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Werner Dannhauser, 1929-2014

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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We're sorry to report the death last week of Werner Dannhauser, whom we had the honor of occasionally publishing in these pages. He was a serious thinker and a graceful writer, dealing with a wide variety of topics with an unusual combination of elegance and directness, and of power and irony. As generations of students at Cornell, Michigan State, and elsewhere can attest, he was also a superb teacher of the great works and fundamental questions of political philosophy. Author of a fine study of Nietzsche’s view of Socrates, translator of Gershom Scholem, student and interpreter of Leo Strauss, Dannhauser lived at the stimulating crossroads of Athens and Jerusalem—and also America, the country he came to at age 9 and whose freedoms, decency, and strength he cherished.

Dannhauser was a man of uncommon wisdom and wit—and also humanity. As Michigan State professor Arthur Melzer put it in his eulogy for his teacher, colleague, and friend,

What kind of man was Werner? With admirable powers of mind and character, he surely fit in the category of impressive and imposing men. But he was that somewhat in spite of himself. For he was also and more fundamentally a dear and lovable man. .  .  . He was a most wonderful friend. He somehow combined the instinctive warmth and loyalty of a St. Bernard with the emotional delicacy and tact of a poet. And if you needed advice or consolation, there was no surer refuge than the wisdom and sympathy of his great heart. And of course, Werner was also fiercely loyal to his family—to the whole clan and especially to his daughters, Fanya and Anna, of whom he was so proud, and who, together with their spouses and children, gave him not only great joy but great strength unto his last breath.

But as much as Werner liked to immerse himself, as I have been emphasizing, in the felicities of ordinary life, this is all just half the story. For Werner was a man of opposites especially in this matter. He was a lover of small things, but he was also the consummate big idea man. In the midst of all his minute, daily preoccupations, he never took his eyes off the eternal issues, especially his big three: God, love, and death. Of all the people I have known, he seemed to connect with these things with the greatest directness and poetic concreteness. .  .  . He was Faust and he was Falstaff—joined at the hip.

Of Dannhauser’s many wonderful essays and articles, one of The Scrapbook’s favorites is his tribute to the martini, in the November 1981 American Spectator. Entitled “The Metaphysical Martini,” it opened,

I have never met a martini I did not like. Under no circumstances would I assert that any martini is as good as any other; my mind may be soaked, but not in rampant egalitarianism. I am willing to argue, however, that while the best martini demands to be called “perfect,” the worst is nevertheless passable, and far better than no martini at all

And it closed:

I remember, finally, the solitary martini. I put away my work, the daily drudgeries. Relaxing, I prepare my drink with loving care. Then I sit back and think of once and future deeds and speeches, but mostly of the past. I summon up the living and the dead, rehearse old scenes of tenderness and wit. Then time melts slowly as betrayals lose their sting. My friends and I are young again, alive with hope. Grace smiles on me as Mr. Death assumes a modest stance, and all the while martinis make the music for my memories.

A fitting valedictory.

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