Oral History: David James (Jimmy) Fisher

Narrator: David James (Jimmy) Fisher
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 15 June 2018, 23 November 2022
Transcribed by: Teresa Bergen
Duration: 2 hours, 15 minutes, 13 seconds

2023.03 - David James Fisher

David James (Jimmy) Fisher biography:

David James (Jimmy) Fisher completed his Ph.D. with George L. Mosse at the University of Wisconsin in September, 1973.  He attended Georges Haupt’s post-doctoral seminar at the Sixieme Section of the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes in Paris from 1973-1975.  He taught European cultural history and French history at the American College in Paris, the University of Illinois, Rutgers University, and the University of California, Los Angeles.  He was clinically trained as a psychoanalyst at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute and Society (now the New Center for Psychoanalysis) from 1980-1988.  He has been practicing psychoanalysis and psychotherapy for forty-four years. He continues to practice in West Los Angeles. He is an award winning teacher and has received recognition as a Distinguished Psychoanalytic Educator from the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education.  In 2023 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Psychohistorians.

His publications include:

Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement (University of California Press, 1988; reprinted by Transaction Publishers in 2004).
Cultural Theory and Psychoanalytic Tradition (Transaction Publishers, 1991).
Bettelheim: Living and Dying (Rodopi Publications, 2008); translated into German in the Psycho-Sozial-Verlag, 2003).
Editor and contributor in Karen L. Fund, Surrogate: How A Woman Named Sandra Made Me A Mother (International Psychoanalytic Publishers, 2020).
The Subversive Edge of Psychoanalysis: Selected Essays (Routledge, 2023).

To jump to the 23 November 2022 interview: Session 2.



Tortorice: Testing. One, two, three. Testing, one, two three. Okay. We’re set. Well, it’s July 15, 2018.

Fisher: I think it’s June fifteenth. (laughter)

Tortorice: Nevermind! It’s June. June 15, 2018. I’m here with Jimmy Fisher. We’re both a bit tired from a marathon excellent conference we’re at here in Madison. So, Jimmy, let’s start from the beginning. I’m interviewing you because you were one of George’s doctorates, of course, and studied with him, and studied at UW. But let’s get some background on you and your family. Where were you born, and when?

Fisher: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in November 1946. The first of three sons. My father was a physician, and my mother was a housewife. Both were born and educated in Brooklyn, Ashkenazi Jews. I was born immediately after the war. More?

Tortorice: Sure, if you’d like. Yeah.

Fisher: My family moved from Brooklyn to Westchester County, New Rochelle. I attended New Rochelle High School. My family was cultured and cultivated and looked to Europe in certain ways. But they would never travel to or buy any German products. My father had fought in the war in the North African and Italian campaigns. They were very hostile to all things German. But when I was fifteen, I was taken for a seven-week grand tour of Europe, which left a very strong impression on me.

The family’s politics were predominantly liberal. My parents were FDR (1882-1945) liberals. They loved Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965). They were taken with John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). They were Cold War liberals. They had nothing good to say about communism. They actually travelled to the Soviet Union. They took my middle brother, Andy, to the Soviet Union in [19]65. They came back equally hostile to communism, to Soviet-style communism. But the family was political. We read the New York Times. 00:03:00 We were interested in politics, current events, and culture. There were books in the house. There was music. There were political debates, discussions at the dinner table.

I came to Madison in 1965. And I was a transfer student. I had spent a year at NYU Uptown. I was living at home. So one of the reasons I came was to escape the family and to be on my own. I was a premed student. There was a tremendous degree of pressure and expectation that I would become a physician. And one of the big issues in my life was finding my own way.

When I came to Madison, I took a Western Civilization class that was taught by John O’Connor (1937-2016). He taught the early modern section of it—Renaissance to the French Revolution, or 1815. My TA was Bob Nye. Bob Nye has become a great friend for over fifty years. Bob told me that I had to go to both George Mosse’s lectures and to Harvey Goldberg’s (1922-1987) lectures. I did. The first class I had with George Mosse was that next semester. This would be my sophomore year. I subsequently had five undergraduate classes with George. I had Western Civ, covering the 19th and 20th century. That’s the first time I was exposed to him. Then I had all three sections of his Cultural History of Europe. The early modern part, 19th century and then the 20th century. I had become a history major. I had gotten friendly with him. I can tell you that story.

In 1968, George invited me into an undergraduate seminar on the Weimar Republic with fourteen other kids. It was very, very high-powered. He handled it almost as if it were a graduate seminar. We were interested in making a comparison between Weimar Germany and the late 1960’s in America. He had us reading fantastic books. We read [Thomas Mann’s (1875-1955)] The Magic Mountain (1924). We read Peter Gay’s (1923-2015) book on Weimar culture. It was a fascinating experience.

When I graduated in June [19]68, of course I didn’t go to my commencement. There was, as I remember, an anti-commencement. I didn’t go to that, either. I had some difficulty with the draft. The only way I could 00:06:00 get a deferment from my draft board which was in New Rochelle; they granted deferments if you taught in the inner city. So I spent the year 1968-[19]69 teaching in South Brooklyn. Teaching sixth and seventh graders. It was a ghetto school. It was predominantly Black and Puerto Rican. I lived in Brooklyn Heights. I took my master’s degree at NYU. I worked with Frank Manuel (1910-2003), who was a very celebrated intellectual historian, also a Harvard PhD. like George. And I worked with a French historian, a distinguished historian of the French Revolution, called Leo Gershoy (1897-1975).

I had applied when I graduated in [19]68 to graduate school to George’s seminar. I was accepted into George’s seminar. I had to defer it for a year. It was deferred because of the draft situation. My draft board then a year later liberalized. They said any teaching situation would give you a deferment. It did not have to be in the inner city. I had secured a TA, because I knew people here from my undergraduate years. I came back in [19]69 and I was a TA. And I began my graduate studies with George. George was on leave that year. His replacement was Georges Haupt (1928-1978), who was a very close friend of George’s. I think Haupt was originally discovered by Harvey. Haupt remained friends with him. George was very close to Haupt. Haupt structured the seminar in 1969-[19]70 around the theme of intellectuals who went from left to right. It was a very interesting and typical Mosse theme. I began work on French writers, partly because I was not fluent in German. My language was French, and I was enamored of all things French by then. I started to study French cultural and intellectual history. I worked very closely with Haupt.

After I finished my doctorate in [19]73, I went back to Paris and I attended Haupt’s seminar. He directed a post-doctoral seminar at the Sixieme Section of the École pratique des hautes études on la geographie du Marxism, the geography of Marxism, that is, on the penetration and diffusion of Marxism to the world. Haupt’s seminar was fascinating, attended by a diverse number of 1960s Marxist radicals. It was high-powered and present-centered, given the enthusiasm for Euro-communism at that moment, retrospectively maybe a last gasp of Marxism in the academic world. I learned a great deal. Haupt was a wonderful teacher. He was a historian’s historian. He was a historian of the Second International, had 00:09:00 written a seminal book called Socialism and the Great War: The Collapse of the Second International (1972). Haupt was a wonderful guy, charming, enthusiastic, supportive of serious students, immensely curious, and knowledgeable about the history of the left, including the history of Communism and Stalinism. He had been in the concentration camps, also trained as an historian in the Soviet Union. Just a great guy; he is much missed.

You want me to go back to my graduate years?

Tortorice: Well, let’s back up just a bit. So what, why did you decide to come to Madison initially? Were there friends here?

Fisher: No. There were a couple of friends from my high school class came here. But they were not necessarily people I was close to in high school. The guy who was the president of my high school class came here. We got friendly here so that by my senior year we became roommates. His name was Ed Doherty. He was also a history major, like most people in my undergraduate circle. Ed went on to get a doctorate in history with Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019). I came to Wisconsin predominantly to separate from some of the suffocating environment around my parents and living in the suburbs. My girlfriend Clarice at the time said, “Why don’t you go to the University of Wisconsin? It’s a great school.” I knew nothing about it, I had never been here. I just came. It was life transforming.

Tortorice: So it was that connection that UW had with New York, with the east coast, that brought so many people here, to the benefit of the university, certainly. The reputation was quite high.

Fisher: But I wasn’t aware of it.

Tortorice: Yeah. But somehow—

Fisher: But other people were.

Tortorice: Somehow you were influenced by that.

Fisher: That’s correct.

Tortorice: So you came here to Madison. Well, what was Madison like?

Fisher: In [19]65. I was living in the dorm at Ogg Hall. Madison was slowly shifting from the [19]50s to the [19]60s. Kennedy had been assassinated. There was a certain kind of fervor on the campus, which began to influence me. It was largely organized around opposition to the war in Vietnam. I remember starting to get much more educated about anti-war sentiment and being moved and politicized by it. This would be in [19]65. There were professors who spoke out against the war. There were student groups, particularly the Committee Against the War in Vietnam. There were teachers and skillful orators. By that time, I had discovered Harvey Goldberg. Harvey was really teaching a version of social history which was really the history of socialism and the history of communism. Harvey was strongly and vehemently against the war in Vietnam and probably pro-North Vietnam. He 00:12:00 may have disguised that a little bit, organized around a very articulate form of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. But I think probably in his heart and soul, he was hoping that the North Vietnamese would win. That began to really move me. I began with a moral opposition to the war. Slowly I became more political and more politicized, developing a critique of American foreign policy, of oppressive aspects of American domestic policy, including the prevalence of violence in American history and culture.

The decisive events were the run up to Dow. Dow was October 18, 1967. But I had been reading a lot of investigative reporting on Dow and American corporate influence on the war and the war effort. I began to realize that America was an empire and it was expansionist. The Daily Cardinal did a really good job on it. But the day of Dow, I was taking a class on 19th century European history. I was not inside with the sit-in and the protesters, but I was sympathetic to them. I was a critical supporter. There were people who were not quite vehemently on the left, but who were starting to lean left, lean progressive. Kind of liberal left, but still not real activists. The people who were inside the Commerce Building seemed much more advanced and militant than me, and much more committed to a politics of opposing the war.

I was sitting in the Social Science Building when the Dow Protests occurred; actually, it was the unleashing of a police riot. It was a police attack on peaceful demonstrators. I was in a quiz section with a TA. This is somewhat ironic to me—we were discussing the revolutions of 1848, which were democratic revolutions, and, in some places like Paris, student revolutions. They were begun by students. I was in this quiz section, hearing commotion on the street, because the Commerce Building was just across the street from Social Sciences. I knew that there was going to be a sit-in. But I never imagined that they would call in the Dane County police and that there would be so much violence unleashed against students. Middle-class, predominantly white, suburban, respectable students. I had never experienced that before, nor ever contemplated that possibility before. It seemed unimaginable.

I say to the TA, “I can’t talk anymore about the Revolutions of 1848. The Revolution is downstairs. I’m leaving.” And I left. I’d never walked out on a class before. I was not brought up to leave class. I was very compliant 00:15:00 at that point.

By the time I got out there, the kids had been already beat up. Over sixty had to be taken to the hospital. They were bloodied up. The police were still out there when I emerged from my quiz section. They had started to tear gas us. I remember this like it was yesterday. Being tear gassed was so unreal and so appalling that police could be doing this to us. It was a moment of transformation. I began to lose my remaining illusions about the university, about authority structures, and about America. It made crystal clear that the violence going on in Vietnam was also coming from home, it existed here, and it needed to be opposed.

