Off the Record – Christoph Lüthy

The One with the Swiss Dean and a Bottle of Wine

I have been wanting to write this interview for quite a long time. Everything started because Ted, one of our editors, told me (attention, SPOILER ALERT!) about an alleged piece of advice that Christoph Lüthy, professor in the History of Philosophy and Science at Radboud University and dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, gave to Matt Damon (who, fortunately, didn’t follow it) and to some scones-eating British politician (who, unfortunately, didn’t follow it). This was the rumor I had been waiting for, but then the summer holidays arrived, the Italian seaside distracted me, the new semester started, and all sorts of things every student is familiar with happened. Like a good bottle of Brunello di Montalcino that you save for special occasions, this interview had been put on hold, waiting for the best moment to be written.  And it was still there waiting when the familiar voice of the interviewee himself greeted me with a lively “Buongiorno!” in the koffiehoek (15th floor of the Erasmus Building, the place to be for every philosopher in Nijmegen). The day to open that metaphorical bottle of Brunello di Montalcino had been set, but I needed some insights from one of the persons who knows prof. Lüthy best, namely his wife Carla Rita Palmerino, professor of the History of Philosophy at Radboud University and program coordinator of the Research Master in Philosophy. And no, if you were thinking about a love blossomed within the Erasmusgebouw’s walls, you would be mistaken. Their love blossomed in a way more romantic (but equally cold and foggy) setting, in dear old Scotland, as they recently revealed in an interview with VOX.

Prof. Lüthy welcomes me on a quite misty Friday afternoon in his office on the 15th floor, where he moved at the beginning of his dean-journey three years ago and that he proudly defines as “one of the most beautiful offices of the building”. Not only do the large windows make it very luminous, but from here he can also see the city and a very exceptional Dutch landscape with hills and forests, whose leaves are of particularly beautiful warm colors in the fall. While going through my questions, I realize that I don’t actually know what dean-life looks like. Maybe moved only by personal curiosity or maybe also by the genuine thought that there are others out there who would like to know it, I bashfully ask about the beginning of his mandate as a dean. “I certainly didn’t apply for it” – prof. Lüthy promptly answers – “because I don’t consider myself a natural leader. I also have to admit that in the past I used to look down on faculty administrators assuming they were failed academics. I was asked to do it because two trajectories somehow merged. On the one hand, there was a search committee, which asked all professors for their input. On the other hand, there is always the executive board that also comes up with a wish list. My reasons for accepting were twofold: I admit that it is flattering to be asked and so I thought about giving it a shot, although no one had trained me for this job. The other reason was that at the time we had a University President who was once again considering the option of merging our Faculty with the Faculty of Arts. This scenario would be quite disadvantageous for us, so I accepted on condition that the independence of our faculty would be guaranteed.” 

“I admit that it is flattering to be asked and so I thought about giving it a shot, although no one had trained me for this job.”

He then goes on telling me about his first struggles and what he had to get used to. For instance, the fact that for the first time in his life he had an electronic agenda mostly filled in by a secretariaat. Unexpectedly, he now found his life booked up by others. Therefore, sometimes when he sees four hours free on his agenda, he blocks them just to have the time to read a dissertation or clean up his inbox.

This reminds me of an interview with Michelle Obama, in which she talks about her husband and about the fact that, while most people feel drained because of so much stress in their lives, some other people (like Barack) get energy from stress. “Hmm – I start thinking – in which one of the two categories does Lüthy belong? The Barack-category or the stress-eating, stress-sleep-deprivation, stress-one-million-negative-consequences one?”

