A Tribute to Fernando Coronil (1944-2011)

by Genese Sodikoff, August 25, 2011


The tragedy of Fernando Coronil’s death on August 16, 2011 is not only the loss of someone who inspired and charmed so many people, but also the fulfillment of his dread that he’d meet the same fate as his mother, who died of lung cancer at the age of 67.  I think back now on a conversation we had one day in February over lunch.  He was thinking about a quote by Walter Benjamin on the Concept of History, about the past as an image “flashing up.”  He was considering structuring his book about Hugo Chavez around this idea and wanted to get to the bottom of Benjamin’s meaning as he continued to chase secrets about the 2002 coup against Chavez.  As he recited Benjamin to me, I told him that it reminded me of “seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes” at the moment of death. That gave him such pause.  It pains me now to think he was already fatally ill, and that he may well have sensed it deep down but denied it to himself.  He wrote later, after the diagnosis in April, that it was “kind of painful to look at life backward and see it clearly.”  But that is how lung cancer works. The aches in his back were not warnings to heed but clues that it was already too late.

I got to know Fernando in 1998 when I transferred from Johns Hopkins to the University of Michigan for doctoral study in anthropology.  I felt privileged to be a member of the vibrant anthropology department and intellectual community of Ann Arbor.  Fernando was a director of the Program in Anthropology and History at the time.  Although not enrolled formally in that program, I could not resist the many allures of Anthro-History and happily infiltrated their reading groups and events (and I never missed a party).  When I left Ann Arbor in 2005 to begin teaching at Rutgers-Newark, Fernando stayed a close email correspondent and commentator on my works in progress, and I on his.  Like so many others who have been in dialogue with him, we had common intellectual passions—about nature, margins, and Marxism-- which we approached from very different vantage points: he from investigations of the state in Venezuela and I of ecological conservation in Madagascar.  When Fernando and his partner, Julie Skurski, accepted appointments at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan in 2008, I was thrilled to again be in their orbit.

With every fiber of his being, Fernando worked to recover from acute respiratory failure on July 18 that sent him to Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital where he spent his final weeks.  Thanks to the generosity of Julie and their daughters, Mariana and Andrea, who with open arms welcomed friends to join their vigil in the ICU, I was part of a constant and anxious clutch of regular visitors.  As Julie poignantly described in her online log of the ordeal, each day in the hospital brought either elation-- as when Dr. Baines, an amazing surgeon, defied the consensus of the medical team and staved off death for Fernando twice--or despair, when a new crisis arose.  We hung our hopes on faint signs that he might get home again to treasure a little more time with his family, tend to his posterity, and enjoy his beautiful surroundings, writing, and gossiping with his friends.  Although at first Fernando had not been convinced he would want to suffer harsh cancer treatments, his thinking changed as his illness rapidly advanced. He downplayed his physical discomforts. He was able to savor the distilled pleasures of his shrinking horizon and to live fully in the Now.

Still, one can’t help but feel outraged that his life was interrupted in mid-sentence.  In June, Fernando was contemplating a new article about Hugo Chavez, who had recently flown to Cuba to undergo some mysterious medical procedure.  Fernando had written about the History and occlusions produced by Chavez’s prolific speechifying.  The state’s silence now spoke volumes, and rumors circulated that Chavez had cancer. Spokespersons have been evasive about the specific enemy, the kind of cancer, in “the battle” being waged by Chavez. For Fernando, the convergence of his and Chavez’s lives through cancer urged Fernando to think about history and possible futures in terms of the limits of species being: our biological vulnerability on an increasingly toxic and ill-used planet.  Months earlier I had sent him Dipesh Chakrabarty’s, “The Climate of History” in which Chakrabarty argues that historians must take seriously the collapse of natural history and human history as we come to grips with our ability to alter Earth’s geological forces, including climate. 

Fernando was thinking at this scale about states and empires, the slippery words of Venezuelan officials, and the politics of oil in light of Chavez’s new condition.  To a journalist who insisted to Fernando that Chavez would never step down, Fernando had to respond:  but what if Chavez dies?  The journalist had no good answer because it had never occurred to him that cancer might change the course of Venezuela’s near future. One of the last things Fernando expressed to me in the hospital when it looked like he might be released quickly, before being put on a ventilator, was his desire to get data on environmental degradation and human health so that he could start writing, or at least start getting comfortable with dictation (but he hated dictating).  It would have been a powerfully beautiful piece, inspired by his changing sensation of time and space as his own body diminished.

He will be missed so deeply for such a long time.  His friendship meant the world to me.  The pleasure of his company is well-known.  As Craig Calhoun, Laurent Dubois, Gary Wilder, and David Brent have written in their eloquent and personal tributes, Fernando was a committed political activist, critical intellectual, dreamer of better paths, and the Life of the party.   Their words give a much richer account of who he was as a mentor, scholar, colleague, and friend.  But I also wanted to offer tribute to Fernando in a female voice which, I suspect, he would appreciate, in spirit.


Other tributes to Fernando: