Posts Tagged ‘Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens’

Stanford remembers Michel Serres: French consul praises his optimism and “infinite love of peace”

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Michel Serres was able to explain astronomy with history, music with mathematics, literature with technology,” said Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, French consul general in San Francisco. The occasion was Monday’s wise and memorable day of talks, retrospectives, recollections, (short) film clips of the late great French thinker Michel Serres, who died June 1. He was a  Member of the Académie Française,  a Great Officer of the Legion of Honor, a Graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, and a Stanford professor.

Audrey Calefas-Strebelle led a seminar remembering the French thinker, before the major evening event featuring a talks by Serres’s daughter, Hélène Weis; his publisher Sophie Bacquart; Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford Professors Robert Pogue Harrison, Dan Edelstein, and Cécile Alduy, among others. The long afternoon ended with Mouton Cadet , tea sandwiches, chocolate dipped strawberries, and piles of tiny little cakes.

“He was a son of the French Enlightenment, a strong voice of humanist ideas, the illustration of the French meritocracy, and the embodiment of the core values of our Republic.”

From his Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens’s talk:

Serres’s daughter Hélène Weis, and publisher Sophie Bacquart, with the French consul-general

Michel Serres was a French character, and like the best French characters, such as Cyrano de Bergerac and d’Artagnan, he was from Gascony. Born in a rural village to a modest family, he grew up during World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He witnessed and theorized the fall of scientific positivism, as well as blind faith in scientific progress. Many of his concepts trace back to his childhood, his attachment to the land, to spaces, and his infinite love of peace. This period of time marked him profoundly, and he liked to say, “my body was made of war, so my soul was made of peace.”

Like d’Artagnan, Michel Serres needed to see the world and explore the horizon. He remained a ‘real Gascon,’ meeting with the most influential intellectuals, still honoring his roots and devotedly maintaining his terroir accent, one that gave a poetic tone widely reflected in both his French and English works.

Through his travels, he carried his insatiable curiosity. Despite being faced with a world shaken by anxiety and turmoil, he always kept the calm, optimistic, and clear look of a child through his deep green eyes.

Today, amid fast transformations, interpreted by many as a crisis, this 88-year-old scholar saw an exciting and unprecedented ground for creation and social progress. We live through the fourth industrial revolution, which marks the beginning of a new era, a period of technology and digital innovation and the development of a new historical model.

Serres at Stanford: still larger than life

In Petite Poucette, the main character “Thumbelina” is named in reference to her ability to use her thumbs to send messages with her hands. To Stanford students, who are today’s Thumbelinas, Michel Serres said: “The future looks good, and I would like to be eighteen, Thumbelina’s youthful age, since everything is to be made, everything is left to invent.”

This was the message of a man from an older generation that knew the bygone era of the industrial wars, totalitarianism, and the constant nuclear threat, to a younger era faced with new challenges, such as climate change. It is a message from the past to the future, going over the heads of barking crowds feeling nostalgic for the times before the computers – the crowds yelling “it was better before,” the crowds criticizing the youth of the world, mocking their tears and their fights. To them, Michel Serres would say, “You long for the past. I was there in the past. I can tell you, it wasn’t any better.”

The Thubelinas should not be afraid to be young and to be different. For Michel Serres, true creation comes from difference, from the clumsy, the unalike, the left-handed, the weirds, the mocked, the seemingly ill-adapted. They are the true creators, inventors, and artists. They are the ones who will redefine the boundaries of a reality that does not fit them. And they are, now, the majority.

With the Stanford News Service, I was honored to do the only interview of him, ever, in English. It’s below:

French diplomat Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens travels to Boise to say “Merci!” to a 99-year-old American soldier

Monday, February 25th, 2019

The dapper diplomat thanks a teary-eyed soldier in Boise

We’ve written about the popular new consul general at the French consulate in San Francisco – the charismatic Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens was, after all, an honored guest at the launch party for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. He is already a familiar figure on the Palo Alto tech scene. Now he’s a beloved figure farther afield, too. He went all the way to Idaho to say merci to a 99-year-old soldier who fought to liberate the French, and to bestow an honor he has already bestowed to a few at Stanford.

