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A Nobel for Bob Dylan? “Grow up!” says a guy who is still on a rant about it.

Monday, August 19th, 2019

I’ve been privileged to know three Nobel writers in my life, though my connection with Seamus Heaney was only a brief, epistolary one. So to see songwriter Bob Dylan placed in the same empyrean in 2016 … well, it gave me pause. 

It gave one other writer a lot more than that. Professor and blogger Akim Reinhardt over at the esteemed 3quarksdaily wrote a long rant today called,“I Have A Concussion And Can’t Write 2,000 New Words, So Here’s An Old, Unpublished Essay About How Ridiculous It Is That Bob Dylan Won A Nobel.”

An excerpt or two:

Ugh. Bob Dylan.

Even though we’re well into the 21st century and half the Baby Boomers are collecting Social Security, they’re still determined to thumb their noses at their parents. Even the Swedish ones, apparently. So Bob Dylan gets a Nobel Prize in Literature.

I told you, daaaaaaaaad! My music is art toooo! Seeee?

You know what? You’re dad’s dead. Grow up. Find a new battle to fight. Go argue with your grandkids or something.

Bob Dylan. Jesus.

The guy plagiarized substantial portions of the only prose book he ever wrote, his 2005 memoir. You’d think that right there would disqualify a writer from winning the world’s most prestigious lifetime literary award. But this is the Age of Truthiness, so I guess all bets are off.

Nobel? Puleez!

After the announcement, predictability set in.  Would he or wouldn’t he accept? Yawn. Shortly before the deadline for handing in an acceptance speech or else have the offer of a tacky medallion and substantial monetary award rescinded, like the miserable teenage stoner that he is, Dylan predictably submitted a plagiarized essay, replete with classic misinterpretation of Moby Dick, and cribbed in part from the cheating industry’s 300 lb. gorilla, Spark Notes.

Good. That’s exactly what the Swedish Academy deserves for putting its finest lipstick on a clever little pig.

High literary crimes and misdemeanors aside, however, the real issue of course is merit. When I think of great literature, I think of words that offer penetrating insight into the human condition. But I was 14 years old the last time I thought a Dylan song carried that kind of punch. Lounging in the backseat of my parents’ ‘69 Buick LeSabre, “Blowin’ in the Wind” came on the AM radio.

“Wow, that is so deep,” I thought to myself unironically.

Did I mention I was 14? I was also really moved by paintings of big-breasted women with swords.

Not long after that, however, the bloom came off. Part of it was my increasing revulsion with the cultish adulation heaped upon Dylan, of people solemnly praising the “bard,” “the master.”  Of straight-faced people putting him on a par with William Shakespeare, a not uncommon sentiment during the 1970s.



Don’t get me wrong. Dylan wrote some great songs. But his lyrics are quite erratic in quality. Their “literary artistry” profits immeasurably from the musical enhancements of his song craft, which is often excellent. Dude knows chords and melody, and always surrounds himself with top notch musicians, producers, and engineers. But I think a lot of his words, when printed naked on the page, get exposed as pretentious, and even trite. At his best, Bob Dylan never struck me as the divine wordsmith that so many people make him out to be.

At the very least, I think it’s quite safe to say that he’s nowhere near the greatest English language lyricist of the 20th century. Authors such as Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, and Townes Van Zant, to name just a few, blow him away. Really, the list just goes on and on and on.

I know. They’re all dead, and therefore ineligible to win a Nobel. However, simply because the Nobel Committee was too stodgy to give the literature prize to a lyricist back when any of those folks were still alive is really no reason to give it to Dylan now that they’ve finally digested postmodernism and are willing to move beyond the rigid boundaries of staid categories.

Read the rest here.

No surprise that the literature award was suspended the following year. The shame, the shame.

Seamus Heaney and a toddler who “blew the heart wide open.”

Friday, August 16th, 2019

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other … 

Those are the opening lines of the Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney‘s “Postscript.” It was the subject of an email sent to me by Dartmouth English Professor James Heffernan a few days ago:

Dear Cynthia,

Having tracked down your email address, I write to follow up on my tweeted response to the story of your brief correspondence with Seamus Heaney in your blog—evidently something you posted some time ago, though I just caught up with it.

I first encountered Seamus in (I think) the mid-90s, when he came to Dartmouth – a short hop from Harvard, where he was then teaching for regular stints each year. Besides reading his poetry, he gave a thoroughly captivating lecture on the first chapter of Ulysses, which I heard with particular interest since I was then leading a seminar on it.

