Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"From a Daumier Drawing by a Process of Dehydration"

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

"From a Daumier Drawing by a Process of Dehydration"

Article excerpt

Around the turn of the next to last century, there was a genre of writing attached to the historiographical turn of the late 1800s: the "etat present" in which the status of a discipline, whether scientific studies, medieval studies, or oriental studies, would be assessed. Such efforts were in large part nationally defined, as in Maurice Wilmotte's L'Enseignement de la Philologie Romane a Paris et en Allemagne (1883-1885), published in 1886, or the volume Histoire et historiens depuis cinquante ans, published in celebration of the progress of French historical studies in the fifty years since the founding of the "Revue Historique" in 1876.

Well, fifty years is a good round number, and, as it happens, it is just over fifty years since the death of Erich Auerbach, whose legacy in the U.S. included some of the people in this room: Steve Nichols, for example, as well as my own thesis advisor, William Calin. Auerbach at Yale after Pennsylvania State University, Henri Focillon at Yale where he founded the History of Art Department, Leo Spitzer at Johns Hopkins, Erwin Panofsky at Princeton, Alfred Adler at Brooklyn College, and Ernst Kantorowicz at Berkeley and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, were, however, exceptions. Most of what passed for French or medieval studies in America in the decades after World War Il was more on the model of W. S. Merwin's description, in a recent memoir entitled The Mays of Ventadorn (2002), of studying Old French in his senior year at Princeton:

   Our professor was a French medievalist, stooped, hollow-cheeked,
   gray-skinned, emaciated, barely audible. To our youth he appeared
   to have arrived from a Daumier drawing by a process of dehydration.
   He gave the impression at all times of being the embodiment of his
   archaic subject, with nothing left over to be a person. There were
   never more than three or four students. (12)

Merwin's description puts us in mind of Nabokov's Pnin, who I am told was modeled in part on Romance Philology founder Yakov Malkiel, who taught at UC-Berkeley until the time of his death in 1998; or of Nabokov's Gaston Godin, the French teacher at the Beardsly College for Women in Lolita, "a flabby, dough-faced, melancholy bachelor tapering upward to a pair of narrow, not quite level shoulders and a conical pear-head [...] devoid of any talent whatsoever, a mediocre teacher, a worthless scholar, a glum repulsive fat old invert, highly contemptuous of the American way of life, triumphantly ignorant of the English language...." The desiccated philologist is a genre, beginning with Robert Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral" (1856)--"Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De, / Dead from the waist down"--and reinforced by Anatole France's description of Paul Meyer and the journal Romania in Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard: "[J]e me mis a lire une revue qui, bien que menee par des jeunes gens, est excellente. Le ton en est rude, mais l'esprit zele. L'article que je lus passe en precision et en fermete tout ce qu'on faisait dans ma jeunesse. L'auteur de cet article, M. Paul Meyer, marque chaque faute d'un coup d'ongle incisif."

That's the way it was in many quarters back in the 1950s--dehydrated, pale, dead from the waist down. Medieval literature was a separate country, and the passport for entering it was a certain kind of positivist philology whose aire often seemed to be nothing more than keeping others out. Despite the phenomenon of emigration after WW II, there was relatively little exchange between the U.S. and Germany or France. My one visit with Jean Frappier just before his death in 1974 was punctuated by his waving Peter Haidu's Aesthetic Distance in Chretien de Troyes (1968) in one hand and Lion Queue coupee (1972) in the other with the reminder that Americans exaggerate by mixing the dish rags with the bath towels. Before Hitler began to shake the great tree of German Mediaevistik and French medievisme in the 1930s, there was relatively little back and forth across the Atlantic, Joseph Bedier's semester at UC Berkeley in 1928 being a great exception. …

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