Isaac Passy (1928-2010)

August 19, 2010 at 5:16 am

A few days ago, early in the morning, my mother called from her summer house in a Bulgarin village a to tell me that my one time professor, the venerable Isaac Passy, had passed away the previous day. He had been born on a Friday, the 13th, back in 1928, and it was again on a Friday, 13th that he had passed away. His life spanned over 82 years. Born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, in 1928, he came from a family of Sephardic Jews and was one of those Jewish Bulgarian intellectuals who opted to stay in Bulgaria rather than emigrate to Israel, even though they had the chance to do so. Had he emigrated, Passy would have been much better known today in international academic circles. However, for whatever reason, he chose to stay on and worked most of his life as Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Sofia. People like me undoubtedly benefited enormously from his presence on the faculty as he largely set the tone for our academic futures.

He was Chair of the Aesthetic section but I understand he resigned from the University in 1993 in order to protest the blanket lustration measures taken against all those who had previously been members of the Communist party. As a principled man, he thought that the approach was inconsiderate and rude.

At the time when I arrived as a freshman in  Philosophy at Kliment Okhridsky University (my B.A. studies spanned over the normal course of five years, 1978-1983), he must have been 50 years old. To the students, Isaac Passy always looked the same, precisely the same as in the picture above: always wearing a turtleneck sweater, glassess, a reddish beard, his red hair brushed to the back. This ‘informal uniform’ of Passy encoded an intended message of non-conformity: most of the other professors wore nondescript suit and ties. Attending his lectures in the large 63rd auditorium of the University had some ceremonial nature to it and made everyone feel special. We all sat there quietly in anticipation of his arrival; he would be always punctual to the second, would speak slowly (reading from notes, of I remember correctly), disbursing of aesthetic wisdom with controlled elegance. There was little improvisation, everything was professionally rehearsed and his presentation style, which I would judge as somewhat stiff today, nonetheless relied on impeccable delivery carried out to highest standard. He spoke in official tone, slowly, occasionally interjecting measured jokes that were delivered in an accessible way, and were always of a kind memorable enough as to ensure they would be repeated by members of the audience later on. He knew how to control our admiration all the time.

Whatever he did, Isaac Passy was one of these academics who knew how to create incessant esteem. He managed to maintain the high level of appreciation to whatever he would be engaged with steady over the years. Everything that he put out was immediately celebrated as a great contribution to aesthetic scholarship (not a small achievement for a country where the cultural sphere is markedly skeptical and nihilistic to any intellectual achievement). There was, of course, quite a bit of posing and showing off in all this. But it was all for the purposes of building respect to intellectual inquiry and lofty ethical principles. Thus, it is all natural that the tone of perpetual admiration that accompanied this man’s life would not recede after his death. The obituaries compete in bestowing praise, and speak of him as a ‘brilliant’ philosopher whose ‘works blazed pioneer paths’.

Trying to assess Passy’s work objectively, one should say that he was producing regularly lucid and elegant writing, even if on subject matters that appeared quite traditionalist, preoccupied with explorations of classical thinkers mostly in the area of aesthetic (and, like in the case of Nikolay Berdyaev, spirituality). His works included treatises on “The Tragic” (1963), “The Comic” (1972), “The Aesthetics of Kant” (1976), “German Classical Aesthetics” (1982), “The Metaphor” (1983), “Friedrich Nietzsche” (1996), “Arthur Schopenhauer” (1998), “Contemporary Spanish Philosophy” (1999), “Russian Thinkers” (2000), and so on. For a more detailed listing, see the Wikipedia entry on Passy, which contains a reliable account on his published work. His most original writing, in my view, was to be found in the studies that he produced in the 1980s in order to resurrect somewhat forgotten Spanish philosophers like Jose Ortega-y-Gasset or Miguel Unamuno (Passy was a polyglot and in command of Russian, French and German; in this case, however, he was clearly benefiting of his fluency of Ladino, a variant of Spanish which is spoken by Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, and which was also the maternal tongue of writers like Elias Kanetti). As Head of his department, he was not dictatorial and was not trying to impose his own view of things — he was letting others work on the material and in the manner they wanted. It created a good creative atmosphere that allowed younger people develop in the way they felt it was right for them.

After the end of communism and well into his 17 year long period of retirement, Isaac Passy did not retire. He maintained an active programme of publication in Bulgarian media over all these years; it was great to see him persevere in placing his sober intellectual texts in a variety of newspapers that had in the meantime gone down in the world and now bordered on vulgarity and profanity for the most part of their content. Evidently, Passy had belief in the intellectual capacity of the nation even during periods of intellectual impoverishment and decline. He was one of the people who would persistently water in a place in hope to see green sprouts come out some day.

I had not seen Passy in person for a number of years. During a visit to Sofia last year I called him on the phone and talked to him briefly, for about ten-fifteen minutes. One felt I was talking to an old man, who reacted slowly and kept the conversation to basics. I am not sure he recognised me, yet he was polite and encouraging in response to the brief report I gave him on the phone about my own career advancements. It was yet another encounter when I was reminded of the benevolent paternalism that permeated all interactions with Bulgarian academics. Passy was the best of them all, but inevitably they were all behaving as well-wishing mentors who were making a conscious effort to encourage women like me to persevere in intellectual endeavors (not that they really believed it was possible or desirable for us to do so). Back at the time I worked on my PhD (1983-1986) there was much less informal talking to the professors than there is now. I cannot recall ever receiving very detailed feedback from him, nor do I remember sitting in lengthy meetings, let alone being taken out for coffee or lunch (as I regularly do now with my PhD students). We would always meet in his office, the exchange was stiff and official. Professors back then did not befriend students, the distance was kept. Thus, the respect was bigger. Ultimately, it was a good experience, and I am forever grateful for Professor Passy’s unswerving support to my work.

Having worked in the context of North American and British academia for nearly two decades now, I have had many opportunities to appreciate the high quality of the education that we received in the context of my studies at the Philosophy department of Sofia University. With the exception of modern day philosophy (which was taught to us as a discipline called ‘critique of contemporary bourgeois thought’), we received a really excellent grounding in theory, studying the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome in detail, as well as engaging in extensive studies of continental philosophy and German classical philosophy in particular. My own doctoral thesis, on Schleiermacher and the Iena Romantics, was inspired by work that was going on at the time within the department, linked to scholars such as Ivan Stefanov and Iskra Tsoneva, and, most of all, by the collaboration with a friend fellow-student, Kalin Yanakiev, who went on to become a well-known academic intellectual and is now a Professor of cultural studies at the same University. Still, it was Isaac Passy, in his capacity of Head of Aesthetics, that made it all possible for us. It was his encouragement and his guidance that kept me going. Many of the choices I made for myself back in those years were influenced by remarks that he would have uttered somehow fleetingly but that would stick in my mind.

Isaac Passy was married to a beautiful white-haired woman who, if I remember correctly, was a scientist. His son, Moni (Solomon) Passy, was a friend from my high school and student years. He was a few years older and studying for a PhD in mathematical logic, a degree he obtained at some point in the 1980s. Later on, when many of us emigrated, Moni stayed in Bulgaria and got involved in politics. At one point he even served as a foreign minister, a suitable job for him as he always had a penchant to flamboyancy and liked to be in the limelight. There was also a daughter, Sophia (Lyocheto), who I believe lives in emigration somewhere in the States.

Dina Iordanova

19 August 2010