Archive for July 22nd, 2019

Farewell Richard Macksey, legendary polymath and “the jewel in the Hopkins crown” (1931-2019)

Monday, July 22nd, 2019
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Approaching Richard Macksey with a question was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water. That was a comment made by Milton Eisenhower, brother of President Dwight Eisenhower and a former president of Johns Hopkins University. It is the best summation of the legendary polymath, polyglot, and bibliophile Dick Macksey that I know. I got to know the Johns Hopkins professor while doing research for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardHe was one of the more difficult interviews I’ve ever done. Usually “difficult” interview means that the subject isn’t forthcoming. In Dick Macksey’s case, it was the opposite: I was losing control of the interview at every moment, as digression piled on digression, anecdote led to more anecdotes, until I couldn’t remember what I had asked.

Chez Macksey: a personal library of 70,000 books, many of them rare.

Dick Macksey died this morning, after several months of ill health. He was three days shy of his 88th birthday. I have written about him in several blogposts, notably: “Western Civilization Cannot Do Without Him” here, “An Autographed Copy of Canterbury Tales? I Believe Him”  here , and “He Lived on Three Hours of Sleep and Pipe Smoke” here. He is at the heart of my Evolution of Desire chapter about the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference that brought Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and French thought to America – it’s included in its entirety in Quarterly Conversation here. Writer Kate Dwyer wrote  “Meet the Man Who Introduced Derrida to America: On the Remarkable Legacy of Richard Macksey,” a profile of him earlier this year over at LitHub. I’m personally convinced Western civilization cannot do without him. Now it will have to.

The Eisenhower remark is “a funny quote, but it doesn’t include the generosity,” according to former student Robert Friedman in the short  film below. Another, Betty Sweren said, “Dick really is the jewel in the Hopkins crown.” She added, “We all think of him as the great guru.”  The Hopkins community praised his optimistic, enthusiasm, humility: “He makes you feel like he’s learning from you as well.”

“There was always this rumor that when he was up for his PhD and doing his orals, they couldn’t stump him on anything,” the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, another former student, said. “Finally, exasperated, one of his interviewers decided to ask him about 16th-century French cooking or something and he goes, ‘well that’s great that you should ask that question, because it happens to be one of my hobbies.’”

His lifestyle was his teaching, too.

His legacy will live on in his unimaginably comprehensive personal library of 70,000 volumes. His capacious campus home was turned over to them. Among the many treasures: a signed copy of Proust‘s Swann’s Way, first editions of Faulkner, Hemingway, Wharton. Dick Macksey’s library was featured in Robaroundbooks’s “Bookshelf of the Week” here. In the combox, one former student, Bill Benzon, chimed in with a memory of his own: “I was a student of Macksey’s back in the 1960s and was in that library shortly after it was constructed (out of a garage). It wasn’t so cluttered then, but the shelves were full. Macksey was a film buff and would have people over to his place regularly to discuss films. He lived a couple blocks away from campus so it was easy to see a film on campus and then go over to Macksey’s for the discussion.”

‘His whole lifestyle became part of his teaching,” said one former student, and his door was always open to students, generations of them, with informal seminars that lasted till midnight.”There’s no topic that bores Dick. He can regale you with stories till three in the morning,” said another. His writing  was “a way of not limiting yourself to one particular way of thinking.” Well, isn’t that exactly what  the role of the humanities is supposed to be? Isn’t the absence of that precisely what’s poisoning with our thinking, our politics, our education, our public discourse?

“I don’t think there will ever be another person like Richard Macksey,” Prof. Frank Moorer. For that reason, and many others, he will be missed. Is missed already.

Postscript: On Twitter, a few posts by Sonoma State’s Dean Hollis Robbins, a former student. (We have corrected an error above, he actually died three days shy of his 88th birthday. It’s nice to know I share a birthday with him.)