A Virtuoso on the Platform

Although many of hispeers and elders, especially those of secondary rank, felt threatenedand unsettled by Simmel's erratic brilliance, his students and thewider, nonacademic audience he attracted to his lectures were enthralledby him. Simmel was somewhat of a showman. Many of his contemporarieswho left an account of his lectures have stressed that it seemed to themthat Simmel was thinking creatively in the very process of lecturing. He was a virtuoso on the platform, punctuating the air with abruptgestures and stabs, dramatically halting, and then releasing a torrentof dazzling ideas. What the great German critic Walter Benjamin oncesaid of Marcel Proust, that his "most accurate, most convincing insightfasten on their objects as insects fasten on leaves" applies equallywell to Simmel. Emil Ludwig describes him well, though with a touch ofcharacteristic vulgarity, when he writes: "Simmel investigated, when helectured, like a perfect dentist. With the most delicate probe (whichhe sharpened himself) he penetrated into the cavity of things. With thegreatest deliberation he seized the nerve of the root; slowly he pulledit out. Now we students could crowd around the table in order to seethe delicate being curled around the probe." George Santayana, thenstill experimenting with New England terseness, was given to less fancymodes of expression; but when he wrote to William James that he had"discovered a Privatdozent, Dr. Simmel, whose lectures interest me verymuch," he undoubtedly wished to convey in this sober fashion afascination equal to that experienced by Ludwig.

In view ofSimmel's enormous success as a lecturer, it must have been especiallygalling to him that when he finally achieved his academic goal, a fullprofessorship at the University of Strasbourg, he was deprived ofpractically every opportunity to lecture to students. He arrived atStrasbourg, a provincial university on the borderline between Germanyand France, in 1914, just before all regular university activities wereinterrupted by the outbreak of the war. Most lecture halls wereconverted into military hospitals. A man as alive to the incongruitiesin man's destiny as Simmel could not have failed to smile wryly on thiscrowning irony. His last effort to secure a chair at Heidelberg, wherethe death of Wilhelm Windelband and Emil Lask had created two vacanciesin 1915, proved as unsuccessful as previous attempts. Shortly beforethe end of the war, on September 28, 1918, Simmel died of cancer of theliver.

From Coser, 1977:196-197.


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