GEMS in portraits: Christophe Madelein

Last Thursday, I had my very own Madelein moment, although not in the way Marcel had it in À la recherche du temps perdu. I got the opportunity to sit down with Christophe Madelein for an interview and some coffees at Vooruit. Christophe did both his PhD and his Postdoc at Ghent University. He also worked as a guest professor at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and the Arteveldehogeschool Gent, and was Brueghel Chair at the University of Pennsylvania. Although Christophe is currently unaffiliated, he is still very busy doing research, especially on the poetry of Hubert Korneliszoon Poot. Moreover, he is one of the editors of the Jaarboek Achttiende Eeuw and a jury member for the study group’s thesis prize. We talked about theatre, his book discussion club in Lokeren, and our shared interest in providentialism. And of course, I also had some by now familiar questions to ask.

Hubert Kornelisz. Poot – Op de hoge watervloed, omtrent het einde des jaars MDCCXVII

How did your interests in your research arise?

“During my studies Dutch and English here at Ghent University I was mainly interested in contemporary literature. I wrote a thesis on Paul de Wispelaere’s autobiographical works Het verkoolde alfabet and Paul-tegenpaul. Only during my Ma-na-Ma literary theory, for which I wrote a second thesis on Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn,my interest in historical literature was triggered.  Some years after my studies, I could start a PhD in Ghent. My promotor Jürgen Pieters had a research project on the sublime and I got the position. I investigated how Dutch late 18th-century theoretical writings on the sublime related to canonical international tracts on the same subject. In this project, some passions of mine, like literature, history and philosophy, all came together. My postdoc, then, was about national history in late 18th-century Dutch epics. And now I’m working on the 18th-century poet Hubert Korneliszoon Poot (1689-1733), so I guess I’m a true dix-huitièmist (laughs). My fascination for Poot’s poetry originated after I was asked to write a contribution for the ‘Gedicht belicht’ section on the website of the DBNL. I opted for Poot’s very last poem Op de dood van mijn dochtertje (1733). For the moment, I’m trying to chart the shift from the sublime to the pastoral in Poot’s poems on storms and floods. My fascination for the sublime returns in my attention for these overwhelming natural phenomena.”

Do you consider your research to be interdisciplinary?

“Without any doubt: yes! I think that’s self-evident. Honestly, I cannot quite understand how you can conduct proper research without working interdisciplinary. In order for me to say something about the sublime in 18th-century Dutch texts, I need to have at least some basic knowledge of early modern religious, cultural-historical and philosophical ideas. My research is as much concerned with the disciplines of history of ideas and Begriffsgeschichte as with literature itself. I often have discussions with colleagues who are convinced that their work isn’t interdisciplinary, since they regard literary historiography as a wholly separate discipline. They often create an artificial distinction between literary historians, whose research they consider to be historical, and literary scholars, whose research is deemed to be a-historical. I truly do not understand why some people find it necessary to make this rather remarkable distinction.”

Have you ever experienced a Eureka moment in your research?

“No, I haven’t. Every time I’m writing a text I get to the point at which everything falls into place. My research always grows quite organically. There is never one moment in which everything comes together. In general, my research process is always composed of multiple moments at which I‘m able to see some necessary connections. This process goes pretty slowly most of the time, but my writing process always goes rather smooth. As a matter of fact, I still have a pile of unpublished papers at home. Maybe I should start rewriting them as proper articles.”

What is the most inspiring study you have recently read?

“The most inspiring study I have ever read is Joris van Eijnatten’s 1998 study Hogere sferen: de ideeënwereld van Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831), which I read during the first year of my PhD. It is both wide and in-depth, and consists of a very theoretical, but nevertheless very accessible analysis of Bilderdijk’s thinking. According to me, this is the best study on Bilderdijk ever written. Despite the fact that there has been published a lot on Bilderdijk recently, Hogere sferen still remains the reference. The most recent study I read is Jan Wim Buisman’s Onweer (2019), which I reviewed for Ons Erfdeel. Buisman’s book is a cultural history of the lightning rod. It describes the scientific significance of the phenomenon and its implications for the religious conception of lightning as a sign of God’s wrath. To divert lightning strikes was regarded as a form of heresy. Buisman also tries to connect the lightning rod with the notion of the sublime. However, I think his definition of the sublime is way too narrow, but I guess I’m biased when it comes to the sublime (laughs).”

By Tom Laureys