Archive for May 31st, 2024

Pierre Saint-Amand celebrates Robert Harrison: “a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity”

Friday, May 31st, 2024

On April 19, Stanford celebrated the remarkable and many-faceted career of Professor Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the Department of French & Italian. We published Andrea Capra‘s tribute to him “How to Think with Robert Pogue Harrison,” on the Book Haven. Capra, a grateful former student, is now Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton. Today, we share the presentation from a colleague who attended the festivities. Pierre Saint-Amand, Yale University’s Benjamin F. Barge Professor of French (he was formerly at Stanford), focuses his research on 18th-century literature, especially the libertine novel, the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and literary criticism and theory. Some of you may remember also him from the Another Look 2019 discussion of Madame de LaFayette’s landmark 1678 novella, The Princesse de Clèves. He was a brilliant addition to the Another Look panel, and a lively presence at Stanford day-long symposium for Robert Harrison as he officially transitioned to “emeritus.” Here’s what he said:

I am pleased to say a few words about Robert Harrison as we open this conference on the occasion of his retirement. These will be not savant words but words of affection. Robert and I were both young assistant professors in the early eighties, here at Stanford. Robert was then a specialist of Dante, fresh from Cornell, having written on the Vita Nuova. I am glad I had a front row seat to the immediate rise of his global success and his amazing career. I saw him mutate to become a philosopher, in the old sense of the term, one expressing his views on the human condition, and a public intellectual as he took to the waves. Everything started with Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, a prescient book of which I remember the humble and patient beginning. Robert put it together assembling erudition and swaps of visionary poetic language, going from Vico to Zanzotto. I am attached to Robert’s early books, as I felt a part of them when they were being written, and as they got especially a second distinguished life in French. Robert enjoyed naming these translations (beautifully realized by Florence Naugrette): he repeated those names as if they contained a special essence; he would say Forêts, Jardins, Les Morts. They were not books but some kinds of ecstatic emanations of the originals. Robert was a true professor of French and Italian; he was the eminent bridge of these two linguistic regions of this department and certainly the major intellectual spirit linking the two communities.

Pierre Saint-Amand

 He writes beautifully of this place, Stanford, that he will never attempt to leave, as I did (for Robert likes the woods as much as I like the city life). The university, he writes in Jardins, gave him so much. It’s strange to think of Robert as a man of institution, but he valued the university, this university, as a place of humanist exception and certainly of civilized friendship. He sees the university positively as a perfected garden. He has stayed here to live at Stanford, finding his habitat, his habitation, on the most perfect and secret street, Gerona Road, a hidden route in a wooden local. Robert finally left a modest cottage in a garden where he wrote his most precious books, now, for his house: a modern construction barely elevated above the land; an almost invisible structure hidden in the landscape of trees. This place resembles him and entertains his monastic and savage legend. I am reminded that in the cottage the forest once came magically to him when a branch of foliage pierced through a window to keep company to his computer. That was an awesome sight, a miracle of provoked thought, we could say, that wanted to prove to Robert he was writing the right books on nature.

 Robert is retiring. He will be gone from his classroom, gone from the Quadrangle, but you will still be able to hear him when he takes to the waves. For he has this other life, really a voice, a mix of rock’n’roll and oracular antiquity. Who says KZSU like Robert Harrison? Where is the location of that electronic space that invites his baritone eloquence? You say it comes from the Stanford campus, better it is a global digital agora. That’s where you will find Robert Harrison, Robert the prophet, warning us of the impending doom and delivering an activism of the thought. In the manner of Hannah Arendt, his muse, he sees those dark clouds threatening of a rain that doesn’t come. Recently, Robert has left the forest for the cosmos (I mean by that the worlds) making an even more giant intellectual, philosophical, and critical leap. We have all become followers of Entitled Opinions, hooked to the news of dark times. Robert though has a secret, a pharmakos at the ready, nothing other than the poetry of his vision, a poetry that is always the promise of a survivable redemption.

Robert Pogue Harrison with  Chloe Edmondson and Pierre Saint-Amand discussing Princesse de Clèves (Photo: David Schwartz)