Today, students, friends, and colleagues gathered in Sharp Chapel to say farewell to Dr. Joseph Kestner, McFarlin Professor of English and Film at the University of Tulsa. His sudden and untimely death on the first day of the fall semester has left a ragged hole in the arts and humanities on this campus and in the larger community. He was a scholar of immense talent and energy who founded the Department of Film Studies while advocating tirelessly for the interdisciplinary exploration of art, music, literature, film.
Better obituary writers than I have attempted to take the measure of his life and some of his film students have offered their reflections in a series of memorial blog posts. Rather than seeking to sum up a life that always defied the constraining boxes of field and profession, I want instead to try and describe what made him so unique and why his loss hurts so much.
Put simply, Professor Kestner possessed all the powers of hypertext before it even existed. To talk with him was to watch a startling, often dazzling series of connections emerge that suddenly set culture and its traditions alight. A conversation could leap from Joyce’s Ulysses, back to Homer, hover briefly around Mozart, then leap forward again to Victorian battle painting and Stanley Kurbrick’s cinematic vision. The internet, of course, has the power to link things—to let us click frantically first on one thing and then another. Such trails, however, are often dull because what we find feels idiosyncratic and deracinated. Like stars, the individual data points we see flicker brightly, but the connections made by our clicking seem as uncertain as the constellations. Professor Kestner, however, showed us the deep structures of a cultural firmament in which everything could be drawn together. There was always another connection to be made, another allusion to identity, another legacy to recognize, another surprising rhyme to hear. To talk with him, to read his work, to follow his thoughts was to discover a world hyper-charged with meaning.
He was impatient with disciplinary boundaries, but committed to the rigors of argument and the essential value of lucid communication. He was a public intellectual before we had even imagined such a term and he insisted, in his words and his actions, that the university was of and not apart from the world. “We are all born mad,” Samuel Beckett wrote. “Some remain so.” Dr. Joseph Kestner held to the delirious pleasures of culture and taught generations of us to share that same mad dream.