Notes on the passing of Werner Dannhauser

June 29, 2014

A couple of months ago, Cornell University issued a fascinating press release: Professor Emeritus Werner Dannhauser, a former professor of politics and political theory, had died at age 84.

I remember Werner Dannhauser, because I studied with him at Cornell in the 1970s. I just checked my transcript (yes, I still have a copy): the course was entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” (Government 161), and I received a C-, the lowest grade of my university career.

Dannhauser was even then very eminent. But he was also very sickly, and I am astonished that somehow he would have lived another forty years. We were led to believe that he was going to die any minute. His tutorial assistants would carry him in to the classroom for every lecture, sit him down, and strap a microphone around his chest. He would then painfully whisper out a lecture which everyone claimed to be brilliant. We would all try to copy everything verbatim. His tutors worshipped him; we students were in awe, even if we did not understand what he said.

Then came the first assignment. I had such a hard time writing the first term paper (what can you write for a barely living intellectual treasure?) that I procrastinated until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, rather than sitting down to write after dinner, I went to see Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” – for the first time. It was wonderful, as “Casablanca” always is. I cried when the French sang “La Marseillaise”.

I returned to my room and late that night wrote what I believed to be my most inspired piece of writing to date. I called it “Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, Nietzsche and the Machiavellian ideal”. The grade came back from my tutor the next week: Fail. I should have known.

So here I am almost forty years later, and Dannhauser has passed away, and I am left wondering why he was so sick – so apparently on his deathbed even then (and how he miraculously recovered; I can find no reference to that online).

And here are the things that I did not know about Dannhauser then:

– He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, arriving in the USA in 1938 at age nine. He studied for his PhD at the University of Chicago under Leo Strauss, worked for “Commentary” magazine and later came to Cornell. His wife died at a young age, and he raised his two children on his own.

– His essay “On Teaching Politics”, originally published in 1975, is still seen as a classic of the genre.

– Dannhauser was extremely close friends with Allan Bloom, and almost certainly the character of “Morris Herbst” in the novel “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow was based on Dannhauser. (Want to read the first chapter of “Ravelstein”? You can find it here.)  Bellow even sent Dannhauser a draft of the novel to review, and Dannhauser suggested playing down Ravelstein’s homosexuality, which Bellow did not do.  In May 2000, C-Span broadcast a session at the Hudson Institute, in which Dannhauser participated, discussing Bellow and Bloom.

All these things I did not know, until very recently.  Perhaps, had I known some of them then, I would have paid more attention.  But I did not.

I recovered from the Fail mark and pulled a C-, but for many decades I declared that I was not interested in “political theory” – all because of my bad experience in Dannhauser’s course, and the acolytes who followed him around. What a shame, and what a waste. Perhaps the lesson is that eminent professors do not always turn into inspiring teachers. Perhaps it was just my callow youthfulness, but in my case, my experience was just the opposite.

(More Dannhauser obituaries are available from “Commentary” and “The Weekly Standard”.)

Advertisements