Pioneer of psychohistory, Rudolph Binion dies at 84

Professor taught at Brandeis for nearly half a century

Rudolph Binion, an eminent historian of modern Europe and founder of the historical subfield known as psychohistory, died last week at 84 following a long illness. Binion, the Leff Family Professor of Modern European History, had taught at Brandeis since 1967. 

Born in New York City in 1927 to an Austro-Hungarian father and an American mother, Binion received a doctoral degree in history from Columbia University in 1958, after studying at both Columbia and the University of Paris. He went on to teach at Columbia, as well as at Rutgers University and MIT, and to serve in the U.S. army before taking a teaching position at Brandeis in 1967. Residing in Brookline, Mass., he remained a member of the Brandeis faculty for the rest of his life, except for a year spent as a visiting scholar at the College de France.

"He was an incredibly brilliant, capacious intellectual interested in everything," said Brandeis History Department Chair Jane Kamensky. "His books spanned methods and centuries, from the Black Death to the Second World War and beyond."

Binion's distinguished and lengthy publishing career began in 1960 with "Defeated Leaders: the Political Fate of Caillaux, Jouvenel, and Tardieu," and continued through this year with "Traumatic Reliving in History, Literature and Film." Over the course of a half-century, he published 10 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, but he was best known for his psychobiography "Frau Lou," which was published in 1968.

"From the beginning, he was interested in psychology," said Paul Jankowski, a History Department colleague and friend, adding that "he was a true man of letters."

During his years at Brandeis Binion directed a vast number of dissertations. Since his death, faculty members say, they have been flooded with emails from Binion's former students.

Jankowski said that while Binion lived frugally, he was generous to those in need. He recalled Binion giving money to a graduate student to buy clothes, which the student couldn't otherwise purchase.

Another student, David Troyansky, History Department chairman of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, agreed that Binion was a good friend to the families of his students and colleagues. He studied with Binion from 1976 to 1983, and the two remained in close contact over the years.

Troyansky said Binion was "an extraordinary combination of head-in-the-clouds intellectual and down-to-Earth friend, colleague, advisor and editor." Calling him an intense conversationalist and a spellbinding lecturer, Troyansky often looked to him for advice, but said it went both ways.

"He would sometimes ask my advice – he would want to learn whatever he could from whoever he was talking to," Troyansky said, adding that most graduate students felt Binion took them seriously from day one.

Troyansky said his mentor's philosophy was to go wherever a historical problem led, regardless of intellectual or geographical boundaries.

"If he needed to learn a new language, he just did it," Troyansky said. "Quickly, and well. He's so closely associated with psychohistory, but he disdained subcategories."

He recalls visiting museums and taking in movies with Binion, whom, he said, had an almost "childlike innocence in the way he talked about his love of the arts," which he always found a way to incorporate into his work.

One of Binion's always final projects, "Flights of Fancy," published last year, was a collection of his poetry, short stories and essays.

He is survived by his wife Elena Lagrange and a sister. At Binion's request, no memorial service will be held.

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