Michel Serres, one of France's 'immortels,' tells the 'grand récit' at Stanford
Michel Serres is one of France's best-known public intellectuals. He has a regular radio spot, and publication of his books is an event.
"Why do I speak on the radio? It's very simple," he explained. "A class that I teach may have 25 students; a radio audience 4 million. That's interesting for a professor who is trying to raise the level of cultural life."
America? Different story. A Google search turns up a piecemeal spray of websites in English; it is difficult to get a comprehensive notion of what, exactly, one of the world's preeminent philosophes is about.
Serres is modest about the size of his French audience, but at Stanford, humility is unnecessary: In most quarters, he is an inconnu, although he has been a member of its faculty for nearly 30 years. But the genial near-octogenarian has a big story to tell—nothing less than the grand récit, a meta-narrative that offers a sweeping, teleological worldview.
According to Robert Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian, "For the last 150 years, Western philosophy primarily has been a story of telling philosophers that they cannot do this, that or the other. They cannot synthesize, philosophize, cannot tell the grand story." This idea of the grand récit, he said, "is distinctly non-postmodern, maybe even non-modern."
"His is the 'yes we can' of an older concept of the philosopher. Yes, philosophers can—even in our time—tell the grand récit."
The reasons Serres is little known, even at Stanford, are many. He has an anomalous appointment as a permanent visiting faculty member, teaching for a few weeks during the spring and fall quarters and then returning to his Paris digs.
Moreover, as a writer (he has written 48 books), he is renowned as a stylist—and style is the hardest element to replicate in another language. His writing has been described as classical, poetic, a little bit arcane and virtually untranslatable. Understandably, then, he has never quite felt at home in English; although he is fluent, he clearly prefers a French conversation.
Hence, the largest reason for his American low profile: He teaches only in French. His invisibility notwithstanding, Serres has given Stanford much more than he is ever likely to take: Stanford has an especial cachet in the Francophile world, for Serres is a member of the Académie Française, one of its 40 immortels. It's the highest honor that can be bestowed on an intellectual in France. Of the three immortels linked with American academia, two are at Stanford—the other is Serres' friend René Girard, the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature and Civilization, Emeritus.
"They are very well known as writers, but they have problems in France because they are unclassifiable. These kinds of people are disappearing. They don't exist anymore—people who have encyclopedic knowledge, people who know civics, math, communication, science, anthropology. They are the rare and last humanists—what humanists used to be in the 16th century," said Audrey Calefas, a doctoral candidate who has been Serres' personal assistant for several years at Stanford ("out of friendship, really," she added).
American universities are commonly thought to have a more free and open academic atmosphere—at least, a 1989 interview with French journalist Jean-Claude Raspiengeas made that assertion about Stanford, calling it a modern incarnation of Rabelais' Abbey of Thélème, built by the giant Gargantua, which has a swimming pool, maid service and no clocks.
Harrison, a friend to both Serres and Girard, commented that they "belong to a generation of grand philosophes and French master thinkers"; both "come from a tradition that thinks big and bold."
"France rewards boldness—always has."
However, while both show "a grandeur of vision," said Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature, he noted that "they go about it slightly different ways."
"René's primary sphere of interest is primarily in human social relations, and the role in mimetic desire and sacrifice. For Michel, human behavior is one element among many others."
Harrison cites Isaiah Berlin's essay, which builds on a reference from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Hedgehogs, according to Berlin, see the world through the lens of a single, defining idea—think Dante, Plato or Pascal. Foxes cannot confine themselves to a single idea—Aristotle, Shakespeare, James Joyce.
Girard is a hedgehog; Serres is a fox. Girard drills deeper and deeper into one wellspring of thought; Serres' thought is a huge map—or a Catherine wheel, unleashing intellectual fireworks. Girard is inward; Serres is extroverted and expansive. Perhaps that's why the Times Literary Supplement referred to Serres as "a philosophe of wide-angled intelligence."
Serres was born in 1930 in Agen, on the Garonne river in southwest France, the son of a bargeman. Friends say his humble country origins are key to understanding the richness of his thought and his fundamental decency.
He was studying mathematics at the Naval Academy when he found Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace. Largely because of that book's impact on him, he left the academy and turned to philosophy. He entered the famous École Normale Supérieure (which Weil had attended) in 1952; he received a doctorate with a thesis on Leibniz's philosophy in 1968. He was appointed to a chair in the history of science at the Sorbonne, where he taught for many years.
To tell the grand récit, said Harrison, Serres must trawl "the natural sciences, genetic science, all new biotic, evolutionary, cosmological discoveries" as well as the history of science, philosophy, literature and religion and bring them to bear on philosophy, concocting "a coherent theory of where we are in human knowledge."
