Archive for August 30th, 2012

“He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke.”

Thursday, August 30th, 2012
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There’s lots of talk about online education nowadays, but there are some things online education will never do.  It can’t demonstrate how a man’s learning can ripen into wisdom.

Way back in 1966, Richard Macksey at Johns Hopkins University organized the international symposium that brought French theory to America – more particularly, it brought Jacques Derrida before the American public. “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” also featured prominent post-structuralists Paul de ManRoland BarthesJacques Lacan.  Oh yeah, a young, up-and-coming French thinker René Girard was one of the movers and shakers behind the conference, too.  In fact, he and Martha Girard were the ones who told me about their Johns Hopkins friend in the first place, and directed me to this youtube video, which features a second reason to remember him: he also presides over one of the largest private libraries in Maryland, with well over 70,000 books and manuscripts:

A well-documented bibliophile, Macksey lives in a house that is literally submerged in books, one can’t travel more than a few feet in any direction without running into a bookshelf. Then there is his actual library, rooms of wall-to-wall volumes ranging from the classics to recent fiction. It is in this library, which doubles as a projection room, that Macksey teaches some of his courses. He hasn’t read “yet” all the books he owns, but according to some colleagues, he must have at least a couple of thousand volumes stored somewhere in his head. He recently announced that he will bequeath his 70,000 plus volume collection to the Sheridan Libraries of Hopkins. The shelves of English, Russian, French, German, Italian and Spanish texts, even Babylonian cuneiform, are matched only by his impact on the campus. Discourses exchanged over book-strewn tables with sharp-minded students was Macksey’s method of choice. An acknowledged polymath who can read and write in six languages, Macksey gives the impression that his mind is juggling a million things at once, said Neil Hertz, a professor of English and director of the Humanities Center, who likens Macksey’s thought processes to chain reactions. “The man’s right, he lacks focus…one thing leads him to another and that in turn leads to a third. And, given his astonishing memory, to a fourth, a fifth and so on. This could be a real drag if, say, you rolled down the window of your car at a traffic light to ask Richard directions to some place, while cars behind you began honking 1/25th of the way through his rambling, but no doubt interesting, answer.”

“He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke,” one colleague recalled.  “There’s no topic in the world that bored him,” said another, in the youtube video below (okay, okay, it’s big on Johns Hopkins, but watch it, anyway, just for the books).  He’s published fiction, poetry and translations as well as academic works, in areas ranging from classical literature and foreign films to comic novels and medical narratives–all subjects he has taught at one time or another.

He’s still teaching.