Tribute: Elfie Raymond

(Philosophy Faculty 1964-2006)

by Gillian Gilman Culff '88

Elfie Raymond

“She provoked my thinking about language and philosophy and planted ideas in me that I have thought about the rest of my life.”

Elfie Raymond once brought a hardcover collection of Charlie Brown comics into her “Philosophy of Religion” class, placed it in the center of the table and asked, “Who would like to write a paper on the theological references contained in this work?”

Raymond, who passed away on March 19, 2012, might appear at first somewhat whimsical, but her students quickly learned that she had one of the most remarkable and wide-ranging intellects that they were likely ever to encounter.

Raymond was greatly admired among the faculty. Literature teacher William Shullen- berger said, “She was very much concrete and specific and exacting, in her grounding of analysis, in the stories she told, and in what she expected from her colleagues and students.” History faculty Jefferson Adams said at her Service of Remembrance, “Most students knew that a course with Elfie such as hermeneutics or classical rhetoric would extend well beyond the conventional and expected. And in countless instances, it proved to be one of the most intellectually exhilarating and illuminating experiences of their undergraduate years—as well as a lasting influence on the rest of their lives.”

Born in the Hungarian region of Transyl-vania in the early 1930s, Raymond spoke little of her early life, which was marked by the upheavals in Europe during the Second World War and the Soviet occupation that followed. Herself a refugee, Raymond easily identified with those forced by circumstances to abandon their homeland. “Her magnanimity of spirit and her no-nonsense view of life were formed by loss and by the miracle of surviving that loss to carry on a life in the United States,” said her daughter, Christina Windsor ’90.

“Her career at Sarah Lawrence and everything she gave to the College were an extension of the knowledge of how fortunate she was.”

After completing her bachelor’s in France, Raymond earned doctorates from the Sorbonne and the University of Vienna. “Elfie was a rigorously trained philosopher,” writing faculty Vijay Seshadri said. “We who come after her can only envy the scope, substance, and power of her mind—and she was also a brilliant product of an ancient tradition that distinguishes but doesn’t segregate philosophy from literature. … She was a visionary.”

Raymond left Europe for New York on a Fulbright Fellowship to Columbia University in 1958 and remained there as a teacher and research fellow until Helen Merrell Lynd brought her to Sarah Lawrence in 1964. That year, she was unanimously chosen for the student-created Adda Bozeman Award for the most promising new faculty member. She remained at the College until 2006. Raymond used support from the Joseph Campbell Chair in the Humanities, which she held for five years, to create the Campbell Corner Language Exchange and its annual national poetry competition with a prize of $3,000.

Her deep insight often left a lasting impact. Said former student and longtime friend Phillis Levin ’76 in 1998, “She had an understanding of me that I didn’t have of myself at the time. … Something in me began when I met her. She provoked my thinking about language and philosophy and planted ideas in me that I have thought about the rest of my life.” Levin’s poem “Ontological,” written for Raymond, was selected for The Best American Poetry 1998.

Elfie Raymond delighted in the beauty of existence, and she encouraged people’s capacity for goodness and potential for acting on that goodness in the world. Former student Janna Turoff ’85 said, “Elfie was a masterful teacher with a powerful intellect. Her heart was quite generous, and her love of life ran deep.”