“Well, again, I wasn’t trained to do this.” He pensively comments. “When I started, there were many dossiers I wasn’t acquainted with. For example, as a dean of this faculty I am also on the governing board of the Docenten Academie (Teachers’ Academy), and I just didn’t know anything about it. In the beginning, I also felt stressed, because formally, the dean bears the ‘final responsibility’ for teaching, research, and finances, and I imagined that I needed to know the details of all three. Moreover, most of the university affairs work in cycles: there are certain things that need to be done each year, while others have four- or five-year cycles. Sometimes, several cycles coincide within a single month, and if this happens in a period when I am also teaching, or a student of mine completes a dissertation, then this also adds a good deal of stress.” He thinks a bit and continues. “Another thing that struck me in the beginning was that while I used to be reliable and punctual, this now turned out to be simply not possible at times. Because of that, I often felt very guilty until I learned to deal with the fact that sometimes there are people who have to wait for me. But despite all of this, this function is also rewarding and beautiful. It is also easier than I expected, because this faculty is functioning very well, and the financial situation is healthy, so we are in the position to encourage good initiatives and promising projects.”

“Oh I’ve heard about last week’s visitation!” I say enthusiastically thinking about what my friend Frank told me about it [note that the interview was recorded on November, 1]. “As far as I know, it went pretty well!”

“Yes, they were satisfied, absolutely!” Prof. Lüthy replies cracking a smile. “We are a good research institute, and they were happy with most of our research centers. I am particularly happy about the visitation’s results because we hear everywhere, especially in the national press, about how difficult it is for the humanities to survive. Given the general climate we seem to be doing the right thing.”

However, I can’t help but keep ruminating on the crazy agenda of the person sitting in front of me. To my knowledge, there is just one person who is able to fit so many activities in her calendar. This person is Hermione Granger and even she cannot do it without the magic help of the Time-Turner. So how can prof. Lüthy, lacking any magic device, find time to do his own research? He honestly admits that he doesn’t have much time to write his own articles. He still manages to write one or two per year, but he devotes most of his research-time to looking after and encouraging his PhD students.

“What do you like so much about that?” I ask. “I learn so much from them,” he answers. “For instance, a PhD student of mine, Lyke de Vries, has just sent to the manuscript committee her dissertation about a very mysterious group in the 17th century called the Rosicrucians [whose founder, Christian Rosenkreuz, is said to have lived for 106 years] and I learned things that I wouldn’t have learned without her. The previous dissertation, written by Dr. Sanne Stuur, was about the interactions between Einstein and philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century, and about the debate over which profession, the philosophers or the physicists, are responsible for the notion of time. Again, this was something I hadn’t previously known much about and that interested me a lot.”

All this work of course implies that there is less free time than one would like to have. Prof. Palmerino told me this summer that her husband really likes to play the piano. But I guess it is quite difficult to practice when the only possibility to play is in the evening and either one doesn’t have the energy to do that, or has to prepare for next day’s meetings, or just has neighbors who would not appreciate some piano music at 11pm. When asked about whether this weights on him, prof. Lüthy replies “No, this is a good thing about having offices and functions that rotate. It is a phase of my life. I came to terms with the fact that I will only manage to read the Camilleri’s books [if you are not familiar with Italian literature, Camilleri was the famous writer who narrated the vicissitudes of Inspector Montalbano] during the summer holidays, but that for the period of my deanship, I won’t be able to keep up with contemporary Dutch literature or do much sports.”

The word “sports” catches my attention. I am not sure about whether the idea of the typical intellectual as someone who spends his/her days locked in the library is just a Leopardian reminiscence or whether there is some truth to it, but I am actually interested in finding out which sports achievements might be hidden beneath the philosophical surface.

“I used to row a lot, I think it was the only sport in which I was ever good,” prof. Lüthy states in a slightly auto-ironic tone. “I learned how to row on the Rhine in Basel, where the Rhine makes a 90° turn, so it accelerates. To row back upstream in that curve, between the tugboats that come along, is really difficult, and so I developed a good technique. When I went to study in Oxford I was put in one of their boats as the stroke, which is the oarsman who sets the rhythm for the whole boat, and I had the same role also when I went to the States. Unfortunately, I couldn’t compete in the top boats, like the one that does the Oxford-Cambridge race on the Thames, as I am at least 15 cm too short for that.”

There is something I am missing. Here I am, in the Netherlands, sitting in front a professor who I know as being Swiss, who speaks to me in perfect English, although usually we talk to each other in Italian, who has studied in Oxford and then went to the States. I need a bit of clarity here.

