Joel Allan Rich (1941-2011)

by George Anastaplo

I.

            Joel Rich was what could be called a natural benefactor.    I, like many others, benefitted from his instructive generosity in matters both grand and ordinary, not least in his kindnesses as a conscientious academic colleague for decades and as a quite competent Basic Program chairman a generation ago.

On more than one occasion, for example, he insisted that a particular birthday was so significant (such as one’s eighty-fifth) that it demanded a special celebration. Now and then, of course, one would be graced with a Wrigley Field excursion when he found himself with an extra ticket to a Cubs game. On such occasions one could be pleasantly surprised to discover how much both Madeline Rich and he knew about the teams and players on the field, especially when the Mets were in town. The most recent such occasion found us, exactly two months ago today, at a night game with simply awful weather—so wintry was it that even my hosts could decide that we should leave at the midpoint of the game. It was a decision made easier, no doubt, by an awareness of the deep hole that the Mets were in by the fourth inning, by which time also they had failed to take advantage of a couple of quite promising opportunities.

The last two years found Joel Rich proposing and developing an Internet “blog” on which there have been posted by him a hundred items by or about me. (This is a project that Nancy Rich helped develop and that John Metz has volunteered to carry forward. I venture to check out what has been done when I visit a library.) There have been, we are told, more than eleven thousand “hits” on this wordpress site. “Hits” does sound rather ominous—certainly, we do not know who has “visited” the site and for what reasons—and with what consequences. Even so. I suspect—and this can be a sobering thought—I suspect that there have been there thousands more “hits” than all my entries in the University of Chicago Library catalogue have had during the four decades I have been listed there. But, of course, these eleven thousands are dwarfed by the hundred of thousands, it not even “millions,” of “hits” that some postings can evidently generate almost overnight.

Joel Rich’s charming naiveté could be seen (again on my behalf) when he decided that our former Hyde Park neighbor, now that he is in the White House, would certainly want, upon being reminded of my somewhat unconventional career, to direct a Presidential Medal of Freedom my way. The most satisfying, even encouraging, aspect of this futile political exercise was that a colleague who knows well one’s career could assume that one was obviously worthy of such recognition. (I note, in passing, that one of our children did get invited to a White House Reception last year, celebrating thereby another kind of freedom.)

And then, of course, there are the benefits we have all had lavished upon us as a result of our colleague’s remarkable Marcel Proust adventure.

II.

            It is this adventure, which could sometimes seem to border on the Quixotic, that displayed the specialness of Joel Rich in the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults.

I have had, during the past half-century, scores of colleagues in the Program. I recall no one, among all of these, who developed (as a result of what he did in the Program) as important a body of work as was done by him with Marcel Proust, work that he very much enjoyed doing with a remarkable self-confidence.

This was done in Basic Program Alumni Seminars, reinforced by courses he offered at the Newberry Library. What was learned thereby found quite instructive expression in a series of Basic Program First Friday talks by him (usually in December). On more than one occasion the Joel Rich talk was the best one given that year in the University’s First Friday series. But so unusual was his Proustian accomplishment that the University of Chicago could not see (and hence properly recognize) the treasure that it had helped develop.

The talks that steadily-growing audiences were privileged to hear included the following (beginning in 2005):

  1. Proust Among the Animals (December 2, 2005) (it is fitting, considering this man’s extraordinary (some might even say, unnatural) sympathy for animals, that this should have been the opening talk about Proust);
  2. Proust on Sleep (December 1, 2006);
  3. Proust and War (January 4, 2008);
  4. Proust on Reading (and on Reading Proust) (December 5, 2008);
  5. Proust on Weather (December 4, 2009);
  6. Proust on Death (December 3, 2010).

It is to be regretted that we were not destined to have the talk scheduled for next December—on Proust and the Dreyfus Affair (in which the Proustian understanding of the status of the Jews in France, if not even in Europe, would no doubt have been usefully examined).

Joel Rich, like Marcel Proust, had an unconventional relation to the Judaism of his forebears. Thus, he could conduct Seders (with a couple dozen of us present) at which only two or three Jews could be found—and yet one could be impressed by how much of a rabbi he was on such occasions. That there was something unconventional, even interestingly unpredictable, about his Judaism is suggested by the presumptuousness of one of the messages read at his funeral (in a Conservative Synagogue, just around the corner from where we are):    it was on that occasion that there could be transmitted a call (as a sort of memorial to Joel Rich) for a contribution to a designated “Jews for Jesus” Church. This quite unexpected imposition upon the Congregation reminded us that Joel Rich could inspire others to be adventurous as well, sometimes with bizarre consequences.

III.