A few years later, in (I think) the summer of 1998, I met him at a Wordsworth conference in the English Lake District. When I told him how much I had enjoyed his lecture on Ulysses, he threw back his head and called it a “ludicrous” performance, thus disclaiming his right to say anything about Joyce for lack of professional credentials—or something like that. But not long after, when I read his essay on Brian Merriman’s “Midnight Court” in The Redress of Poetry, I was so struck by the resemblance between Merriman’s poem and Molly’s monologue that I wrote an essay on the two that appeared in James Joyce Quarterly (Summer 2004). When I sent it to Seamus with thanks, he replied cordially.

Discussing “Ulysses” at Dartmouth

But all that is background to his postcard, which came in response to a letter of mine about my son Andrew and his daughter Kate. In late 2005, as I recall, Andrew sent me an email saying that just after he had read aloud Heaney’s “Postscript” to his daughter Kate, he was surprised to find that she had memorized nearly all of it and recited it back to him. When I wrote to Seamus about this and mentioned that Kate was (then) two-and-a-half years old, he replied by postcard: “Kate Heffernan blows the heart wide open. The poetic line is alive and well, in ear and ancestry.”

In every way, he was truly a marvelous man.

He was indeed. And the toddler was indeed precocious. The marvelous poem ends this way:

…You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Read the whole thing here. Or listen to the Irish poet (we’ve written about him here and here and here) read it himself below.

Mali’s cultural hero Abdel Kader Haidara: how a librarian saved the treasures of Timbuktu

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Abdel Kader Haidara explaining some of Timbuktu’s treasures.

The Islamic State ransacked and demolished mosques, shrines, churches, libraries, and historical monuments across the Middle East and North Africa.  There were a few heroes who stood against them. We wrote about one of them, Syria’s Khalid al-Assad, here. Here is another, librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, who rescued Timbuktu’s cultural treasures after the jihadist occupation of Mali in 2012.

According to the Wall Street Journal: “The prizes in Mr. Haidara’s own private collection, housed in his Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, include a tiny, irregularly shaped Quran from the 12th century, written on parchment made from the dried skin of a fish and glittering with illuminated blue Arabic letters and droplets of gold. His collection also boasts many secular volumes: manuscripts about astronomy, poetry, mathematics, occult sciences and medicine, such as a 254-page volume on surgery and elixirs derived from birds, lizards and plants, written in Timbuktu in 1684.”

From Joshua Hammer’s 2016 article, recently reposted on the social media (Hammer’s earlier article on Haidara at the National Geographic is here):

A few days after the jihadist occupation began, Mr. Haidara, who worked full time as a book restorer, archivist and fundraiser, met with his colleagues at the office of the Timbuktu library association, which he had formed 15 years earlier. “I think we need to take out the manuscripts from the big buildings and disperse them around the city to family houses,” he told them, as he recalled the conversation for me two years later. “We don’t want them finding the collections of manuscripts and stealing them or destroying them.”

Months earlier, the Ford Foundation office in Lagos, Nigeria, had given Mr. Haidara a $12,000 grant to study English at Oxford in the fall and winter of 2012. The money had been wired to a savings account. He emailed the foundation and asked for authorization to reallocate the funds to protect the manuscripts from the hands of Timbuktu’s occupiers. The money was released in three days. Mr. Haidara recruited his nephew, and they reached out to archivists, secretaries, Timbuktu tour guides and a half-dozen of Mr. Haidara’s relatives.

The result was a heist worthy of “Ocean’s Eleven.” They bought metal and wooden trunks houses around the city and beyond. They organized a small army of packers who worked silently in the dark and arranged for the trunks to be carried by donkey to their hiding places. Over the course of eight months, the operation came to involve hundreds of packers, drivers and couriers. They smuggled the manuscripts out of Timbuktu by road and by river, past jihadist checkpoints and, in government territory, suspicious Malian troops. By the time French troops invaded the north in January 2013, the radicals had managed to destroy only 4,000 of Timbuktu’s nearly 400,000 ancient manuscripts. “If we hadn’t acted,” Mr. Haidara told me later, “I’m almost 100% certain that many, many others would have been burned.

Dick Macksey: “the cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it.”

Friday, August 9th, 2019


Dick Macksey at home in his library of 70,000 books.

More on the legendary Johns Hopkins University polymath Richard Macksey, who died last month. This time a lively memoir by by Bill Benzon over at his blog, New Savanna. It includes the curious story about how he wound up in the final report to the Ford Foundation on the renowned 1966 Baltimore symposium on “Structuralism” … without ever having attended. 

