Antoine Compagnon, an Immortel in America

Recently elected to be un immortel, a member of the Académie Française, writer, novelist and literary critic Antoine Compagnon splits his time between Paris, where he will occupy seat n°35 at the Institut de France, and New York, where he teaches at Columbia. As an expert in Proust, Montaigne, and Baudelaire, he is one of the figures promoting French literature in the United States.
© Miguel Medina/AFP

Antoine Compagnon “feel[s] good” at Columbia. After holding the chair in “Modern and Contemporary French Literature: History, Criticism, and Theory” at the Collège de France for 15 years, he is now comfortable navigating the waters of French and American academia. He still remembers his first seminar in New York, in 1985. He interrupted a student’s presentation, feeling that she was losing her audience. She replied: “You are not supportive enough.” He realized that, in the United States, professors adopted the Socratic method, whereas in France, students expected them to be authoritative. He recognized that students were more stimulated by discussions that were allowed to follow their course, even if they might come to a halt if the teacher failed to provide sufficient guidance. He also came to believe that certain clarifications were necessary to ensure that students did not leave his class with gaps or misunderstandings in their knowledge.

Having been an adviser for many PhD dissertations at both the Sorbonne and Columbia, he has also observed differences in the students’ intellectual approaches. In France, the art of essay writing structures students’ minds and enables them to address any subject. However, this rigor restrains their creativity – to the point that Antoine Compagnon forbids his students to write plans in advance. “Start by losing yourselves,” he advises them. American students are more creative but do not know where to start, as they are taught to write essays in one go but not how to construct a plan. “In the end,” he concludes in Une question de discipline (2013), “we should combine the French and American methods in order to create a good dissertation; a blend of Cartesian, Jesuit, and republican teaching with Protestant, Rousseauian, and democratic teaching.”

Two Fundamental Experiences: Military School and the United States

Antoine Compagnon, born in Brussels, is still moved when remembering his arrival in New York Harbor on a boat chartered by the French Line. He discovered the United States in the early 1960s when his father, an officer who took part in the liberation of Paris in August 1944, was promoted to military attaché at the French embassy in Washington D.C. Enrolled at the Maret School in the U.S. capital, a private institution founded by three French nuns in the early 20th century, he started learning English – a language in which he first “learned of freedom” – and developed a passion for reading. In the school’s vast library, he discovered the Nouveau Roman through Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Marguerite Duras, before turning to more classical authors.

After returning to France in the late 1960s, he joined the Prytanée military high school in the Sarthe département, where he began a science-focused curriculum. He portrayed a fictionalized account of this brutal, intense experience in La classe de rhéto (2012): “During my boarding school years, communal living offered an authentic social, political, civic, sentimental, and psychological education.” At the school, then during the preparatory classes designed to ready students for future prestigious learning institutions, he read voraciously. The leading French novels, much like his time in the United States and at the military school, were lessons in life: “Books expand our experience of the world; they teach us about situations we have not lived, or have not lived yet.”

From the Ecole Polytechnique to Literature

After finishing his preparatory classes, he joined the Ecole Polytechnique and took part in the intellectual adventure of the early 1970s. He attended seminars led by Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Lacan, and frequented jazz clubs and cinemas. Gifted with a talent for mathematics and physics, he tried to combine the two disciplines with his love of literature. In 1972, he made his first trip back to the United States with a summer scholarship to study at Columbia. While there, he took a logic and philosophy of language class in the hope of connecting literature and science.

Alongside his military service, Antoine Compagnon obtained a master’s in literature before submitting a dissertation proposal on the mechanisms of repetition within literature, which enabled him to bring together linguistics, logic, and the philosophy of language. “I would be inclined to say that I asked questions of literature as if I were an engineer,” says the man who, until the age of 25, had his sights set on a career in civil engineering. “I was the engineer who wondered how a book was made, particularly by drawing on other books.” After completing his PhD, he spent some time teaching in Rouen before accepting a position as professor of French literature at Columbia.

An Informed Perspective of France and America

His activities in France and the United States now complement each other. They “contribute to a certain balance,” as the teaching experiences are different in each country. In Parisian schools, Antoine Compagnon speaks in large lecture halls. His classes at the Collège de France are public, open to all, and packed. (Watch his first class below, given on November 30, 2006.) His classes in America, on the other hand, comprise around a dozen students and are more akin to research seminars. They constitute the “laboratory” for future classes given at the Collège de France. The relationship between professors and students is also different. They are quite close in America, but only become close in France through necessity, such as while advising a doctoral dissertation.

Antoine Compagnon enjoys cultivating paradox and complexity, but in an accessible way. “Perplexity” is his watchword, and the thing that drives his research. He likes to inspire this in his students to make them think and develop. As someone who came to literature in a roundabout way, the “almost self-taught” professor believes that interdisciplinarity is the only way to generate daring, original thought. “It is good to step out of your specialty in order to return to it with more use and reason,” he says. However, he is wary of combining disciplines, amalgamations, and the transposition of different methods. He prefers “exploring a discipline to find better ways to enrich another.”

Defending a “Certain Literary Culture”

Spontaneously drawn to the classics such as Montaigne, Racine, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Proust, and Pascal, he also enjoys exhuming authors whom he believes have been unfairly forgotten, such as Ferdinand Brunetière and Bernard Faÿ, who also – and this is probably no coincidence – had ties to the United States. During his 15 years as a member of jury for the Translation Prize at the French-American Foundation U.S.A., and through American university programs, he has been able to meet Patrick Modiano, Pascal Quignard, Pierre Bergounioux, Annie Ernaux, and Pierre Michon, authors steeped in a literary culture whom he sees as part of a dying French tradition. As for pessimistic diagnoses of the health of French literature, he says: “This catastrophizing is the result of short-sighted critics!”

In the same way that he refused to choose between literature and science, old and modern, teaching and writing, Antoine Compagnon does not want to choose between France and the United States. He passionately explains the importance of his vocation: “Teaching French literature today means defending a certain humanist and literary culture, as well as its place within academic education as a whole. I do not say defense because literature is under attack, but rather because it is little known. The same can be said for scientific culture, in which the vocational crisis is even worse.”


Article published in the June 2014 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.