There were four, five thousand people out, around, behind Bascom Hall and near Commerce. I was caught in that. I was part of that crowd. I was with a very dear friend Paul Riger, also a history major. They would hit us with tear gas canisters— it was a beautiful day in October. We would back off. The tear gas would disappear. We would go back in. It was a little bit cat and mouse, but dangerous and menacing. It went on, as I recall, for over an hour. It may have been more.

That evening, there was a rally called at the library mall and ten thousand people attended. At that point, I became very much radicalized and politicized.

Tortorice: So in a sense, when the state overreacts, the result is catastrophic. And it really mobilizes and radicalizes people. With that and then also with the draft—

Fisher: But the anxiety about the draft was real—and so was state and institutional collusion with violence. It was the sense of the complicity, also, of the university with bad and immoral foreign policy, with Dow that was making napalm. Prior to Dow we, I think somewhat naively, thought the university was a house of learning. It was about mastering subject matter. It was about critical thinking. It was about many, many things. We never made that connection. Dow, for me, was decisive.

Tortorice: And also the cooperation with the FBI and reporting students and all of that made it—

Fisher: That was very, very enlightening to me.

Tortorice: Yeah, yeah.

Fisher: And I never would have imagined that could happen.

Tortorice: So you’re coming from—

Fisher: That was what was going on in Nazi Germany or in Stalin’s Russia. But it went on here.

Tortorice: Yes. Yes. That must have been shocking.

Fisher: It was shocking. It was, at the same time, it was transformational; it changed my consciousness. 00:18:00 It’s something that I still haven’t gotten over.

Tortorice: They’ve gotten much more subtle about these things as our—

Fisher: That’s probably right. They’re probably listening on our iPhones right now. (laughter) If the Russians were hacking us.

Tortorice: We, as you probably know, in 2011 had quite extensive demonstrations around the square, around the Capitol. The occupation of the Capitol.

Fisher: I remember reading about it.

Tortorice: Thousands. I mean, extraordinary situation.

Fisher: That was over the TAA, or about unions?

Tortorice: Well, this was about the governor essentially de-unionizing all government—

Fisher: Correct.

Tortorice: And then slashing the budget.

Fisher: He’s a very bad guy, that governor.

Tortorice: Well, yes. This is an aside. But it’s amazing how much more sophisticated they are. Here, and I was there, you come and take over the whole Capitol building. And they just basically said, “Come on in.” They didn’t react. They let people camp out there.

Fisher: Because they had learned how to diffuse and absorb radical demonstrations.

Tortorice: They had learned.

Fisher: They even knew how to co-opt, also. And sit it out.

Tortorice: Yeah. It’s very hard.

Fisher: The Madison police, the Dane County police, were told to clear the corridors.

Tortorice: Exactly.

Fisher: They came in swinging.

Tortorice: Yeah. They would never do that now.

Fisher: Probably not. They know better about crowd control.

Tortorice: But anyway, that was an aside.

Fisher: I wanted to say something, though, about my experience as an undergraduate studying history in the context of the war in Vietnam. And of how the professors like George and Harvey and others, but they were the big influences on me, made me proud to be part of an opposition. Because it was clear to everyone that they were against the war. They had a critique of it, and that they were supportive and encouraging of us to learn about it. I would go to teach-ins. I heard Harvey give a lecture about our involvement in Vietnam and making a comparison between Henry Kissinger and [Klemens von] Metternich (1773-1859). It was mind-blowing, consciousness raising at the highest level. I remember hearing George lecturing off campus. I was taking all his classes. But I remember him lecturing at Hillel. I became someone who really was drinking it all in.

The other thing that’s important to remember is that they were fabulously entertaining, provocative lectures. The lectures were amazing. They both had a sense of theater. George was sometimes very funny, very ironic. Impish. He could be naughty; he could be provocative. I’ll tell a couple of anecdotes, if you want. But at the same time, we were studious. 00:21:00 He was assigning twelve, fourteen books a semester. Sometimes big books. I remember in the 19th Century Cultural History, The Portable Viking Nietzsche was, I think, 700 pages. We read it in a week. He was assigning the most fabulous readings, including novels, philosophy, literature. His reading list was a gift to us, mind expanding.

Tortorice: It showed his respect for the students.

Fisher: Absolutely right.

Tortorice: Yes. Yes.

Fisher: He elevated us. Because he wanted us to be cultured. He wanted us to acquire Bildung. I for one wanted that. It became part of our project of growing up and maturing and thinking critically. Many of us, myself included, imitated George. We took on his expressions. We took on some of his mannerisms. We took on his language expressions and his speech. I started to smoke a pipe. (Tortorice laughs) I didn’t think the identification was over. When I lived at his home, he drove a red BMW. I now drive a BMW. You can see that there are powerful unconscious identifications.

Tortorice: And you’re not the only one. I’ve heard this from a number of his students.

Fisher: There was a way in which this was a meeting of the minds. He seemed so fabulously educated and cultured that we wanted to acquire that. He wanted to teach, to inspire, to provoke, to trigger debate, and intense conversation. You did not have to agree with him. It was an extension of the reading list, an intense discussion about politics and culture. The lectures were very thought-provoking. Very provocative. It was like every lecture was a kind of intellectual feeding, a really good meal.

In Ag Hall Auditorium, when he was lecturing, he was doing a couple of weeks on Marx, maybe before 500 or so students in the audience. The people in the balcony would start booing and hissing him. It didn’t faze him at all. He never lost his cool. I never saw him—he lost his cool once. But that was in an encounter with his sister, Hilde Mosse (1912-1982). But I never saw him lose his cool in a professional setting. They’re booing and hissing him and he’s kind of pacing along on the stage there. He has his pipe in his hand. He said, “I am the only Marxist in this room.” There were 5-600 people. We were shocked (and a bit amazed) to hear that. 00:24:00 Because his approach to Marx was debunking. He put Marx’s thought into a historical context, and he knew the theory and the literature inside and out.

Tortorice: Oh, of course. Yeah.

Fisher: He really knew it. He said, “I will tell you why I’m the only Marxist.” Boos and hisses. “I am the only one that has read Das Kapital in the original German.” It shut everybody up. It was probably true. We respected his learning and scholarship.

Tortorice: I’m sure it was.

Fisher: He was authentic because that he had read Marx’s texts in the original German.

Tortorice: He loved that kind of provocation.

Fisher: He thrived on it. For those who were not put off by his pomposity, it encouraged us to read, to learn, to question, and to think critically.

Tortorice: He loved the response. It kept the students engaged. It really was—

Fisher: It was interactive. It simulated us to learn and to think.

Tortorice: Yes. He loved that.

Fisher: It was fun and yet—

Tortorice: So much better than having a bunch of students who say nothing, and no response.

Fisher: Well, say nothing or who are interacting on Facebook or something.

Tortorice: Yes. Right, right.

Fisher: I have another memory of after one of George’s lectures he would come down to the Student Union and he would frequently have lunch with us. There were tables in the Union. Every faction of the left and the extreme left had a table with pamphlets, literature, and agit-prop. There were two very radical guys called the Kaplan brothers.

Tortorice: Oh, yes.

Fisher: I think they were Maoists. They were taking his class. This was about ten or fifteen minutes after he had just lectured. Billy Kaplan stops him in the hallway. George is about to go and get lunch. I’m trailing along. At that time, we already had a bit of a relationship. Billy Kaplan says to George, “How dare you insult the peasantry.” George had lectured that day that all peasants wanted to do was to plow and fornicate.

Tortorice: (laughs) He loved that kind of thing.

Fisher: You know, that got a laugh. But not from Billy Kaplan. Kaplan says to him, “By what right, by what authority, do you say those things?”

He was enraged. George, completely calm, didn’t lose his cool. He said, “Billy, there’s one difference between you and me. I know something. And you know nothing.” (laughter)

Tortorice: No! That’s a great story.

Fisher: He would do that. You also had the impression that he was also talking to you. For example, when I had visitors come to town, friends, I would take them to George’s lecture. My parents once came out, I took them to George’s lecture. It was a performance.

Tortorice: A happening. Yes, yes.

Fisher: It was a performance. He was a bit of a showman. Yet at the same time, there was a beautiful architecture and a structure to it. His voice was booming and his diction impeccable.

Tortorice: And a seriousness.

Fisher: A deep seriousness.

Tortorice: And moral seriousness.

Fisher: Moral seriousness. Raising key questions. Putting us onto the greatest literature. Asking the most probing questions. We were reading existentialism, 00:27:00 we were reading Marxism. I want to say something since I became a psychoanalyst. The first time I seriously encountered Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and psychoanalysis was in George’s lectures. You couldn’t get Freud at the university. Least of all in the psychology department. You had to go to George’s lectures in cultural and intellectual history to get exposed to Freud and psychoanalysis. He also assigned Carl Jung (1875-1961) because Jung fit his theory of history. Jung was in some ways complicit with the Nazis, I mean, in agreement with certain aspects of the Nazi ideology and antisemitic. He assigned both Freud and Jung. I was nineteen when I took his cultural history and he had us reading Civilization and its Discontents (1930). A late Freud text that became very, very important to me, which I subsequently published about. But it was George who opened not just my eyes about many, many things, and who taught me history. But he opened a whole other career for me by his reading and discussions and contextualizing of psychoanalysis and interdisciplinary perspectives. George later in his career became a little less debunking when he started to study masculinity and sexuality. He came to a better appreciation of psychoanalysis in Nationalism and Sexuality. But when I studied with him, his style was to present a thinker’s main ideas and then to critique or to debunk.

Tortorice: Right. That’s his teaching.

Fisher: He wanted us to get away from thinking in slogans and thinking simplistically. It was very effective. I have used some of George’s critiques of psychoanalysis in my own teaching of psychoanalysis. I don’t know if you ever heard, he said that psychoanalysis was the new Jewish religion. Do you remember him saying that?

Tortorice: Well, I’ve read, yes.

Fisher: Well, he used to say that. I mean, he would throw stuff out like that.

Tortorice: Well, he, if I recall, he said that Freud was a positivist. A doctrinaire positivist. When he started, he attempted to find kind of a scientific basis—

Fisher: Yes.

Tortorice: —for human emotion and psychological disturbance. But once, he couldn’t do that because the science wasn’t there.

Fisher: The mind doesn’t necessarily fit that model.

Tortorice: So he became a humanist, in a sense. And he used cultural—

Fisher: Cultural literature and he developed his own method of interpretation, of assigning meaning to latent psychological processes.

Tortorice: All of that.

Fisher: Myth.

Tortorice: Yeah. So I think George understood that and appreciated that.

Fisher: I don’t think how systematically George read Freud, but I do want to tell a story about that. You may not know this one. But you know, Freud’s great work was as an interpreter of culture, as an interpreter of surface and deeper layers of meaning. Freud was committed to Bildung, to reason, to unmasking irrationality. He saw psychoanalysis as part of an educational and cultural process to make individuals more civilized, which meant aware of their temptations toward barbarism and cruelty.

Tortorice: Exactly.

Fisher: The revolutionary book is The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). Not the science of dreams. 00:30:00 Since I’m on this, we’ll jump a little bit. When I was in grad school, I also want to mention that I lived with George for a year and a half in the Glenway house.

