Elfie Raymond

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Sarah Lawrence Philosophy faculty member emerita Elfie S. Raymond, who taught at the College from 1964 to 2006, died on March 19, 2012. Mourned by colleagues and alumni, Raymond came to Sarah Lawrence from Columbia University, where she had taught and worked as a research fellow since 1958—arriving from Europe as a Fulbright Scholar with doctoral degrees from the Sorbonne and the University of Vienna—at the suggestion of then retiring SLC faculty member and noted co-author of the Middletown studies, Helen Merrell Lynd.

With an Austro-Hungarian background, having grown up in Kolozsvár, Transylvania and later fled Communist East Europe for Paris in the 1950s, Raymond's passage to the US resulted from winning a Fulbright Fellowship to Columbia. She remained involved with the Fulbright awards and was recognized by the Institute of International Education for "outstanding participation on the National Screening Committee for Fulbright and other grants for graduate study abroad."

Throughout her academic career Elfie Raymond received numerous research grants from major foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was scholar-in-residence at US and Swiss institutions. In her later years, Raymond was a 'reader,' a term used for scholars and qualified researchers, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Among her academic pursuits, Raymond was a contributor to Contemporary Philosophy. She received the Alfred E. Koenig Memorial Award from REALIA Institute for Philosophic Research for, among other things, "her passionate commitment to successfully uphold Philosophy's pedagogic role in the amelioration of society and self."

The year she began teaching at Sarah Lawrence she was unanimously chosen for the student-initiated Adda Bozeman Award for the Most Promising New Faculty Member. And she gave back to the College in myriad ways. In the early 1980s she initiated the Helen Merrell Lynd Faculty Colloquium to continue the memory of Lynd's contributions to the College.

During her earlier years at Sarah Lawrence College, Raymond was a close colleague of faculty member and renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. Subsequently, she held the Joseph Campbell Chair in the Humanities from 1999-2004. With support of the Campbell Chair, Raymond established the Campbell Corner Language Exchange, which she described as "a new site on the Internet where myth and poetry, philosophy and rhetoric…can mingle and engage in combat as well as artful combinations, thus extending the time-honored battles between poets and philosophers, which permit, even invite, extended periods of truce and peace…"

When she founded it in 1998 she wrote: "Campbell Corner is named after Joseph Campbell, a legend in his own right, who added to our understanding of the many myths and masks that hide, and thus proclaim, the power of the one eternal universal spirit. The trans-cultural dialogues that Joseph Campbell's writings promote are Campbell Corner's inspiration; and the means for extending these dialogues strongly favor the poet's tool kit."

Central to the Campbell Corner is the annual $3,000 Poetry Prize, whose purpose Raymond described: "Whereas philosophy tends to use myth as a clarifying tool to render the world, and us within it, more intelligible by the grace and force of reason, poetry relies on myth as matrix and co-creatrix for its spells and powers…"

Writing faculty member Vijay Seshadri, who provides faculty support for the Campbell Corner, said: "Elfie was a rigorously trained philosopher—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 saw all speech acts as cooperative in the enterprise of human integration and realization. She was a visionary. The Campbell Corner poetry prize, which she conceived and guided, was, I think, a part of this huge enterprise of integration of hers that she particularly cherished. The interweaving of passion and precision that she encouraged with the prize was something that she craved from art and that she triumphantly embodied in her own life and teaching. She will be deeply, terribly missed."

Raymond's brilliance, elegance, and friendship are echoed in remembrances by former colleagues.

History faculty member Jefferson Adams, a long-time friend and colleague, said of her at an awards ceremony for excellence in teaching prior to her retirement: "It takes only a few minutes of conversation with Elfie to realize that she possesses an exceptional intelligence. In another person such erudition might easily be a trait that intimidates—or that leads to arrogance and self-absorption. With Elfie just the opposite is true. Combined with her truly generous spirit, that intelligence serves to inspire."

Adams recalls an incident when Elfie was involved in an important faculty search to fill a philosophy of science position that she had largely conceived. In the internet age, he said, many prospective candidates try to brief themselves in advance about the institution as well as the individual members of the search committee. Following is what one candidate wrote to Elfie:

"As a matter of course I 'Googled' you and all the members of the committee to get a sense of everyone. I don't know if you have ever done that for your own name, but I was struck that a majority of the hits were not about your scholarly work (though there were plenty of those). Rather, most of the pages linked were former students and colleagues of yours describing how much you had affected their lives and work. I found that to be a profound statement about both your teaching and your collegiality—I hope someday a casual Internet search on me turns up such delighted students."

