Meet the Man Who Introduced Jacques Derrida to America

On the Remarkable Legacy of Richard Macksey

Dr. Richard Macksey’s dining room is textured with the lingering scents of dust and old leather and yesterday’s pipe smoke. It’s the first Thursday in September, and one by one, his students—a diverse group of young women studying creative writing and English at Johns Hopkins—bluster through the lamplit foyer. A tray of Pepperidge Farm cookies decorates the dining room table, and a distinguished graduate student named Omid asks if anyone would like a cup of coffee. The cats, Buttons and Sassy, weave through chair legs and bookbags, slinking into the library, which is said to hold nearly 70,000 volumes. In the backyard, on the other side of dining room’s French doors, the leaves refract the light like glittering shards of amber.

The room falls silent when Professor Macksey enters carrying a stack of manila folders in one hand and a lit pipe in the other. He starts the semester by inviting the group of twelve undergraduates to the Humanities Center reception the following Saturday, in the backyard. It feels like an honor to be included, because you’ve heard these parties are limited to multilingual graduate students who study things like phenomenology and 16th-century planetariums. But we are all welcome to invite friends, as long as they’re interested in the humanities. It’s an open house.

This was three years ago, when I was one of Dr. Macksey’s students. Things are different now; the Humanities Center has been renamed the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature. “Chez Macksey,” as it is called, no longer hosts soirees.

“I think they’re going to close me down now. I’m not teaching this term,” Dr. Macksey recently told me over the phone. I could hear classical music playing in the background. “It’s the first time in, oh, 52 years that we’ve been here in this house I haven’t been teaching. I have a great nostalgia for it.”

Dr. Macksey, now 87, has been a fixture in the Johns Hopkins community for the past six decades, starting in the late 1950s, when he arrived on campus after graduating from Princeton with a degree in physics. Hopkins was “where the action was in the sciences, more specifically biophysics.” Biophysics didn’t hold his interest. “I wasn’t so hot on the sciences because we didn’t have all the answers. We still don’t, but we have a lot more now.”

He soon became known around campus as the debonair young PhD candidate who rode a Harley Davidson chopper to his teaching assignments in Gilman Hall. Dr. Macksey’s best-known contribution to academia is the “Structuralist Controversy” conference he organized in 1966. There, Jacques Derrida delivered his first paper in the US, introducing American academics to deconstruction. Roland Barthes and Paul De Man also presented. In her book, Evolution of Desire, A Life of Rene Girard, Cynthia L. Haven writes, ”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.” Following the conference, Dr. Macksey founded the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, the first interdisciplinary department at an American university (though Dr. Macksey dislikes the word “department.” He finds it limiting.) Now, interdisciplinary departments are standard fare.

“Honestly, he’s so much smarter than almost everybody, and in academics when egos are often inflated or fragile, there was never any sense that he felt he needed to remind you of that.”

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.

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.”

He still speaks this way. I asked what he believes is lost in the digital humanities, aside from the physicality of books. “We no longer have to worry about memorizing things,” Dr. Macksey said. “Previously, the mark of the scholar was the ability to quote the text.” Easy for him to say. He is a polyglot with a photographic memory, so he does literally remember every single quote he’s read, and its location in the book, and the book’s location in his library.

“I think a hell of a lot is lost: the ability to see [a subject] as something more than a list of names and themes and topics.” He went on to describe Charles Sanders Peirce, a prominent figure in Hopkins’ history whose theory he finds delightful for applying to detective fiction. “He says, it’s not all induction, it’s not all deduction, it’s rather what he calls abduction, which is a combination of both, which sometimes is just guessing. He has a lot of different names for the notion of abduction.”

Right, but how does this “abduction” relate to scholars not spending as much time with their texts?

“I realize now my reading went from being too fast to too slow, without any good meeting in between. Much of our reading we don’t read the whole word, we see a syllable or perhaps two syllables. We have a context, so again it includes making a guess, a very quick guess. If you don’t read slowly, you’ll miss some of the surprises that are there.” Conversations with Dr. Macksey never cease to surprise, because he’s able to relate things like detective fiction to one’s experience perceiving language, as we’ve just witnessed.

“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.”

Macksey is also responsible for one of his first short films. “When I was at Hopkins, there was no film program. We talked to Dick [about making a short film] and he said ‘let’s do it,’ and we ended up doing a movie in which he has a small part.”