Tortorice: Yes. We’ll get to that. Yes.

Fisher: But as a residue of the [19]60s, we graduate students organized a seminar. I don’t know if George ever talked to you about this. I was one of three grad students who organized a seminar where we read Freud systematically. The idea was that George would bring three grad students. Germaine Brée (1907-2001), with whom I worked, who was very, very important, and who was a fabulous woman, and also a friend of George’s—

Tortorice: Oh, yes.

Fisher: Just a remarkable woman, a Camus scholar, and an excellent reader of French feminist literature. I did my whole minor with her in French literature. She was asked to come and participate with three students. The only analyst in town was a man called Joe Kepecs. Joe was a Professor of Psychiatry at the medical school and a graduate of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. He knew his Freud inside out and he was an excellent teacher, both tolerant and rigorous.

Tortorice: Sure.

Fisher: Joe Kepecs brought some residents and one other analytically oriented psychiatrist, a Viennese born psychiatrist. The Hegelian philosopher Ivan Soll (b. 1938) joined, and Jost Hermand (1930-2021) from the German Department also attended.

Tortorice: What a group, my God.

Fisher: We had a seminar of fifteen. Kepecs walked us through the study of Freud’s texts. We studied Freud for a year. George participated in that. The seminar was organized by myself, by the man I’m having dinner with tonight, Richard Levine, who became a therapist. Levine was a Goldberg student, left history, and then became a psychologist. He has practiced in Madison for a long time. The third person was another Harvey student who was into psychoanalysis for a time, called Larry Ceplair. Ceplair subsequently dropped out, becoming critical of psychoanalytic method as a way of understanding history or politics. We organized a seminar and George was open-minded enough as a thinker and teacher to say, well, why not? He came along. He wanted to learn. We read systematically Freud for a year. Did he ever tell you about this?

Tortorice: No, no!

Fisher: That was [19]70-[19]71. It was led by Joe Kepecs. George subsequently became friendly with him because he was an interesting man. Kepecs was married to Joan Kepecs, who had formerly been an opera singer and was teaching opera at University of Wisconsin Music Department. One night, we all went to see The Magic Flute (1791) together. George knew his music. George knew opera.

Tortorice: That was his favorite opera. Oh, yes.

Fisher: I didn’t know that at the time.

Tortorice: Very much.

Fisher: We all went to see The Magic Flute—it’s a great opera.

Tortorice: It really is.

Fisher: We went to see it and we’re at intermission with Joe and Joan Kepecs. George says to Joan Kepecs, knowing that many of the singers were her students, “They are doing such an incredible job. They can’t possibly know how 00:33:00 difficult this is.” She agreed with him. He understood really from the inside the difficulty of singing some of those arias, like “The Queen of the Night” aria. It was a wonderful moment. It helped me to appreciate the depth of George’s culture. It reiterated his commitment to transmitting it to his students.

Germaine Brée brought into the seminar a French woman called Célia Bertin (1920-2014). As a result, Celia also became friendly with the Kepecs. She subsequently wrote a biography (1982) of Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962), who was one of Freud’s key French disciples, and a very important figure in the history of French psychoanalysis. Much scholarship and intellectual engagement came out of that seminar, including my beginnings of interest in psychoanalysis on a more rigorous and clinical level. It also influenced George’s writings on sexuality.

Tortorice: So but then you had decided to pursue a graduate degree with George.

Fisher: I was in George’s graduate seminar. This was in addition to it.

Tortorice: Okay. This was after you had come to UW—

Fisher: The second time.

Tortorice: The second time.

Fisher: Yeah, I came back in [19]69. I lived with George for a year and a half, from [19]69 to the end of [19]70.

Tortorice: Okay. So you’re now working with George on an advanced degree.

Fisher: Correct.

Tortorice: How did you decide on your thesis topic?

Fisher: That’s a great question.

Tortorice: What was the process? I mean, because it seems a little off of George’s general—

Fisher: Except it’s not. The first time I came to George’s office hours, he was still in Bascom Hall. I mustered the courage and I went up there to see him. I remember it being very book-lined, and kind of a serious place. I had been reading The Culture of Western Europe. I was reading it very slowly and carefully, often rereading it. I said to him, “You know, I’ve figured something out.” I said, “the hero of the culture book is Romain Rolland (1866-1944).” He’s one of the few figures that is positively depicted. Almost unequivocally positive. I said, “I think he’s the hero of your culture book.”

George was impressed by that. I was a junior, an undergraduate. I don’t think a lot of people got that. He took a liking to me. Then he invited me into the undergraduate seminar on the Weimar Republic.

Harvey’s biography on Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) begins with a quote from Romain Rolland. When Harvey would lecture on World War One, on the great war, he always made the case 00:36:00 that Rolland was a voice of early opposition and dissent to the war, arguing that Rolland had been very influential on other members of the left. Not just the French left, but the European left. He was someone that they both admired. He was also someone who opposed World War One. I discovered this during the War in Vietnam. I was looking for someone who was willing to take a public and courageous position against war. That’s how I got drawn to it. I had no regrets about that. I don’t think too many of George’s PhDs, though, were immersed in French cultural history. Bob Soucy was one.

Tortorice: Yes.

Fisher: Seymour Drescher, I think, in some ways. But Drescher didn’t remain a French historian.

Tortorice: Initially. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and—

Fisher: Yeah.

Tortorice: There were a number of them. Surprisingly, given that he’s so identified with—

Fisher: With German intellectual and cultural history.

Tortorice: With German.

Fisher: Yeah.

Tortorice: There were several of them. He was on so many committees, of course, with Joan Scott, some of the others, of course, as you know.

Fisher: Yes, I know. But Joan was really a Goldberg student.

Tortorice: She was?

Fisher: But I think George really helped her navigate that.

Tortorice: She, yes. And of course, he’s the one that signed her PhD warrant.

Fisher: Because Harvey wouldn’t sign?

Tortorice: Harvey wouldn’t sign it. (laughs) Isn’t that incredible?

Fisher: I assumed that, but I wasn’t aware that he didn’t sign off?

Tortorice: No, he didn’t. They had a falling out.

Fisher: She’s written about that.

Tortorice: She has. Yeah. But she and George became close friends.

Fisher: Stayed friends?

Tortorice: And they stayed friends.

Fisher: Because she’s done a considerable amount of work in social history.

Tortorice: Oh, yes. Yeah. Yeah. But yeah, that was a case where—

Fisher: But her thesis was a Harvey-style thesis.

Tortorice: Yeah, very much so. Yeah. I agree.

Fisher: Her later work is more cultural history.

Tortorice: Yes.

Fisher: She’ll take a concept and she’ll play with it.

Tortorice: Yeah. She became more appreciative of George’s work.

Fisher: I think she did. When I met her, when social history was dominant and hegemonic, she was not very friendly toward cultural and intellectual history. Everything had to be social history. Then women’s history. I think later on, maybe as she matured, or as things changed, she changed.

Tortorice: As an aside, we had a conference some years ago on the direction of cultural history. This was in Germany.

Fisher: In Germany.

Tortorice: And well, it was in Germany that it took place, but it had a wider focus. And there were a number of very prominent social historians who basically confessed to their errors. It was really quite, quite, 00:39:00 it was really kind of a (laughs) a confession of mistakes.

Fisher: They came clean, finally.

Tortorice: They came, yes, yes, that they had underestimated culture, and overestimated—

Fisher: That was a very bad split when you had to decide. I didn’t particularly want to decide, because I was learning from both. But I was predominantly interested in cultural and intellectual history.

Tortorice: So you’re working on your dissertation. You and George had agreed on your topic.

Fisher: Well, there’s a little subtext there, too. I wanted to write on [André] Malraux (1901-1975). I was very enamored because the first time I encountered Malraux’s novels was in George’s class. Man’s Fate (1933) and Man’s Hope (1937). I really wanted to write a thesis on him. Malraux was one of those intellectuals that went from left to right. He was very close to communism. Then he became Charles de Gaulle’s (1890-1970) Culture Minister. He became a Gaullist.

Tortorice: You may have been the one that discovered what a fraud he turned out to be. But anyway, we won’t go into that.

Fisher: Uh, yeah.

Tortorice: Anyway, that’s an aside.

Fisher: I said to George, “I want to write on Malraux.”

George said, “You can’t do that. He’s still alive. You’ll never get into his papers.” One of the other legacies of working with Mosse and Haupt and even Goldberg, was the emphasis on the importance of doing archival research. You can’t do archival research on a figure who’s alive, because you can’t get in their papers. By [19]73, he was no longer culture minister, but he was still alive.

My first published paper was on Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs (1967). It was a paper I had originally written for Haupt. Haupt replaced George for that year. It was called “Malraux’s Imagination: The Mythical Nature of Character Portraits in Anti-Memoirs.” (1973).

Tortorice: For that, yes, right.

Fisher: I wrote this paper. I remember I got the acceptance letter. It was my first publication, George was visiting in Paris. I was living in Paris. We gathered at Haupt’s apartment in the left-bank. George was very pleased about the publication because he wanted his students to publish. He said, “It’s going to make it easier for me to place you.” Which was not true. Because things had shifted.

Tortorice: Yes. That was always a huge, huge concern of his. Huge concern.

Fisher: But he really conveyed to us the importance of thinking. Writing is a form of thinking, of self-clarification, emphasizing the importance of publishing. I am grateful to him for that as well. But I can remember that moment. Haupt was also pleased, because I had written 00:42:00 my first draft for his seminar. He, too, encouraged his students to publish.

Tortorice: That must have been a feeling of great accomplishment.

Fisher: It was. They both got a kick out of it, adding to the feeling of recognition.

Tortorice: Oh, yeah. I’m sure. Yeah, yeah. That’s great. So then you ended up living with George as his—

Fisher: Right.

Tortorice: —graduate student that took care of his house.

Fisher: My draft deferment changed again so that I could come back to Madison. I wanted to do my doctorate with George. I had been invited to be with Frank Manuel. Frank Manuel was doing some stuff that I found interesting. Because that was the [19]68, he published a psychoanalytic biography of Newton. It’s called A Portrait of Isaac Newton. It’s a great book. But Manuel was not someone who was very easy to get along with, could be prickly and judgmental. I found that I wanted more of George. But I wanted the whole thing. I knew that he would take in grad couples to live in his home. I had been accepted. I had deferred it because of problems with the draft. I wrote to him, saying, “I want to come back. Is there any possibility that my wife and I could live with you?” He said yes.

I think we moved in possibly a few months before he returned from his time off–he took a lot of sabbaticals.

Tortorice: Oh, yes. He always did. Yes.

Fisher: I don’t know if he was in Paris that year.

Tortorice: What year was it?

Fisher: This would be [19]69-[19]70.

Tortorice: Yeah. He probably was in Israel, actually, by then.

Fisher: Was already in Israel?

Tortorice: Yeah. I think so.

Fisher: We lived for a year and a half there. I have a couple of funny stories about that if you want to hear them.

Tortorice: Sure. Sure.

Fisher: He began to teach the history of the Jews. He taught it within a European context. He insisted that it had to be contextualized that way. But I was sitting in on his first class, which was then offered in the humanities building.

Tortorice: It moved over.

Fisher: It had moved over, yeah.

Tortorice: Mosse Humanities Building at this point.

