O.B. Hardison Jr. thought it might be possible to become immortal. At least, he postulated, come the millennium, the "notion of mortality" might be changed through the birth of "mind children," conceived and hatched by down-loading the spiritual essence of a person into a machine.
He explained all this in a fashion more in the mode of a poet rather than a pontificator, in a wonderful book that became a bestseller, "Disappearing Through the Skylight -- Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century."
The book was published in February, the second of a projected trilogy, an effort to reconcile machines' ways with humans.
Everyone expected O.B., as everyone called him, to live forever. He was more than two months from his 62nd birthday and his years looked good on him.
Hardison died Sunday, at Georgetown University Hospital, of a blood clot, a month after he found he had cancer. A few hours before he suddenly died, he gave ritual handshakes, made a number of witty observations and, as usual, cheered up everybody. He died the way he lived.
In Who's Who, he called himself an educator. Washington Post writer Curt Suplee, in his review of "Disappearing," called Hardison -- in an understatement -- Washington's "most prolific, intellectual ambidexter humanist/technophile."
At the time of his death, Hardison was a professor at Georgetown University, who filled classes by making Shakespeare and Milton and the rest of Renaissance literature so fascinating that students would sooner miss "Twin Peaks" than his classes.
He was full of fire. He lit up the room with his torch of enthusiasm. He had a lust for the intellect -- a poem for every problem. He was a man in the grand manner. When Hardison told a story or waved an arm, he called up the spirits -- you looked around for the ghost of Hamlet's father or the spirit Ariel of "The Tempest."
Hardison also had about him a grace, a Southern style of politeness, yet a bard's gift for the bawdy. He once said he and his wife Marifrancis's marriage was "founded on the hard rock of eternal lust."
He came to Washington in 1969 to be the director of the Folger Library. Just about the first thing he said was, "Why isn't anyone putting on plays in the theater?" And lo and behold, he hired Richmond Crinkley to do that very thing, and the Folger Theatre became the place to hear the speech, spoken trippingly on the tongue.
Hardison had big, romantic ideas of what could be done. He saw the Folger as a place for a cultural court. He rejected a prissy grace-and-favor house, and instead moved into an old Victorian across the street from the Folger, where he could literally keep an eye on the place. Hardison, with Marifrancis and their six children, made the place into a 24-hour literary salon and a meeting-and-greeting place for everybody from medieval scholars to potters and musicians.
No one really expected him to up and leave the Folger. But in 1983, he'd learned to use a computer and a Xerox machine so he didn't need a secretary anymore. And he'd raised $8.5 million to add to and recondition the Folger, including the Treasure Room and the new Reading Room. So he felt free to go -- he wanted the time to "write and think -- and to be a Bohemian, my secret proclivity."
In the seven short years that he was granted, he did all those things. O.B. and Marifrancis kept up their hospitality with the groaning board and the provocative guest list. He amassed honorary degrees from seven educational institutions, served on dozens of boards, received medals of every metal, spoke against textbook censorship and for a complicated concept that he called "A Tree, a Streamlined Fish, and a Self-Squared Dragon." He taught his computer to compose iambic pentameter -- "not great iambic pentameter, but it scans for the most part," he said -- and to recite "Lycidas."
He was a passionate defender of artistic freedom. In "Entering the Maze," the first book of his trilogy, he wrote: "Quality of art work is more important in the long run than its ideology. ... There is probably no kind of art that has not seemed threatening to the established order at one time or another."
Hardison was also a man who knew a hawk (a plasterer's tool) from a handsaw (a carpenter's implement). He liked to point out a picture frame that he made using a knot in the wood as a part of the design. He and his tribe years ago bought a country cottage near Syria, Va., without any plumbing (the brook served as a tub) or electricity (the family was good at lighting fires) and made it a mecca.
Hardison wrote, at the end of "Disappearing," of a new chrysalis for humans. "What will those shining constructs of silicon and gold and arsenic and geranium look like as they sail the spaces between worlds? They will be invisible, but we can try to imagine them, even as fish might try to imagine the fishermen on the other side of the mirror that is the water's surface.
"They will be telepathic since they will hear with antennas. ... They will not need sound to hear music or light to see beauty. ...
"Silicon life will be immortal. The farthest reaches of space will be accessible to it. For silicon beings, 100,000 light years will be as a day's journey on earth, or if they wish, as a refreshing sleep from which, when the sensors show the journey is over, they will awaken with no sense of passage of time or -- what is the same thing -- with visions 'of what is past, or passing, or to come.' "
Written on computer discs in his Dupont Circle row house is the third book of Hardison's triumphant trilogy. Even after Hardison learned, about a month ago, that he had cancer, he thought he had time to make the book ready to print out.
Those of us who expected him to find the Holy Grail -- or the fountain of youth, the message from the universe, the eternal secret -- hope those final computer discs have been duplicated, printed out and secured in the safety deposit vault.
For who knows? This last book may tell us that he figured out how to become immortal -- through the printed word and the memories of those whose lives he sprinkled with shining hope.