Hence on Friday, “technician fifth grade” Emil Reich was raised to the sublime rank of Chevalier in the Legion of Honour for his World War II service, where he served with the Antitank Gun Crewman 610 division. With hundreds of other servicemen, he sailed to Europe, and on June 6th, stormed the beaches in Normandy.

Reich continued on to fight in the Ardennes and Rhine region and participated in the famous Battle of the Bulge. Since he was fluent in German, he frequently traveled with higher ranking officers to speak to the citizens prior to troops approaching the towns in the Rhineland. He was wounded twice and spent time away from his division in a Paris hospital, returning to his unit after recovery.

After the end of World War II, he served as an interpreter at army camps housing German soldiers and returned in to the U.S. early in 1946.

“As a young man you left your home and family to fight and liberate not only France but the whole European continent,” said Lebrun-Damiens in an address. “Your courage and your bravery are the reason why the President of the French Republic decided to award you the highest French recognition.”

The ceremony took place on the second floor rotunda of the Idaho State Capitol building, attended by Reich’s family, as well as French Honorary Consul Mrs. Hortense Everett, Former French Honorary Consul Ms. Gabrielle Applequist, Congressman Russ Fulcher Representative Jake Ellis, Colonel Brit Vanshur Director of Staff of the Idaho National Guard, Marv Hagedorn Chief Administrator of Veteran Services, The Idaho National Guard Honor Guard, 25th Army Band, Chief of Staff of the Idaho National Guard COL Tom Rasmussen and Louis Hougaard Policy Advisor, Governor Brad Little.

The Reich family encourages any other WWII veterans who fought in France, or their family members, to reach out to the French embassy in San Francisco so they can also be recognized for their service. (Photos courtesy the French consulate)

“Evolution of Desire” launch party is literally unforgettable, thanks to Leah Garchik of the “San Francisco Chronicle”

Friday, April 20th, 2018

The tweeting consul et moi.

I wrote about the launch party for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, hosted by arguably the most hospitable couple at Stanford, Marilyn and Irvin Yalom, a while ago here. It cast a spell over all of us, I think. A few guests have drifted up to me since and said dreamily: “Wasn’t that a looovely party?”

Of course, I would assert that any party that had buckets of French (real French) champagne was well on the way to being unforgettable. But that would underrate the considerable charm of the gracious Yaloms, as well as their beautiful Palo Alto home.

Both are Stanford authors, but he is also a leading existential psychotherapist; she is one of the founders of feminist studies at Stanford. She also has the privilege of being René Girard‘s first graduate student.

The columnist..

It would also undersell the caliber of the guests, especially the high-octane presence of our French consul general from San Francisco, Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens.

But it was Leah Garchik of the San Francisco Chronicle who made sure the party is literally unforgettable – as long as cyberspace and the Library of Congress endure – by including a brief notice in her popular column. We don’t get top billing, but one notch below a Diane Keaton book-signing ain’t bad.

Read the snippet in yesterday’s paper here. Or in the screenshot below:



A book is born! A party launches Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard – and the French consul was there, too!

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

Above, the tweet from the French consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens today at my book launch party at the gorgeous home of Marilyn and Irvin Yalom. The event was celebrated with plenty of champagne – the French, not Californian, kind. As Emmanuel noted above, René Girard‘s wife, Martha, and daughter Mary, attended. So did others who have featured on these pages: Ewa Domanska, Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Inge Pierson, Robert Pogue Harrison, Elena Danielson, Aleta Hayes, Elaine Ray, Trevor Cribben-Merrill, and others – that’s three chevaliers in the group altogether, by my count. Pas mal. Jean-Pierre Dupuy was in Paris, but made his presence felt via an email to the gathering, and addressed to René himself, who died in November 2015.