Fisher: Now it’s the Mosse Humanities Building. It was kind of fascinating. He was breaking new ground. I think he was developing a lot of his concepts—one of the things that great lecturers do is they develop their hypotheses for their books.

Tortorice: Oh, yes. Yes. Right in the classroom.

Fisher: They test them out. Right in the classroom.

Tortorice: Exactly. That’s the way he always worked. Yes.

Fisher: I think a lot of great writers have that, so I’m learning a great deal. But one of the assignments 00:45:00 of the couple living in his home is that we were asked to do food shopping and to cook. That, to me, was a pleasure, because it meant we could have dinner with George. There were many dinners. It was the beginning of George being demystified. Because I learned what his taste was in television.

Tortorice: Yes. Not highbrow.

Fisher: The Flying Nun (1967-1970), he loved. But we watched the Forsythe Saga together. We watched the Billie Jean King tennis match with what’s his name, Bobby–

Tortorice: Bobby Riggs (1918-1995).

Fisher: Bobby Riggs.

Tortorice: Well you know, that whole interest, fascination in popular culture that George had was very tied to his work. Very tied, as you know. He didn’t do it for—

Fisher: He also liked The Honeymooners (1955-1956). He liked Jackie Gleason (1916-1987). He claimed The Honeymooners captured the mentality of the American working class, which is a little farfetched.

Tortorice: Oh, yeah. He loved those.

Fisher: But I thought I’m going to move in with him. We’re going to talk about Wagner and Nietzsche and Marx. He didn’t really like to do that. That was definitely not his thing.

Tortorice: No, he didn’t like to talk about, not over dinner, no. He never did.

Fisher: No, not at all. I didn’t know that. One day in spring it became very hot. The assignment was also to do a little gardening, a little pruning or something. I went out. This was in the yard around the driveway. It was the front yard. I’m out there with a pruner. But I took my shirt off because it was really very hot. It must have been a Saturday or a Sunday. He came out with a cup of coffee. He was surveying his estate and supervising. He did it in a very good-natured way. So Monday comes, he lectures on Jewish history. He builds a lecture around the theme of two types of Jews: muscular Jews and coffeehouse Jews. I thought to myself, I think he got this in what just happened in his front yard, me being the muscular Jew and he the coffee house one. (laughter). This thought tickled me. He was really talking about Max Nordau’s (1849-1923) concept of “muscular Judaism,” but I was studying how George designed his lectures, which in his everyday life might contribute to his themes.

Tortorice: Maybe this was the origin of some of his lectures.

Fisher: When I passed my prelims, I was living in the 36 Glenway House, in George’s house. I remember it was an eight-hour exam. No break. I took it in George’s office in the humanities building.

Tortorice: Oh my God.

Fisher: I took four or five chocolate bars. Four two-hour exams. When I came home that night after the prelims, George was reclining in the living room on the couch. He says to me, “Jimmy. I just want you to know something.” 00:48:00

I said, “What?”

He said, “Right now you know as much as you will ever know about European history. It’s all downhill from here.” (laughs)

I said, “Thanks a lot.”

Tortorice: (laughs) That’s great. So tell me about this fight George had with his sister. We’ve never heard much about—and then you also knew his Carola [Bock] Lachmann?

Fisher: I also want to tell the story about the TAA strike.

Tortorice: Yes.

Fisher: Because that also touches on 36 Glenway.

Tortorice: Yeah. Yeah.

Fisher: I had never met Hilde. Hilde was quite a bit older. What, five, six years older?

Tortorice: Yes, that’s right. About six years. Right.

Fisher: Hilde was medically educated. She was a psychiatrist. I don’t know if she was fully trained as a psychoanalyst, but she was oriented toward psychodynamics. She came for a visit while we were still living there. I indicated to her that I had an interest in psychoanalysis and we had organized a seminar. She said, “Tell me what are the five ways that you know about the existence of the unconscious?” She started quizzing me. I knew four. I mean, I did okay. I didn’t know the fifth. You know, dreams, jokes, lapses, and slips of the tongue. She was intimidating. (The fifth is symptoms organized as defenses, I believe). Her form of quizzing was really an interrogation. She had an authoritarian, powerful air.

Tortorice: Yes.

Fisher: But that was not the only interesting thing. I was still a kid and I was a student. But when George was around her, he was unbelievably deferential.

Tortorice: Really? That’s fascinating.

Fisher: He really made sure that there were no disagreements. His tone changed. He wasn’t that provocative, teasing, performative, dominant. I really got the sense that he was a little bit afraid of her. She was politically much further to the left than him.

Tortorice: Oh, right.

Fisher: I think she was a Trotskyist at one point.

Tortorice: She was. Yeah. Right.

Fisher: She had a very strong personality. I had never before and never after seen him really intimidated by anybody. But that one visit, you know, the dynamics in a family are quite interesting. Hilde was also quite dogmatic about homosexuality, quite opposed to it, as if she thought it was a perversion, of some significant form of psychopathology. This was an old-fashioned view, but widely current in psychiatry at this time. I don’t know if she realized that George was gay.

Tortorice: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Well, and she was, in some ways, a substitute mother for him for some years there.

Fisher: Yeah. I met his mother once in New York. He used to tell a funny story about his mother. Did you ever meet his mother? Or was she dead?

Tortorice: Oh, no. she died in [19]72. I don’t think George liked his mother, right?

Fisher: Well, I met her, I met her in New York City.

Tortorice: He didn’t really like his mother at all.

Fisher: No. Not at all.

Tortorice: In fact, he probably hated her.

Fisher: I think that that’s probably right. I don’t think she was very nurturing or sensitive to him. 00:51:00 

Tortorice: No. No.

Fisher: But in New York, there was an election between Arthur Goldberg (1908-1990) and Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) for Governor. George said, “My mother just called me and she said she hopes Rockefeller wins.” Why? Because she says, “If Goldberg wins and he does something wrong, it would be bad for the Jews.” (laughter)

Tortorice: I’ve never heard that before.

Fisher: I’m hearing it now with Trump, you know.

Tortorice: Yes, right. God only knows.

Fisher: He’s surrounded by a lot of bad Jews.

Tortorice: He is. A lot of bad Italians, too.

Fisher: Michael Cohen and Jared Kushner. And Giuliani is no bargain!

Tortorice: But I’m sure that comes right from Weimar. They were walking on eggshells.

Fisher: Absolutely. I think that’s probably right.

Tortorice: She was so traumatized.

Fisher: I think so. She may have also had some paranoia. She was a little old lady when I met her. I think she lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side.

Tortorice: She did, yeah. Right on Central Park.

Fisher: It was kind of dark. It was a little bit creepy. There was not an easy rapport. There was affection between George and Hilde. But he was deferential to her. And most of the time, he was not deferential to anybody.

Tortorice: That’s really true.

Fisher: He may have been to Gershom Sholom (1897-1982).

Tortorice: Well, one of his partners that he had from [19]71 to even—

Fisher: In Israel.

Tortorice: Yes. That was a relationship where George was intimidated.

Fisher: By a younger person.

Tortorice: Yes. And I don’t know the dynamics of that, but I think it probably came out of some kind of family dynamics where there was certain behavior that did intimidate him. Certain threatening behavior. A certain type—

Fisher: Yeah. I mean, George had his share of anxieties.

Tortorice: Oh, he did.

Fisher: But I always thought of him as this very powerful, commanding person with this gift of language and critical thought. But it was very strange and interesting and ultimately enlightening to see his vulnerabilities.

Tortorice: But his mother was—

Fisher: Felicia.

Tortorice: Yes. She was the illegitimate daughter—

Fisher: I know.

Tortorice: —as you know. And that really affected—

Tortorice: Oh, of course it did. Because her mother hated her. Her mother hated her.

Fisher: He says in his autobiography that she was troubled. They sent her to Jung for a possible assessment and treatment.

Tortorice: That’s right.

Fisher: I don’t know that Jung took her in.

Tortorice: He didn’t. Because he said there was nothing he could do for her, right.

Fisher: He treated very disturbed patients.

Tortorice: Yeah. (laughs) Well, there you go.

Fisher: I’ve got to tell you one more story about life on 36 Glenway.

Tortorice: Yes. Yes, of course.

Fisher: Then I want to tell you the story about the cocktail party. Before George’s cataract surgery. The Teaching Assistants Association strike was March 1970. George was around. There was this strike. We shut down the university.

Tortorice: I was here then.

Fisher: You were here.

Tortorice: Yeah, I remember this. 00:54:00

Fisher: My wife Clarice and I were very involved with the strike. It was a very good cause. We were TAs. It was a recognition strike. We felt it was a struggle for democratic and union rights against a callous employer. George was sympathetic with the strike. This was risky because, we were employees of the state, we were vulnerable graduate students. We could have been expelled. We could have lost everything. This story illustrates George’s humanity and his sense of humor. George held an undergraduate seminar at the time off campus that would meet at the Glenway house. He said to us, “I respect the strike. But I’m going to hold my undergraduate seminar because it’s off campus.”

We said to him, “No. You can’t do that. You’re breaking the strike.”

We found out that he was going to hold the seminar. So about ten or twelve of us organized. At least three or four of us with our wives were Mosse students. Grad students, that is, in his seminar. Andy Rabinbach and his first wife, Judy Brooks. Laurie and Bonnie Baron. Clarice Fisher and me. Several other members of the TAA joined us on the picket line. There were at least ten or twelve of us.

Tortorice: Jeff Herf, was he there?

Fisher: Herf was not part of this. He may have been on campus then, though. Herf joined the seminar on psychoanalysis, which continued over the summer.

Long story short, we’re picketing the driveway of the 36 Glenway house. Remember, I’m living there. In effect, I was picketing my own home. The undergraduates are scared of us because we formed a circle around the driveway. We’re not letting them in. Calling them scabs and strike-breakers. We were in their faces.

George takes out his dog, ostensibly for a walk. He had a dachshund called Schnutzie. Pipe in hand, he slowly escorts each student down the driveway into the living room where the seminar met. He did it politely. He did it with finesse.

We, of course, we were not going to give up. We moved the picket line outside the picture window in the living room. We started to circle around outside the living room windows. Then he closed the blinds in order for us not to disrupt further the seminar. That was the end of this union action for the evening. (laughter)

Tortorice: Oh, that’s hilarious!

Fisher: He was always good-natured about it. I think there’s something ironic that a future psychoanalyst was picketing his own house. Have you ever heard that one?

Tortorice: I have never heard that story. 00:57:00

Fisher: It’s a true story. Rabinbach says he doesn’t quite remember it. But he was there.

Tortorice: That’s more Marx brothers than Marx, right?

Fisher: Exactly right. Somewhat anarchistic. George has one of my books over there. That’s nice. He cited me once. It’s from an essay in my book called Cultural Theory and Psychoanalytic Tradition (1991). He cited my paper on the relationship and debates between Freud and Romain Rolland in his Bildung essay. He talked about Freud’s commitment to Bildung.

There was another occasion that also took place in the 36 Glenway house. George was about to have cataract surgery. This may have been the spring or summer of [19]71. Cataract surgery then was difficult. It was not like laser now where it’s a relatively easy procedure. At that that point, George became my patient. I administered to him. I took care of his eyes. For a moment, the relationship changed. He was vulnerable and anxious. I was putting eyedrops in his eye, clearing off the gook from his eye. But he was very uptight about the surgery. Rightly so, I think. It’s invasive. It’s eye surgery.

