Alexander Gelley, 1933-2023

Alexander Gelley (1933-2023)

Alexander Gelley, noted scholar of Walter Benjamin and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine, died on December 29, 2023, in Irvine, CA. He was ninety years old.

Gelley was born in Ružomberok in what is now Slovakia on May 27, 1933. During his early childhood, Gelley lived in rural Czechoslovakia, including in Dolný Kubín. As Jews, his family had to flee their home in 1938; they escaped the Holocaust and spent several years in France and then in Morocco before eventually immigrating to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1941. 

During his teenage years, Gelley became very serious about music and started playing the bassoon. He attended Interlochen as a student and was then an instructor there. He was so committed to his instrument that he considered a career as a professional musician. 

Gelley received a full scholarship to attend Harvard University as an undergraduate. As a student in the Class of 1955, he studied comparative literature. He then went on to study at Yale University under Peter Demetz, René Wellek and others, earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1965 with the dissertation “Symbolic Setting in the Novel: Studies in Goethe, Stendhal and George Eliot.” In his dissertation acknowledgements, Gelley wrote: “In studying under Professor René Wellek, I have come to learn that the house of criticism has not one but many windows.” To those who studied and worked with Gelley, the same could be said of him; his “house of criticism” was a mansion with many rooms. His former student, Herman Rapaport, now Reynolds Professor of English at Wake Forest University, remembers Gelley as “a great person, mentor, scholar, friend and colleague. I cannot think of a more gentle and penetrating mind.”

At home in several European languages and philosophical, literary and aesthetic traditions, Gelley played a pivotal role in introducing European literary and critical theory to a predominantly English-only U.S. academy in the 1970s. A colleague in the Department of Comparative Literature at UCI, Jane O. Newman, notes: “That Gelley was able to identify the German critical theorist, Walter Benjamin, as an important interlocutor in debates about aesthetics, philosophy and political criticism already in the early 1970s is simply remarkable, since only small portions of Benjamin’s writings were available in English at the time, and his collected works in German were only just beginning to be published.” For his scholarship, Gelley received a 1993-1994 Guggenheim Fellowship and multiple Fulbright awards.

Gelley was hired at UCI as the Director of the Program in Comparative Literature in 1971. Over the course of almost forty years there, he fostered the growth of that program, now a department, of which he served as Chair, as well as UCI’s Critical Theory Emphasis and the university’s Critical Theory Institute. He was instrumental in bringing such eminent French scholars as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Étienne Balibar to the campus. His groundbreaking scholarship includes the monograph Narrative Crossings: Theory and Pragmatics of Prose Fiction (John Hopkins University Press, 1987), the edited volume Unruly Examples: On the Rhetoric of Exemplarity (Stanford University Press, 1995) and Benjamin’s Passages: Dreaming, Awakening (Fordham University Press, 2014). Herschel Farbman, Chair of UCI’s Department of Comparative Literature, observes that Gelley’s work communicates "a deep insight, dreamlike in its clarity, into the non-linearity and unpredictability of the relation between what Benjamin called 'the oppressed past' and the urgencies of the present day.” Writing specifically of Benjamin’s Passages, Balibar comments: “Alex Gelley’s interpretation of the Passagenwerk is the work of a lifetime concentrated as a gem…Whoever thought to have understood Benjamin should pause and read Gelley first.” Gelley also published over 25 articles, three substantial translations from German and book reviews in French, German and English. 

Always eager to read and discuss the work of others, Gelley corresponded with countless scholars throughout his career. He was also a beloved teacher at UCI and elsewhere. According to one of his former students, Gregg Lambert, now Dean’s Professor of Humanities at Syracuse University, “Alex was an intellectually generous and even selfless mentor.” Newman remarks that Gelley was in fact “always teaching,” whether in or out of the classroom. His wry humor, careful attention to the world contained in every detail and ethical approach to the profession will be sorely missed.

Gelley met his wife, visual artist Mieke Gelley (née van der Schans), in Jerusalem in 1966. While Alexander worked as an assistant professor at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, the Gelleys had two daughters, Ora and Mira. Gelley accepted the position at UCI in 1971 and they moved to Laguna Beach that year, and then to their home in Irvine in 1991. Friends and family knew Alex as a generous conversationalist, a gourmand, a film buff, a music lover and someone with a wonderful sense of humor.

Alexander Gelley is survived by his wife, Mieke Gelley; his daughter Ora Gelley; his daughter Mira Gelley and her husband Andrew Newman; and his grandchildren Reuben and Levi Gelley Newman.

There will be a memorial event at UCI in Fall 2024. Details will be forthcoming on the homepage of UCI’s Department of Comparative Literature.

Comparative Literature