French studies

Summer of Proust and Public Humanities

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Marcel Proust's reconstructed bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (My photo, ca. 2011.)

Earlier this summer, I saw a writer on Twitter suggesting that she would hold a “Summer of Proust” – an organized effort to read (at least) the first 200 pages of Swann’s Way. Published in 1913, it's the first of seven books in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time saga. I jumped in, volunteering to organize a chapter for my city, twisting the arm of my best friend until she joined up and tried to recruit people as well. When we had a small but mighty cohort of people, we began to read and scheduled our first meeting.  Ok, great.

Choosing Proust is not exactly like choosing a friendly, mainstream book club book—witness the book choices of any public library system that tries to do a “one community, one read” program. They usually choose books that are more straightforward in structure and plot, whereas Proust is a dense pile of run-on sentences and ethereal prose that's hard to pin down, an exercise in extreme aestheticism bordering on phenomenological theory.  It's hard to follow even if you're invested in it. Reading it as a collective exercise intrigued me because I, a person with an actual French degree and an established specialization in French art history, managed to never read any of it prior to this summer.

At some point during this process, during a summer replete with my own occupational soul-searching, it occurred to me that exercises like Summer of Proust are, however, the very point of the public humanities—finding ways to bring people to great literature, or art, or music, or philosophy, so that they can experience it on their own terms.  Terms that, because they’re set by the participants with minimal guidance from the organizer, are even more valuable than whatever the supposed gospel truth of the cultural import of the text might be.

Related: I’ve been struggling for weeks to write a blog post about Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette comedy special on Netflix and how it uses art history.  Her jokes are deeply well-informed and glorious in their confrontation of dangerous suppositions about canonical artists. She clearly knows much factual information about art history, and will hopefully inspire more people to seek out clarifications and truths about their artistic idols. However, another piece of historical commentary struck me to my core.  With the frame narrative of this special being her threats to give up comedy, she asks what she’ll do if she does.  She says, even with an art history degree, she can’t get a job in a gallery or a museum because they’re “too high class,” and “look at me!"

When people think anything in related to art, art history, or the humanities is “too high class” for them, we’re all doing our jobs wrong. Full stop. The staffs of institutions that deal in presenting arts and humanities content to the public should mirror the public they want to serve, which should certainly apply to museums, if not commercial galleries. Any person should be able to pick up Proust if they want. Maybe, because of what I know of late nineteenth-century French culture, I might laugh a little harder than another person at the scene where the narrator, as a child, meets a Nana-style courtesan for the first time (see, I read Zola instead...) and has to process that through his little brain. But that doesn’t mean that the other person enjoys the text any less.

We should be vigilant of the fact that the humanities, when public-facing and democratic, can offer strength and solace and grounding.  Where people disagree on politics or religion, or whatever else, they may find useful discussion in a humanistic text. There’s a reason that thousands upon thousands of people who’ve never read Swann’s Way know that madeleines are synonymous with nostalgia and memories—everyone has had the experience of being triggered to remember something of their past by a smell, taste, sight, or sound. Since we started our Summer of Proust group, we've found one Proust reference in an article on condiment mascots used by the Cleveland Indians and another in a podcast hosted by MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

Much like Proust spun an entire world from the taste of a madeleine, we must put ourselves in the way of experiences that expand our world views.  We must resist gate-keeping of difficult and supposedly "elite" humanities content and offer it to all who would be interested.  And so, in our little Midwestern city, my friends and I meet in coffee shops and apartments to discuss the words of a long-dead French author and his conceptions of social class that are as deeply puzzling as our own society’s frequently are. 

Before and After: Francophone World Cup

I write this as I watch a World Cup match between Poland vs. Senegal.  I’m rooting for Senegal, a Francophone African country whose literature and art I have been fortunate to study. When I majored in French in college, it seemed like a logical continuation of the French classes I took in high school, and I believed, perhaps, that it would be all Paris all the time. Luckily, I had a number of French professors, even ones who taught the “all Paris all the time” classes, who actively refuted that idea.

At my undergraduate university, most of the French professors regularly taught and even published on literature from French-speaking countries far beyond France.  In one class alone, I remember reading novels published by authors from France, Canada, Senegal, Egypt, and Guadaloupe.  In another class, focused on “women in developing countries,” we more broadly explored Francophone and non-Francophone parts of Africa and the Middle East through literature and nonfiction writing.  For these professors, it was never a matter of France or the French language being sacred for its Frenchness; they understood how the language connected all of these countries and their disparate cultures together.  They taught us that it was worth examining the consequences of French colonialism and how French influence fused with local practices, for better or worse.

When I went to graduate school, I took a course in West African Art. We were assigned a research project, and it was an easy choice for me to look deeper into Senegal for a topic. I quickly found a book about art that depicts Ahmadu Bamba (1853-1927), a mystic and prophet who founded a particular Senegalese sect of Sufi Islam. I looked further and found a painter named Alpha Wallid Diallo (1927-2000) who had trained in the École des Arts in Dakar but chose history painting over the popular modernism of the day. I became fascinated by a series of paintings he did to depict Bamba’s life—they seemed to use the idiom of history painting, which was so familiar to me from studying Jacques-Louis David and other French painters of a century and a half earlier, to craft a meaningful political statement for Senegalese Islam. Senegalese culture in the 1970s and 1980s proved to be a mesmerizing cocktail of post-colonialism, nationalism, and an emphasis on the arts as a means of expression.

I don’t follow soccer regularly, but there’s something about the World Cup that makes me love it even more and differently than an international competition like the Olympics. Dropping in to watch matches incessantly for a month every four years means that I don’t have the context for this sport the way I would for baseball or football in the United States. I don’t always know who led the league in scoring or recently signed a huge contract—except for a few superstar cases, I barely know which league many of these athletes play in during their regular club seasons. The leveling effect of everyone playing for their national team helps me to enjoy the sport.  Certainly, there are countries that field national teams full of stars in other leagues, but there are also teams, like Senegal and Egypt, where the stars, who play internationally, return home to do their part in attempting to lift their home country with a World Cup victory and maybe more.

I finish up this post long after Senegal’s win over Poland, writing as Egypt concludes their loss to Russia and almost certain elimination from the tournament. The grief of the Egyptian fans is remarkable, as strong and fierce as the unmitigated joy that Mexican fans felt after their team improbably defeated Germany a few days ago. I first became fascinated by the World Cup when I spent the summer of 2014 in France; I vividly remember being on a tram in Montpellier that passed a bar where people of Algerian descent were watching the Algerian team win and advance out of the group stage. That summer, I was also staying with a Chilean woman who was deeply, deeply engaged by how well the Chilean team was playing.  I began watching matches on my own, trying to understand the rules and dynamics of the sport, as well as the different styles and characters of each national team. 

What I learned in those Francophone literature classes about cultures very different from my own expanded, at the time, how I thought about cultural identity and the relationship between culture and daily life. As I have traveled more and studied more, my enjoyment of the World Cup has become an almost anthropological act—I find joy in these soccer matches where the fans arrive in their jerseys, carrying national symbols, and singing their particular songs. I love watching the fans as much as the matches, and I especially enjoy when they cut to a watch party in the biggest square or park in the capital city of the home country, where everyone loudly cheers as if they're in the stadium themselves. Americans have very little stake in this tournament, even when we qualify and probably even when we co-host in 2026, so the World Cup is a chance to pick a team that plays enthusiastically for a country whose population hangs their hopes on that team’s success.  I’ll be watching, keeping my fingers crossed for Senegal.