Here are the words of Jean-Pierre:

A voice from Paris…

Mon cher René,

En ce jour où nous te célébrons, je ne peux m’empêcher de penser ceci. Si le Dieu d’amour existe, quelles que soient la ou les religions qu’Il a inspirées, alors tu l’as rejoint, car mieux que tout autre prophète, tu nous as donné une idée de son essence.

Ni le temps ni l’espace que nous connaissons ne peuvent situer ta rencontre avec Dieu. Elle n’est ni dans le passé ni dans l’avenir, car le temps est probablement une illusion liée à notre finitude. Elle n’est ni dans l’infiniment petit ni dans l’infiniment grand, car l’espace est comme Dieu selon Pascal, « une sphère dont le centre est partout et la circonférence nulle part. »

La superstition consisterait à penser que de là où tu es, tu peux nous voir et nous adresser des messages. Ton esprit est en dehors de l’espace et du temps. Il est dans la conscience de chacun d’entre nous, vivants promis à la mort, nous qui t’avons lu, t’avons entendu et t’avons aimé.

Fortunately for many of you, my words were in English, and brief:

“René’s first book in 1961 made his reputation as a literary theorist; his final book took him to the end of the world: terrorism, the tit-for-tat arms race, and nuclear proliferation. And it was all rooted in human imitation and desire – not fashionable when René began his career. Yet within decades research from many fields would put it at the forefront, especially now, with cyberbullying, the mob behavior of our politics, our social media.

Signing books…

His critics sometimes say that his observations are “obvious.” Certainly René agreed. He said, “There’s nothing Mallarméan about the interpretive sequence that dominates my work: it is terribly commonsensical and down-to-earth… It rests on the obvious, and it seeks the obvious. Not everything obvious interests me, to be sure, only those observations that should have been made long ago and yet never were.” Obvious, perhaps, but hard to practice. Anyone who has tried to do so – by refusing to echo one’s enemies, not even in a gesture or sneer – knows how hard that can be.

From the beginning, I felt he needed a bigger audience. So when Bill Johnsen invited me to develop a book proposal for Michigan State University Press, I suggested I weave together the life and the work in a narrative targeted for the educated non-specialist – the New York Times reader, for example.

I have had 280 pages to do precisely that. Now I happily and gratefully yield the floor to others…”


And so I did. Marilyn Yalom delivered the words from Paris, and spoke as René’s first graduate student (she received her doctorate in 1963). Martha Girard spoke warmly about my humble efforts to portray her beloved husband. Trevor read my Kirkus Review (we discussed that here). Bill Johnsen’s words about my book were generous and what any author would have been deliriously happy to hear. Ewa Domanska spoke of reading René in Poland during the Solidarity years, and of meeting him at Stanford. And one person spoke passionately, eloquently, brilliantly. But more of that talk later.

Meanwhile, my first Amazon review is one sentence, five stars. We’d like to keep that proportion. Thank you, reviewer, whoever you are. And some more tweets below:


A chevalier moderne: Cécile Alduy raised to glory!

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

An intimate winter gathering at the home of the French consul. (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

On Thursday night, Cécile Alduy was raised to glory (we’ve written about her here and here). She was admitted to what the French Consul Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens called “one of the most select clubs on earth.” Its ranks include René Girard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Salman Rushdie, Peter Brook, Jeanne Moreau, and many others – and more recently, Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison (we wrote about the occasion here) and Marie-Pierre Ulloa. In short, at the San Francisco hilltop home of the French consul general, Cécile became the most recent “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Cécile Alduy, and cultural attaché Juliette Donadieu (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

Lebrun-Damiens noted that the order was created in 1957, and strongly supported by André Malraux when General de Gaulle created a Ministry of Culture for France in 1959. Then he praised Cécile.

“At the core of your work, you specialized in analyzing and deconstructing the notion and origins of the myth of national identity,” he told her. “You have used your exceptional artistic, aesthetic, and analytical sensitivity towards expanding artistic, political, and cultural horizons.”