"And he's doing that. Especially in the last five to seven years, his work of synthesis is very compelling."
Serres weaves the history of science, mathematics, thermodynamics, chaos theory, Balzac, Proust, Zola and Chateaubriand into his reflections. His thinking perhaps is better known for its roads than its destinations, whether he's discussing le tiers-instruit, the third element between antitheses, or the pervasive relationships between parasites and hosts in human affairs or bridges.
It's impossible to present the full Serres banquet—there are too many dishes for that—but perhaps it's possible to offer the tiniest hors d'oeuvre: an ongoing concern of Serres has been the nature of time. He said the nature of time is more like the experience of closing your eyes, when images, thoughts and memories come to you in a jumble.
In his book-length interview with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, he compares time to a handkerchief. Flattened on a table, the distance between points can be measured. But crumpled in one's pocket, he wrote, "Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed." If torn, two points that are close will suddenly become distant—time becomes topology, rather than linear geometry.
"As we experience time—as much in our inner senses as externally in nature, as much as le temps of history and as le temps of weather—it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one."
Admittedly, he said, we need linear time for measurements, "but why extrapolate from it a general theory of time? People usually confuse time and the measurement of time, which is a metrical reading on a straight line" (emphasis in original).
Enrollment in his classes is not large. As Harrison noted, "His kind of philosophy is extremely demanding for students these days, because it presupposes a vast erudition in his students."
Are his students destined for extinction? Serres himself is not optimistic about the future of humanities. What lies ahead?
"Death," he says, and pauses. "Maybe."
"I don't know exactly, because I am not a prophet. But I am afraid that humanities are dying now because very few people now know the Latin language, know the Greek language, know Christian theology and so on," he said. "Humanities is an endangered species."
But if the class is any indication, many are ready to take the leap into his wide-ranging humanism, punctuated with his lengthy, memorized passages from Racine or du Bellay.
His class attracts an eclectic and loyal coterie beyond its enrolled students—three decades is time enough to accumulate a following. A typical class might include a Silicon Valley mogul and his wife, a prominent publisher from Paris, a Stanford physics professor emeritus.
"Michel Serres presents his lectures in the form of fascinating questions, which he gradually answers and makes you feel as if you were participating in the thought process. His thinking is innovative and dynamic," said Hélène Laroche-Davis, professor of French and film studies at Notre Dame de Namur University.
Alix Marduel, a former internist at Stanford and now a Palo Alto-based venture capitalist, said that Serres brings one thing that is AWOL in most philosophical discussions: passion.
"He brings his personality into the room," said Marduel, who has been attending the classes for several years. "He brings life to the dry and boring notion of how your mind works. He's not afraid of putting himself on the line, and a lot of people are. A lot of philosophes are—that is why they are so boring."
According to Calefas, "People are starving for this—it's disappearing, and it's what links people together. He delivers—to people in different stage of their lives, to different age groups."
Serres describes his delivery this way: A professor is a sorcerer, and his job is to make a phantom appear. To that end, he makes noise, bangs drums, gesticulates, sings and dances. Suddenly, if he is successful, a door opens, and Philosophy appears—then the students need not listen to the professor anymore.
That, he said, is his "dream class." And does he succeed? "The students can say; I cannot," he replied.
Classes have been called "Socratic," but the epithet doesn't quite fit. Questions are limited to a few minutes at the end; most of the 90 minutes are a stand-and-deliver bravura performance, followed by applause.
"It's not the typical seminar—much more like a coffeeshop conversation or salon kind of thing," Calefas said. "Each time he does a new class, he never repeats himself."
The observant may notice that, although Serres speaks extemporaneously, in front of him is a pile of typed pages. They are not notes but full lectures. He writes about 40 pages between classes, so it is all fresh in his mind when he speaks. Occasionally during his lecture he will pause, flipping through a dozen pages to catch up to his spoken words.
For the last few years, each course he has taught has turned into a book; for example, this year's Écrivains, savants et philosophes font le tour du monde. This spring's class—not surprisingly, perhaps, on writers and writing—is slated to be another book. Why this topic, now?
"Because it's possible that it's the last class in my life—one of my last classes—and it was a longstanding dream for me to speak about my conception of writing, my conception of the job of the writer.
"We don't decide what to write. The text happens, and it's not necessarily you who writes the book—it's another who writes. It's always better if it's the double who writes. Every writer needs an angel or a Hermes."
Serres said he has the feeling that when he writes a book, maybe he should not sign it. "Each book is carried by my double," he said, with a charming and characteristically self-deprecating shrug.