“Wait, when did you go to England actually?”
“When I was twenty.”
“For your bachelor?”
“Uh-huh,” he nods.

“Why didn’t you stay in Switzerland?” I insist, thinking that Switzerland looks like quite a nice place to live, with its mountains and green spaces and delicious chocolate (we all know this has a huge impact on the quality of life).

“I hated Switzerland to the depths of my heart after having done military service and I just wanted to get out of it. There is a sense of self-righteousness about Switzerland, the idea that we are better than all those other chaotic countries around us, a shared feeling that I found suffocating as a youth. I needed oxygen, I knew I wanted to do philosophy but since that wasn’t part of the program in my high school, I didn’t know where to go. Thus, I simply went to ask someone I trusted, and this person told me that in England there was a strong…”; he stops, chuckles, and adds: “well, I didn’t know the word at that time, but she said ‘analytic tradition’, and that it would be a good place to start for a confused young man.”

“Phew,” I think to myself, “so there has been a time when he didn’t know the meaning of analytic either.” While trying to conceal my relief, I continue: “And after your bachelor in Oxford, what happened?”

“I used to row a lot, I think it was the only sport in which I was ever good.”

“Then I studied physics for a year because I wanted to become a philosopher of science, maybe of quantum mechanics, although eventually I became an historian of philosophy and science. Thus, I studied physics in order to qualify for the Cambridge program of philosophy of science but then for very bizarre reasons – having to do with a scholarship to England I didn’t get and another one I did get – the Rotary Foundation sent me to Harvard, where I stayed for my master and PhD eventually. I find it funny to think of myself as someone who went to Harvard against his own will. I belonged to a rather anti-American generation and had really wanted to go to Cambridge. Moreover, Harvard didn’t have a philosophy of science program, but a history of science program. I really went there contre coeur, but I soon realized that I was much more suited for the history of philosophy and science. On the one hand, my philological training and my way of thinking were more in keeping with the demands of that discipline. On the other hand, my mathematical skills weren’t at the right level to fathom the depth that no physicists could have fathomed without me. In one year of physics it is quite impossible to master all the mathematical niceties that you need to understand Schrödinger equations, quantum electrodynamics and general relativity theory.”

Being a foreigner in this country myself, I empathize with him and start thinking about what these two and a half years in the Netherlands taught me. Therefore, once again, I turn the question to Lüthy, who ponders over it for a moment and then answers: “If you go to another country at a young age, it has a big impact on you, at any rate. The three years in England were really formative not only because of the environment but also because I was twenty years old, pretty naïve, everything struck me with a particular force. What I found amazing about England was the combination of splendor and squalor. There is the part of England that is poor and dirty and alcoholic and without hope, and then you have the part that is glorious. Most students who were in my year were really impressive, Oxford can handpick in a way that other universities, including ours, cannot. Nonetheless, you could see an unpleasant divide between rich upper-class kids who had gone to private schools and who had, for example, their rhetorical and oratorial skills perfected in a way that I had never seen at such a young age. They were so self-confident, they knew they were going to be the new elite. At the same time, however, there were also kids who were brilliant but came from really poor cities where much of the population was unemployed.” He pauses and then adds: “It will sound as a tautology, but I admired the admirable parts of England and I was scandalized by the neglect of the others.” And he ends with a positive note about the Netherlands: “Being Swiss and therefore from a fairly egalitarian society, I recognize myself much more in Dutch society where the extremes are far less extreme than in England.”

“As a student, I found Oxford a place of an incredible mystique, and some memories tend to visit me at night.”

“Do you miss Oxford?” I react having in my head all the varnished pictures of Oxford.

