Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Reminiscences of Michael Riffaterre

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Reminiscences of Michael Riffaterre

Article excerpt

One of the first vivid memories that comes to mind when I remember Professor Riffaterre is a bright sunny day in the spring of 1968. I was crossing the Columbia campus with a friend and fellow classmate, Sarah Benzaquen Lumpkin, walking from the Broadway entrance toward Philosophy Hall. Midway, we met Professor Riffaterre and asked him if he was holding class in the midst of the general turmoil that had brought classes to a standstill during the 1968 student uprising. "Of course," he said. Then followed a most amazing exchange between my courageous friend and our mentor. She was challenging his decision and ideological stance. The explanation we were then given went something like this: a liberal stance was out of the question for someone whose father had been a liberal politician (socialist mayor of Bourganeuf) but had been insufferably strict in the upbringing of his son, keeping him "chained" to his desk by watching him via a mirror from the adjoining study to make sure that he pored over Greek and Latin texts for endless hours; such was the daily routine. It was against that regimen that Michael Riffaterre, the independent adult and scholar, was reacting. No one was going to bully him into anything. If the father who treated him that way was a liberal, then he was going to be conservative!

As my "Doktorvater"--a rather fitting expression in German academic parlance to designate one's dissertation director--Professor Riffaterre, as I called him then, had quite a hold over me. After spending a year on a dissertation fellowship, I showed up with fear and trembling to bestow on him the fruits of my labor. Why fear? Well, for one thing, I had not finished my thesis on Proust (having spent a considerable part of that year rereading A la recherche du temps perdu). …

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