Posts Tagged ‘Richard Macksey’

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

Friday, August 9th, 2019
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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.

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

Thursday, July 25th, 2019
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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
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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.)

Western civilization cannot do without him: Baltimore’s legendary polymath Richard Macksey at 87

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019
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It was a privilege to spend hours talking with Johns Hopkins Prof. Richard Macksey for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Now that I’ve read Kate Dwyer’s “Meet the Man Who Introduced Derrida to America: On the Remarkable Legacy of Richard Macksey,” a new profile of the 87-year-old polymath in LitHub, I’m convinced Western civilization cannot do without him. 

I’ve written about him on the Book Haven here and here – with a film clip here. (A quick note, however: The 1966 Baltimore conference that brought Derrida to America was the work of a triumvirate: René Girard, Macksey, and Eugenio Donato. That story was told in the chapter published as “The French Invasion” in Quarterly Conversation, December 2017.) 

What I wrote about Dick Macksey in Evolution of Desire:

He shared his memories from his home stuffed with seventy thousand books and manuscripts in English, Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, even Babylonian cuneiform (he can read and write in six languages, and laconically noted that his collection includes an autographed copy of The Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments). A generous and legendary teacher, he still holds seminars in this spacious landmark home, even though the house is so crowded that a visitor can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction without running into a bookshelf. He lives, according to a colleague, on “three hours of sleep and pipe smoke.” He writes as prolifically as he reads, publishing fiction and poetry as well as scholarly works. No topic bores him, and his memory is astonishing. Milton Eisenhower, brother of the president and Johns Hopkins’s president at the time of the conference, commented that going to Dick Macksey with a question was like going to a fire hydrant for a glass of water.

Kate Dwyer was a student of Macksey’s three years ago, which warms the narrative like  hands curled around a snifter warm cognac. Here’s what she says about the professor and the legendary home known as “Chez Macksey”:

The lore around Macksey and his library has an air of myth—some alumni describe knocking over a sheet of paper to discover original correspondence with D.H. Lawrence (who died the year before Macksey was born), while others swear there was an original Picasso sketch in his bathroom at one time. Four-foot Chinese scrolls, tiny model skeletons, antique theater binoculars. The valuable pieces are no longer in the house; they have been locked up in Special Collections on campus. One time during class, I myself picked up the nearest book and discovered it was an inscribed advance copy of his friend Oliver Sacks’ book, Seeing Voices. The objects in his house speak to his interests, which is to say he is interested in everything.

Chez Macksey

That is not an exaggeration.

“When you listen to him talk, he begins in one place, and then it’s as though he’s crossed the room and gone to a different section of the library and pulled out a book on a different topic,” the author Jessie Chaffee (Florence in Ecstasy) noted. “He’ll take you down a path that is surprising, and then another, and another . . . until you realize that they’re all connected.”

***

“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, a 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.’”

Deschanel studied with Macksey during the 1960s. “I’ve always felt that, when you read a script, your first ideas tend to be really cliché,” he said. “What you want to do is get away from that and apply some of the ideas from all the things you’ve learned over the years and try doing something totally against that first idea.” He credits this strategy to time in Macksey’s library. “He would relate some imagery in Turgenev to some paintings that were done in Germany in the 1920s.”

***

“The future and the past are bound together,” Dr. Macksey said. “One thing I like to point to is Chekhov’s little story, ‘Student.’ It’s only about four pages or so, and it’s about somebody who discovers the power of narrative to bind, not just people, but whole eras together. It sounds very pretentious, but it’s an unpretentious story, and it can change one’s life.”

Read the whole profile here. You must.

And speaking of Proust … another wonderful quotation on the anniversary of his death

Monday, November 19th, 2018
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Luftmensch Paul Holdengräber is on a roll with Marcel Proust, and we posted his quote on the anniversary of the French author’s 1922 death yesterday. He followed up with this one today, and we couldn’t resist reposting it (see below). The reason: we use the same citation from Proust at the tail-end of the introduction to Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard:

Why? Why? Why?

I had a more modest view of my book and it would be incorrect to say even that I was thinking of those who might read it as ‘my readers.’ For, to my mind, they would not be my readers but the very readers of themselves, my book serving only as a sort of magnifying glass, such as the optician of Combray used to off er to a customer; my book might supply the means by which they could read themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to speak ill of me, but only to tell me that it is as I say,if the words which they read within themselves are, indeed, those which I have written.

The passage I cite was translated by the matchless Richard Macksey, a colleague of René Girard’s at Johns Hopkins University.

Incidentally, the whole introduction to Evolution of Desire was published in America Magazine over the weekend here. Notre Dame published it earlier, and it was linked in Hacker News, here. (Several people wondered why Artur Sebastian Rosman picked a golden image for the article, entitled “Golden Thoughts for a Nuclear Age” – you might note that it’s the “Mask of Agamemnon,” one of the findings of Heinrich Schliemann at the Troy excavation, an archaeological adventure described in the first paragraph of my intro.)

Evolution of Desire – the excerpt: “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that has given me so much pleasure.”

Monday, December 11th, 2017
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Up at Quarterly Conversation, an excerpt from my Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – to serve as appertifThe book will be officially out in April, and our kindly friends over at QC wanted to run an excerpt. Instead it became a whole chapter! “The French Invasion” describes a few wild days at Johns Hopkins University in 1966:

The conference has been called “epochal,” “a watershed,” “a major reorientation in literary studies,” “the French invasion of America,” the “96-gun French dispute,” the equivalent of the Big Bang in American thought.

To hear the superlatives, one would have thought that “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium held at Johns Hopkins for a few frantic days from 18 to 21 October 1966 was the first gathering of its kind ever held. It wasn’t, but it did accomplish a feat that changed the intellectual landscape of the nation: it brought avant-garde French theory to America. In the years that followed, René Girard would champion a system of thought that was both a child of this new era and an orphan within it. He was at once proud of his role in launching the symposium, and troubled by some of its consequences.

René Girard was one corner of the triumvirate that instigated the conference, and the senior member of the trio. The others were his Johns Hopkins colleagues Richard Macksey  (well, he will be familiar to Book Haven readers. We’ve written about him here) and Eugenio Donato. Donato was one of those rare birds in academia who “had a nose,” according to a French expression Dick Macksey borrowed. “He knew where the cooking was taking place.”

An autographed copy of Canterbury Tales? I believe him.

Sunday, January 24th, 2016
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Personal-library-of-Richard-A-Macksey

We’ve written about this library before, and the man behind it. Behold the 70,000-volume personal library of retired Humanities professor Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University. He has sometimes claimed that his collection includes an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments. Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. More demonstrably, he has Marcel Proust‘s copy of Swann’s Way, and many first editions of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and others.

macksey

At home.

Dick Macksey’s library is featured this week 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.”

Check out my own post from a few years ago, “He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke” – here.