On the evening of July 22 I learned that Dick Macksey had died earlier that day. He was a Hopkins legend – a prodigious polymath who speaks who knows how many languages, a tireless teacher, a genial host, and an indefatigable conversationalist who owns more books than the Library of Alexandria, though only a few of them are quite so old. Everyone had said so for decades, and Everyone is now saying it again. The thing about legends is that they are based in fact, but are also used to distance the facts they’re based on.


Truth is, I probably took the course in part because I had heard the legend, about this cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it, could talk his way from Baltimore to Towson (just north of Baltimore for those who don’t know the area) by way of Lubbock, Timbuktu, Paris, Moscow, and Dublin, and who smoked a pipe. What’s to tell, strictly from memory?


Home sweet home.

I worked with Macksey for seven years between 1966, the spring of my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, and the fall 1973, when I went to SUNY Buffalo to get a doctorate in English lit. I have had occasional contact with him since then. I knew the legend. I would also like to think I glimpsed something of the man.

I came away with the impression that the Macksey-behind-the-curtain worked really hard. Of course, anyone who knows him knew that he worked hard. How else could he get it all done, teaching four, five, six courses – and on two campuses (Arts and Sciences at Homewood, the Medical School in East Baltimore), advising the Chaplain’s Office on films (not to mention hosting discussions of them in his library screening room), the editing, the correspondence, the guests, and who knows what else? His family, Catherine and Alan! But here I’d been in the middle of the maelstrom. I’m tempted to say that I felt just a bit like Mickey Mouse drowning in that whirlpool of freely associating brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. But it was Macksey himself who was riding the waves and there was no sorcerer to calm the waves. He just had to ride it out.


This is from an article that had appeared in the Hopkins Gazette:

“You needed a profession, and we didn’t have any medical people in my family, so I said, sure, I’m going into medicine,” Macksey says. “It got adults off your back when you said you were going to study medicine. And then I gradually realized that it was a way to give meaning to your life—or at least to make a plausible story.”

Bingo! “It got adults off your back.”

And he’s been doing it all his life. It’s the “adults” who insist that knowledge be divided into discipline, each carefully insulated from one another. It’s the inner six-year-old who insists that the world isn’t like that, so inquiry shouldn’t be like that either. It was the inner six-year-old piloting those flights of intellectual fancy Macksey was famous for, demonstrating that it’s the knowledge that matters, not you or me or Milton Eisenhower. He’s got the chops to fly us to the moon and back.

Read more here.
Meanwhile, a Book Haven exclusive: former student Peter Koper sent us his memories of the academic year 1966-67 at Johns Hopkins University:

Late night in a darkened Levering Hall, a flickering 16 mm. film series was overseen by a tweed and tie, dark glasses, tobacco pipe gesticulating figure with a pile of books under his arm. It was one of the only places in Baltimore to see foreign films and my first introduction to Dr. Richard Macksey. On the all male undergraduate campus populated with students fiercely focused on science, math, and engineering, we few wandering misfits – often in an LSD haze – yearned to become poètes maudits. And we had found our teacher, mentor, patron.

Dr. Macksey’s intimate, free-ranging, classes worked off an impossibly extensive list of dense books we were supposedly reading. But no matter, the real treat for hypnotized students arrayed at his feet was his non-stop stream of consciousness of the entire oeuvre of world literature. A discussion of Grotowski‘s Towards a Poor Theater would somehow end up with Antonin Artaud‘s colon cancer. Dr. Macksey was dazzling. The highest honor was to be invited to a seminar at his oriental carpeted, book packed home. He was so revered that the student weekly News-Letter I worked on ran a 42 point screaming front page tabloid headline “STRUCTURALISM!” for a news story about Dr. Macksey’s ground breaking world symposium at Hopkins.

When I became the co-editor of the Hopkins literary publication, Dr. Macksey was a loyal and caring advisor. We changed the name from the august Charles Street Review to the incendiary DeathBurger and filled its pages with radical literary screed and illustrations. We caused a campus ruckus and went over budget. It lasted two issues. But Dr. Macksey had our back and shielded us from an irate administration.

Like neolithic elders passing on wisdom around the campfire, teachers who mold us live in memory till the end. Dr. Macksey will remain in mine.

