Many of us at Stanford needed no proof that author Robert Pogue Harrison is a chevalier gallant, nonetheless formal certification was given on the mild California evening of October 9 when he was formally made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, complete with a little green medal pinned to his lapel and a gift of 14th-century spurs. Someone mentioned that the spurs were from the Battle of the Spurs, which would have put them in the early 16th century, but no matter. I mention this detail only because I was curious about the story behind these heavy spurs, crusty with time and rust, laid out so beautifully in a presentation box. I should have snapped a photo, but I needed all the remaining juice in the smartphone to find my way home from the consul general’s residence, in a remote and tony corner of the hills overlooking San Francisco.
The occasion also welcomed the brand-new consul general to San Francisco, Pauline Carmona (the transition may account for the delay in the ceremony, since Robert was named to the honor a year ago – I wrote about that here). Her children were among the charming servers who passed the silver trays of hors d’oeuvres. A few of the consul’s words at the presentation (in translation):
“We are gathered tonight to celebrate Robert Harrison, a man whose dedication to the French language and culture and whose exemplary career have been recognized by his peers. It is for me a true honor to preside over this ceremony, which is, almost one month after my arrival in San Francisco, the first ceremony of arts et lettres I am hosting. … France is honored to thank you for the exemplary work you have accomplished in literature and in the realm of ideas. You are today one of the finest ambassadors of the dialogue between the United States and Europe, and you count among those who have achieved the most to further mutual understanding of the cultures of both continents.”
Robert delivered his own remarks ex tempore. He did homage to the French notion of reason, pledging to champion its cause. The French penchant for reason was one of several admirable traits he attributed to the nation. Now here’s the kicker: nobody recorded the talk and Robert apparently used no notes for the event. No one recorded it, that is – except that I nudged Anaïs Saint-Jude, standing next to me, and she dutifully whipped out her smartphone (which apparently had more juice than mine did) and caught the last few minutes of what was perhaps a memorable and unexpectedly provocative ten-minute talk.
He spoke a good deal about reason, and also the limits of reason, with a wonderful quote from Charles Baudelaire about the need to unravel reason for the sake of poetic creation – I couldn’t find the quote later, though I looked and looked for it. But I did find this one, which was intriguing: “I have to confess that I had gambled on my soul and lost it with heroic insouciance and lightness of touch. The soul is so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes such a nuisance, that I felt no more emotion on losing it than if, on a stroll, I had mislaid my visiting card.”
Well, that comment illustrates the limits of reason, too. So much in life is intangible, invisible, and unreasonable, and reason may know the weight of things but not always their value. Reason makes good servant but a lousy master – the French know a little about that, too. For example, in the days when Notre Dame was made into a Temple of Reason. My own thinking, I guess, owes as much to Lev Shestov as to Diderot or Voltaire.
Harrison continued (and this is a part that was caught on tape): France, he said, offers “a shining example of how one can be absolutely modern without betraying or repudiating the legacies and traditions that allowed the modern era to come into existence in the first place. Oftentimes, experiments in modernization lead to schizophrenia between a modern present and a pre-modern past. France has known how to not surrender what is most valuable in its tradition.”
The next French virtue he named is an educated heart: “Emotional intelligence is one of the great lessons that I take from modern French literature, but it’s also a value that, strangely enough, is not shared many cultures, not even many modern Western cultures. We have a tendency in the United States and Italy, he said, to see emotions as “that which bring us back to a primordial spontaneity and a childlike innocence. It’s not seen as a cultivated part of the human psyche, whereas French tradition and culture has always valued very highly a certain kind of emotional intelligence.”
He used Simone Signoret as an example, for the attitude she expressed about her husband Yves Montand‘s very public affair with Marilyn Monroe. Signoret famously said, “If Marilyn is in love with my husband it proves she has good taste, for I am in love with him, too.” But surely the educated heart takes in more than what people say about themselves? After all, she didn’t get a vote in the situation, and was humiliated and embittered by it, later admitting, “I detest women who come too close to him. Our friends are very carefully selected.” Nine-tenths of what people say about themselves, I find, is self-justification, and the remaining tenth is PR. Moreover, I agree with William Maxwell, “In talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.” Signoret wrote of Monroe, “She will never know how much I didn’t hate her,” but that was after the movie icon was long and safely dead. The affair had accelerated the downward spiral that led to Monroe’s suicide. The unstable star had stumbled into a triangle where two people were playing poker, and one roulette. She was playing for keeps in a world where nothing was for keeps…
Anyway, these thoughts began to roll through my mind, so I almost missed what he said next – about France having “a kind of emotionality that is the fruit of a cultivation of certain intelligent analysis of what the emotions can do.”
Then his final point: “One quick word about form. One thing I respect the most about almost any kind of French event or meal or place, is that it’s done in a holistic fashion. There is nothing that is done halfway. Now that I’ve become a chevalier, I shouldn’t use the language that I might have used before,” he said and paused, with a glance at Madame Carmona. “I hope Madame le Consul will forgive me for the expression we use in English – saying we do something ‘half-assed.’ With the French, in my experience, it’s always ‘whole-assed.’ Tonight is another example of how things are not done halfway.” Everyone laughed.
Something about form, something that I wanted to say … oh, I don’t remember now. Like most of Robert’s talks, this one, though brief, was seminal, and I wanted to continue the conversation – but the room was growing loud, cacophonous even, and I was quickly enveloped by hubbub, champagne, and the solitude that occurs when what’s inside your head is so different from the noise around it.