“As a young researcher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, you decided to dedicate your thesis to great Renaissance French poets and to study how they shaped the notion of national identity through their creative writing. Following that path, you eventually exceeded your original academic discipline – literature – and shifted towards contemporary political analysis, with a particular interest for the ideology and rhetoric of the French extreme right,” he continued, acknowledging her articles in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New York Times, Le Monde, and others.

Cécile’s children also attended the celebration, and gamboled with a few others in the room where she received the small green-and0white striped ribbon and medal. Their participation was fitting and significant: it highlighted the theme of generations that informed both her remarks and those of the General Consul: Lebrun-Damiens noted the role of both her grandmothers. Her paternal grandmother, Jacqueline Alduy, was the mayor of a little town Amelie-les-Bains in the Pyrénées-Orientales, holding the office for 42 years until age 77. “As a woman of convictions, she was especially proud of your work on the extreme right and the analysis of Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen’s discourse,” he added.

Her maternal grandmother figured not only in his remarks, but in hers.  Excerpt below:

Three Stanford chevaliers: Marie-Pierre Ulloa, Robert Harrison, Cécile Alduy. (Photo: Anaïs Saint-Jude)

My first thoughts go to those who instilled in me the sense that literature matters, that beauty matters, that the arts matter, more maybe than anything else. That they are not just the salt of life, a little extra spice or pastime, but rather the soul of the human experience, what makes us uniquely, truly human, what keeps us alive, that by which we might be redeemed as a species, and as individuals.

You named already some of the benevolent figures who imparted on me a love for words: my maternal grand-mother, Madeleine Daumas, a bookseller at one point, a typist who copy-edited the numerous books of her husband, but mostly an avid, yet quiet, composed reader. She read and re-read start to finish all the works by Racine, Montaigne, Balzac, Stendhal, Perec, Butor, Claude Simon, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Faulkner, Julien Greene, Kundera, Philippe Labro, Sollers, Yourcenar, de Beauvoir, John Le Carré, Simenon, Michel Serre. Each Christmas, we counted not the gifts, but the number of pages to read she had received. She was the first to read my first poems, short stories, essays, thesis… (and knowing she was made me pay scrupulous attention to spelling) …

In her family, her parents made “arts and literature and cinema the normal thing we do as a family, like going outdoors or watching the news. Yes, I have to admit that I was not always a happy camper after hours walking through the Pompidou museum staring at contemporary art installations, or visiting Greek ruins under a 110 degrees sun in the Summer. But thanks to them I learnt how to see: colors, and light and shadows; I learnt the shape and tastes of cultures close and far.”

An added bonus: the tree…

Then she spoke of the mission of the chevalier: “enriching French culture is not a matter of celebrating ‘roots’ and ‘land’ as the nationalist rhetoric goes, that culture defies borders and fructifies anywhere, everywhere, that arts and letters and the values they embody not only travel but flourishes by contact, migration, pollination.”

“If anything, this medal and this city rewards the work of bridging, of crossing boundaries (national boundaries but also the boundaries of academic disciplines and methodologies), of traveling across cultures and languages, of being on the move and in several places and cultures at once.

“At a time when borders and walls are erected, I am extremely proud to declare myself a migrant, an immigrant, a bi-national, and a citizen of the world.”

It was, she said, not an achievement as much as a beginning: “a peaceful military draft of sorts, a call to arms to resist the spoliation of our common right to a world where words mean what they say, where principles apply, where cultures are respected and humanistic values upheld.”

…and the flowers

“Being called to become a Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters is less a recognition of past works than an invitation, a request really, to fight for the arts and literature: it’s a call to arms to defend with the means of sharp thinking, and eloquence, and sensitivity, and aesthetic form the value of artistic creation, which is another word for the work of being human.”

With the beautiful decorations for holidays, there was plenty to please everyone. Only one expressed mild disappointment. Her four-year-old daughter asked a thoughtful question: if her mother was now a chevalier – where was her sword?