Academic journal article The Romanic Review

In Memoriam Michael Riffaterre: An Introduction

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

In Memoriam Michael Riffaterre: An Introduction

Article excerpt

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[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Michael Riffaterre, who taught at Columbia for almost fifty years and was editor of the Romanic Review for three decades (1970-2000), died on May 27, 2006. Sadly, therefore, my first official gesture as incoming general editor of the journal is to pay homage to him. Having been his student and also his editorial assistant for a number of years, I would like to open this memorial collection by offering up some personal reminiscences of Michael Riffaterre.

The first time I saw him was in the classroom. The semester I began my graduate studies at Columbia, in the fall of 1985, he was offering a seminar on Proust. I still remember the course description, which was at once admirably concise and absolutely horrifying: "A close textual reading of A la recherche du temps perdu and related texts." And related texts! So intimidating did I find this that, despite my intention to study Proust, I decided not to take the course, as I had read only the first volume. Nonetheless, I went to the first class meeting, as I wanted to see the great man in action. Once I had done so there was no turning back. His presence in the classroom was so electrifying--so dynamic, witty, provocative--that there was no longer any question of not taking the course. I signed on for the Proust seminar (which was to determine the entire course of my academic career), as well as both semesters of Theory of Literature, and then all the seminars he offered while I was in residence: Baudelaire; Rimbaud; Surrealista; Balzac.

The titles of these seminars were never more specific than the name of the author or movement in question, which was entirely fitting as he confidently assumed the comprehensiveness of his own approach. The idea, it seemed, was that the course in question would provide essentially all one needed to know about the subject. We would obviously not discuss all of Balzac, e.g., but we would analyze what we did discuss so thoroughly that anything else would naturally follow from what we had done in class. And this method worked astonishingly well: among other things it enabled me to face all subsequent teaching situations with equanimity, through a combination of the model provided and the wealth of information gained in his classes.

His seminars were always exciting events: always keenly anticipated, sometimes negatively. Dread was not an unknown emotion among those preparing to give a presentation. Each Wednesday at 4 after the end of the class, all the students were to be found either waiting with the others in front of his door during his office hours or else downstairs in the graduate lounge, animatedly--and sometimes combatively--discussing the class over tea and cookies. He terrified us. Giving a presentation in his seminar was a deeply trying ordeal, alternatively exhilarating or gut-wrenching; often both. Watching presentations given by others was also challenging, in its way. I have the impression he did not realize how frightening he was. Some felt he was sadistic, looking for occasions to humiliate students. I never thought so; it seemed clear to me from the beginning that what he wanted was for the student to defend him- or herself. He was often unpredictable, but never unfair. He was the most demanding interlocutor imaginable, and by the same token the most intimidating. This was helpful beyond all measure: after him nothing seemed daunting.

Once in a while he asked us a question in class. It was always a trap: not necessarily meant as such (I was never sure), but the mere fact that he had suddenly asked a question made it a trap. Everyone tried to answer; no one ever really succeeded, to my recollection. This was mostly a testimony to how intimidated we all were. I remember distinctly one example: about the Wordsworth poem "Written on Westminster Bridge," he asked the Theory of Literature class which single word did not go with the rest. …

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