Remembering Carl E. Schorske, 1915-2015

I received word last night, the beginning of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, that Carl Schorske had died peacefully in New Jersey. I signed up for Carl’s Vienna seminar during my first year in college in the spring of 1976. He was a visitor at the Center for the Humanities, having taught at Wesleyan in the 1950s before moving on to UC Berkeley and Princeton. I would later learn that he regarded that earlier time at Wes as the “decisive intellectual experience” of his life. I became his student again at Princeton, studying intellectual history and completing my dissertation with him in 1983. When I was inaugurated as president of Wesleyan in 2007, it was Carl who introduced me.

Carl was the great historian of anti-historical thinking. In his masterwork, Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, he explored “the historical genesis of modern cultural consciousness, with its deliberate rejection of  history.” In beautifully written essays, he “performed” historical thinking even as he showed a deep appreciation for the culture makers who rejected the past as a reservoir of meaning. His Vienna book not only won the Pulitzer Prize, it became a touchstone for anyone interested in the intersection of the political and the cultural under the pressure of changing times. A collection of essays in his honor, Rediscovering History: Culture, Politics and the Psyche, begins to show the range of his influence across the social sciences and humanities.

Carl was an extraordinary teacher —  erudite, humane and sensitive to the different ways that students learned. He was an activist, a scholar and a pedagogue. These aspects of his personality all seemed to work together in his intellectual practice as a scholar-teacher. When he was teaching a subject he was deeply engaged with as a scholar, he said he “was really cooking with gas.” He took culture seriously, and he took enormous pleasure in it, too. That seriousness and capacity for pleasure was something that his students were so fortunate to share in.

Carl E. Schorske, 1915-2015
Carl E. Schorske, 1915-2015

Just a few years ago I interviewed Carl about his interest in Freud, and throughout our afternoon together he kept returning to his love of music — of listening to it and making it. I published a summary of our conversation here, and ended my essay with the following:

In the intensely experimental intellectual community of Wesleyan in the 1950s, the hothouse of political passions of Berkeley in the 1960s, or the more measured scholarly interdisciplinarity of the seventies and eighties in Princeton, music remained an elemental part of Schorske’s life and work. He continued to play in string quartets with friends, and in recent years, he told me, his singing voice has returned. He took pleasure in showing me a program of lieder that Schorske had recently performed with some neighbors in his retirement community. As I persisted in asking about the importance of Freud in his life and work, about the friendly, collaborative exploration of the psychological that he began in the 1950s with Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, my teacher kept reminding me about the centrality of music to his understanding of culture. If you cannot shake the higher powers, to recall Freud’s quotation of Virgil in the epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams, you may stir up the depths. Music was always a route to those depths for Schorske.

And teaching seemed to be an arena in which Schorske balanced Geistigkeit and Sinnlichkeit, ideas and aesthetics, intellection and action. I remember well the “optional evening class” on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde when I felt myself opening to an experience of music that was totally new to me. The connections to politics, psychology and culture only added to the powerful aesthetic pleasure of the encounter. There was nothing passive or counter-political in this teaching. The “natural respect” that Schorske generated from students and colleagues, the affection that was perfectly compatible with criticism, provided a political education by example. The solidarity in inquiry and the shared experience of the power of the arts—these were great gifts to his students, especially those of us who went on to be teachers ourselves.

Those of us fortunate enough to study with Schorske at Wesleyan, Berkeley or Princeton, experienced his “cooking with gas,” his extraordinarily energetic balance of the scholar and teacher, the intellectual and the activist. Whether it was in the 19th century intellectual history survey course, or in smaller seminars dealing with architecture, archaism or the arts, the passion he brought to the material ignited the interests and imaginations of his students. These were often moments of political engagement, but they were always mediated through a care for and attention to the texture and meaning of historical material. Under his guidance, history wasn’t just an inert substance waiting for students to get interested in it. We learned from Carl Schorske how to ignite the past in order to create meaning for the present.