I said, “Well, why don’t we have a party the night before your procedure. Let’s invite all of your friends, and some people you’ve talked about that you’ve never met.” There was a radical grad student named Dieter Wirth he had never encountered—do you remember Dieter? He was a graduate student of [Theodore S.] Hamerow’s (1920-2013). Dieter allegedly called Hamerow a “scab” in German, when he crossed the TAA pick line. The man was audacious and outspoken.

Tortorice: No. No.

Fisher: Dieter Wirth was a very left-wing guy. Very active during the TAA strike. George wanted to meet him. George really was interested in the people on the left.

Tortorice: Oh, yes. He was stimulated. They were bright and engaged.

Fisher: They were bright, yeah, analytical, and had a developed historical consciousness. He wanted to have dialogue with them.

Tortorice: Well, just like what we’re seeing here. Amazing.

Fisher: Yeah. It’s really amazing. I organized a party the night before George’s cataract surgery. I brought together an incredible group of people, including some of his really dear friends. At that time, it was Reinhold Grimm (1931-2009). It was Jost Hermand. It was really a lovely party. I would imagine at any given moment, there were—I think his former student Sterling Fishman (1932-1997) came. Ivan Soll, who was in our psychoanalytic seminar. Ivan came. A who’s who of Madison at the moment. A lot of really interesting grad students.

But the star attraction was Harvey Goldberg. Harvey came because I was on very good terms with Harvey, and we were very friendly. Harvey came to the house. The party began where people were gravitating around George. There was food in the living room and the kitchen area, the dining room area. But Harvey almost 01:00:00 immediately went out to George’s office, sat down on a couch and started to talk. Very slowly, the center of gravity of the party changed so everyone, after forty-five minutes, were sitting in George’s office, listening to Harvey hold forth. Harvey had the will to speak, being in oratorical high form, speaking for three hours. Without stopping once. Except George, after about an hour, also moved back into his office. I have seldom seen a happier expression on his face. It’s almost like he was not thinking about the cataracts. Harvey was in the house. Harvey was going on, the way he could; he was in exceptionally good form, quite hilarious at times. One story flowed into another. George played straight man. George would say, “Harvey, tell the story about the history of the Jews of Ohio. Tell the story about Newark.” Harvey was in an expansive mood. He accommodated George’s wishes. He could tell a story like the Jewish comics from the Catskills. By halfway into the evening, the whole party is sitting—literally some on the floor—listening to Harvey. George is egging him on “Tell this story, Harvey.” It went on for hours.

Jost Hermand and Grimm had never met him, but they had heard about Harvey. They were two stars in the German department, both close to George. They probably had never attended one of the Goldberg lectures. Grimm fell asleep next to Harvey. Harvey didn’t notice. Grimm just nodded out.

Tortorice: Kept talking.

Fisher: Harvey continued to talk. The next day I get a call from Harvey. “How is George? How did he come through the surgery?”

I said, “He’s fine. I’m sure he’s going to be very happy that you called.”

He said, “You know, last night’s party. It was really a very good party.” He continued, “I don’t usually like cocktail parties. They’re very bourgeois. But last night we were able to speak to one another like human beings.” (laughter) No one got a word in edgewise! Has anyone ever told you that story?

Tortorice: No. That is a great story.

Fisher: I had one other encounter where Harvey and George were in the same room, which was the defense of my thesis. In the living room of the 36 Glenway house.

Tortorice: I don’t think Harvey ever came back after that. I don’t think, I remember—

Fisher: Well, the party was in [19]71 and my thesis defense was September [19]73. He never came back?

Tortorice: I don’t think he ever came back.

Fisher: No, I had to bring them together.

Tortorice: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Fisher: I have never seen George with a happier expression on his face.

Tortorice: That’s incredible.

Fisher: They had mutual respect for each other. They were friendly rivals. The tension between them enhanced my undergraduate and graduate education. In the lecture hall, they would critique and refute each other’s historical analysis and conceptual frame, including their divergent methods and different political ideologies.

Tortorice: Oh, they did. And they were closer, I think—01:03:00

Fisher: As they got older?

Tortorice: I think when they were younger, perhaps Harvey, well, I don’t know if he felt a little intimidated by George. But there was probably more respect there or something.

Tortorice: Well, we have to wrap this up now. But this is a fantastic interview, and it will be continued.

Fisher: Thank you, John.

Tortorice: Thank you.


End Session 1.

23 November 2022 Session:


Doney: All right. This is Skye Doney with David James Fisher, Jimmy Fisher, at the Mosse Oral History Project. And we are conducting a follow-up interview to an interview that John Tortorice conducted on the fifteenth of June, 2018. That interview got into a lot of interesting details about Jimmy’s career and life, including Dow, his initial interest in psychoanalysis, his experience in Mosse’s undergraduate classes. I really loved the idea that Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was the hero of The Culture of Western Europe.

Fisher: Yes.

Doney: I think you’re right. I just read that book a bunch of times because we have a new edition coming out. Your encounters with Hilde Mosse (1912-1982), and you started to talk about life at 36 Glenway. But that interview ended before all could be told. So we’re just going to pick up where we left off. And I’ll send it over to you.

Fisher: Okay. That’s great. I’m delighted to be here, Skye. I’m honored to be interviewed. George Mosse was a very seminal influence in my life. I still hold him very dear and close to me. I think actually he taught me how to think, how to be a critical thinker, how to contextualize, how to puncture slogans and posturing. I just wish he was around now to talk to about what’s going on in the current situation. Because he always had a very good and insightful analysis of things.

Let me mention a couple of things just to pick up on what you said. I had my doctoral oral in September 1973. And it was George, Harvey Goldberg, and Germaine Brée who were on my committee. The doctoral oral was held in the living room of 36 Glenway, which had been my old home. So I was very comfortable there. George really was presiding. But he had given me earlier that year some advice on my doctoral thesis. It was very sound advice. He said, “Keep it short. Keep it concrete. And get it out.” End of quote.

I said to George, this was on, this was outside of the Union terrace, overlooking the lake.

Doney: Yeah. 00:03:00

Fisher: Which is really where we had a lot of our talks. We would have lunch there a lot. I said jokingly, “George, that sounds like a bowel movement.” He laughed.

He also said to me, “I don’t want to see it until it’s done.” I think I had given him sixty pages. I submitted a doctoral thesis of 640 pages. I have to tell you that I’ve recently given advice to one of my doctoral students. I told her keep it short, keep it concrete, and she’s listening to me.

But I see George on the Union terrace. I turn in the whole thing. This must have been in like early September, 1973. There’s a lot riding on it. I asked, “What did you think?”

He looks at me. He says, “It’s okay.” He says, “It’s okay.” But he said, “There’s two things.”

Then I got a little bit anxious. “What are the two things?”

He replied, “You mentioned two Italian Fascist intellectuals.” I can’t remember, one of the guy’s names was [Giuseppe] Prezzolini (1882-1982). I can’t remember the other one. but he says, “You didn’t use their first names. You’ve got to put in their first names.” That was his only critique.

I said to him, trying to diffuse the situation and to get a laugh, “Well, they’re Italians. I’m going to make up a first name. It’s going to be Giacomo and Giuseppe, because every Italian has those first names.”

He looked at me and started to laugh. That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t have time to look them up. One of them is Giacomo and the other one is Giuseppe. That was his only critique of the doctoral thesis.

When I was in the graduate seminar, we were doing Mosse style history. At that point, I started to get a little bit hungry for something else. I think ultimately what that something else was was going to be psychoanalysis. I tried to push George to bring in more theory. To bring in critical theory, to bring in historiography, to bring in philosophy of history. But I really couldn’t budge him. He was uninterested and bored by all that stuff. He just wanted to do history. The only thing I remember him assigning us that was 00:06:00 interdisciplinary and theoretical was a famous text by Claude Levi Strauss called Tristes Tropiques, (Sad Tropics, 1955). He had us read that. Because at that moment he might have been a little interested in anthropology. But he was not at all interested in theoretical questions. That was also some of his attitude toward his grad students who were doing critical theory and Frankfurt school analysis.

I talked in the first part of the interview with John about the psychoanalytic seminar we organized with Joe Kepecs. I’m pretty convinced that it was the first time that George had read anything clinical or theoretical by [Sigmund] Freud, including Freud’s writings on sexuality. We read Freud’s 1905 essay, Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality. I’m pretty sure it helped George when he wrote Nationalism and Sexuality. It also alerted him that Freud was not hostile to homosexuality. Some of his disciples were, but Freud was not. Freud did not pathologize homosexuality, which was very unusual for his time.

In late spring of 1971, I’m still living in the Glenway house. The day after the party we had for him where Harvey came over, George had cataract surgery. I took him to the surgery and I picked him up. I basically administered to him, so that for a couple of weeks George became my patient. It was a very interesting reversal of the major professor/student relationship. But it was at that moment, I began to realize aspects of George’s vulnerability.

There’s also the episode in May 1970. Fred Harvey Harrington, who was the president of the university, 00:09:00 the whole University of Wisconsin, not just Madison. Harrington had been a historian and the chairman of the history department in Madison. He was someone who was very close to George. They were friends. George would give him advice and they had a lot of good dialogue. Harrington brought in Goldberg. I think he and Merle Curti had brought Mosse from Iowa. William Appleman Williams was a Fred Harvey Harrington student. And the three of them were great friends. Williams and Goldberg were very close. George and Williams, George used to refer to Williams as Billy. He had enormous respect for Williams and helped him write the book The Great Evasion (1964), on the absence of a Marxist tradition in the United States.

Harrington was running into difficulties with the Republican legislators and some of the right- wing regents. In May 1970, he resigned. It’s not clear if he was forced to resign, but he resigned. George was out of town. I called him on the telephone. He was in New York City. The regents blamed Harrington for not controlling antiwar students and protests on campus. George, on some level, was very supportive of those protests. He really liked and respected Harrington. I told him about Harrington being forced out; he hadn’t heard. I think it even got into the New York Times. George was extremely upset that Harrington was gone. I saw George as someone who was very calm and composed. Always had a perspective, always had a critical analysis of things. But this rattled him.

The same thing happened when the bombing of the Army Math Research Center occurred on August 24, 1970, the Sterling Hall bombing. Effectively what that did on campus was to have a chilling effect on all kinds of politics. For the next few years, things became very quiet. There was reflection and introspection on the meaning of that event. Many of us who thought of themselves as on the left were very opposed to domestic terrorism and to violence like that. We had very intense discussions about the infantile extreme left and how those kinds of actions discredited the left and led to more reaction and repression of the responsible left and of liberalism.

In [19]71, Nixon was president. We sensed that this was a very foolish and very irresponsible act that would discredit the antiwar movement and the left. There were some people, though, that supported the Armstrong brothers and the bombing. George was not one of them. I found myself largely in agreement with how he analyzed it.

