Mar. 1, 1999
Volume 51, No. 22
Guerlac cultivates lifelong love of all things French
As an American--and, more specifically, an American well versed in French culture--Suzanne Guerlac watched with equal parts amusement and awe as the drama that was President Bill Clinton's impeachment scandal unfolded over the past year.
Remember, when former French president François Mitterand died in January 1996, standing at his gravesite were his mistress Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine--right next to Mitterand's wife, Danielle Gouze. The French press had known about Mitterand and Pingeot for years but ignored the affair, turning a blind eye to the kind of story "that pollutes the newspapers of America and Britain," in the words of the editor of Le Figaro.
So what did Guerlac, a professor in the Department of French and Italian, think about the uproar caused by the American president's peccadillo? "I have to confess, I followed it avidly," she admitted. "I found it absolutely fascinating. It's not so different from the study of literature; it concerns an event that everyone attributes their own meanings to. You're dealing with people's emotions about something they don't usually have an opportunity to talk about and able to see the roles people play, the kind of language they use and the kind of stories they tell to express their anxiety or their wishes. It is quite amazing."
Such a scandal would never dominate the media in France. Indeed, the French aren't willing to share their phone numbers, much less the details of their intimate lives. "I was told by a friend in Paris that there was a reluctance to engage with new telephone technology because people didn't want to have their calls identified," Guerlac said. "The privacy of personal lives is closely guarded."
Guerlac's work sometimes calls for her to delve into the personal lives of French philosophers, writers and other artists, but mostly she concentrates on the more intellectual aspects of things French. The daughter of a "Francophile" father, Guerlac fell in love with the country when she spent a year in Paris at age 12.
Guerlac's academic interests in France recently earned her the Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies from the Modern Language Association of America. The MLA called Guerlac's book, Literary Polemics, "philosophically rich and precise, critically luminous, stylistically tactful." The book explores relationships between the literary theories of four 20th century French writers: Valéry, Breton, Sartre and Bataille. "She demonstrates that theory, rather than representing a radical epistemic break, inherits and reworks the debates associated with [these] figures," the MLA continued.
In particular, Guerlac traces the influence of Henri Bergson on the four men. A turn-of-the-century philosopher, Bergson began writing in 1890s and is known for his theories of "radical becoming," of time as a power that affects consciousness of being. Bergson was a world famous philosopher of enormous influence, as well as a favorite in French society circles. He fell out of fashion "for some ideological and political reasons," Guerlac said, and has been intellectually marginalized.
Guerlac stumbled upon him while doing her "homework" for the book and became interested, then surprised that no one was talking about him. "I'm writing a short introductory guide to reading Bergson to try to alleviate that problem," Guerlac said.
She'll have an opportunity this summer to introduce him to students in the proper environment when she takes a class abroad for Emory's Paris summer program. For the course she'll be teaching on French theater, the students will get to see productions onstage, an experience beyond what could be offered in the classroom. "We'll go on little trips to the Loire Valley and see Giverny, where the painter Monet painted," Guerlac said.
Perhaps, if the students are lucky, Guerlac will take them to the south of France, to the village of Provenc, an unspoiled hamlet in the foothills of the Alps where she has been renovating an 18th century stable for nearly a decade. It's no easy task for a professor in Atlanta to make cross-Atlantic arrangements with a stone mason in southern France to cut windows into stone walls one-and-a-half meters thick, but it's been a labor of love for Guerlac and her 13-year-old daughter, Catherine. The stable will be a summer home, and the two will spend some time camping in it this summer.
"It should be livable soon," Guerlac said. "The town is beautiful, completely noncommercial in the countryside. The stable is just inside the gates of the village. Once a week there's a big market, and the village fills up as people from the outlying villages come in."
For an American Francophile living in a bustling city like Atlanta, summers in a remote village in the south of France are pretty close to heaven. It's a safe bet that few people in Provenc, even if they had cable television, spent much time being occupied by the Clinton impeachment scandal. However, it also seems natural that Guerlac, who devoted a chapter of her first book The Impersonal Sublime to Victor Hugo, would be drawn to the saga.
Her favorite player? Naturally, the one with the beret. "Monica [Lewinsky] confounded expectations and didn't fit into any of the roles that were given to her. She didn't play along."
And what would Hugo, whose own social calendar could be quite full, have thought of the man who most closely resembled a real-life Javert? "I don't think Hugo would have been very happy with Kenneth Starr," Guerlac said. "But I may just be projecting."