Robert Pogue Harrison had a surprise when he arrived back at Stanford after his Italian summer. In his mailbox, an official-looking letter had arrived from the French Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, awarding him the diploma and bestowing the honorific title of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest cultural honors France offers.
The award was established in 1957 to “recognize eminent artists and writers and those who have contributed significantly to further the arts in France and throughout the world.” In the past, it has awarded T.S. Eliot, Václav Havel, and Seamus Heaney, along with George Clooney, Frederica von Stade, Bono, and Sean Connery. Think of Robert maybe as a cross between Havel and Clooney. We’ve written about him before here and here and here and here. He is one of Stanford’s most prolific and eminent authors, contributing to the New York Review of Books, oh, here and here and here.
Robert is the author of The Body of Beatrice (1988), Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), The Dominion of the Dead (2003), and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). All acclaimed and widely respected. His next book, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, will be published by the University of Chicago in Autumn 2014. “It’s hard to characterize succinctly what it’s about,” he said to me. “What kind of age are we, culturally speaking, at this time? How old are we in this particular age?”
His esteemed books notwithstanding, he may be best known as the host (and founder) of Entitled Opinions, a weekly radio talk show that explores literature, ideas, ancient and modern history – all aspects of human experience, really. His guests are Stanford faculty and the scholars, writers and thinkers who visit the campus. (All the programs are available on the Entitled Opinions website.)
It’s not entirely a surprise that Robert, who is Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, has come to the attention of France in recent years. Three of his books have been translated into French. Moreover, in Paris two years ago, he gave a well-received series of lectures at the prestigious Collège de France, founded by Francis I in 1530, on “Le phénomène de l’âge – Littératures modernes de l’Europe néolatine.”
However it came about, the honor, which is competitive and selective, is quite a coup. He will get a fancy little medallion and ribbon (see photo at right), which will be pinned to his left breast during a ceremony at the French consulate in San Francisco later this year.
Robert has been an invaluable inspiration to many over the years, persuasive in his thinking, passionate in his convictions, wise in his insights. One of my own cherished memories of him was when he opened up a rather staid workshop on Hannah Arendt with a talk on “passionate thinking”:
The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”
“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.
“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”
He is known as a brilliant scholar – but among insiders, he is also celebrated as a loyal friend and a generous colleague. In an academic environment renowned for egotism, Robert has been tireless in promoting others – not only the work of the great (for example, René Girard and Michel Serres, immortels of the Académie Française, are his friends as well as colleagues at Stanford), but also students, younger colleagues, the humble and the obscure. I sat in on his Dante class last year; I know he is a gifted teacher as well.
The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres was confirmed as part of the Ordre National du Mérite by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963, adding to the luster of the award, which is competitive and selective. The order has three grades: commandeur, officier, and chevalier. From chevalier, one can rise within a few years to officier, and then commandeur.
But so far, Robert likes the title he’s got. Is it Chevalier Robert or Chevalier Harrison? Either way, it has a certain ring to it. “I’ve always had a chevalier gallant complex,” he joked. Does he award bestow anything beyond a medal? “I’m looking for a horse.” So we thought we’d find him one, here at right. It’s a white one.
Postscript on 9/30: Look what we found online! Robert’s talk on “passionate thinking.” Enjoy. I know I will.