- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

The million-dollar Kluge Prize, established last year by billionaire businessman John Kluge and the Library of Congress, rewards big thinkers in fields not recognized by the Nobel Prize.

If the former ceremony is somewhat less formal than the latter, the prestige is meant to be the equivalent in terms of international recognition — especially among one’s professional peers. Wednesday’s black-tie event (the Scandinavians go for white tie and decorations) in the library’s ornate Thomas Jefferson Building brought together a wide array of scholars, educators, library donors and solons to celebrate this year’s honorees: American historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who will be 81 next week, and French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, 91.

Mr. Ricoeur, whom French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte praised privately as a commanding figure in his homeland, wasn’t present because he was under doctor’s orders not to travel long distances. (The award was accepted on his behalf by his student and translator David Pellauer of Chicago’s DePaul University.) Then Mr. Ricoeur appeared on videotape from his home outside Paris, solemnly reading in English with a heavy French accent some of the intellectually challenging thoughts that helped make him eligible for the prize. He is renowned for the study of hermeneutics — the science of interpretation of texts.

Excerpts from Mr. Ricoeur’s elegantly structured essay proved unfathomable for many of the guests, although Librarian of Congress James Billington# came to the rescue with the offer to send the full text later by mail.

Catherine Stevens couldn’t help chuckling when asked if she would be requesting a copy of the philosopher’s works for Christmas. “Yes,” she replied, “but not in French.”

The two prize winners’ professional work is ongoing. Both still are actively writing. Mr. Pelikan — a specialist in the history and interpretation of Christianity — also teaches a seminar as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Both have been college administrators, as well, and they know each other through the University of Chicago. The two men will split the money equally.

Had Mr. Pelikan noticed anyone treating him differently since the announcement of his latest honor was made public? “Not yet,” the dual doctor of divinity and philosophy said after telling the audience assembled in the Woodhall Pavilion that the award “brings on a sudden attack of humility.”

He also made sure to praise his fellow winner before offering up a brief summary of his life’s work, during which he managed to mention the names Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Dante and Bach — major figures in the study of the meaning of human experience, which is the field of humanities in a nutshell, as defined by Mr. Billington.

It was a festive setting: Huge red banners marked the occasion on the library’s exterior, while inside, a brilliantly lighted Christmas tree was decorated with bulbs, bookmarks and stray paperbacks, including a dog-eared “Frosty the Snowman.” Guests included Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson; Polish Ambassador Przemyslaw Grudzinski Gredzinski; Rep. Dale E. Kildee; National Endowment for the Humanities chief Bruce Cole; Irving Kristol; Vartan Gregorian (who dubbed this year’s event a “lifetime achievement award for scholars’ scholars”); Dr. LaSalle and Ruth Leffall; Mitzi Perdue; Lucky Roosevelt; Stanley and Gay Gaines; James and Sylvia Symington; and Mr. Kluge’s daughter, Jeannette Brophy, who attended with her husband, Raymond C. Brophy.

Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, called Mr. Billington “our greatest national icon” and praised the benefactor, Mr. Kluge, who wasn’t in attendance, for making the “greatest contribution to the library in the history of the Congress.”

Mr. Kluge, a member of a private support group known as the Madison Council, has given millions to establish not only the prize, but also the Kluge Center for Scholars and the library’s ambitious efforts to make its vast collection accessible on the Internet.

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