George Kline: scholar, translator, and chronicler of Soviet bugaboos

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In 1974…

George L. Kline is someone you’ve likely never heard of, unless you have an interest in Russian philosophy,” writes Michael McIntyre over at “Extravagant Creation.”

Well, that’s not quite true.  Those of us who know Russian poetry will know his translations of Joseph Brodsky, and perhaps also of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.  The Eric Voegelin scholar Paul Caringella alerted me to McIntyre’s 2010 post, which celebrates my Bryn Mawr friend and correspondent:

What’s so great about reading Kline is that you are not only learning at the hands of someone who has thoroughly mastered his field, you are doing so via writing that is at once scholarly and accessible, that doesn’t take ten pages to explain what only needs one page.  Kline’s monographs are few in number – he seems to prefer writing articles and book chapters – and relatively brief in length.

In the academic world of publish-or-perish overproduction, that comes as a splash of sanity.  McIntyre is attuned to a side of my scholarly  friend that I had overlooked – for example, his 1968 book Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia (University of Chicago Press).  To my shame, I didn’t know George had written such a book, but I immediately made amends by ordering it for $5.60 on Abebooks.

A “chamber of horrors”?

The history George describes is a fascinating one:

Some former churches – notably the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – were turned into anti-religious museums that included “chambers of horrors” exhibits that graphically portrayed torture practices used during the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1960 alone, half a million people visited the anti-religious museum in Leningrad; many groups of children were sent there by their schools and they were treated to guided tours by museum staff who provided them with extensive anti-religious commentary.  Religious instruction for children was restricted to private homes only, in groups of three or less.  Since 1962, children could be baptized only if both parents applied for it, and both parents supplied a certificate from their workplace or place of residence (the issuers of these certificates were expected to do all they could to try to dissuade the “misguided” parents).

From the posts of some of my more virulently anti-religious Facebook friends, one would think that the “chamber of horrors” is overdue for revival.  In any case, one could see why Joseph Brodsky’s “Elegy to John Donne” was such a knock-out punch in the U.S.S.R., and why George was so swept away by it, as the Book Haven explained yesterday.  Take, for example, the concluding lines of the poem:

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
… And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.
Sleep, John Donne, sleep. Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs.  But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

I’ve benefited greatly over the years from George’s tireless generosity, scholarly precision, and remarkable experiences.  So have others.  From “George L. Kline: An Appreciation,” included in the 1994 book Russian Thought After Communism : The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (edited by James P. Scanlan):

In many ways as important as Kline’s formal teaching is the informal help he has provided to a multitude of students and colleagues in the field, not only in the United States but throughout the world.  Anyone who has sought George Kline’s advice or assistance on some matter relating to Russian philosophy is fully aware of his remarkable readiness to share information from his vast store of knowledge, go over a translation, review a paper, or comment on a research project – all with the most careful and patient attention, the highest scholarly standards, and the most humane sensitivity to the needs and interests of others.

It’s a joy to discover people like George L. Kline!

Couldn’t agree more.


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