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“Her complexion has no brilliancy,” says nasty Caroline Bingley…

… of her rival Elizabeth Bennet; and this oldish word – brilliancy – came to UD‘s mind as she contemplated her undergraduate professor, Erich Heller. Not prone to thinking about the past (or the future – your blogueuse is somewhat in the buddhist way), UD was borne back into the past (truncated Great Gatsby reference there … hey it was your decision to read a literary blogger), via this memoir, written by Heller’s niece, and very much an evocation of the scholar of Rilke and Kafka who had a great impact on wee UD at Northwestern University in the 1970’s.

Heller’s brilliancy – by which I mean in part charisma – is obvious enough in this portrait of the young man as an impassioned Czech Jewish aesthete.

When I knew him, he looked like this.

Still the fully open, searching, lively eyes. He was always a beautiful polished dresser, which contrasted vividly with the thready hippies to whom he lectured so fiercely about the loss of meaning in the modern world. His own world had flamboyantly fallen apart with the Nazis, from whom he barely managed to escape, while his beloved brother spent years in concentration camps. (He also managed to survive.)

It was utterly, almost comically, clear to UD, as this man lectured, that he saw no way in which he could possibly begin to convey his and the world’s historical, spiritual, and existential wound to these frisky frisbee throwers.

Sixtyish, gay, hyper-snobby, dismissive of all NU students, all Americans (after cosmopolitan Prague, he spent years at Cambridge University, and now found himself prone on the prairie), and certainly all women (does the memoir ever make that one clear), Heller nonetheless hugely, hotly, attracted deine kleine Bloggerin.

How hotly? I had recurrent waking and sleeping fantasies about stumbling upon a solitary suffering Heller on the school’s lakeside beach and comforting him. Just – you know – happening to be the only person in the world who fully intuited his intellectual and emotional grief, his vell-done Weltschmerz (I’m antic about it now, but I assure you it was all passionately earnest then)…

Or imagine this – I was taking his all-Rilke-all-the-time course, and it was I don’t know the fifth Heller course I’d taken (Kafka, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, Kleist?) and I was all fired-up as usual to re-enter this man’s hallowed hall … And yet from the first day of that particular course, I would sit, take out my paperback, and, at the opening “semi-operatic” tones of Heller’s voice (the memoir writer calls them this; I’d simply say operatic – he had a fine booming basso), fall completely to sleep. Ach, Doktor Freud, do tell. Vot vos dis Heller shpell?


I wrote excellent exams and papers, appeared every day in all his courses, sat there at full attention (I figured out how to stay awake in the Rilke course; I cured myself, Doktor!) – eventually the poor man had to notice me a little bit. I didn’t care whether he did, but eventually he did. I remember two post-class chats: In one I must have mentioned Nabokov and was startled by the casual violence of Heller’s dismissal of him (something about his obscenity?). The other is much more vivid to me because it was much more consequential. I told him that I was miserable in the Medill School of Journalism (I’d enrolled there rather than become an English major because I’d convinced myself I’d never get a job with a degree in English), absolutely miserable. And he looked at me with those avid open eyes and just as casually said: “If you are not happy there, vhy don’t you leave?”

And I swear to you, mes petites, minutes after this exchange I marched to the journalism building and began the process of dropping out of Medill.

More on Heller later today. Must weed. As UD likes to say: Weeding is fundamental.

Margaret Soltan, August 7, 2020 3:06PM
Posted in: professors

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3 Responses to ““Her complexion has no brilliancy,” says nasty Caroline Bingley…”

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    My German is very rusty, but “deine bisschen bloggerin” looks wrong to me. Shouldn’t that be “deine kleine Bloggerin”? I thought that “bisschen” (literally, “little bite”) meant a lit bit of something and couldn’t be applied to people.

    (It has been 49 years since I had German in high school, so I may be completely wrong here—please correct me if so.)

  2. UD Says:

    gasstation: You’re probably right. I have virtually no German (though with immense effort I managed to pass the written German exam for my U Chicago PhD). I originally wrote deine kleine bloggerin but then remembered the adorable word bisschen and thought that would make the phrase more adorable… I’ll change it cuz as I say you’re probably right…

  3. University Diaries » Joseph Epstein’s Three Minutes of Fame… Says:

    […] was mainly condescending. I didn’t take it personally, since he (along with his buddy Erich Heller) was, with virtually everyone, snippy and […]

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