“He finds her again in the annotations she made, which I think speaks to his love of books but also his love of people, and how connected those things are for him.”

“I’ve always felt there’s something to be said for trying to do things that you also want to study, so even if your first novel is unpublishable, you’re a better reader of novels for having tried to do it yourself,” Dr. Macksey said. “The same is true for film. These were wonderful people who were my teachers—not the Hopkins faculty, these were the students teaching me [about film.]”

Even today, he has a great deal of respect for his students; over the phone, he reminded me of things I had forgotten I’d written.

The National Book Award-winning author Alice McDermott holds the Richard A. Macksey chair in the Humanities. When she was first hired, writing workshops would convene in the since-renovated bell tower in Gilman Hall, atop a long, winding staircase. “Dick confessed to me later that in my first few semesters teaching up there, he would come in while the workshop was going on, halfway up the stairs, just far enough so he could hear the workshop, but none of us knew he was there. This was not to report to anyone, not to correct the way things were going, but just for the joy of listening to young writers talking about writing.”

“The learning process is a two-way affair,” Dr. Macksey said.

“Honestly, he’s so much smarter than almost everybody, and in academics when egos are often inflated or fragile, there was never any sense that he felt he needed to remind you of that,” McDermott said. “It was just this generosity and curiosity about everyone he encountered. That makes for a marvelous teacher.”

By the 1970s, Macksey’s house had become ground zero for humanities culture at Hopkins, between the classes and the societies that would meet there. Students would visit the house at all hours. “People would say ‘we’re taking a course on Stanley Kubrick’ and he would ask the professor for the Dr. Strangelove film reel, show the film on the screen in his library in the middle of the night,” said Robert Friedman, who still visits Dr. Macksey often. “Next morning he’d be up at six.” (Dr. Macksey is known for keeping unconventional hours; he would get about three hours of sleep, and grocery shop in the middle of the night. Until recently, he would volunteer at The Book Thing at 3 am.)

“If it hadn’t been for Dick, I probably would have flunked out of college,” Friedman said. On his 20th birthday, Friedman took himself to an Orioles game, deeply unhappy. “Around the fifth or sixth inning, I turned around, and who should be sitting by himself but Dick Macksey.” They watched the rest of the game together, and when he told Dick it was his birthday, Dick invited him back to his house and toasted him. During his time at school, when Friedman was “floundering,” Dr. Macksey advocated for him in and out of the classroom. “He did it purely out of kindness. He really just looked out for me, and he had no reason to do that.”

Payal Patel, M.D., M.P.H, spent Sunday afternoons at Macksey’s house with her humanities seminar, calling it her “haven” at Hopkins. Now, she’s an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s medical school, where she specializes in infectious diseases, drawn to the field by the storytelling element.

Storytelling and medicine have always been linked for Dr. Macksey; when he was a child in Montclair, New Jersey, he started collecting medical books. That was the very beginning of his collection. “The first books were crazy books because I wanted to be a surgeon or something, so anything that had to do with medicine, I would jump at. At five years old, I had a shelf of other people’s thrown-away medicine books.

“That was back when I was discovering the wonders of reading,” he said. “Now I’m discovering the wonders of losing reading.” Still, he has a relationship with every book, viewing them as artifacts in addition to documents.

“Some of my most wonderful memories of Dick are moments where he talked about his deep love for [his wife] Catherine, and the way that she continues to live in his books,” Chaffee said. Catherine Macksey, a scholar of French, died 18 years ago. “He finds her again in the annotations she made, which I think speaks to his love of books but also his love of people, and how connected those things are for him.”

Dr. Macksey mentioned his wife when we spoke about his house. “The memory of Catherine still moves here, and I hope I can hang on for another year before moving.”

As the humanities are edged out in favor of science and math, McDermott said, we need to be reminded that they are “essential to life,” and Richard Macksey is a testament to their value. With his mind, he could have done absolutely anything, and yet he chose to devote his life’s work to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge. “Not only is he a breathtaking example of the dedicated academic and teacher, but also someone who so generously gave of himself and his intellect to this very valuable nurturing of the humanities and of young minds.”

“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.”

Kate Dwyer
Kate Dwyer
Kate Dwyer is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, The Paris Review Daily, Poetry, TIME, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere. She is at work on her first novel.

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