William Shullenberger, who teaches Literature, said, "One can't really write about Elfie Raymond without telling stories about her. And that's as I think she would like it. For all her Platonic and Zwinglian abstract and idealizing rigor, she never left the world. 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. She could be subtly acidic in her criticism, yet wonderfully supportive and encouraging as she led us all out of our epistemological boxes. At a faculty presentation, one knew one was in for trouble if she were to raise her hand, and preface her comment with a sweetly deadly little 'I have just one little question.'

"The most recent story I remember was from the freak snowstorm before Halloween last fall. One of the big maples in her apartment complex courtyard had fallen under the weight of the snow, and teetered as part of its root-bole still anchored itself in the earth. As she sat near her window, with the snow melted, she heard some unearthly creaking and was awestruck to look out in time to see and hear the great maple tip back into its nest."

But perhaps most of all Elfie Raymond will be remembered for her teaching—at an institution that values teaching above all else. In a note to Dean Barbara Kaplan in the early 1990s, she wrote from a large university where she was a visiting professor "…meeting new colleagues from the four corners of this great republic made me more keenly aware, and more intensely appreciative, of the great virtues of the Sarah Lawrence way. I'm particularly stunned by how rare it seems to be, judging from my talks with people from other institutions, that students and teachers have open exchanges about what they really think about a passage, a book, an idea, a style, a rendering of a situation, a deliberate response to a crisis, or whatever else may animate the conversation in the human sciences. Thank you for making it possible for the conversation to proceed to the benefit of students and faculty alike…"

Phillis Levin '76, now a professor of poetry at Hofstra University, who organized and serves as one of the judges for the annual Campbell Corner Poetry Prize competition, and who remained close to Elfie since they were teacher and student, wrote after hearing of her death:

"I had recently finished a poem I was looking forward to showing her, a poem whose opening lines are/were/are in conversation with her somehow. That was not unusual: for Elfie applied her x-ray vision to many of my poems, and over the years I knew I could always count on her astute perceptions, her extraordinary understanding of not only what was on the page but what needed to be there—and what was in the way or better left unsaid.

"Elfie was my mentor since I was twenty-one; she was my Athena and dear friend. All those languages; such joie de vivre; such wisdom, and in light of such tragic history; such delight in being; such classical composure and capacity for self-government; such eloquence and depth and focus. She was a miracle of existence. Her mind and character embodied the possibility of keeping possibility alive: through the love of knowledge and clear-eyed attention to others, and through an unsentimental belief in the capacity for goodness to translate into an active force in the person, the community, the world.

"For Elfie Raymond, philosophy is a process of engaging fully with the world—from its most sensual and concrete to its most ethereal and abstract incarnations. And that process is what she put into practice in her teaching, whereby she followed the Socratic method with unselfconscious mastery, humility, and wit. I vividly recall how, on the first day of her course called Linguistic Transactions, she invited the small group of us who enrolled in this seminar to go outside and sit together on the lawn, whereupon she transformed those two hours into an experience of self-discovery as much as an immersion in the tangible nature of thought, in the immediacy and mystery of language. For those who were fortunate enough to become her students, she became the midwife drawing forth ideas and insights—borne within each of us yet only truly born in dialogue. Such exploratory dialogue was disarming, exhilarating, revelatory, so much so that each week we left her office reeling, re-centered. She wore her wisdom lightly; her genius emanated in the turn of a phrase, the angle of approach to intractable problems, in the breathtaking range of reference and multiple perspective. I remember visiting fellow students whose walls held slips of paper scribbled with phrases Elfie had uttered: I doubt she had any sense of how many slips of paper held her words on so many walls, though I think she was aware she had touched so many of us in lasting ways.

"The first day I met Elfie she realized at once that I was shy, for rather than asking questions directly she invited me to describe what I saw in the beautiful paperweight on her desk, an oblong glass globe with swirls of blue coursing through it. Later that semester she quoted, in her own translation, a statement made by György Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic who had been her teacher: "A subject cannot constitute itself without a constituent object."  There was Elfie's method (or one of her many approaches) in a nutshell. Elfie gave us the means to find language and the courage to constitute ourselves, to direct ourselves from within in relation to the great without, to embrace this lifelong journey as an ethical choice and a gift we carry with us every day."

Janna Turoff '85, who studied with Raymond, recalled how she loved to write Haiku, noting one she thought particularly significant:

Form is the Law of
Life and in each human soul
Resides the Measure.

The family has requested that donations be directed to the College library, where a special book fund will be established in Elfie's memory.