Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My teacher Eugen Kullmann (1915-2002)

Eugen Kullmann was well known at Kenyon by many students I was friendly with when I arrived at Kenyon College in the Fall of 1983. His archives from his teaching career are housed online at Middlebury. Prof. William McCulloh, in his remarks at Kullmann's memorial in 2003, and many (except the students and colleagues of his) probably felt the same way. (I wasn't at the symposium in 2003, a memorial. Haven't been back to Kenyon since I graduated and many faculty I studied with are there, including a lady Kullmann called "my successor", Miriam Dean-Otting, a highly gifted-teacher for whom I wrote two excellent papers and one lousy one in our Senior Seminar.

I heard stories before I met Prof. Kullmann from older students that he knew classical Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, taught courses on the Psalms, the Hebrew Bible and the Holocaust. Students ured me to go see him and study with him, but I was reluctant. I remember Bill Marchl, a friend who was a year ahead of me, showing off a wonderful paper about Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, which the professor had regarded highly. I remember friends telling me of a conversation in class he had with a student, comparing the scriptures to a big department store, from which you could take some of what was useful and leave the rest. Another told me of Kullmann's wrath as rock music echoed throughout the campus in the spring. I heard of Prof K saying, "you young people, with your rock and roll and your rolling rock, trying to kill time. But sooner or later time is going to kill you."

In the spring of 1985 I met him, first when Bill Marchl introduced me to him at his talk on Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed. I knew nothing about it when I heard him speak, still don't, but I remember the doctor said before he began "A minute wasted is lost for all eternity." when my good friend Andrew Black took me to visit him at his house on the Kokosing River in Gambier, Ohio. I was on the fence about joining the department at that time. Kullman had retired in the spring of 1984, receiving an honorary degree. Andrew and I were buds and he told me much about the old gentleman, that he liked Big Bear supermarkets. When I met the man, he seemed old world, a European classical scholar. His house was mystical, with fading light, dust, cats, clocks and many books. Andrew knew him well. I made up that I was a religion major and couldn't communicate well with the Professor, but he liked that I knew about Bergman's The Seventh Seal. He was kind and asked me to come back, but in the Fall of 1985 I dropped out to waste time and work menial tasks and go to jazz shows in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After a year of nonsense, which wasn't entirely a waste because I did some reading and writing, I was welcomed back to Kenyon as a junior in the Fall of 1986. I learned from Andrew Stein, an old friend and soon to become Kullmann's favorite student that he and others were studying w/ the professor. The second Monday of school I made a call to Prof. Kullmann's house ( I still hadn't chosen a department or an advisor.) "What would you like to study, sir?" the old gentleman asked me. "The Old Testament, professor," I answered. I was then corrected (about my little bible reading.) He informed me that the Hebrew scriptures (Hebrew Bible: pentateuch, wisdom, propehetic writings, apocrypha) were grafted onto the gospels and Christian letters and revelation for what the West called the bible (but he meant the Hebrew bible.) (In the Antichrist, which Kullmann did not mention, Nietzsche railed against the merging of the two as a great literary offense against the spirit. Blake, too, (also not discussed) said in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell that now everyone worships the Jewish God -- I think he had the prophet Ezekiel say it.)

So I brought my Oxford bible, down the hill in Gambier and the professor met me halfway. "Doctor Gary," he called me and shook my hand. I started taking notes at his house right away and he discouraged me "Let what sticks stick, " he said. "knowledge is what you have after all the notebooks have been burned!" The other thing that stuck with me that day was what the professor said "God is the silent answer to the last question."

Prof. Kullmann quickly determined that he liked me and that I had no religious upbring, so "nothing to unlearn," he said. He was pleased that I was taking Latin and Historical Thought and the Gospels but not pleased about my other religion selection. He told me many things that early, sunny September afternoon, one that I remember about the Iliad, (7th book.) Ajax taunts the Trojan Glaukos and The Trojan replies "Very like leaves are the generations of men." He said that was meant for Toynbee, Spengler and Valery but I never read any of these. (But later that year I read Homer with McCulloh and it suddenly made sense.)

(To be continued. 2/11/10)

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