GEMS in portraits: Alexander Roose

montaignekoffieWe start off with Alexander Roose, professor of French Literature at Ghent University. Alexander is the author of La curiosité de Montaigne, which was published very recently (Champion 2015). Another book on Montaigne is already in the making: Alexander’s De vrolijke wijsheid. Zoeken, denken, en leven met Montaigne comes out this winter (Polis). Also, from January 2016 on, the monologue ‘Montaigne’ that Alexander has written, will be staged in theatres throughout Belgium and the Netherlands.


How did your interest for your research arise? Why this peculiar fascination for Montaigne?
I believe that there are two kinds of researchers: those who approach their topic ‘critically’ and those who write out of admiration. I consider myself a member of the second group. My fascination for Michel de Montaigne, for example, has many sides. Montaigne’s brilliance goes beyond the fact that he is one of the greatest French authors of all time (with equivalents such as Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes or Goethe): he also is the author of one of the most original books of (French) literature. Montaigne’s Essays rank amongst the most fascinating texts of philosophy. These ‘probes’ are a form of therapy (I actually believe, like Fausta Garavini, that they grew out of some kind of personal therapy), a self-portrait and a written confession. This philosopher-gentleman is thinking about the ‘good life’ and is trying, feverishly, to gain insight into his own existence. Doing so, he seems to hark back to the philosophers of Antiquity. What Montaigne wanted was to live a meaningful and truthful life.

Furthermore, Montaigne is the philosopher of the (pre-)modern period. He lived in an era of scientific revolutions, religious wars and political instability, an era in which a New World was discovered. Montaigne’s writings are thus situated at a turning point in our history. A turning point, in fact, that coincides with birth of Modernity. Interestingly, we find ourselves at a similar juncture today. Religious conflicts, globalisation and political polarisation, and the transformation of knowledge are also phenomena that characterise the times we are living in. And, like Montaigne, we find ourselves re-reading earlier authors and their works in order to better understand what is going on around us.

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/ or groundbreaking?
Researchers dealing with the Renaissance, the Baroque or Classicism are, in my opinion, always multidisciplinary. In the Early Modern period there was no clear distinction between philosophy and science; literature and philosophy were almost always intertwined. It is impossible to understand such ideas without gaining insight into a historical moment; yet we should not reduce those ideas to that moment only. That is why, I think, historicism is in many ways harmful. Often, texts deserve more than to be historicised (Plato and Aristotle for instance, are also talking about people like us today – however reductive this may sound).

The Renaissance is a moment of encounters: different eras meet, diverse philosophical approaches come together and the pillars of modernity (Hannah Arendt) become manifest. The researcher who confines him or herself to a single discipline fails to understand what the Early Modern period is really about. Take, for instance, my PhD supervisor, Fernand Hallyn. In his seminal book La structure poétique du monde: Copernic, Kepler (1987), he demonstrates the extent to which science is indebted to literature and how scientific communication uses metaphors in its train of thought. Hallyn was a researcher who was equally comfortable in publishing on Holbein’s The Ambassadors as on the rhetorical strategies of Descartes.

Have you ever experienced a ‘Eureka moment’ during your research?
I can even think of three such Eureka moments. The first time was while I was writing my PhD dissertation. I was fascinated, but also absolutely paralysed by the unequalled analysis of Hugo Friederich, the originality of Starobinski and the power of Gisèle Mathieu-Castelanni.I followed Fernand Hallyn’s suggestion that I step outside of my research and look for another perspective. So I started reading Hans Blumenberg, whose book on Modernity never mentions Montaigne. Finishing Blumenberg, I was able to situate Montaigne at the intersection of an existential and a moral, even philosophical, crisis. I recognised his ambiguous attitude towards curiosity and the paradox of somebody who dismisses everything as chatter (“le monde n’est que babil”), but who is in fact doing just the same thing in his Essays. This is a process I would thoroughly recommend to every researcher: step out of your area of study for a while, and then try to look at your project from a totally different viewpoint.

Another ‘eureka moment’ had a more formal outcome. In a piece on Shakespeare, Jürgen Pieters recommends five books in the margin. One of them was a collection of essays by Yves Bonnefoy. I was struck by the way in which Bonnefoy writes about Shakespeare. This reading was a true revelation: clear language, without jargon, without seven footnotes at the bottom of each page and yet without any simplification. Bonnefoy’s matter-of-fact approach helped me reassess Corneille’s masterpiece Horace.

Thirdly, I experienced ‘eureka moment’ in solving the gnawing question of Saint-Evremond, who considered La Matrone d’Ephèse as the quintessence of ‘gallantry’. (The widow of Ephesus is mourning at the tomb of her dead husband, until a soldier comes along and convinces her to live. The two end up making love on the very same tomb. When it becomes apparent that the soldier will be punished for not doing his job properly, the widow offers the body of her dead husband to save her soldier-lover’s life.) How could a story like this, which goes against all religious, moral, social and political codes, be the epitome of elegance, refinement and love? I spent hours and hours in the British Library, reading about this question, asking colleagues for help. Eventually, still, perplexed, I gave up on reading and started writing my article. During that process, I suddenly understood the point Saint-Evremond wanted to make.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?
The most recent study I read from cover to cover was Roberto Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire (2012): a fantastic work in which Calasso tries to understand Baudelaire’s poetry through his art criticism. As a disciple of Aby Warburg, Calasso combines an unparalleled attention for detail with an audacious analogical interpretation.

A study that was genuinely determining for me was George Steiner’s Antigones: The Antigone Myth in Western Literature, Art and Thought (1984). I was actually a law student when I discovered Steiner’s book; this essay convinced me of the importance of literature and philosophy. Steiner unravels interpretations of the conflict between Antigone and Creon – State and individual conscience, old and young, man and woman, law and natural law – and shows how this narrative has shaped Western culture. I remain fascinated by these questions, and by Steiner’s erudition and approach.

by Sarah Adams