From the sun-flooded windows of his third-floor office at 82-90 Wall Street, Pierre Saint-Amand looks out over the trim gardens of the Elizabethan Club, on to the creamy ochre façade of the Adams Center for Musical Arts, and beyond toward the high-rises of downtown New Haven, in the direction of the Ninth Square apartment he now calls home. It is a far cry from the landscape of more than 35 years ago, when he joined the Yale faculty for the first time.
“You might say it is coming full circle,” he muses, and for Saint-Amand—the Benjamin F. Barge Professor of French—the simplicity of the statement belies its many layers. Saint-Amand is a scholar of 18th-century French literature whose interests have always tended toward the interdisciplinary. His most recent book, Paresse des Lumières (or, in English, The Pursuit of Laziness: An Idle Interpretation of the Enlightenment), looks at a period of French history generally marked by a reverence for industry and progress. Yet, across the literature of the time, there are marginal figures—characters of resistance and transgression—created by authors who chose to write against the popular dialogue of the century. Take the fictional journalist of Pierre de Marivaux, the vagabond musician in Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew…or the real-life artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, who painted subjects engaged in deliberate idleness as a riposte to critics who accused him of not working diligently enough.
“I have a tendency to approach the 18th century from a contrarian angle,” Saint-Amand says. “I take risks sometimes in discovering new fields.”
This leaning was already in evidence in 1981, when Saint-Amand came to Yale as an assistant professor of French. He was fresh out of the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University and, he freely admits, still honing his scholarly voice. Drawn to campus by the opportunity to work with many of the luminaries of his discipline, he completed his first book, Diderot: Le labyrinthe de la relation, in New Haven.
During the course of his teaching and writing that first year, Saint-Amand came to know Georges May, Sterling Professor of French, one of the major influences in the study of 18th-century literature and an eminent scholar of Diderot and Rousseau. The senior colleague willingly took on the role of mentor, reading and advising on a chapter of Saint-Amand’s work-in-progress. The young assistant professor’s career at Yale was off to an auspicious start.
But other forces would intervene, in the form of an offer from Stanford too good to pass up. When asked about his departure from Yale after only a year, Saint-Amand smiles apologetically. “I still was somewhat a student,” he says, going on to explain that two of his doctoral advisors at Johns Hopkins had begun to form a cluster of fellow scholars at Stanford. “It was the opportunity to go back to work with them…in many ways, they helped me to construct my career path.”
He spent four years on the West Coast followed by three decades at Brown—as the Francis Wayland Professor of French, professor of comparative literature, and two-term chair of the Department of French Studies—before that path would once again bring him to Yale. And the return is as much scholarly as it is physical: already he is finding cross-disciplinary connections that are bringing him back to the roots of his earliest areas of interest. He is affiliated with Yale’s interdisciplinary Humanities Program and a fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center. He remains close to a cohort of fellow “first-years” he met during an orientation program for new faculty in August 2016—a group that includes an economist and faculty members from departments across the humanities.
Later on the day of his interview for this article, Saint-Amand is scheduled to meet over lunch with Paola Bertucci, associate professor of history and history of medicine—whose academic interests bear more than a passing connection to his own. While completing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, Saint-Amand says, he developed an interest in the scientific writings of Diderot. As he began his career in the professoriate, it was difficult to teach science in romance language departments because “the foreignness of scientific discourse posed a challenge on top of language.” But here too, he may be coming full circle, as conversations with faculty across the disciplines and Yale’s expanding emphasis on interdisciplinarity are providing an opportunity, as Saint-Amand puts it, to “reimmerse in an old part of my life.”
Thirty-five years ago, “Yale was completely new for me,” Saint-Amand says, whereas returning in 2016 was comparatively easy. He had remained in touch over the years with longtime colleagues in the Department of French, and the prospect of being at “a university that is rethinking itself”—at one that “focuses on teaching in an important way”—was energizing.
“I came back at the right time,” he declares; “there is so much going on.” And in saying this he is speaking not only of Yale—of the important dialogue taking place around diversity and inclusion, or the opening up of new domains of inquiry—but also about the university’s home city: “New Haven has changed for the better: you have cafés, galleries, neighborhood events…an urban life that is more attractive in so many ways.”
From his home downtown, Saint-Amand walks to work every day, wending his way along a different route according to his mood and the season: the gardens along Wall Street, the farmers’ market in front of City Hall, and the opportunity to stop and chat with colleagues from across the university. The Yale community has been so friendly and welcoming, he says—yet another reminder that his return to campus was not just an arrival but a homecoming.
-Reported and written by Alison Coleman for the FAS Dean’s Office