”
Ackerman’s “flourishing heart” beats for more than Malory, though. Her desk and bookshelves are packed floor to ceiling with books, mineral and seashell specimens, kaleidoscopes, and souvenirs of countries she’s never visited. A metal plaque shines at eye-level, acknowledging Ackerman’s lifetime membership in the NAACP. I note the professor’s clothing and accessories: a blue-embroidered Afghani dress, red-accented eyeglasses, assorted rings and a heavy pendant necklace – all together, the office and its inhabitant are a testament to decades of intellectual curiosity and an insatiable lust for life.
She tells me, “I want my life to be very, very, very, very long. I don’t want my life cut as short as my mother’s. She was 100.”
Ackerman, who is 72 and lives on Providence’s East Side, speaks lovingly of her parents, both of whom were French teachers and whom she describes as “reform Jews and orthodox liberals.”
She says, “Judaism was available in my family on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and I left it,” and follows by telling me about her father’s supportive acceptance of her decision.
Although Ackerman expresses a lack of interest in Judaism, she has written several Jewish-flavored poems and short stories, and her work has been published in Moment and Commentary magazines.
Writing is another of Ackerman’s passions. Perhaps most notably, she is likely the most-published writer of letters to The New York Times. Ackerman is unsure how many of her letters the Times has published, but estimates that the number is over 300. She explains that she does not count because “academic life is so competitive that I’m trying to avoid that sort of thing in other areas of my life.”
Ackerman’s CV lists dozens of pages of writing credits, and she has been published in a seemingly endless number of newspapers, including The Providence Journal, as well as magazines and scholarly journals. She is currently working on a new book, “Flourish Your Heart in this World: Ethics and Character in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.”
When asked if she has a favorite letter, Ackerman cites her poem published as a response to Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” She recites from memory, “I think that if I had a choice, I’d never read a fool like Joyce.”
Why did Ackerman choose to study and teach philosophy? She tells me, quite simply, “I like it; it’s interesting. It’s fun. I like the kind of thinking philosophers do.”
Returning to the subject later in our conversation, she says, “What philosophy is doing has no practical value [but] I enjoy it. I guess it’s a practical value for me, because I earn my living by it.” Of the premise that philosophy teaches people to think, she says, “That’s an empirical claim that needs empirical justification … I say, ‘prove it!’ ”
Ackerman graduated summa cum laude in philosophy from Cornell University, where she was first in her class. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan.
As we talk about philosophy, I mistakenly identify the portrait of “some unknown Renaissance man” on Ackerman’s necklace as Socrates. Ackerman is dismissive of the philosopher: “I don’t admire Socrates. Pompous jerk! What kind of person thinks ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’? What a snob! No way do I admire Socrates. There’s way too much hero worship in philosophy.”
This prompts me to ask Ackerman which philosophers she respects. As she answers, she is quick to make a distinction between the person and their work, saying, “There are people that I think are excellent philosophers, like Descartes and [George] Berkeley; I don’t know whether they were admirable people or not.” After I clarify the question, Ackerman names Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege among those whose philosophies she respects.
One current focus of Ackerman’s work is bioethics, which she explores through her writing rather than in the classroom, “because a teacher is not supposed to have an agenda.” She is a strong advocate of living as long as possible, and tells me that she is “very, very unsympathetic to the view that we should accept death,” followed by an expression of disdain for “our society’s eagerness to get rid of sick old people.”
Ackerman again expresses her desire to live a long life, and says she “gave up food for longevity.” She continues, “I adore rich desserts. I found it very hard; it took me a great deal of very unpleasant willpower. However, one day every two weeks, I eat everything I want.”
I ask Ackerman about her favorite desserts, and she lights up.
“Oh, thank you so much for asking. Buttercream layer cake with a great deal of frosting. In fact, I’m just crazy about it.” This launches us into an extended conversation about sweets, in which she expresses her love for ice cream toppings, as well as the brownies at Providence’s Café Choklad.
As we wind down our interview, I ask Ackerman if she has any parting thoughts. She tells me, “When students ask me for personal advice, I always say, ‘I think you should get a cat.’ In general, I don’t give strangers advice, but if I did: ‘It is really nice to have a cat in your life.’ ”
Here are two poems by Ackerman, which have previously been printed in The Providence Journal and other publications. "Light" first appeared in Free Inquiry.
My sweet-sixteen dress was yellow as the daffodils
In the seamstress’s cramped but spotless living room,
Yellow as the sweet lemon bars she made each Christmas
For the neighborhood children.
Mrs. Mueller lived at the end of our block
In a little stone cottage near a field of flowers,
Like a grandmother in a fairy tale.
She was old and poor and crippled
But always tidy, always smiling,
Even as the marshals took her away
After it came to light that, once upon a time,
She was a guard at Auschwitz.
My father came from a fleck of a town
That was sometimes in Russia and sometimes in Poland.
He spent his youth shivering over the Talmud,
Scarcely noticing he was hungry and cold,
Except to call it God’s will.
Can you imagine?
Can you imagine how thrilled he was
To learn in America that he had the right to pursue happiness?
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (email@example.com) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.