August 30 , 1999
Volume 52, No. 2
New French studies course focuses on aesthetics, analysis
"What is Interpretation?" may sound like a Jeopardy answer, but is, in fact, the title of a new methodology course at Emory. Part of the new French studies major implemented last year, "What is Interpretation" introduces students to an aesthetic and analytical approach to French language, literature and culture. Where as lower level classes have as their main focus linguistic competency, French is used for interpretations of visual and written art forms in this course.
Taught by different instructors in the department, "What is Interpretation?" will itself be interpreted. The course will shift content according to the specialized knowledge of each professor. Last semester Assistant Professor Yvan Bamps concentrated on artistic expressions of the 16th century. The focus of his research is the relationship between language and memory at the time when modern French was established as a language of culture and power-when the French language began to become a norm, progressively overtaken and defined by the state.
In his upcoming book titled The Art of Forgetting: Order and Disorders of Memory in Early Modern France, Bamps assesses the significance of mnemonic dysfunction as portrayed in the literature and love poetry of the French Renaissance. He began the Emory course by teaching his students how to breathe while reading Renaissance sonnets aloud--they learned how language affects their bodies. "I want[ed] to show them how French sonnets are different from English poetry," he explained.
He helped the class to place each sonnet in its cultural context and look at how some poems use stereotypic images like "village" and "province." They also discussed why these images are so defined and what made a particular expression fixed. "The 16th century was the time when images like these were created and crystallized in language and inscribed in the collective memory," Bamps said.
While dating four centuries, the language of sonnets has a definitive structure-poets of the time wrote for kings in the established language of the court. In their discussions of poetic forms, Bamps' students learned how the language came to be controlled for political use by a centralized structure long before the formation of the Academie Française, France's renowned official language organization.
Besides exploring poetry, theater and the narrative sequence in technical terms, the students also analyzed the structure and content of architecture, paintings and sculpture. For example, the castle and gardens of Fontainebleau, built for François le Premier, were examined for their allegorical significance and in relation to their literary counterparts. The official image of Françoise I was investigated as language in several of his portraits. As depicted by Clouet, the nobleman's royal colors, the fleur de lis tapestry in the background, a medallion he wears and the presentation of his hands and shoulders all work together to control and reflect an impression of power and magic.
This fall Elissa Marder, whose research focuses on 19th and 20th century literature and culture, will teach the course. She has just completed a book called Dead Time: Temporal Disorders in the Wake of Modernity (Baudelaire and Flaubert) about what happened to the experience of time in the 19th century and how that change in temporal experience is recorded in literature.
Marder said she'll use some of the same classic literary texts as Bamps. "We will investigate texts that are complex, interesting and that resonate with larger cultural, historical issues. For example, Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal and Flaubert's Madame Bovary were both put on trial for offense to public morals within a year of one another. We will talk about how a book of poems could become the focus of a larger cultural debate."
Marder also will include films and other documents that reflect 20th century issues. For example, the French have been notoriously silent about the war in Algeria. There are some films that deal with this directly, but others like Diane Kury's Diabolo Menthe are set during the war and which serves as a kind of essential "background."
Written and visual expression spanning French literature and culture will be linked to a set of questions about interpretation that will run throughout the course. "Students will be taught basic principles of literary exegesis and interpretation-skills that are, in fact, very difficult to master-and they will be shown that the skills of literary interpretation may help them to approach cultural questions in new ways," Marder said.
--reported by Cathy Byrd