“I regularly have dreams about Oxford,” Lüthy admits. “As a student, I found it a place of an incredible mystique, and some memories tend to visit me at night. I loved walking through those old courtyards and long medieval roads and buildings and listening to the choirs, especially in winter when it is dark outside and there are these choir boys and student choristers that sing in the candle light. When I go back, the sentiment still gets the better of me. This is maybe also because at Oxford, you’re not a student at the university but at a college, where you live and spend your time, so you know your entire year quite well. My college, for instance, was Magdalen College, which was one of the more aristocratic ones. I didn’t know that when I applied, and when I found out I had the same love-disgust reaction to it that I mentioned earlier. In the year above me, there was the brother of Lady Diana, who simply had one of the rooms in the college but then during the weekends he would take off in his Bentley. Incidentally, he was the next-door neighbor of a militant left-wing student, who called herself Cat, and walked around College with a rat on her shoulder. Early Spencer and Cat with her rat got along just fine, by the way.”

“What about the States?” I ask thinking that it must have been quite a drastic change from Oxford, especially around the time of the Gulf War when he moved there. “What had the biggest impact on you?”

“I ended up with a feeling that most Europeans end up having, namely an incredible respect for these campuses.” Then continues: “Harvard is so international and so progressive, they have the best minds, the best politicians-in-breeding, it is an island of transnational brilliance, there is optimism and enthusiasm, the widespread idea that if there is a problem, they can solve it. However, I soon realized that while I felt at home on campus, I didn’t feel at home in the country, and as I thought about the future, I knew that I didn’t want to live in the States. I also discovered an obvious thing, but I still had to discover it, namely that we Europeans think in small units, our towns, regions, countries, while America is so vast – five time zones from Alaska to Puerto Rico – that Europeans like myself often fail to wrap their minds around it. We (Europeans) have difficulties in understanding how decisions are taken and why, for example, symbols have the huge importance they have. I regretted leaving Harvard when I did, but I was happy to be back in Europe.”

“And what was your next step?” I add knowing that the journey didn’t end there and curious to find out how he ended up in the Netherlands married to an Italian Professor. As already stated, their love didn’t blossom here, so there must be at least a piece of the puzzle missing.

“Then I had two postdoc years, as all PhD students have to do while hoping for a job somewhere. I spent the first one in Rome at the Istituto Svizzero, which was incredibly beautiful; from my bed, I could see the Quirinale, the Palace of the Italian President, and the institute was inhabited by artists and archeologists. The following year I went to Berlin, to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and there the view from my window were the shrubs above Hitler’s former Führerbunker. At that time, I already knew I would come to Nijmegen and work for three and a half years, in a very big project that Hans Thijssen had won. In the end that became a tenured job.”

Okay, my curiosity has been satisfied. I decide to go back to my list of questions, although at this point it is quite clear to me that I have let myself be driven more by my eagerness than by what I had prepared beforehand. I suddenly remember that prof. Palmerino told me that a few years ago they walked together from Domodossola, in northern Italy, to Switzerland, and that when Lüthy was younger he biked around the Alps. Changing the topic abruptly, I ask what his relationship to nature and mountains is like.

“This relationship to the Alps is part of my socialization.” Lüthy explains. “It is very typical for Swiss families to go for a hike on Sundays, we used to start from where I grew up in Basel and then walk for an hour and a half to the first village in Alsace – which belongs to France – have lunch there and then walk back home. Somehow, hiking is a good way of making the week’s preoccupations evaporate. Like all kids, I hated these walks and I wanted to stay on the couch, but I’ve always felt great when I came back. Now, looking back at it, I can say that this habit has been imprinted on me, so much so that I now try to impose it on the next generation, with somewhat less success. At any rate, there is something enriching about walking and being able to recognize the sound of the birds or to name the different plants.”

Plants. Another magic word. Splijtstof loves plants, to the point that we give a small cactus as a thank-you gift to the speakers at our Film&Philosophy events. Gaia, the editor-in-chief, together with me, once told me that she spotted prof. Lüthy in an elevator with a plant and pretty enthusiastic about it. Now I wonder where that plant is, since I don’t see any in his office, and how it is doing.

“Oh yes!” he vivaciously answers. “There was this beautiful initiative when the university turned ninety-five where every professor who wanted to could go and teach in a primary school. We put on our togas, cycled on Radboud bicycles and gave small and friendly lectures. Then as a thank-you gift, we got a hazel. I was indeed happy about it, not just because it is a meaningful gift, but also because the plant has quite some symbolic connotations. It now grows in our garden. We have a small city garden, however, so there is no place for great gardening ambitions,” he adds giving a hint of a smile.

