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Mari Ruti earned a PhD in comparative literature at Harvard and had a long career at the University of Toronto as a distinguished professor of critical theory and gender and sexuality studies.Bohdan Turok/Handout

In the early 1990s, Mari Ruti was a young student in the first year of a PhD program in sociology at Harvard University. On a lark, she enrolled in an undergraduate course outside her field: Introduction to feminist theory, taught by the renowned scholar Alice Jardine. Though she was a graduate student taking a low-level undergraduate course, she found herself totally lost. She felt humiliated, and dropped the course.

But the experience haunted her. So the next year, she enrolled again. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m not stupid. There must be something I can get out of this,’” she said on the podcast Why Theory in 2022. Again, she felt lost. But she was mesmerized. She quickly devoured the syllabus, including works by French thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and soon realized she not only understood the material, but had a talent for it.

Thus began her lifelong love affair with critical theory. She would go on to earn a PhD in comparative literature at Harvard and begin a long career at the University of Toronto as a distinguished professor of critical theory and gender and sexuality studies.

Her work was to find answers to life’s biggest questions: What does it mean to be human in this world? How do you live a life worth living? What does it mean to love, and be in love? And Prof. Ruti was among the best at it.

“In terms of shaping how people think, there’s maybe five contemporary thinkers who are leading figures,” said Todd McGowan, a professor of cultural theory at the University of Vermont, and friend of Prof. Ruti’s. “There’s Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Joan Copjec. And Mari.”

She died on June 8 at the age of 59.

Her life began a long distance from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League: In Nuijamaa, Finland, on March 31, 1964. Her family was poor, and lived in a home with no indoor heating, running water, or plumbing in the remote town bordering on what was then the Soviet Union.

“I watched my mother wilt away tending a conveyer belt at a factory,” she wrote in her 2018 book Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings, “and my father work harder – and sleep less and worry more – than anyone should ever be expected to.”

The nearest school was hours away. She spent five hours a day on the bus. And during those long rides, she would read. She was intentional from the start: She had to leave her tiny town behind, and knew education was her way out.

The work paid off. She earned a spot for her undergraduate studies in the United States, at Brown University. And after earning her degree, she went on to Harvard, where she completed a master’s in sociology, along with a master’s and PhD in comparative literature.

If critical theory was Ms. Ruti’s great love, it was a love expressed in two distinct ways.

The first was in her writing. “She loved the act of writing,” said her former student and friend Heather Jessup. “Many academics struggle with writing, but Mari relished it,” she said. “It was her way of making sense of the world.”

Prof. Ruti wrote, and wrote, and wrote, publishing 13 books in her lifetime. She also left behind two manuscripts, which will be published posthumously. Some of her books were aimed at other academics, including several on the work of Lacan.

But she was the rare scholar who reached beyond the ivory tower, toward popular audiences too. Her 2011 book, The Case for Falling In Love, dispels some of our most popular myths about romantic relationships. Penis Envy, meanwhile, re-examines Sigmund Freud’s theories using a contemporary feminist lens.

“She wanted to write for both audiences,” her friend Hilary Neroni said. “She wanted to write theory for everybody.”

Her trademark was clarity. Simple, accessible prose, uncluttered with pretentiousness. What mattered to Prof. Ruti above all else was to reach a shared understanding with her reader.

Her other vehicle for expressing her love of theory was teaching. At Harvard and U of T, she developed a distinctive teaching style which she described as “the pedagogy of non-mastery,” which involved assigning texts that she herself had never read.

She believed this brought her closer to her students. “It never felt like you were being lectured to, ever,” Prof. Jessup said. “It was a collaborative and collective endeavour, to understand what it means to be human in the world.”

Outside her work, Prof. Ruti loved her friends, good food (especially chocolate), and road trips. She loved movies and television, but only as pure escapism – her tastes, she wrote in Penis Envy, skewed toward “the kind of lowbrow thrillers, action movies, and teen shows that no professor in critical humanities should in principle admit to liking.” Case in point: She owned every season of the show Smallville on DVD.

And most of all, Prof. Ruti loved the ocean. Wherever she was in the world, she would find a home by the water. She had, as Prof. McGowan put it, “a total allergy to the big city.” While teaching at Harvard, she spent most of her time living two hours away, in Cape Cod, Mass. And throughout her 20 years at the University of Toronto, she commuted from her home in Mahone Bay, N.S.

There, Prof. Jessup said, she would delight in taking out-of-town visitors on drives along “picturesque, but slightly terrifying” roads along the coastal cliffs.

“Mari loved being alive,” she said. “She wasn’t extravagant in her material objects, but she was extravagantly alive.”

So when Prof. Ruti was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and told by doctors that she had less than a year to live, she was gutted. She describes it in The Brokenness of Being, one of her remaining unpublished manuscripts, as “the moment when something elemental in me broke irrevocably.”

She requested a double mastectomy, but was refused. She eventually received the surgery but by then it was too late and the cancer had spread. The experience would colour her feelings toward the Canadian health care system for the next five years. She spent much of her remaining time travelling the world in search of the best possible medical treatments.

By June of this year, Prof. Ruti was back in hospital near her home in Mahone Bay. On the morning of June 7, a doctor told her she was out of options. So the next morning, on June 8, she told her doctors she was ready, and removed her own oxygen mask.

“Mari made that decision for herself,” Prof. Neroni said. “She made decisions about her life, all the way to the end.”

In her 2009 book, A World of Fragile Things, Prof. Ruti wrote about the inherent paradox of life, “where we strive to make the most of circumstances that we know will end disastrously, with our own death.”

One way of coping with this, she wrote, is to meet the world with creativity, “tenacity, grace and wisdom” – and thoughtful participation.

Life, she said, requires active and lively engagement. “That even though death escapes our control,” she said, “life is not something that simply happens to us in a passive manner.”

Prof. Ruti leaves her mother, Ritva, and brother, Marko.

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