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  • In MemoriamJ. Hillis Miller (1928–2021)
  • Andrzej Warminski (bio)

I knew Hillis for a long time—it would be going on forty-six years now—first as a graduate student of comparative literature in the 1970s at Yale; then as a colleague, also at Yale, in the early 1980s; and then finally as a colleague in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine since 1989.

J. Hillis Miller's path traversed not one but at least four careers. The first of these was his nearly twenty years at Johns Hopkins (1953–1972), where he distinguished himself as a talented scholar of Victorian literature and as the American "ambassador" for the Geneva School of literary theory. Hillis was also a prominent member of the school. (If you pick up Sarah Lawall's old book on the Geneva School of literary critics, Critics of Consciousness [1968], you will find there chapters devoted to Marcel Raymond, Albert Béguin, Georges Poulet, Jean-Pierre Richard, Jean Starobinski, Jean Rousset, and … J. Hillis Miller. Or should one say "EeLEES MeelER"?) Hillis's second career spanned the memorable years at Yale (1972–1986), when (along with Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartman) he gained fame (and notoriety) as a member of the "Yale School" of deconstructive literary criticism. The third career would be his years (1986–2001) as indefatigable Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, where he, along with Jacques Derrida (whom Hillis brought to UCI), was the main shaper of UCI's reputation as a center for the rigorous study of "theory." But his fourth career would have to be Hillis's years since retirement. Hillis's achievements in "retirement" constituted what would be a full and very distinguished career for lesser mortals. This is the case not only in regard to the volume of publications—I count at least fifteen books (with more in [End Page v] production) and numerous articles—and an international lecturing schedule that many a younger scholar would not be able to keep up with. (Particularly in China—imagine what kind of trip you have to take to get from Deer Isle, Maine, to Beijing!) It was also true of Hillis's work as teacher and mentor. Since "retirement" Hillis served as chair or member on the dissertation committees of many students in English and in comparative literature. I know that he also supervised dissertations at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and the University of Queensland. This is a remarkable record, and not just in terms of quantity. As anybody who has known Hillis within the academic context would affirm, Hillis was the most generous teacher that any of us will ever come across. His was above all an intellectual generosity: Hillis's willingness to see students' thoughts and projects through to the end without either preemptive acceptance or dismissal. But it was also a simply personal generosity with his time and effort that must have been a response to a genuinely ethical imperative—indeed, the equivalent of a religious "calling" or vocation—to treat others with the respect due to "the other." If Hillis was what one calls a "beloved" teacher, it is no doubt because students recognized this trait and appreciated being treated with respect—intellectual and personal.

On the personal side: I have many memories of time with Hillis, a lot of them also involving Derrida, for instance, our annual ritual picking up Derrida at the airport—first at JFK, then at LAX—to take him to New Haven and Laguna Beach, respectively. From LAX we would drive to Irvine, Derrida would pick up his rental car, and then Derrida would drive the rental car, together with Hillis, to Laguna, with me following them, Derrida's very heavy suitcase (full of paper) in the trunk. After his long flight from Paris, Derrida would be weaving all over MacArthur Boulevard (and later Newport Coast Drive). I remember despairing, "Oh God, he's going to get himself killed, and he'll get Hillis killed too!"—while trying to make sure I didn't run into them, what with Derrida braking erratically on the hills. …

Hillis and I sometimes...


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