Happy, chez Heller

April 21, 1995

While simultaneously on the phone to Chicago and trying to find a book on his desk, the man - who was a total stranger to me -asked: "Are you interested in the history of European cities from the 14th through the 16th centuries?" "No, there is nothing right now that could be more remote from my own interests and preoccupations," I replied.

"Then you must come and attend the conference that has just begun!" And the man, perhaps the most agitated individual I had ever met, grabbed my arm, made me run two flights upstairs, and ever so gently pushed me into a small conference room packed with people who, it seemed, loved to talk about European cities.

There he left me. It turned out to be a fascinating conference indeed but when, after several hours, I re-entered the man's office I felt quite exhausted.

"Did you enjoy the conference?" "Actually I did, though. . ."

"I knew how much you were interested in historical studies on urban development! By the way, wouldn't you like to have dinner with a Hungarian mathematician who just came by?" "No, I feel tired, I don't speak Hungarian and I always hated arithmetic."

"Then you must dine with Gabor..."

He had forgotten the last name of the Hungarian mathematician whose first name was in fact not Gabor after all, but he took the two of us to a pleasant restaurant around the corner where a friendship was struck that was to last for a long time.

Much later, "Gabor" became very important to me when we began to build up the Collegium Budapest.

I suspect that even without mentioning that the city where all this happened was Paris, that the restaurant in which we dined was in the Rue du Cherche-Midi, and the man's office in the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, many social scientists reading The THES will already know that I am talking about Clemens Heller.

I do not know his birth date. I do not want to wait until I find out in order to pay tribute to a man from whom I have learned immensely and who will remain, for innumerable scholars from many countries and disciplines, one of the most impressive administrators on the European scene. It is due to Heller that my reminiscences take on a movie-like quality for he liked the cinema and more than once, when I stopped by his office in the evening, he invited me to see the latest Eric Rohmer, whom we both loved and defended against many who found his moral tales boring.

I cannot possibly tell Heller's life story. I learned only gradually about his youth in Vienna and his love of the theatre, not least for Max Reinhardt. This came as no surprise, since he always appeared to me as if he had just escaped from a play by Hofmannsthal. Being interested in the history of the social sciences, I knew that he had been able to convince the Ford Foundation to build the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme on the Boulevard Raspail where he worked with Fernand Braudal and later became his successor as administrator before retiring some years ago.

The location of the Maison was awesome. One could not walk out of the building in his company without Heller pointing to the corner of the boulevard and the Rue du Cherche-Midi where the Gestapo prison had stood, the same prison to which, at the turn of the century, Alfred Dreyfus had been confined. It was a characteristic gesture for him through which he wanted to remind us of a common European past that, one way or the other, was still shaping our present.

The first thing one immediately learned in Heller's presence was to avoid bilateral arrangements by every possible means. When someone developed the idea to build up a French-Russian network in social psychology, he listened carefully and then, much to the surprise of everyone, asked: "And where are the Germans?" When a German visitor talked about his vision to create a new institution in Warsaw, he interrupted at once: "You would not do it without the French, would you?" Gradually one began to understand how detrimental a bilateral perspective can be for culture and higher education and that a European concert consisting of nothing but competitive duets must sound just awful. In a group of European scholars, Heller would, almost as a rule, speak French with the Germans, English and with the French, and German with the English. At first, as on many other such occasions, I thought that this was nothing but a tic whereas, in truth, a deliberate strategy was at work.

Heller believed in the social sciences not as one believes in a faith but as one who shares the morality of a tale. As a sceptic he was nevertheless full of a trust in which the social sciences were very much included. He believed in their promise not just to understand the social world as it is but to turn it into a better one. But he was not much interested in ideological fights and he rarely took sides for one or the other Weltanschauung. He judged people, not programmes.

The belief in the advantage of weak institutionalisation was another key element of Heller's attitude and of his policy for the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. Whereas administrations as a rule tend to think that good ideas need strong institutions in order to survive, Heller almost thought the opposite. If someone struck a really brilliant idea, some institutional support should be given to it, but not too much so that flexibility and a drive for further innovation were maintained. In his own institution, this principle was strictly obeyed. One could easily be misled by it and only gradually did I begin to understand that the Maison was, behind all the chaos (and maybe due to it) one of the most efficient institutions I had ever worked in.

I shall never forget the morning when a young woman walked into Heller's office and told him how much it would mean to her to attend a conference being organised in the United States by Margaret Mead. Immediately Heller grabbed the phone, called Margaret Mead at what must have been 4am on her side of the Atlantic, got the young woman invited, instructed his secretary to organise a plane ticket and a small per diem, and got back to our business as if someone had just interrupted our conversation by bringing us a cup of coffee.

His lunch and dinner invitations were legendary. Heller loved good food but the real stuff of his invitations was intellectual menus of surprising ingredients and results. He was a master in forging coalitions over some oeufs en meurette, coalitions that often turned into friendships thereafter. He knew many famous people but he loved to identify young persons who might become famous later in their career. He was one of the most egalitarian persons I have ever met: he paid respect where respect was due, and never sacrificed intellectual quality for concerns of status or reputation.

I simply want to congratulate myself and innumerable others who were able to profit from knowing Heller and working with him. The Maison des Sciences de l'Homme has lived up to the expectations raised by its name. It was and has remained a marvellous house for the social sciences. It is the house that Heller built.

Wolf Lepenies is rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg-zu-Berlin, Germany.

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