Portrait

Laure Murat, a French-American Perspective

Laure Murat is a historian and a professor of literature at UCLA. She has been living in Los Angeles for 16 years and focuses on the history of psychiatry and literature. One of her works in particular focuses on Adrienne Monnier and her partner Sylvia Beach, founder of the legendary Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Her two latest books, Une révolution sexuelle ? and Qui annule quoi ?, consider the phenomena of #MeToo and cancel culture from a French-American point of view.
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© Philippe Matsas

Since teaching at UCLA, Laure Murat has had two lives: one in Los Angeles during the academic year, and another in France, where she spends four months every spring. She only broke this ritual once to take a sabbatical during the pandemic. “I spent 18 months in France. I came back to Los Angeles in January 2021, and since then I have returned to my usual rhythm,” she says, while trying unsuccessfully, in English, to get her little dog in the next room to stop barking. As she wrote in Ceci n’est pas une ville (2016), a literary book on her adoptive city, Laure Murat has felt perfectly at home in Los Angles since she moved there in 2006. While many European intellectuals prefer New York, she cultivates an “irrevocable passion” for this city, which she describes as plastic, elusive, and built for writing. “So many things have changed since the pandemic, so many restaurants have closed; it’s sad. But the concept of horizontality and the infinite, the fact that there is always something to see, has remained the same.”

Whether she is writing about Los Angeles, the history of psychiatry (La maison du docteur Blanche, 2001; The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon, 2014), or the Weinstein affair and the Me Too movement (Une révolution sexuelle ?, 2018), Laure Murat publishes books in an attempt to understand. To ask questions and introduce a certain complexity, with her particular way of questioning evidence and taking nothing for granted. For the last five years, this historian and professor of literature has been regularly invited to speak in the French media about French-American issues in terms of politics and culture. “I’m French; I lived in France for 39 years, and I have spent 16 years teaching at an American university – on the infamous U.S. campuses everyone in France always harps on about. I try to form views that are a little different to the dominant doxas.”

In Qui annule quoi ?, published in January in the abrasive context of the run-up to the French presidential election, she uses her trademark, careful approach to highlight the challenges and issues of cancel culture – a phenomenon from the United States which the guardians of universalism accuse of invading French universities. “In general, when the political class is irritated by a particular topic, it means that it’s worth reexamining it,” she writes. “Universalism and how we view it is at the core of most of the problems we have in France, and this saddens me. It’s a sort of veneer in a society with worryingly persistent inequalities, in which racism and discriminations are daily occurrences. All these debates, whether cancel culture, so-called wokeism, or cultural appropriation, are attempts to change the paradigm. And they are accompanied by a horrifying number of excesses, which I am strongly against. However, within this muddle, there are real concerns felt by young people and the working classes; a universalist concern, to be precise, which societies are refusing to address.”

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Laure Murat in the late 1980s: She graduated from high school and works as a critic for Beaux-Arts Magazine. © Personal Archives
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Laure Murat in her office at UCLA in 2006, her first year in Los Angeles. © Personal Archives
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Laure Murat in Joshua Tree National Park, California, in 2007. © Personal Archives

The Crisis of French Banlieues Seen from Princeton

In order to identify the origin of this thought process, we need to look back to 2005 when Laure Murat was invited to the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the concept of the third sex (La loi du genre : Une histoire culturelle du « troisième sexe »). “This was also the year of the riots in France. It was an initial shock, again within this French, universalist mindset, to see how these events were perceived and analyzed differently in the United States.” The following year, she was offered a position at UCLA at a time when the highly hierarchized French university system had turned its back on her. “No one wanted me, that much was clear! I completed a PhD in rather unique conditions, and I had always hated school and established knowledge. I barely graduated from high school and I did not go to college.”

At the age of 18, she started working for an art magazine before becoming a critic. She was then invited to give classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and discovered that she loved teaching. Encouraged by a friend, feminist sociologist and politician Françoise Gaspard, she began studying at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, which accepted atypical profiles such as hers. “Before that, I had already published two books, La maison du docteur Blanche and Passage de l’Odéon [about bookstore owners and publishers Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach, and literary life in Paris during the interwar period]. I’m a professor who has never taken a class! I have my PhD – I promise! – but I didn’t go about it in the normal way. I have a strange background, which is entirely unsuitable to a French university. My biggest mistake was publishing books before completing my doctoral dissertation, whereas this configuration is a huge advantage in the United States.”

Almost entirely self-taught, Laure Murat defines herself as “systematic” and “obsessive” when she delves into archives following a “shaky” method that only she understands. “I want to be gripped by the poetry of the archive before anything else. In terms of my temperament, I am more of a literary person than a historian. Sounds, hearing, and the way things resonate is what counts the most.” In September, she will publish a book on Marcel Proust – a writer she loves teaching to her students – to explain what the author of Swann’s Way changed in her life. Her long-term projects include a book she has been working on for 15 years, about women who were driven mad in the shadows of famous men (such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Adèle Hugo, and Tennessee Williams’ sister), and a biography of French feminist Monique Wittig, who spent half her life in the United States.

But the one she cares about the most, temporarily titled My Way, is focused on her trip across the United States in 2017, during which she only visited cities with foreign names: Venice (California/Italy), Babylon (New York/Iraq), Paris (Texas/France), Memphis (Tennessee/Egypt), and Berlin (New Jersey/Germany). “With this cross-country route paying tribute to other countries, I considered the idea of remakes, which are – if there is one at all – the essence of American culture. It’s not the same as parody or imitation. Here, with naivety, clumsiness, and excess, the world is reinvented.”

 

Article published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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