UChicago Humanities Scholar Honored for His Work on French Culture

UChicago Humanities Scholar Honored for His Work on French Culture

Thomas Pavel

By Sara Patterson

An influential and original literary scholar, Prof. Emeritus Thomas Pavel recently received the 2023 Grand Prix de la Francophonie from the Académie Française for his contributions to the development of the French language and culture worldwide. His affection for past cultures, particularly the French and Francophone, inspired his research. Pavel sought meaning in both the famous aspects of the past and the half-forgotten ones.

“It is essential to study and teach the great books, but it is also fascinating to rediscover the less great books of the past,” said Pavel, the Gordon J. Laing Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature, the Committee on Social Thought, and Fundamentals at UChicago. “These books tell us how the less grandiose, everyday culture of a certain period generated beautiful, meaningful art and thought.”

As an example, he notes the incredibly beautiful 17th-century play “Phèdre” by Jean Racine, which tried to rewrite an old Greek tragedy by civilizing its characters, moderating the violence, and making the characters more noble. Pavel cites the forgotten tradition of long adventure novels, which were read aloud in weekly sessions among friends, which he compares to the contemporary devotion of watching weekly TV series among families and friends.

From his early scholarship incorporating linguistics into literature, Pavel advanced to the study of imaginary worlds within literature in his books such as “Fictional Worlds” (1986) and “L’ Art de l’éloignement: Essai sur l’imagination classique” (Art as Distance: Essay on the Neo-Classical Imagination, 1996).

“For the past five decades, Thomas Pavel’s wide-ranging and exhilarating work on French literature have reshaped the field,” said Larry Norman, the Frank L. Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Theater and Performance Studies, Fundamentals, and the College at UChicago. “Never bound by narrow disciplinary borders, Thomas has continually opened new horizons by tackling the big questions of both aesthetic form and the history of moral and political thought.”

“Thomas Pavel is in my view the most important thinker today to write on the novel—from its ancient to its modern versions,” said François Meltzer, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, the Divinity School, and the College at UChicago. “He brings his reader a respect for the text and, at the same time, an insistence on textual problematics and a recognition of its historical and literary depths. Pavel’s reader is simultaneously enriched and informed. The achievement is extraordinary.”

Early in his career, Pavel explored the experimental use of linguistic models in literature. He was, however, opposed to the dogmatic use of structuralism as a universal method for the study of culture. In his book “The Spell of Language” (2001), Pavel contended that major French scholars—Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, and Michael Foucault—used linguistic notions in a metaphorical rather than in a rigorous fashion.

“Thomas Pavel’s work is among the most wide-ranging of any literary scholar,” said Robert Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor on the Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at UChicago. “His work has always been characterized by originality, clarity, rigor, and a deep appreciation for the power and beauty of literature.”

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Pavel studied in his native country and in France and taught in Canada and the United States. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics and literature at the University of Bucharest, Pavel received his doctoral degree in 1971 from the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. From France, he moved to Canada, teaching and researching linguistics from 1970 to 1981 at the bilingual University of Ottawa. For the next five years, Pavel shifted to literary studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is deeply grateful for his experience in Canada, and how it has supported his studies in Francophone culture. His journey to the U.S. began at the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed by nine years at Princeton University before joining the UChicago faculty in 1998.

For the past 25 years, Pavel has stayed at UChicago because, since the 1930s, it has paid special attention to the cultures of the past. Like Columbia and Johns Hopkins, UChicago lets its students know that they are neither the first inhabitants of this planet nor beneficiaries of the only culture that flourished on it, according to Pavel.

He also acknowledges its unusual scholarly prosperity through yearly research funds, support for conferences and invited lectures, sabbatical leaves, and the UChicago Center in Paris. In this context and thanks to his Canadian experience, he strongly and successfully supported the study of Francophone literature and culture in the curriculum at the University of Chicago and the hiring of faculty who teach it.

“More than anyone else I have known, Thomas Pavel made the practice of reading literature an exercise in freedom,” said Robert J. Morrissey, the Benjamin Franklin Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and on the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities at UChicago. “His was the freedom to exploit the distance and the fault line that exists within each one of us through the complex mechanisms of identification.”

Pavel studied the evolution of fictional representation in the novel from the ancient Greek romances to the end of the 20th-century in “La Pensée du Roman” (The Thinking Novel, 2003), also available in English, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and forthcoming in Russian. In its acclaimed English version entitled “The Lives of the Novel” (2013), Pavel contends that the driving force behind the novel’s evolution has been the rivalry between stories that idealize human behavior and those that ridicule and condemn it.

“Throughout the world, Thomas Pavel is best known as a great theorist of the novel,” said Philippe Desan, the Howard L. Willett Professor Emeritus in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at UChicago. “His book, ‘La Pensée du Roman,’ remains a required reading for all students working on the modern novel. It is a book that influenced an entire generation of scholars. Likewise, his ‘Art de l’Éloignement: Essai sur l'Imagination Classique(1996) redefined our understanding of the classical imagination.”

To better understand the content of literary works beyond narrative syntax, Pavel studied the logic of possible worlds and the philosophy of art and literature. In his book “Fictional Worlds” (1986), he pointed out that the general truth of a literary text does not depend on the truth of individual propositions belonging to that text. Pavel contended that literary texts do not depend on a single fictional world. They may also refer to alternative fictional worlds, to the actual world, to active religions, and to discarded mythologies. He recommends that fiction be examined from three points of view: the semantics of salient structures, the pragmatics of cultural traditions, and the stylistics of textual constraints.

“Thomas Pavel’s pioneering scholarship has opened up new perspectives and directions in the theory of fiction, the transhistorical study of the novel, and the interactions between literature and philosophy,” said Alison James, professor and chair in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at UChicago. “More broadly, his work examines the implications of our engagement with the imaginary worlds of fiction.”

While his scholarship is wide-ranging and unusual, his teaching prowess attracted students from many departments to his courses and seminars at UChicago. His office was always full of students, where Pavel engaged in enthusiastic discussions with undergraduates and graduates alike. They liked his style of teaching and followed him from course to course, according to Desan.

“His passion for literature invigorated generations of young scholars and enabled undergraduate students to read the classic authors differently—from Cervantes to Balzac and to Roland Barthes,” Desan said.

Although Pavel has retired from teaching, he is continuing his research for a project about the way in which literature understands human action and its moral requirements. He hopes to complete the book by the end of this academic year.

“Literature talks about people close to us: relatives, mates, friends, acquaintances,” Pavel said. “It is not exactly sociology or philosophy. Literature has a special role: to be playful. It is a game to make us reflect on closer links among ourselves and on their major consequences.”




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August 3, 2023