“Gardens grow backward and forward in the mind”: Beverley Bie Brahic’s poem on mortality and apples

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

There are sometimes unexpected benefits for going to the gym. I discovered one yesterday, when I encountered friend, poet, and translator, Beverley Bie Brahic, en route to renew a few books at Green Library before I headed for the elliptical. We discussed her recent poem in The New Yorker, which I very much admired, and she gave me permission to republish it, with the proviso that I include a link back to the original New Yorker publication, which also includes Beverley reading her poem. (Check it out.)


Apple Thieves

In his dishevelled garden my neighbor
Has fourteen varieties of apples,
Fourteen trees his wife put in as seedlings
Because, being sick, she wanted something
Different to do (different from being sick).

In winter she ordered catalogues, pored
Over subtleties of mouthfeel and touch:
Tart and sweet and crisp; waxysmooth,
And rough. Spring planted an orchard,
Spring projected summers

Of green and yellow-streaked, orange, red,
Rusty, round, wormholed, lopsided;
Nothing supermarket flawless, nothing imperishable.
Gardens grow backward and forward
In the mind; in the driest season, flowers.

Of the original fourteen, five trees
Grow streetside, outside the hedge.
To their branches my neighbor, a retired
Statistician, has clothes-pegged
Slips of paper, white pocket handkerchiefs

Embroidered with the words:
The apples are not ripe, please don’t pick them.
Kids had an apple fight last week.
In September, when the apples ripen,
Neighbors are welcome to pick them, even

Those rare Arkansas Blacks that spill over
The hedge. Yes, I may gather the windfalls.
Mostly it’s squirrels that throw them down.
Squirrels are wasteful. Squirrels don’t read
Messages a widower posts in trees.

The meaning of love in politics: What Hannah Arendt wrote to James Baldwin

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Today is James Baldwin‘s birthday. To celebrate, here’s a portion of “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” which appeared in The New Yorker on November 17, 1962 – and then Hannah Arendt‘s reply. In his essay, Baldwin concluded: 

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s – or Allah’s – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable – a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Here’s what Hannah Arendt, who knew him slightly, replied in a letter that is now at the Library of Congress:

November 21, 1962

Dear Mr. Baldwin:

Your article in the New Yorker is a political event of a very high order, I think;  it certainly is an event in my understanding of what is involved in the Negro question.  And since this is a question which concerns us all, I feel I am entitled to raise objections.

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

In sincere admiration,

cordially (that is, in case you remember that we know each other slightly) yours,

Warsaw at war, and a message of peace: “So this German takes off all his clothes…”

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Sendler at the time of her interviews with Skinner. She died in 2008.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. If you want to see Mikołaj Kaczmarek’s remarkable new “colorizing” of photos from the year-long Polish struggle that resulted in the defeat and destruction of Poland’s capital, go here

‘I was in shock – the past just came right out at me.” (Photo Mikołaj Kaczmarek)

According to Kaczmarek, “The first photo I tried was the girl next to a grave. When I finished, I was in shock – the past just came right out at me.” 

“They lived in a time of apocalypse and whether they wanted to or not they had to fight and they often died,” he said. “The colorization made me realize that they were people just like us, they just happened to live at that time.”

Meanwhile, we haven’t written for some time about Mary Skinner, the filmmaker who made In the Name of Their Mothersabout Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler‘s efforts that saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto (see here and here and here and here). Below, an excerpt from Skinner’s interviews with Sendler in Warsaw, 2004. (Sendler died at 98 in 2008), where she describes living through the Warsaw Uprising:

“The Warsaw Uprising is in progress. I am in this Red Cross hospital but, in fact, it is a Home Army hospital. There are about a hundred patients. This is the end of August, and we have nothing to eat. One of the patients is a servant from a landowner’s family. She tells the hospital director that in the house opposite – which is destroyed, but the basement is intact – her employers left behind an entire basement full of food. Hams and sausages, everything. So we walk into this basement. And we’re loading sacks full of all this food – and in walks a German. He was startled to see us and we were alarmed to see him. His first reaction was to jab my leg with his bayonet. I have a scar on my leg to this day.

So he was startled. We were, too. He asks us what are we doing here and we tell him in our broken German that we came to pick up the food. He stood there, and he saw us behaving in a normal way. He tells us that he is in search of some civilian clothing. “I‘ve had enough of this killing. It has been five years now and I just want to get out of this and I’m looking for some civilian clothing.” So the servant says that her employers, before they left, had packed a suitcase full of good clothes. “So get out of your uniform and we’ll have you dressed.” So this German takes his clothes off and we dress him from head to toe in a very elegant suit and we tell him, “Just run away and stop all this killing and don’t kill anymore.” He said, “I’ve been killing for five or six years now. I have a wife and children and the war is almost over. I’ve had enough.” So we said, “Just run away and quit killing.”

