On Richard Wollheim, 1923-2003
By Mark Danner
November 04, 2004
Sad as I am not to be with you this day I take a bit of solace in thinking that Richard would have granted me a dispensation, once he learned that I had spent the last week among voters in the cities and towns of the great state of Florida - studying, as it were, abnormal mass psychology. Over these last days, in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and especially tiny Butler Lake, Richard was with me - with me, for example, in a Jacksonville Baptist Church on election day when I chatted with a motorcycle cop who had just emerged from the voting booth and who explained to me (his eyes concealed behind wrap-around shades, his nine millimeter at his hip) why the coming End of Days required a vote for "the President of All Americans," as he put it. The motorcycle cop's theology was intricate, fascinating, glamorous and, I take it, widely held. I listened transfixed, but at the back of my mind was the nagging and pleasing thought of how much Richard would love hearing a detailed account of this conversation, wraparound sunglasses and all.
Whenever I come across phenomena of the human character at once inexplicable and captivating I inevitably think of Richard - first, to record the urge to call him immediately to discuss it with him; second, to register the sadness that this is no longer possible; and finally, to savor my imagined view of his thoughtful, delighted face, looking at me across the inevitable dinner table, as he takes in the tales of what motivates the Florida voters and what lies behind their protestations of faith - and their firm rejection of the amoral rationalism by which they see liberals (dirty, dirty word!) corrupting the nation. Richard would have loved these stories, would have lapped up every one of them.
So I have thought much about Richard this past week.
He was the great friend to whom I always wanted to tell stories - the
friend whose face always came to mind even as I was
living through a particular adventure: What will Richard say about this? He savored stories like fine wine, rolling them about in his mouth, offering a commentary unmatched in erudition and, above all, wit. He was an excellent listener; of course, it must be said that his talents as a listener were in the way of an artist generously admiring the work of a lesser master: with enjoyment, with sufferance, and, I like to think in my case, with a bit of pride.
For Richard was the greatest story-teller of them all. His great subject was people, especially the people he had known all across an enormous and immensely story-filled life. He was the most entertaining talker I have ever known - and of course he was perfectly well aware of this, and this awareness provoked a layer of showing off that might have been unbearable were it not so irresistibly funny. When I think of our lunches and dinners, I find myself imagining great gorgeous tapestries of personalities - people I never met but whose lives and adventures and, above all, lurid peccadilloes Richard conjured up before me like a great magician. I remember a particular lunch a year or so ago at La Note in Berkeley in which Richard spun out a ninety-minute aria on the subject of a certain English novelist he had known - or, more particularly, on her love life, which was - how shall I put this? - prodigious. I listened, and laughed, listened and laughed - and hoped that the lunch would never end. Why were we talking about her? I would like to say I have forgotten the reason but the truth is there was no reason - beyond the pleasure one takes in wit and tale-telling and the great supreme love of being alive.
Richard was a student of people. He loved the peculiarities of personality. He loved treachery, intrigue, subterfuge. He had an exquisite awareness of the large parts of people's lives that lay submerged, the inevitable bulk of the iceberg, beyond the calm, smooth as glass seaside view of the casual acquaintance. Richard took enormous pleasure and satisfaction in ferreting out the hidden story - and in the very fact that there almost always was one. If you had to change a dinner date, he would invariably suspect that the mundane reason given in fact hid a deeper, more interesting story - and of course he would often be right. He liked nothing more than to find his way, bit by bit, to the carefully concealed truth.
One needn't take much of a leap here to reach Richard's scholarly work and, in particular, his lifelong fascination with Freud. While others present this afternoon are more competent than I to discuss this, I should say at least that I met Richard first through that work - in 1978, to be exact, when as a 19-year-old undergraduate desperate to finish paper on Freud, and procrastinating in Harvard Book Store, my eye fell on Richard's collection, "On Art and the Mind."Like all of Richard's books, On Art and the Mind was a beautiful volume - he had directed that it should be jacketed with a detail from Poussin's "Le mort de Saphire"- and like a child transfixed by the glitter of a brightly colored candy I snatched it up, and soon my paper on Freud became a paper on Richard Wollheim's Freud. I have the book before me now, as I write, and, in the light pencil markings of that distant 19-year-old, I can see the gathering delight he took in finding a kindred soul - and what he did not yet know would be a new friend. The markings - on the essay, "Freud and the Understanding of Art"- develop in the course of the piece, from tentative underlinings, to the asterisk here and there in the margin, until finally a shy comment or two - ending with the emphatic scrawl of "Genius!"at essay's end. I can recall, dimly but distinctly, the sense of discovery I felt, and the pleasure I took in the calm erudition I found for the first time in those pages.
I didn't know, as I gobbled up that essay a quarter
century ago, that I had made a new friend - a man with a vast talent for
friendship, who would continue to give me pleasure
and delight for so many years. At that moment it was a one-way friendship, and, after knowing Richard, laughing with him, arguing with him for a decade or so, it has now
returned to that condition. As I was reminded once again in Florida, however, Richard remains with me still, commenting with wit and pleasure on the absurdities of our world. I may want to pick up the phone and call him and tell him about my born-again motorcycle cop but I must be content with the wry and only slightly sad appreciation of what he has given me, of how he has helped me live the delicious peculiarities of our world. Auden, speaking of Yeats, said it simply: "He has become his admirers." And so, in the very best way, he has.
--Read, by Professor Alan Code, to Memorial Service, University of California, Berkeley