GEMS in portraits: Delphine Calle

After defending her PhD on love and passion in the work of Jean Racine in the summer of 2018, GEMS-member Delphine Calle has set course for a year at Rutgers University, New Jersey. She came back to Ghent for the Christmas holidays, so I had the chance to meet her for an interview over a Pain perdu coffee. We talked about bureaucracy, modern art, Thanksgiving and her postdoc project proposal about non-peer friendship in 17th-century France: Friendship across divides. A literary exploration of friendship and equality in 17th-century France.


How did your interest for your research arise?

My interest in interpersonal relations in French literature grew mostly during my exchange to Aix-en-Provence (2012), where I followed an eye-opening seminar on love and in which we discussed texts from Plato to Derrida, introducing me to conceptual thought on affect in literature. Two years later, I was selected for a PhD at Ghent University, and I immersed myself further in early modern ideas of love and affect in order to study how they illuminated the drama of Racine. My current project looks at both fictional and non-fictional narratives on non-peer friendship in 17th-century France to examine if and how “true” friendship could bridge gaps of gender, personality, socio-political rank or moral conviction.

The reason why I am so interested in interpersonal relations in literature, is because it is timeless. I would like to quote Marguerite Yourcenar here: “The return to a past period, or as in Racine, to a distant land, offers perspectives on our own era and allows us to see more clearly our problems… or the solutions” (translation DC).

Do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary?

Yes – although I would say that my current research is more interdisciplinary than my PhD. I aim at combining tools from literary studies and the history of emotions, using concepts from sociology and political history. Both in- and outside academia, I am interested in how politics, society and culture are entangled. What would Descartes think about the selfie hype? Or what do Racine’s plays tell us about modern TV shows such as Game of Thrones? Recently, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and became fascinated by one of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of Ariadne (1913, see image). The female figure lying in the desolated sun-drenched piazza was abandoned by her lover but waited for him endlessly. I immediately saw Racine’s oriental queen Bérénice, sent back to the desert by the Roman emperor Titus, whom she continues to love. The timelessness of this topic is represented through the gigantic marble statue (classical time) and the train in the back (modernity). Chirico’s painting thus embodies some of my major interests: the relationship between individuals, between past and present, and between different disciplines.

Have you ever experienced a “Eureka moment” during your research?

I would say that, in general, finishing (a central argument) of an academic paper always is a “Eureka experience”: you have different lines of thought in your head, yet how do you ultimately solve the puzzle? The moment I succeed in bringing together the right ends, I always feel very satisfied. More specifically, I had a “Eureka moment” when I was writing the last chapter of my dissertation on the reception of Racine’s representation of love. Although passion often causes the tragic ending of Racine’s plays, I felt nevertheless that these plays actually offer a celebration of love. How to explain that Racine’s Bérenice, a tragedy, has often been characterized as “la plus belle piece d’amour jamais écrite”? By chance, I read Rousseau’s notes on his experience with Racine’s tragedy. He wrote that “the tragic ending does not wipe out the effect of the tragedy”: by the time Titus sends away Bérénice on the stage, “all spectators have already married her” in their imagination. The spectator or reader is selective and only remembers the (love) scenes or passages he wants to remember and foster. Not only did Rousseau present the key to my question, he also interestingly paved the way to reflections on love and the subconscious.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?

I would like to cite two works with a completely different view on human relations: the first one is early modern and pessimistic; the second one modern and offering a positive note. The work of the 17th-century moralists has made a deep impression. Influenced by Augustinian thought, they see the perverting mechanisms of self-love and self-interest in every human interaction. Nicole and La Rochefoucauld argue that even the most intimate relation or the most benevolent and positive action is in the end selfish. I read Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness (1986) then as a counter argument, picking up, in a way, the defense of humanity. In this study of ancient tragedy, I particularly appreciated how she insists on the humanity – and thus the beauty – in tragedy, even in the cruelest deeds by passionate tragic heroes. While the moralists inevitably make us question – and suspect – the motivations behind the most virtuous deeds, Nussbaum works the other way round by highlighting the beauty of human trial and error.

By Sarah Adams

Image reference: One of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings of Ariadne (1912-1913). Philadelphia Museum of Art.