After I finished my doctoral oral in September [19]73, my then wife, Clarice Fisher and I, went back to Paris for another two years. George visited us in Paris in 1973. I remember us going to see the movie The Sorrow and the Pity, Le Chagrin et la Pitié, which was then not allowed to be shown on French television because it was a pretty severe indictment of those who had collaborated with the Vichy regime. Including still some people who were still in power in France. We saw it in French. It’s an incredible documentary. It’s become a classic. It’s one of the best exposés of the spectrum of resistance and collaboration during Vichy France. I remember that after we saw it, I think we must have gone to a café or had a meal. George was particularly articulate and informed about the themes of the movie. He knew about the cultural politics from inside out. But he admitted learning new things from it. It was one of the great shared moments we had with him.

He was also very pleased to visit us in Harvey Goldberg’s apartment in the Marais. It was on the Rue du Pont-aux-Choux. 00:15:00 I think I’m the only person who lived both in George’s house in Madison and in Harvey’s apartment in Paris. I was someone who was very friendly with both of them. I had this fantasy that I could somehow mediate their differences, that is, their different methods, their different approaches to history. That turned out not to be true. But I did remain close to both of them. I lost touch with Harvey after I graduated. I don’t think I ever saw him again. We may have had one or two letter exchanges. But George was so happy to be invited to our place in Harvey’s apartment. He was just thrilled.

Then George was doing archival research in Munich. This is again in [19]73, maybe early [19]74. On our way to see Andy Rabinbach and Judy Brooks in Vienna, we stopped in Munich and we spent a few days with George. It was my first trip to Germany. My father had fought in the war and refused to buy any German products, and remained very hostile to Germany and anything German. I had never travelled to Germany or Austria, even though I had been to Europe.

George gave us a tour of Nazi Munich. He also showed us the university and some of the other sites in the city. But I’ll never forget that he took us to the beer hall, the Bürgerbräukeller, where Hitler had his Beer Hall Putsch in November, 1923. We had a beer in that beer hall. Then he said, “Let’s go out and visit Dachau.” We rented a car. I was driving and he was reading the map. He got a little confused as we were driving. Dachau’s in the suburbs of Munich about fourteen miles away. We got lost. We never actually got to Dachau. It was a lost opportunity.

Now I’m going to pivot back to my undergraduate days. The Dow demonstrations, and after the police repression and the meetings in October 1967, 00:18:00 there was a faculty meeting called to discuss and potentially censure William Sewell, who was the chancellor at the time. It was Sewell who called in the Dane County Police that led to I think sixty kids being beaten and hospitalized. Students were subsequently tear gassed to break up the demonstration. The faculty meeting was held in the union. We listened to it being piped into the great hall. There were hundreds of kids listening to the faculty meeting. The faculty failed to censure William Sewell. George spoke at the faculty meeting. George committed a slip of the tongue. Instead of making a reference to the Dow demonstrations and the violence that happened, he said “Dow Jones.” The faculty cracked up. He caught himself, being very fast on his feet. He said, “You know, this is not a time for my colleagues on the faculty to be interested in their stock portfolios. This is very, serious business.” He caught the slip and he came right back.

Yet, they did not censure Sewell. But as the faculty exited from the student union, that evening, there were two lines of students and they had to walk between us. We all had candles, and it was a silent vigil. Not a word was spoken. But there was no other way out. They had to walk between us with these candles. I remember George telling me the next day that he was moved by that particular form of protest. He thought that it was quite effective, a form of non-violent bearing of witness.

About the Teaching Assistant’s Association strike, the TAA strike, which was March 1970. I mentioned picketing the 36 Glenway house. Several days later, I was asked by Jim Marquetti, who was the vice president of the TAA, to go and join with several other people to form a picket line at 5:30 in the morning 00:21:00 to stop a Union Carbide truck that was going to deliver liquid nitrogen to the Chemistry Building. The chemistry department’s TAs for some reason did not support the strike. Liquid nitrogen was essential for their research. We desired to send them a message. Marquetti found out; he was a Teamster affiliated with the local. We knew that the Teaching Assistants Association had an affiliation with the local Teamsters. He found out the Union Carbide truck was coming from Chicago and was going to make a delivery. We were going to meet that truck and turn it back. There were four of us. It was Marquetti, it was a guy called Bruce Vandervort who was a Harvey Goldberg student, a really good guy, a history TA. There was also a fearless woman whose name I regretfully forget.

Marquetti gave us baseball bats. We were out there early in the morning. It was freezing. It was March in Madison. We arrived at 5:00, 5:30. Suddenly, the Union Carbide truck came barreling in. We’re blocking the driveway, the four of us, with baseball bats. Marquetti goes up to the driver and he says, “You can’t deliver this liquid nitrogen.”

The driver says, “Well, you know, I came all the way from Chicago. I have to deliver it.”

Marquetti contradicts him, saying, “No, you’re not delivering it. We’re going to call my guy in the local Teamsters.”

The two of them went inside and they made a telephone call. They were gone about twenty minutes. He says, “I’ll make the call. It takes me about an hour to put the hose in and start transferring the liquid nitrogen.

They come back about twenty minutes later. Marquetti’s got a big smile on his face. The driver takes the hose out, packs up the truck, and pulls out. Teamster solidarity worked to prevent the Chicago driver from crossing our picket line, persuading him to respect our union strike. This is now like 5:30, six in the morning. We felt triumphant; we’re shutting down research in the chemistry department, at least temporarily.

Marquetti says, “Let’s not stop.” He suggests, “Let’s continue.” We went over to the student union to the driveway there. We were going to stop food deliveries. We got over to the driveway around seven, 7:15. At that hour, there’s nobody around. But the trucks are starting to come in to deliver food. 00:24:00 The four of us with baseball bats are blocking the driveway. A driver comes in and he wasn’t real happy with us. But he backed out. He wasn’t going to run us over or cross the picket line. We were screaming at them, “Scabs!” We were still high as kites because of the Union Carbide victory.

But this truck driver went and got in touch with Ralph Hanson, head of the University of Wisconsin campus cops, and told them that we were illegally blocking entrances and exits. One of the campus cops came over and said, “You can’t do that. That’s illegal.” We backed off.

The truck came in. But as soon as the campus cop went away, we did it again. Another truck comes in. (laughs) He threatened to call the campus cops. We backed off. At that point, we figured it was enough of a good thing. We went home.

I go home to George Mosse. George used to tease me. He had another grad student named Paul Breines. Paul was several years ahead of me. When I was a grad student, everyone thought that Paul Breines was George’s favorite. He was a very bright guy. But Paul Breines was from Scarsdale, which is a wealthy suburb in New York. I actually grew up on the border of Scarsdale and New Rochelle, even though it was really New Rochelle. But George used to say to me teasingly, “Oh, you’re just another radical from Scarsdale,” which he would sometimes say to Paul. I tell George this narrative. This is early in the morning. He’s up, he’s drinking his coffee. I said, “Let me tell you about what happened.” He was very impressed, respectful. He stopped calling me a radical from Scarsdale after that.

Those are my stories.

Doney: Those are great. Do you recall more of the substance of Mosse’s speech regarding the censure of Sewell?

Fisher: No. I think he was walking an ambiguous line. I don’t think he supported the censuring of Sewell—you know, the irony of this, Skye, is that Sewell was himself antiwar. The young man who was killed at the Army Math Research Center, Robert Fassnacht, was also antiwar. 00:27:00 George was critical of Sewell. I think he thought that Sewell had lost his nerve by calling in the Dane County Police, but didn’t want him censured. There’s a way in which personal loyalty and friendship may have influenced his thinking. I think George also thought we would get worse if Sewell left. But I don’t remember the substance of his remarks, except the slip, the Dow Jones slip. (laughs)

Doney: The Dow Jones. That’s great. I want to back up a little bit.

Fisher: Go ahead.

Doney: Yeah, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you got interested in history.

Fisher: Yeah.

Doney: Where that came from.

Fisher: Well, I was always a pretty good history student in junior high school and high school. I was always interested in Jewish history, which I got at my local temple. My parents were interested in history. They had books in the house; for example, they had read the William Shirer’s (1904-1993) The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). They were interested in World War Two and they were interested in history. They had somewhat of a historical consciousness. But the real inspiration, I think, was being swept away by Mosse’s lectures. I found them very evocative and very provocative. I wanted to know the things he knew, and I wanted to read the books that he assigned and the things that he made reference to.

In one of his classes, it was in the cultural history class, he made a reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s (1903-1990) book The Informed Heart (1960), which is a book on the concentration camps that had recently been published. It had come out in the early [19]60s. I didn’t know who Bettelheim was. Subsequently, I wrote a book on Bettelheim. Bettelheim became a friend of mine. But it was Mosse’s lectures and then my personal relationship with him. It was also Harvey’s lectures. Harvey spoke without notes. Harvey was an exceptionally brilliant orator, lecturing to five, six hundred people, and he would get applause after every lecture. It was a performance. It was theater. I also got swept away 00:30:00 by Harvey’s narrative. Harvey combined narrative and critical analysis. It was a pretty straightforward Marxist analysis mingled with some humor and also some deep affection. Like when he talked about the death of Jaurès. He had written a book on the life of Jaures, Jean Jaures the French Socialist; he cried when telling the story of Jaurès’ assassination on the eve of the First World War.

[Interview interrupted]

Doney: Are you still there?

Fisher: Harvey had a hilarious sense of humor, telling stories deadpan and with the timing of the Jewish comics from the Catskills. Harvey once said, “I just got a ticket, a citation for jaywalking.” He’s saying this in a very somber way. “I just got a ticket for jaywalking.” Everyone cracks up in the audience. He says, the officer stopped him and said, “Did you know you were jaywalking?” Harvey said no. He asked, “Where are you going?” He said, “I’m about to teach a class at the university. I’m a little bit late. Just write the citation.” The officer writes the citation. Harvey says to him: “Sir, your task is mean and petty.” The whole class cracked up.

But to answer your question, I think that the lectures combined with the seriousness of their reading lists and the degree to which they carried this knowledge and erudition made me want to know more. 00:33:00 And to think historically. That stayed with me for over sixty years. It’s very vital. Including when you study great ideas or great literature or great poetry or great movies, you want to be able to contextualize it and to think about influences and impact. And in particular George’s way of thinking about politics and culture and ideology, that for me had an enormous impact.

Doney: That’s great. Also in John’s interview, you started to talk about the confluence of these interests in psychoanalysis and in history.

Fisher: Yeah.

Doney: I wondered if you might just think about how the two have reinforced one another throughout your career. What that relationship is or how you see it [unclear]

Fisher: That’s a great question. As I mentioned to you, we took this seminar with Joe Kepecs, which was the first time I had read Freud systematically. We read his seminal books. We studied The Interpretation of Dreams. We read Three Essays. We read The Ego and the Id. I think we also read some of his case studies. Then we attempted to apply Freud to the novels of Thomas Mann. That to me was the beginning of thinking it could be applied to history, literature, philosophy. At the same time, there was an interest in psychohistory and psychobiography.

I had studied for a year in New York when I had major problems with the draft. I took my master’s degree at New York University with Frank Manuel. Like George, Frank Manuel was also a Harvard PhD. He was Crane Brinton’s (1898-1968) first PhD. Manuel had written a psychobiography of Isaac Newton called A Portrait of Isaac Newton, which is a psychoanalytic study of Isaac Newton attempting to understand not only his genius and his breakthroughs, but also some of his difficulties in relationships, why he never married, some of his homoeroticism, some of his more crazy ideas, and his relationship with his mother. It’s still a beautiful biography. It’s one of the most magnificent of psychobiographies I think that’s ever been published. It is on the deepest level a study of the varieties of Newton’s narcissism. It made me think 00:36:00 that there could be a way in which history can inform psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis can inform history. Particularly in terms of looking at motivation and looking at why people do not always act in a rational or self-interested way. As you know, George had opened me up to the study of the irrational in his work on nationalism and racism and on völkisch ideologies and antisemitism. And maybe also in terms of irrational crowd behavior. There’s a way in which I felt that psychoanalysis added another dimension.