And so he did.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg on the sound of poetry and the “unaging, perpetual chant” of bees

Monday, July 29th, 2019

“We live in a vast sound universe.”

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, the great poet with the impossible name, has a two-part interview here and here. It’s not recent: the interview was published five years ago over  Canadian poet Susan Gillis’s top-notch blog (a more recent interview is here). There’s an even older interview with Jonathan Galassi, her publisher at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux over at Bloodaxe Books here. The 2011 piece is also excellent. Here’s an excerpt from the Gillis blog:

Poetry’s sympathetic vibration is like a buzzing tuning fork that awakens a nearby tuning fork to its own buzzing, or like a detonation in the street outside that inspires a door inside to pop open, or like the kung-note struck by the lute-tuner in ancient China to provoke a nearby lute-string to sound its own kung-note – or like the reverberations of the big bang still resounding and vibrating throughout all that exists: we live in a vast sound-universe, which is, mercifully, largely inaudible to us, but nonetheless oscillating everywhere, from superstrings to supernovae. Thousands of years ago, in the practice of meditation, the Vedic seers detected this perpetual vibration, and called it the “unstruck sound.” I think this pre-existent, anterior vibration is the force-field from which poets and composers strike their sound-worlds. Or perhaps it is the other way around: generative, reverberative, fugitive – and billions of years deeper and older than any vocabulary – the pitches, undertones, overtones, harmonies, dissonances, white noise, and rhythm-oceans from which we’re made, and in which we’re immersed, are an auditory, and sub-auditory, equivalent of the Poet’s description of poetry in Timon of Athens, when he says that whereas the “fire i’ the flint shows not till it be struck,” this unstruck thing – poetry – “provokes itself.”

He heard a hum…

Mallarmé describes the sympathetic vibration of poetry as being characteristically always on the verge of vanishing, a vibration in whose vanishing trace the poem “begins itself.” Less subtly, more concertedly, Mandelstam repeatedly describes what amounts to the “autonomous force” of poetry, and unforgettably, in Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam describes the “hum” that Mandelstam heard (and suffered) as a prelude to the starting-up of a poem, a hum that engulfed him, sometimes stopping him in his tracks, sometimes driving him out of doors to pace the streets, and often “tormenting him with its resonance” until he was able to start and finish the poem and be rid of it — a hum so audible and palpable to him that he told his wife that she should be able to hear it as well:

I witnessed his throes at such close quarters that M. always thought I must also be able to hear the “hum.” He even reproached me sometimes for not having caught part of it.

In ancient Greece, poetry and the art of writing were associated not only with gods and their divine concerns, but with honeybees. I love this ancient association, not only for its metaphor of honeyed speech, which is largely what the Greeks meant, but also for its dimension of resounding auditory energy. Personally, for me, the under-resonance I hear in a true poem is indistinguishable from the resonating buzz of a beehive; for me, poetry has to thrum. In the presence of poetry I love, when I read it silently, I often gradually (or sometimes abruptly) begin to overhear this seamless, thrumming continuum of bees preoccupied with their unaging, perpetual chant, their sonic evocation of the “unstruck sound.”

Read the whole interview here and here.

Remembering polymath scholar Dick Macksey: “There was no one like him, and no one will follow in his tracks.”

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Richard Macksey,  at home and in the world – at the same time.

Johns Hopkins Humanities Prof. Richard Macksey, who died earlier this week, was born in two places at once. It seems somehow fitting. The anecdote is retold by Frederick N. Rasmussen in The Baltimore Sun today. In the professor’s words:  “I was born in a delivery room that was half in Glen Ridge and half in Montclair, N.J., so I have birth certificates from both towns,” he told the Johns Hopkins University newspaper in 1999. “You could say I was born in two places at once. But they are so alike, you wouldn’t notice the difference.”

Today Dick Macksey would have been 88. As good an excuse as any to cite some of the anecdotes, praise, and tributes for him, after our post on the day of his death here.

From Rachel Wallach in Lithub:

More than leading a life of aloof intellectualism, Macksey also existed fully on the human plane. A night owl, he was regularly spotted grocery shopping and volunteering at Baltimore’s The Book Thing late into the evening and in the early morning hours; he liked to solve the trivia questions posed during Orioles games at Memorial Stadium; and he featured his cat, Buttons, as his Facebook cover photo. A fan of film and film history, Macksey was an inaugural founder and supporter of the 1970s Baltimore Film Festival, a predecessor of today’s Maryland Film Festival.

