Alex Gelley, z”l

Alex died yesterday at the age of 90 following a long decline. He was one of the professors who recruited me to UCI. He was intensely curious and relentless in inquiry, risking but avoiding pedantry.

As I left the academic world, he suggested that I become a Privatdozent, and so I became, well before the advent of “alt. ac.” We were periodic guests of the Gelleys, and he always had some insight worth hearing as we gathered around his dining room or kitchen table.

He was one of the faculty who split the Comparative Literature department from the English department. Faculty meetings, as I understand, improved on both sides of the split. I hear as I write this the range of his voice making a distinction or observation.

Who among us did not take Walter Benjamin as a touchstone? There was enough in him for everyone, and plenty for Alex. His final book was on Benjamin, deliberate and without headiness or messianism of the kind to which his students came.

He occasionally hit a strange note. He did not understand why my wife belonged in graduate school or how she could have  earned her Ph.D., and said so on several public occasions, including the celebration of her receiving her doctorate. In the end, he was a theorist and she was an empiricist, and the two minds could not appreciate each other.

Aside from his family, there was the old humanities crew, from my era and before. My cohort was the last where a graduate student had a 2/3 chance of getting a job at the annual MLA meeting. Now, they have a 1/10 chance for a job, and end up as adjuncts or in other toil “to bring forth sustenance from the earth.” Alex did not really understand what had happened, and perhaps it is better that he didn’t. He was from a time when a department chair could call up another department chair, talk favorably about a graduate student, and the student would be hired.

Perhaps in the seventh sphere, he will be able to see this crumbling little planet for what it is. Perhaps he will meet Walter Benjamin and ask after the mysterious suitcase Benjamin lost at Port-Bou. He may find that many academics have come there and edited the contents already, as the Nach-Nachlass. But as befits Alex, he will be given a chance.