As I got further into it and began my training and clinical work with patients, I began to realize that there were also the possibilities of an incredible degree of intimacy and closeness that you could not have elsewhere. Even with students, or even with a girlfriend or a wife. I found that degree of intimacy very appealing. I was looking for that.

The other throughline, Skye, is I always had a passion to be understood. I wanted to be understood. I wanted to be seen, heard, made visible, be recognized and accepted. And to me, being understood meant understanding one’s own history and one’s life history. But it also meant understanding one’s own psychological dynamics, dimensions. What’s going on in the inner life. That became more and more appealing to me, as did self-reflection.

What I have done in my career is attempt to combine the two, particularly in some work I’ve done in the history of psychoanalysis, and in my writings. I wrote a book on Bettelheim. When I addressed Bettelheim’s suicide, I make a great deal of the fact that he committed suicide on the exact day, the fiftieth anniversary, of the Nazis marching into Vienna. Which ultimately landed him in two concentration camps. I tried to make the historical and personal connections, seeing how they modify one another, understanding their dialectical interrelationships.

When I work with patients, I’m also interested in their history, their ethnic history, their class history, and their family history. I’m fascinated by family systems and family dynamics. It was also in psychoanalysis that I felt that I could be understood and 00:39:00 maybe also understand others. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Doney: No, I think it does. It definitely speaks to, I mean, how those two things come together for you.

Fisher: Yes.

Doney: You’ve mentioned the book on Bettelheim. I wondered if you might also talk about your publications. Like the questions that guided them and—

Fisher: My doctoral thesis was called “Romain Rolland and the Question of the Intellectual” (1973). It was a quintessentially Mosse style work. [Jean-Paul] Sartre (1905-1980) had written a book called The Question of Method. Translated into English as In Search of a Method (1957). I went back to Paris for another two years and I did more archival work— both Mosse and Goldberg pushed archival research. In some ways, being in the archives, it can be very exciting, especially if you’re finding rich and compelling material; it can be lonely and dull, also. I don’t want to romanticize it too much.

My first book was the expansion of the thesis. It’s called Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement (1988). It’s the study of the intellectual and commitment with a focus on Romain Rolland, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, antiwar activist during World War One. He introduced Gandhi to the West, knew Gandhi, and was friendly with Gandhi. Then Rolland became a leading antifascist intellectual and finally a fellow traveler of Soviet communism. I studied his work between the wars, the [19]20s and [19]30s. I find the interwar period very fascinating.

When I was living in Paris and doing archival work at the Archive Romain Rolland on Boulevard Montparnasse, I would sometimes have lunch at the Café Select, which is where the writers, the American writers and the artists in the [19]20s and [19]30s would meet. It’s where Hemingway went. It’s where Picasso and Modigliani went. I had a fantasy that I was living their lives, living a bohemian life in the Parisian Latin Quarter.

Doney: That’s cool.

Fisher: My first book is called Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement. I did a second one, which is a collection of my writings, called Cultural Theory and Psychoanalytic Tradition. (1991). Those are essays. In that, there’s an essay that I did on the relationship and debates between 00:42:00 Freud and Romain Rolland. It’s followed by an essay on Civilization and its Discontents. George had us read Civilization and its Discontents. There’s a way in which there’s a great indebtedness to him. It’s one that I continue to value. In that book, there’s also an essay that is Mosse-style. It’s an essay on crowd psychology. There was a book written on the psychology of crowds, beginning with Le Bon. Mosse always assigned us The Crowd. The Crowd was very kind of critical. You know, he really felt that Le Bon and Georges Sorel were onto something about mass psychology and the psychology of crowds and the dynamics of leadership and followers, including the degree to which the collectivity could overpower reason and overpower any kind of critical thinking or the enlightenment. Bettelheim Living and Dying (2008) is my third book. I continue to experiment with applied psychoanalysis, using a method drawing on the convergence of analytic perspectives with cultural criticism. I’ve recently written a piece about serving on a jury. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I served and it was an intense and traumatic case, including issues of grotesque violence and race.

Doney: That’s funny. I just actually got summoned on Friday.

Fisher: I tried to get out of it. There’s no way to get out of it. In the past, I would say I treat sick patients, I have suicidal patients, which I do. That doesn’t work anymore. So I just served on a jury, and I wrote an essay called “The Psychoanalyst Serves on a Jury” (2018). It was very gruesome. It lasted nine days. It was a case revolving around a rape, sodomy, theft, kidnaping. It was racial, because the perpetrator was a Black homosexual prostitute that lived on the streets. It was charged on many levels. I had to write this essay to process it. I was somewhat traumatized by the experience of being on this jury. I wrote this essay trying to work through my issues. I was not as traumatized as the rape victim. But it was difficult. I continue to write, and I continue to think in these ways. I try to make sense of what’s happening in the world by using some of this methodology.

Doney: Yeah. That’s a better approach than many have.

Fisher: Yeah. (laughs)

Doney: We’re going to jump around just a little bit.

Fisher: Okay, sure.

Doney: I wondered what was it like to live at Glenway? You had mentioned in your interview with John that you and your wife were responsible for cooking. You did some of the gardening.

Fisher: Also shopping for food.

Doney: Okay.

Fisher: It was kind of delightful once I understood that we were not going to be having high-powered discussions of Nietzsche and Wagner. George liked bad television. He liked to watch The Flying Nun. (laughter) He said he loved The Honeymooners because it provided an insight into the American working class. I liked The Honeymooners, 00:46:00 too, but I don’t think it accurately described the working class.

It was a lot of fun. Very interesting people came through there. He was starting to do Jewish history and going to Israel. Shlomo Avineri came to the house; he’s a famous scholar who’s written on Marx, the left Hegelians, Zionism. Avineri lectured on Marx at the university, but he visited us at home. Avineri told a great story. This was 1970, [19]71. Avineri told this story about the Six Days’ War. He said he was asked to continue to lecture on Marx on the radio because the Israelis wanted to keep up a semblance of normality. He continued to lecture.

He said the next day after he lectured on the radio, he ran into his milkman. The milkman came up to him, saying, “Avineri? I heard your lecture last night. It was very good, but there was one error in it.”

Avineri says, “Well, what was that?”

The milkman said, “Well, you were making this point. And if you check Marx’ Kapital Volume III, chapter 26, footnote by Engels, you’ll see that you were in error.”

Avineri checked volume III, chapter 26, footnote by Engels and he said: “The milkman was right.” 00:48:00 Then he says to us, “That’s the old Israel.” But, regretfully, “It’s not like that anymore.” Even the milkman knew, was cultivated, cared about learning, and about scholarly accuracy.

Mosse had Jack Hexter (1910-1996) visit. Jack Hexter was a historian at Washington University in Saint Louis. Lovely guy. Hexter said to us—I think George subscribed to this theory— “The great thing about being a historian is you’re allowed to have a half hour of gossip every day with your colleagues.” (laughter) George thought that was hilarious. I think George did that.

Doney: Yeah. Yeah, that’s funny.

Fisher: George once had an Anglican nun visit the house.

Doney: Whoa.

Fisher: He was extremely deferential and respectful to her. They were talking about theology. He knew his theology. The early books on England and the church and his text on The Reformation made him aware of doctrinal issues. He was very polite, very thoughtful, and welcoming of her.

Then, she left. He says to me, “Did you hear the shit she was saying?” (laughter). He thought all of that was ideology and hypocritical rhetoric. He could be demystifying and irreverent. I loved that about him.

Doney: Yeah, yeah. (laughs)

Fisher: He was friendly with the former governor of Wisconsin. Patrick Lucey (1918-2014). He came over to the house. He told me that he was a Social Democrat, not a carbon copy of the liberal democrat. He couldn’t say that in public. George was connected also with the Democratic Party. He had fascinating people that came through. It was really a delight.

We watched the Forsythe Saga together on Public TV. We were listening to some classical music on TV, Beethoven symphonies. That rendered us all silent. We watched the news. But we had dinner every night. He introduced us to everybody. Do you know who Paula Quirk was? Through George, we meet her in London. Also Jane Degras who was an editor of The Journal of Contemporary History.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: I don’t know if they are still alive. Two of his friends from London. It was a rare delight. But it wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Doney: Yeah. That’s really interesting.

Fisher: He had a fabulous collection of books. Did his library go to the University of Wisconsin?

Doney: A lot of it. 00:51:00 A lot of it is in this room.

Fisher: He had a magnificent collection of books.

Doney: Yeah. Yeah. It really is.

Fisher: Georges Haupt told me that he also had a sexology collection, maybe material bordering on pornography that he kept hidden. I never saw that. (laughs) Maybe you have that, too.

Doney: No, I haven’t come across anything that interesting. Yeah. That’s great. And then I wonder just like the grad cohort you were with.

Fisher: Yeah.

Doney: You mentioned Bob Nye. And I just wondered who were the students you were with. And Andy, you mentioned.

Fisher: Andy Rabinbach was a year ahead of me. I think we graduated, almost at the same time, but he was not in my grad seminar. There’s a guy who’s still a very good friend of mine called Laurie Baron who taught at San Diego State. Laurie has done a lot of excellent work on the Holocaust in film. If you haven’t interviewed him, he would be someone really good to interview. I can connect you, if you’d like.

Doney: That would be great. He also had like a sort of a funny column, didn’t he? In the San Diego, in the paper?

Fisher: Yes, that’s right. Yeah. He’s also gotten heavily into Jewish history and Jewish themes. He writes on Hollywood and the Holocaust. He’s seen every Holocaust movie. He suffers from insomnia. He watches two or three movies a night. But he really knows his stuff. He put me onto this sensational TV series, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, called The French Village.

Doney: I’ve not.

Fisher: It’s great TV. It’s about a small village in Vichy France under the occupation. Laurie recommended that. It’s fabulous. It also covers the full spectrum of collaboration and resistance.

There was another guy called Kent Taylor. I don’t know if he finished. There was Bob Abrams, a very brilliant individual, who got his master’s and dropped out and went to law school. There’s Al Kelly who taught history at Hamilton. I don’t know if you’re in touch with him. Kelly was the most conservative and conventional of us. I think his father was a historian. Kelly has written some books in German intellectual history. I think he’s had a nice career. I haven’t seen him in years.

There was another person called Peter Gordy. He moved to Europe. So not all of us continued, not all of us completed our doctorates. I think Kelly 00:54:00 and Laurie have had the most traditional academic careers.

Doney: Cool.

Fisher: It was a nice cohort.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: There was a woman in it that George called her Miss Miller. Nancy Miller. I don’t think she finished. I’m pretty sure she didn’t.

Doney: Okay. And that was the seminar that you were in.

Fisher: That was the seminar.

Doney: And did you guys meet at 36 Glenway as well?