It may have been partly due to his ability to exist on just a few hours of sleep that his presence had a way of being ever-present. Former student Rob Friedman, who graduated in 1981, remembers waking up at 1 a.m. to hear Macksey’s voice drifting through his apartment window, and glimpsed the professor walking down St. Paul Street and “yakking with five students.” On another occasion, Friedman awoke early and stepped outside at 6 a.m., only to find Macksey driving by and waving. …

A legendary figure not only in his own fields of critical theory, comparative literature, and film studies but across all the humanities, Macksey possessed enormous intellectual capacity and a deeply insightful human nature. He was a man who read and wrote in six languages, was instrumental in launching a new era in structural thought in America, maintained a personal library containing a staggering collection of books and manuscripts, inspired generations of students to follow him to the thorniest heights of the human intellect, and penned or edited dozens of volumes of scholarly works, fiction, poetry, and translation.

Macksey loved classical literature, foreign films, comic novels, and medical narratives—all subjects he taught at one time or another. Conversations with him were marked by a tendency to leap from one topic to another, connected by his seemingly boundless knowledge, prodigious memory, and sense of humor. For many at Hopkins and far beyond, he was no less than the embodiment of the humanities, both in intellect and spirit.

Whimsy: a card he emailed to me.

“Dick Macksey was a Johns Hopkins legend,” says James Harris, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, director of the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Clinic, and a longtime friend of Macksey’s. “He was a teacher, mentor, and friend to generations of Hopkins faculty and students. To me, he was the most erudite, kind, gracious, and considerate person I have ever known. He will be deeply missed and always remembered as the epitome of what makes Johns Hopkins a world-class university.”

From The Baltimore Sun:

“He was a man who read and wrote in six languages, was instrumental in launching a new era of intellectual thought in America, maintained a personal library containing a staggering collection of books and manuscripts, inspired generations of students to follow him to the thorniest heights of the human intellect, and penned or edited dozens of volumes of scholarly works, fiction, poetry, and translation,” Ms. [Rachel] Wallach wrote.

Rob Friedman, who graduated from Hopkins in 1981, studied with Dr. Macksey. “He was exuberant, funny, playful and an enthusiastic eccentric who lived on three hours of sleep and got up each morning at 6,” said Mr. Friedman, a businessman who lives in New York City.

“He loved everything and he loved to learn. There was nothing that didn’t enthrall him. He was extraordinarily generous, and he loved imparting his knowledge and listening to what you had to say,” he said. “For 60 years, he contributed his intellectual life to Hopkins and mentored generations and generations of students.”

And the Book Haven makes a humble appearance at the end:

Milton S. Eisenhower, former president of Hopkins, once said that going to Dr. Macksey with a question “was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water.”

“Dick was courteous, generous, witty, and talking with him was exactly as Milton Eisenhower said,” Cynthia Haven, a Palo Alto, Calif., author and blogger, who had been a visiting scholar at Stanford University, wrote in an email.

“For that reason, he was a tough man to interview: as digression piled on digression — each one a fascinating key to literature, history, philosophy, or a range of other subjects — it could be hard to recall what you had asked in the first place,” Ms. Haven wrote. “He was absolutely unforgettable. There was no one like him, and no one will follow in his tracks. He was unrepeatable. It was a privilege to know him.”

On Dick Macksey’s Facebook page, which has a cover photo of his cat Buttons, one former student recalled his lectures in which “digressions across diverse disciplines all tie back to the topic at hand; and somehow, everything made sense.” Within the first two classes, however, intimidated students dropped out en masse, which puzzled the professor. The student wasn’t a native English speaker, however, and wondered what she might have missed in the wide-ranging lectures. While munching on cookies during a break, she turned to a fellow undergraduate student and asked if she understood what he had said. “The girl, looking relieved by my inquiry, shared, ‘Oh no, not at all.’”


Postscript on July 29: Book Haven reader George Jansen writes to tell us that the Washington Post obituary is here,  and the first quotation is from Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:  “In 1966, he organized an academic conference that introduced Jacques Derrida and other French critics to the nation, along with the new academic concept of deconstructionism. The gathering ‘changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: It brought avant-garde French theory to America,’ literary scholar Cynthia L. Haven wrote.”

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

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

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.)