At a time when some imagine that education can take place without strong, caring teachers, it is good to remember a supremely gifted scholar who was devoted to the adventurous, empowering learning of his students. Carl Schorske’s memory will long be a blessing to his family and friends, and to his many students (and our students, too).

10 thoughts on “Remembering Carl E. Schorske, 1915-2015”

  1. Michael – You were so fortunate to study with him. I remember not being able to get into his class because it was limited to COL students?? Upperclassmen?? Nonetheless, his work had a profound effect on my life.

  2. Dear Michael Roth,
    Your current student senior Eero talo’s mother – late Judith Feder Princeton ’78 used to take me to Carl’s every time we went with her classmates after P ralley.
    Such a pleasure to converse with.
    But when I met Judith (opera singer at the time) ’82, it was the Vienna thinking of Music Art and Philosophy (her thesis Vienna Werkstatte) that made our conversations so rich. My European upbringing and interests in the same.
    I would love if you had a coffee break with Eero in memory for both..

    Tapani Talo, Architect, Photographer and Artist – and music buff

  3. I had the misfortune to teach my first course on “Vienna 1900” in the same year Carl Schorske was here teaching his. It’s been downhill ever since. Still, I have very fond memories of a couple of encounters with the first and greatest historian of the period, particularly of a night on the town in Edinburgh when he insisted that we buy and immediately wear anti-Iraq war buttons. He will be missed.

  4. Michael– Carl was extremely generous to me as a young scholar, inviting me to a select summit of Hungarian and American intellectual historians and pushing me into the executive committee of the ACLS. This embodied the stance you cite on music as a driving force in society and personality; few historians honor that position. He was crucial to Wesleyan, as it transitioned from a boys’ club into an academic powerhouse, and I know it’s hard to lose your mentor.

  5. As Tony Grafton says, this is a beautiful tribute. I was fortunate to know Carl slightly, and what struck me was his ability to combine intellectual rigor with a great generosity of spirit. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Michael Berenbaum’s Modern Jewish History course in ’77 featured Schorske’s great book. Its a permanent fixture in my library,.

  7. Thank you Michael for invoking him. I sat in on all his lectures at Princeton while studying primarily with his colleagues and friends Arno Mayer and Sheldon Wolin. Those lectures, his great book, and the conversations I managed to have with him along the way were models to me of the highest levels of scholarship and the commitment to intellectual life in general. He also taught me the difference between the work of the intellectual and cultural historian and that of the political theorist, which was an important lesson for me. I only wish I’d been courageous enough to ask to join that “optional” Wagner class. I consider him one of my three great teachers though I never formally took a class with him. Irreplaceable.

  8. I had the great privilege of taking Professor Schorske’s course at Berkeley. What I remember most is him singing Mahler, the first time I had ever heard the composer’s music. The response from the students was, ‘he’s cooler than we are’.
    For who would have thought a professor would dare sing in a European history class? Yet it was so natural, so much a part of who he was and what he thought of the mosaic of Vienna.
    A few years ago, I went to Vienna, carrying the great book with me. I was meeting with people in architecture, art and design; some of them knew the book and said it was the best every written on the subject.

  9. Michael — thank you for your remembrance. Like others, my work as an historian has been profoundly influenced by Professor Schorske ever since I first met him as a student at Berkeley in 1960. He invited me to join the first group of students inducted into the honors program at Berkeley and became my major adviser. But even more important, and a testimony to his generosity and humanity, he helped me to survive and even thrive in what was to me the strange impersonal “multiversity” that was UC. I was the first in my blue collar family to attend college and was a married student with two children already at the age of 20. When I confided in him that I could not afford to stay in school, he arranged a grant that allowed me to continue with my studies. I could not have accomplished what I have had he not “taken me under his wing” in that office in Dwinelle Hall. He was a blessing, indeed.

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