Fisher: Yes. We met in his office. In the back. It started with Georges Haupt from 1969-1970 and then it continued with George. It met at 36 Glenway.

Doney: All right. And then the last, well I guess I just have a couple more questions.

Fisher: Go ahead.

Doney: The first was, you mentioned a little bit about staying in touch with Mosse after you finished seeing him in Paris, going to Munich. Was there a particular moment—I guess you mentioned this with his cataract surgery where—

Fisher: Yeah, but that was when we were living at the house.

Doney: Still at the house. But you became friends. I wondered if you could talk about—

Fisher: Oh, yeah.

Doney: —that transition from being a student?

Fisher: I think the transition happened when I passed my prelims. Then I no longer called him Professor Mosse. I called him George.

Doney: Okay. That’s great. (laughs)

Fisher: But we had a party for George and for John at my home in Los Angeles in January 1995. That was a great party. He was so pleased. A lot of his friends from LA came. Eugen Weber (1925-2007) came and my friend Peter Loewenberg and Robert Wohl, George was going to be lecturing at The Skirball Center, one of the Jewish conference centers in L.A. He gave a lecture on racism and nationalism. But the party for him made him glow. He loved being the honored guest.

At this lecture the next day, there are five, six psychoanalysts sitting in the front row. And he opens up the talk by saying, “I think the psychiatrists here are going to have something to say about this.” He says, “I only write books about people I despise.” The audience finds that hilarious. (laughter) He adds, “I’ll leave that to the psychiatrists to decipher.

Doney: That’s great.

Fisher: Have you heard that line?

Doney: No. I love it, though. 00:57:00 That’s great. Did you see him again after that? After ‘95?

Fisher: Yeah. I saw him in Madison when he had that retirement party. I think that must have been the late [19[90s. He died in [19]99?

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: I spoke to him a day or two before he died. I knew from John that he was very sick and that he had liver cancer. We both knew it was a goodbye conversation. He seemed a little weak. He has a niece who lives in LA who’s a little bit off.

Doney: Joy?

Fisher: Joy Mosse. I said that I had recently been contacted by Joy. I said to George, “I don’t really know what to do about her.”

He said, “Neither do I.” (laughter) That was my last conversation with him.

I expressed my gratitude to him. I don’t think George liked too much sentimentality or direct emotion. He said he was surprised that he had that much of an influence on me. I told him, I’ve also put it in writing, that he was an extremely strong influence. He continues to be. We had our differences. But he kept coming up with new and imaginative stuff. He really did.

Doney: Yeah. Yeah.

Fisher: Did you ever hear the line where he said that all of intellectual history was an inter-Jewish dialogue?

Doney: No. (laughter) That’s great, too.

Fisher: He had the same thing about psychoanalysis being “the new Jewish religion.”

Doney: New Jewish religion. Yes.

Fisher: He came up with brilliant, witty, somewhat debunking formulas. The one on intellectual history, he was talking about getting inside of history, addressing the colleagues past and present that he found worthy of conversation. It also spoke to his identification with Jewish intellectuality, perhaps German-Jewish intellectuality.

Doney: Yeah, that’s good. It’s sort of funny because he has a lot of great slogans for someone who wants to break up slogans.

Fisher: That’s exactly right. He was very serious about his scholarship and writing. He was very disciplined. But he also knew how to have fun. When he was having fun, he was delightful. But there was always a time where he 01:00:00 would get back to the reading, back to the writing, back to the scholarship. Perhaps the work anchored him, helped him to find deeper meaning in his life and his various identities as historian, Jew, and homosexual.

I didn’t know John that well. I have the feeling that his relationship with John mellowed George a lot. That the relationship was probably very expansive for him. They were probably good for each other.

At that party when he retired, when he was saying goodbye, this is before he got sick, he very much acknowledged John. That was an incredible evening. I’ll never forget that evening. A lot of his former doctoral students showed up. He outlived some of them.

There’s this strange dynamic he always had with Harvey. I don’t know if the two of them at the end of their lives reconciled. I just wasn’t in Madison. They’re buried very close to each other.

Doney: Yes. Yeah.

Fisher: So maybe that dialogue and rivalry continues.

Doney: Yeah. That was my understanding. So they could continue the conversation. Yeah.

Fisher: Sometimes it was mediated by grad students. When I attended George’s cultural history, my TA was Chips [Charles] Sowerwine. Chips was a Goldberg student. Chips was giving a Goldbergian interpretation of Mosse’s lectures. It was very stimulating.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: I don’t know if Harvey did the same. You know the story of Joan Scott.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: I didn’t know about that until recently. She was a couple of years ahead of me.

Doney: Yeah, that’s a pretty—

Fisher: Have you interviewed Paul Breines?

Doney: Yeah, Paul. Yeah, John went out to Boston and interviewed him, I think in 2017.

Fisher: Okay. Yeah. When I was a student, we all thought that Breines was his most brilliant student. There’s another guy called Russell Jacoby.

Doney: I’ve not, yeah, I’ve not interviewed Russell.

Fisher: Russell Jacoby was an undergraduate student of George’s. Jacoby is Breines’ brother-in-law.

Doney: Oh, wow.

Fisher: Breines married his sister. But Russell became a Frankfurt School person and has written a lot of books. Russell came to the party I had for George in L.A. They hadn’t seen each other in years. But Russell told me that George put him on to [Herbert] Marcuse (1898-1979), to [Theodor W.] Adorno (1903-1969) 01:03:00 and—I think both George and Harvey introduced those thinkers to us. In some ways, it was foundational for a lot of us, Russell, who’s a very radical guy, still has nothing but affection for George Mosse. He is kind of awed by how productive, what was it, sixteen books? So am I.

Doney: Yeah. Yeah.

Fisher: You know, and half of them are really great, aren’t they? (laughter) A few more?

Doney: I’d say more.

Fisher: I would say more, too. Yeah. You know, I’ve written a piece on his autobiography, which I’m hoping to publish. It’s called “Confronting George Mosse.”

Doney: Oh, cool. There’s a—

Fisher: If I publish that, I will send you a copy.

Doney: Yeah, please do. We have a book coming out next year based on a conference we had in Berlin in 2019. And there’s a great essay by Darcy Buerkle from Smith College.

Fisher: I don’t know that name.

Doney: Yeah, she wrote about the different drafts of the memoir.

Fisher: Yeah. Did John help her on that?

Doney: Yes. She also worked with Michael Simonson at the Leo Baeck Institute.

Fisher: There are various earlier drafts?

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: My suspicion is that he deleted or left some material out about his mother.

Doney: Yes. That’s part of it. Yeah, absolutely. And there are also interesting language changes between like what Mosse—

Fisher: I’m not sure he completely finished it. I think he got sick toward the end. What other changes did she pick up?

Doney: I’ll send you the article. One of them is like changing gay to homosexual. Where Mosse would write gay, then the editors at UW Press changed that.

Fisher: Yeah. I’m surprised they touched it. Why wouldn’t they leave it the way he wrote it?

Doney: I could only speculate, I think.

Fisher: Yeah. The editors at the University of Wisconsin Press?

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: Yeah. I actually gave the Mosse paper in Madison. It did not go over well. It was a very close reading of George’s memoir, Confronting History and a study of shifts in his image and concept of self.

Doney: Oh, really?

Fisher: Yeah.

Doney: When was that?

Fisher: I don’t know, it may have been a Festschrift, or celebration of Mosse’s work. Haven’t there been two Festschrifts published in his honor?

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: This was one with Steve Aschheim. It was not well received. (laughter)

Doney: Okay. All right.

Fisher: Friedländer was at that one, also.

Doney: Oh, okay. 01:06:00 

Fisher: Yeah. It was in Madison.

Doney: Yeah, that’s probably the second one. Maybe What History Tells.

Fisher: What History Tells, that’s it.

Doney: Okay. In many ways, this Berlin book is a third Festschrift.

Fisher: Yeah. Is it out or will it be coming out?

Doney: Next year.

Fisher: It’s University of Wisconsin Press?

Doney: Yep. Part of the Mosse series again. Also, my last question is just if there, we’ve covered a lot of ground. But is there anything else that you wanted to say or any stories that you wanted to tell? Or any aspect of your professional life or biography that you would like us to capture that we haven’t gotten to?

Fisher: You know the way memory works, how slippery memory can be. When I’m in a quandary, when I’m puzzled by something, particularly if it’s something that’s political or historical, I always say to myself how would George analyze this? In that sense, he stays with me, he lives with me. There’s a way in which his reading lists and his culture was such a gift. During the pandemic, I reread The Plague. I mean, George introduced me to Camus. He put me onto Sartre.

George personified for me the use of empathy in understanding history, of gathering and interpreting the facts of history. He had a skill, combining imagination and intellect, broad knowledge and intuition, asking the right questions. He knew what questions really mattered. He also conveyed that there were limits to choices that individuals faced in specific historical frameworks, that not everything was possible. In his deployment of historical empathy, he illustrated how important it was to understand the options of historical actors in specific historical contexts. That continues to be a powerful example for me. Because of his identification as a Jew and as a homosexual, he also demonstrated an empathy and compassion for those marginalized, reified, and pathologized in history.

Doney:  Yeah.

Fisher:  George alerted me to Sartre. He put me on to Freud. He put me on to Robert Musil, to Frank Wedekind (1864-1918), to André Gide (1869-1951), to André Malraux (1901-1976), to Romain Rolland. There’s a way in which my whole thinking process is indebted to him, even if I don’t always come to the same conclusions or analysis. I often think to myself, how would he assess this situation? In that sense, he’s a living presence.

He was much more of a practical person than I was, or that I am. He was much better at academic politics than I was. I should have listened to him more. But in that sense, he puts a smile on my face. There’s a way in which there was a father transference to him. He was to me a kind of benign father. We could have been fired or expelled for that TAA strike. I was picketing his house, which was my house. (laughter) He was extremely kind, tolerant, and compassionate about it. 01:09:00 He did the best he could do.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: He cared deeply about his students. I would say as a qualifier, mostly male students. I don’t think that his female grad students were ever as successful or could ever get as close to him. He wanted us to be successful. That’s a contrast with Harvey. Harvey may have been more competitive and more envious of his students that were publishing and that maybe were surpassing him. But George wanted us to be successful and tried to promote us.

My great friend Bob Nye, he’s one of my dearest, if not my dearest friend. George really wanted Bob Nye to succeed him in Madison. Do you know that?

Doney: No.

Fisher: He would have been a very good choice.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: I don’t think George was on that search committee, though, to choose his replacement.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: Bob Nye would have been an excellent choice.

Doney: Yeah, absolutely.

Fisher: Bob Nye was not officially a Mosse student. He was a Henry Hill (1907-1990) student. But in some ways, the two of them got much closer after Bob got his doctorate. A lot of their interests on the history of sexuality dovetailed.

Doney: Yeah.

Fisher: Bob has written on masculinity and gender.

Doney: Yeah. And the crowd. Yeah.

Fisher: I would say that George was a significant influence and I’m still thinking about him and talking to him. I wish he was still around.

Doney: Yeah. That’s great. Well, I’m going to stop the recording now. This is the 23rd of November 2022. This is interview two of two with David James Fisher, aka Jimmy Fisher, for the Mosse Oral History Project. Thank you for participating.

Fisher: Skye, thank you.


End Session 2.

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