Nikolaus, right on time

December is a good month to be a French living in Germany. First, we had a beautiful snowfall all morning, and I granted myself the pleasure of walking through Tiergarten instead of taking public transportation between 8:30 an 9:00 (bike is not an option any more, for a few weeks at least). Crisp air, still a few birds trying to convince themselves that  it is not that cold, fresh snow under the feet – nothing to do with the cold rain of Paris. What do I want from this day, I asked myself. I want to get some real, good, solid work done, something palpable.

My expectations were met and even outreached. I had an application sent out, and joyfully sent out, with as low hopes as possible concerning its chances of being successful (I am really taking a weird turn with this application mania). Then, after getting pressured for a paper due a few days ago and for which I thought I would still have 10 days, I miraculously managed to write almost half of it in 3 hours. And in between those, I was delivered a huge box, so big I would in no way have been able to carry it myself. It contained, two weeks ahead of schedule, 54 copies of volume 2 of my collection.

(Even the dinosaur is interested, see!)

This book contains mainly, but not only, the papers from the German-French doctoral Workshop I had organized with Iwan d’Aprile in June 2011. It  considers today’s operability of French-German cultural transfers, based on case studies. Which branches of research operate with that concept today, which fields are still open to that kind of approach? We had onboard German Literature Studies, French Literature Studies, Comparative Literature Studies, History, History of Art. The scholarly horizon is very diverse, and yet such big figures as Alexander von Humboldt or Adelbert von Chamisso are to be encountered in several papers.

Preparing the book took over a year and showed once again the extreme difficulty of bringing together different disciplines – and the difficulty of bringing together the German and the French way of writing papers. The papers are all in German, but preceded by an abstract in French. The three directors of publications have also mastered the challenge of writing a good introduction to a book that lives from the variety of the aspects it deals with. Correcting the last, and the next last, and this time it is the last, and the last of the last sets of  proofs drove me and Anna to the edge of blindness and dullness a month or so ago. But obviously, it was worth it, because when I received volume 1 from the press a year ago, I immediately spotted a few typos and have been reluctant to re-open it ever since, while I still haven’t found a single one in volume 2 yet.

December is a good month because of all these gifts coming from everywhere, advent, Nikolaus (that was today). I am really looking forward to see what my Christmas treat will be after all that…(and yes, I know, I have not been very digital lately, but I promise that will improve after tomorrow’s Stammtisch)

On the dust of facts (a French habilitation)

Instead of polishing my application / beginning to write my next due paper / copyediting this or that / taking care of my family / filling my fridge this Saturday, I took an early plane to Paris to attend my friend Sylvie Le Moel’s habilitation defense. It is a French exercise, only understandable (if at all) by French and likely to remain a mystery to all other people, which is only right.

To be awarded the right to defend your life’s scientific achievement 6 hours long, sitting in front of the 6 jury members and having your friends and family shivering with you in your back, you first have to have sent in:

– all of your papers and books since your dissertation;

– a completely new, still unpublished book;

– a look back at your scientific activity, retracing what you have done since your dissertation, trying to figure out where it all came from and is headed to (and this for 150 pages or so) – observing your intellectual belly button at length and trying to remain modest about it seems to me the whole challenge of this exercise. But maybe I am just envying those who have managed to be successful at it, because they usually say it was an interesting exercise in the end. Go figure.

I was happy to hear, evoked by two different jury members, the things Sylvie and I did together. I invited her to Potsdam an eternity ago to a conference on women translators, and then she also gave a paper at last year’s conference on “La figure de l’intellectuel” I had organized in Paris together with another colleague. And she invited me to one of her conferences – like the one in Potsdam it dealt with translation and translators around 1800. Fabrice Malkani is the one who evoked the question of the birth of the intellectual, to be situated, maybe not in the Zola era, but rather between late Enlightenment and Heine. It was music to my ears. But it was not really debated – that, I would have liked to hear, a discussion between the jury members on that topic.

No, they did not talk about that: they talked about the relationship between Majores and Minores, and those in between, and what to do with them. And that you apprehend them differently if there is at last an edition of works and letters. Boy, and do you apprehend them differently if there is a digital edition with a decent tagging of those!

But no, that was not a topic either. One of the recurring themes was how successful Sylvie has been in her scientific work, being able to combine extremely accurate knowledge of the facts and an operational conceptualization. It was obvious, too, that she knows her Jacobi like no other. Roland Krebs insisted on the fact that if concepts not based on solid ground tend to dislocate at some point, it does not bring much either to be only knowledgeable – the dust of facts, he called it, pointing out how it is bound to remain dead letter if not enriched by concepts.

But who, apart from those heroes who are not able to do anything but give everything, would decently embark such a journey on the sea of the dust of facts, and be able to conquer the right concepts at the right time? Since I have known Sylvie, and that is about ten years, she has been hauling and trailing this habilitation. Summer after summer, it was all about going to the library and writing, and being so absorbed by her daily work anyway, that the habilitation drifted away in between summers, only coming back stronger as July approached. I was happy to be there on Saturday, and see her reach the end of it. One thing is sure: never, ever in the 10 years ahead will I be able to do the like of it. And it made me revise my judgement too, because now I tend to think that maybe the German form for the habilitation is not so harsh after all… Plus, the fridge is still empty.