While we are talking, someone knocks at the door, time is almost up. After our interview prof. Lüthy has to meet up with some coordinators of InScience, the International Science Film Festival that takes place in Nijmegen, because he has been invited to discuss the movie Around the Sun. However, he doesn’t rush and gives me enough time to conclude our talk and ask him one last question. I know exactly what I have to address now: that famous rumor about his unfollowed piece of advice to Matt Damon and about the other piece of advice whose rejection by the addressee didn’t have the fortunate consequences we associate with Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan, the Ocean’s Trilogy, the Bourne series and many others.It’s time to ask about this, prepare the popcorn and get comfortable on my chair while listening to the whole story.

“Boris Johnson was one of the members, and I found he had such pompous and bizarre political views, mixing up prejudice, knowledge, associations, quotes.”

“I paid for my PhD in Harvard by being a tutor at Lowell House, an undergraduate house. Undergraduate houses are the place where most students live and spend their time, there have dining halls, common rooms, and all houses organize cultural and recreational activities, but also provide academic facilities. I was responsible for looking after the academic record of 550 students. We had a list of students who had interrupted their studies to do something else, and each year it was my task to call them up and convince them to come back and finish their degree, assuming that this was what their money-paying parents wanted too. One of the students was a kid called Matthew P. Damon, who was studying English. Matt Damon left after his second year and went to Hollywood to attempt to sell a script of his and become an actor. I called him and told him that Hollywood was a tough place, that he wouldn’t have been able to sell his script very easily and that it was better to finish his degree first. He started telling me that he had gone to a few parties and had good connections, that there were good hopes and that he and his friend Ben Affleck had several possibilities ahead of them. You know, my job was to persuade him to come back and finish his degree, so I insisted for a while, but unsuccessfully. Then I obviously forgot about the whole conversation, graduated and left the States. Some years later, I went to visit Carla Rita in Rome, where she was finishing her PhD. We decided to go to the cinema and we watched a movie with Matt Dillon as the main actor. When we walked out of the theater, I kept on repeating the name of Matt Dillon and telling myself and Carla Rita that there was someone with a very similar surname [Dillon Damon, tomayto tomahto] whom I advised not to go into acting but I couldn’t remember the right name. And then, while we were driving back to her home, we saw a big poster of Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon’s face on it, and I started shouting that he was the one! So well, how good that he didn’t follow my advice!”

Matt Damon’s picture and details in the Lowell House Handbook 1992-1993

I cannot help but agree with him about this last remark. But the story isn’t finished.

“The other advice that I gave without any official instruction” – prof. Lüthy continues – “was the one to Boris Johnson. In Oxford I had been elected into a political debating club, called the Canning Club. It was composed of twelve members and at some stage I was vice secretary. Boris Johnson was one of the members, and I found he had such pompous and bizarre political views, mixing up prejudice, knowledge, associations, quotes. He was quick-witted and very self-confident, and already aspiring to becoming prime minister. At the time, he had also managed to become president of the Oxford Union, a famous and very prestigious debating society where real politicians are invited to speak. Boris Johnson was exceptionally able at networking and working his way into politics. I remember that after a particularly heated discussion about international politics, I advised him to go into fiction or comedy and never become a politician. In this case, I do regret that he hasn’t followed my advice.”

He concludes by telling me about John le Carré, the famous writer of espionage novels, who was a teacher at Eton College, the college where Boris Johnson and David Cameron studied. In his latest thriller, le Carré criticizes the way people are educated at Eton, as most of them become powerful, despite an evident lack of competence and life experience.

On this note, our interview ends. We say “Arrivederci, buona giornata” (Goodbye, have a nice day) to each other, and I leave the room. While walking across the corridor to the lift I think about the metaphorical bottle of Brunello di Montalcino I have just opened and about how pleasant it tastes.