            The significant discussions of Marcel Proust—which one can hope to see published─are particularly remarkable as having been generated by someone who was not a French scholar. Indeed, the work done by him had to depend, for the most part, upon Proust in English translations. (It was work done by a man [a Master in Philosophy from the University of Chicago] who can be remembered by one of our most accomplished Basic Program graduates as perhaps his best teacher in the Program—and this in a seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics [a text repeatedly drawn on as well by this teacher for courses at Columbia College].)

And yet our amateur was able to do more that was meaningful with Proust than the most celebrated French scholar in this field on the University of Chicago faculty had been able to do many years ago. That was a man who was legendary among us, as graduate students, for the vigorous, even brutal, way he routinely treated students.

One may even suspect that that scholar’s temperament was such that he could never really commune properly with the soul of Marcel Proust—and that led to a severe inhibition for him as an author here. This points up how receptive our friend’s soul was to a delighted and delightful communion with that of Marcel Proust in his openness to humanity, not least in the examination of the tribulations and joys of love. Love for him, as for Proust, was somehow rooted in his deep-seated affection for his mother.

IV.

            I must confess, however, that I did have reservations about an openness to Proust that included an insistence upon theatrical experiments. Indeed, I could even insist that the dramatic sketches should not be emphasized (as Joel Rich wanted to do) in the material I prepared for circulation among three dozen publishers’ representatives at an academic convention I attended last year. This exposure did lead to a couple of instructive contacts by him, including with a British publisher.

But I may well have been wrong in my assessment of this unconventional venture into the theatrical. Certainly, the Newberry Library is to be commended for giving us an opportunity last month to see what these dramatic sketches can look and sound like.

Indeed, it is particularly instructive to see, from one of the sketches, what the December 2011 talk on Proust and the Dreyfus Affair might have done. In any event, the confidence with which this fledging playwright provided glimpses of several facets of the Proustian soul can be reassuring.

V.

            How did all this start? There were predecessor enthusiasms that can now be seen to have somehow prepared the way for Marcel Proust. Among these were enRiching adventures with Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf.

Dan Brown, it seems, had urged his Basic Program colleague to take Proust seriously, even leaving him (at his death in 1987) books and other Proust-related materials. This evidently prepared the way for something that happened years later—at a Cubs game, I have been told, during which I evidently insisted (I do not recall this) that Proust should be taken far more seriously by my host than he had been inclined to do theretofore.

I am reminded here of a conversation I had, some years ago, with a Physics Nobel Laureate, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar. I had heard that he, in his old age, was working on Isaac Newton’s Principia, which he had never really studied before, having settled theretofore (as almost all physicists these days do) for the accounts of Newtonian discoveries and formulas provided in standard textbooks. Upon my asking him how he found Newton, he gave me an answer that he may well have given others:    “I am like a little boy who went to the zoo and for the first time saw a lion.”

Marcel Proust, it seems, was Joel Rich’s lion.

VI.

            There had been, for him, glimpses of other lions that elicited enthusiastic responses. Thus, the Mark Twain interest had included a pilgrimage to Hannibal, Missouri. But the response to Proust was more intense and sustained. It, too, required pilgrimages—to the places in France where Proust had lived or that he had described. Attempts could even be made to stay in the very rooms used by Proust at one time or another.

Indeed, the dedication seen here to Things Proustian could provide, for some, evidence of Reincarnation. One can well wonder, for example, what the Proustian terms are with which the remarkable women in Joel Rich’s life can begin to be understood.

It is appropriate that the last talk in the annual Rich series across a decade was on Proust and death. Joel Rich thus suggested an intriguing artistic culmination of his remarkable career as a Proustian, a Proustian whose eagerness and pleasure in this pursuit could be a joy for all of us to behold.

VII.

           What follows from all this? Can there be made, of the half-dozen talks we have, the book that was longed for? I myself promised him, when pressed, to provide a Foreword for such a volume. It now appears that an Afterword on the Dreyfus Affair may be required as well from someone (working from what was done in one of the dramatic sketches). Even so, it remains very much a matter of chance whether a conventional publisher can be induced to produce what would be a small but intriguingly insightful book by a remarkably gifted amateur.

If we have to, of course, we may rely upon those among us who can post Joel Rich’s Marcel Proust on the Internet. Such a posting might itself attract a publisher intrigued by a series of inspired talks about an author who does invite continual re-examination these days. Indeed, there was about Joel Rich’s discovery of Marcel Proust something not only charming but also reassuring:    we have been reminded thereby that it is never too late to learn important things that one can profit from personally as well as take a deep pleasure in sharing with others.

It should have come as no surprise, therefore, that there was something deeply instructive, as well as simply noble, in the informed equanimity (indeed, the gallantry) exhibited by Joel Rich during his last hours of consciousness in the hospital. He can even be considered here a salutary disciple of Marcel Proust and of that Judaism which helped shape the souls of both of these remarkably sensitive artists.

These remarks were made at a Memorial Service for Joel Allan Rich, Chicago, Illinois, July 24, 2011.

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