Memories of Kolakowski
Last Friday, the world lost an influential philosopher, celebrated scholar, and prolific author when Leszek Kolakowski passed away in Oxford, England, on July 17. During his long career, Kolakowski was a member of the University of Chicago faculty from 1981 until his retirement in 1994. While in Hyde Park, he also became a University of Chicago Press author. Executive Editor T. David Brent knew Kolakowski quite well during his time in Chicago and remembers here the lighter side of the great thinker.
In early fall of 1986, Morris Philipson, then director of the University of Chicago Press, invited Leszek Kolakowski to meet with him and various members of the editorial staff in Philipson’s office. The bottle of sherry and fancy sherry glasses on a special silver platter clearly suggested it was a special occasion. Kolakowski arrived dressed in his Oxford best, and Philipson offered him a seat in the fine leather chair reserved for important authors. Kolakowski made himself comfortable and produced a Gauloises Bleu cigarette. Instead of informing Kolakowski that smoking in a University building was not permitted, Philipson told his assistant to bring him an ashtray and offered him a glass of sherry.
Philipson began the conversation. “You are probably wondering why we have asked you to come over to the Press.” Kolakowski gave a sideways nod as if to say “Probably I do know but why don’t you tell me?” and he took a puff on his cigarette. “I have only one very simple question,” Phillipson continued. Again Kolakowski nodded. “Why have you never published a book with the University of Chicago Press?” Kolakowski smiled slightly, took another long puff and said, “A simple question deserves a simple answer. I have never written anything worthy of being published by the University of Chicago Press.”
In the course of the wide-ranging conversation that ensued, we learned of out-of-print books and never before translated books, as well as his plans to collect essays and lectures originally written in Polish, German, French, and English, and for original monographs. In short, as a consequence of that meeting, the Press became one of the main English language publishers of Kolakowski’s works.
We also learned at the time that Kolakowski had a “little book,” regrettably under contract with another publisher at that time, the first sentence of which Mr. Kolakowski recited to us: “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.” Some fifteen years later the Press published a fresh translation of that book, Metaphysical Horror.
I also find myself recalling another memorable and thoroughly characteristic moment: the opening line of Kolakowski’s acceptance speech at the ceremony at which his book, Modernity on Endless Trial, was awarded the Press’s Laing Prize for 1991. “I wish to express my deep gratitude to the Press and the Board of University Publications for being given this prestigious award. Of course I don’t deserve it, but I would never turn it down for such a flimsy reason.”
Whether he was lecturing on the Devil (he was against him), debunking pseudo-scientific theories, or feigning self-deprecation, Kolakowski brought greatness and a good deal of humor to everything he did. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.