October 27th, 2008


The Sorbonne

We've been here two days ago already, but time is flying in its usual annoying manner. I put it down to having come here often enough that we have an actual social life and places we always go and things we always do. Which prevents us from feeling dull (if such a thing were possible in Paris) when we're here for weeks. But when we're here for 4 days, it gets pretty intense.

I was going to write about our friend Maud's soutenance de these on Friday. Fascinating. Scary. If my defense had been like that, I don't know what I would have done. Passed, probably--nobody, but nobody then alive knew as much about Elizabethan copyright law as I did. But it would have been a lot more traumatic.

Maud clearly knew as much about le Roman d'Alexandre en prose, both pictures and text, as anyone now living. But since she was doing a cross-disciplinary thesis (unheard of here in France) in both literature and art history, her committee of five women were really dragging her over the coals. Apparently, French defenses consist of the defender speaking for 30 min, followed by each member of her committee going over the whole thesis, analyzing and commenting on each section. We're talking deep analysis here, from possible alternate readings of the text under consideration down to the prose style and word choice. Each presentation takes from 30-45 minutes, after which Maud gets to answer. Which she did, sometimes pointing out that the entire history of translating Latin illustrated manuscripts into French was beyond the scope of her dissertation, sometimes agreeing that she might say more about the way the illuminations and the text reflected and remarked upon each other, once acknowledging that she needed to look more thoroughly into Christian iconography and philosophy--although how that relates to a romance of Alexander the Great is something I need to ask her when we have dinner tonight. In the end, we all stood while her advisor formally announced the outcome of the committee's deliberations: that she should get the degree of a Doctor of Philosophy with high honors, and we all applauded. Then we wandered the halls of the Sorbonne until we found the room where the champagne and little tea sandwiches were laid out for the pot.

Part of the fascination of all this was being able to wander about the Sorbonne. The architecture is grand, the bookcases glass-fronted, the books in them bound in dark leather and tooled with gold. The ceilings are arched, garlanded, and extremely high, and the doors all dark, polished wood with oval brass knobs. The room the soutenance was in was smallish, furnished with not enough folding chairs, and about three degrees hotter than hell. We got there too late to sit down (it's a wander in-and-out kind of affair), so I could watch members of the audience take notes, yawn, even nod off. When looking for the pot, I was mainly impressed by how much the halls of one university look like another: bulletin boards thumbtacked with announcements for chess club meetings and student discounts for theatre performances and public lectures and public health announcements. There was also that unmistakable institutional smell--dust, damp stone, plaster, and old paper, with a faint undercurrent of disinfectant--familiar to me from every institution of higher learning I've ever had anything to do with.

Got to say, the food was a lot better than similar dos I've been to. Champagne, canapes. Little iced cakes. Yum.