By Stephen Collis
Jerry Zaslove, professor emeritus in the Simon Fraser University Departments of English and Humanities, passed away on June 23rd, 2021. After completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, Jerry taught at SFU from its founding in 1965 to his retirement in 2000. He was a former Chair of the English department and the founding Director, in 1983, of the Institute for the Humanities. He also played a lot of basketball.
Like many who worked, collaborated, and conspired with Jerry, I reflect back on over two decades of what feels like a continuous conversation that never quite reached its conclusion. Jerry modelled the search engine before the search engine existed; the rule was to always connect, always keep thought fluid and in motion; conclusions are for those who aren’t thinking hard enough. Another retired SFU faculty member liked to tell a story that, while not about Jerry, certainly sums up an aspect of his legacy. When this professor asked a colleague why he didn’t publish more, he gestured at the students flowing past where the two faculty members were taking their coffee, ironically declaring, “there go my publications.”
Jerry would never make such a hubristic comment, whether ironic or not; nonetheless, teaching, students, and the collaborative process of reading and discussion, were at the heart of his methods, and took precedence over the standard markers of academic achievement. Jerry always had time for students, endlessly listened to, encouraged, and inspired them in ways few teachers can claim. He forged life-long friendships with many of these former students.
My last email exchange with Jerry, from about a month ago, was typical. An off-hand question on my part led to Jerry guiding me from the history of the humanities department (all “exiles” from other departments), through the 1942 film Casablanca and actor Peter Lorre, to Brecht (Lorre had acted in Brecht productions in Berlin), to Walter Benjamin (Brecht’s friend and sometimes collaborator), Siegfried Kracauer (another exile and Benjamin acquaintance), the Hitler-Stalin pact and the flight of so many other exiles (Breton, Arendt, Levi-Strauss, etc.) to the U.S., ending with a joke about lacking time for a more fulsome response.
This fall, Vancouver’s Talonbooks will publish Jerry’s Untimely Passages, which gathers 50 years of his writing. The book’s section titles give an overview of his intellectual interests: “Errant Europeans,” “Streets and Borders,” “Exiles, Pedlars, Tricksters, Utopians, and Mercurians.” A self-described “romantic Anti-Capitalist informed by anarchism,” Jerry read between European modernism and the contemporary west coast, in search of the artistic and literary legacies of the autonomous individual trying to survive, like Jerry himself, as a “stowaway” in the heart of institutional structures anything but attuned to the individual’s dreams and desires.
But the thing that was most striking about Jerry—beyond his legendary generosity (but related to this)—the thing I will miss the most—is the way his mind knew no bounds: one idea or reference point always led to another, and kept flowing. Were there world enough and time, the single flowing thread of his thought would never end. It was a carmen perpetuum—an endless song.
*Visit our YouTube channel to view some of Professor Zaslove’s talks for SFU’s Institute for the Humanities and SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement.