May 9, 1937-December 31, 2004
Orest's recollections of our dear friend,
read at the memorial service held at the
Johns Hopkins University, February 23, 2005
Coming off the elevator, I look at the name on his office door, and I smile again at the humorous sayings and pictures that he put up, to welcome any and all. To ponder "Slightly Imperfect" with Gérard in mind always prompts feelings of affection. While not as heavily laden with meanings as the inscribed beams of Montaigne's study, the pictures and phrases around Gérard's door express a love of language, of life, of serious play. He was often at his computer when I came in. He would quickly punch some keys, curse a bit under his breath, and then smile radiantly when pictures of his grandchildren came up on the screen. The pleasure of seeing them, of sharing them with me, and of succeeding with the computer, were all combined into a single satisfaction.
Gérard and Anne's arrival among us did not occur entirely by accident. After consulting with all the senior faculty of the old Romance Languages Department, Dean Suskind asked me to chair a committee to make a senior appointment in French. It was Wilda Anderson who first proposed to us that Gérard be considered -- he was someone who knew current literary theories and was not hostile to them, though he rarely drew on them himself. The neo-Romantic effort by scholars to make the common culture and common people the principal inspiration for Rabelais' and Molière's creative genius probably collapsed of its own obstinate, learned, anti-intellectualism; but Gérard's piercing critiques certainly helped. Specific references to Bahktin are rare in his work. It was not so much Bahktin as the superficial Bahktinians that exasperated him. They were making Rabelais and Molière into themselves, without even knowing it.
We acquired a Vita and discovered that Gérard had been seventh in his class at the École Normale of Saint-Cloud. Eduardo Saccone piped up immediately, to say that he had been first in his class at the Scuola Normale of Pisa. From his first highly successful visit, we continued to learn that Gérard's love of literature, his intellectual playfulness, and his integrity made him the classic, great Hopkins professor. His work transcended the rather pedantic debate about theory versus history.
It is well known that exchanging one's own writings for correction can reveal the limits of professionalism and friendship. Gérard corrected my French; I corrected his English. Never once did he alter my thought or add a social-class dimension to my pigeon prose, nor was he condescending. Once, when he said, "Tell me what you want to say in English, and that will help me," I realized that I was making no sense at all; but he put it as if he needed the help.
When he was chair Gérard, ever the Humanist pedagogue, wrote long letters to the then Dean Armstrong about literature as a field of inquiry; and I looked them over for the occasional preposition that wasn't quite right. Once Gérard came along asserting that this particular letter was "perfect" English. We looked it over, and there was some little thing. Suddenly Gérard looked up at the ceiling and shouted a four-letter English word which he pronounced as if it were a piece of bed linen. Perfectionism in writing, thinking, and capturing a whole literature about such and such an author, humbles as I contemplate it. As a scholar Gérard is humbling to those in the same garden. Ever the patient pedagogue, when he discerned pretentiousness in the work of a senior scholar, pure, lyrical, acidic prose would flow from his pen. Gérard could be absolutely withering, and enjoy it.
Ever the citizen as well, Erasmian that he was, Gérard was depressed by our current stance toward the world, and the war in Iraq pained him. He could see nothing good coming out of such violence. We ceased to discuss the war before he left for France. Then, over the following weeks I felt I had to do something to reassure him that his decision to become an American citizen had not been all wrong. I dug out a mint silver Kennedy half-dollar, polished it, and gave it to Anne to give him as a token of my faith that, after all the shocks and counter-shocks of 9/11, there would be a return to a more consensual politics. The American eagle on the reverse of the coin is turned toward the olive branch. Gérard told me over the phone that he understood my gesture.
This is not the time to comment systematically on his work; but for Gérard, especially after about 1985-1986, scholarly work and living in friendship became one. The carefully thought-out dedication to Pat and myself in his books permit us to chart the journey toward joining La Boëtie and Montaigne. I am sure that many others experienced the same life of friendship.
The last chapter in the book on Molière, which centers on the Malade imaginaire, lifts the veil upon Molière's reformulation of antique thought about sickness and death. Laughter as medicine was the poet's last remedy as he went on stage the last time: "... le rire est non seulement le propre de l'homme, mais encore son salut, sa plus belle sagesse et sa dignité" (G. Defaux, Bryn Mawr, March 21, 1977). Gérard dared to write and speak about the unspeakable -- breaking down what Ariès calls the "silences around death" -- and he did it with great intellectual courage. All was in the texts, but in his vibrant prose he gave a new life to the ontological discourse about friendship and death that had been worked out in the sixteenth century.
Indeed, let us not forget the title of the conclusion to Marot, Rabelais, and Montaigne, l'écriture comme prèsence, of 1987: "Death and Writing." Oh, there would be important work outside the topic, culminating in an article on Corneille's Cinna, which shreds generations of Third-Republic-type critics who sought to secularize the play. But Gérard's dedications to us turned ever more intensely and expressively to the evocation of friendship and of time, then to friendship and death. In total friendship he put this inscription on the last one -- the M.L.N. number containing his article on Corneille: "La mort n'y mords pas," "Death has no bite." Anne, I cannot but think that, in addition to your own strength, you have gained strength through your friendship with Gérard.
So Gérard not only expressed the philosophical and biographical foundations for the Essays in the La Boëtie-Montaigne friendship, he discerned the thematic structure of the Essays. Like the inscriptions on the ceiling beams on the third floor of his tower, Montaigne's was a sincere effort to create a "place" for his late friend and to comment ironically, yet seriously, on the sentence: "To philosophize is to learn to die." Montaigne's claim to be totally and completely in his book prompts bafflement in all of us -- except for Gérard. As early as 1986-1987 he knew this to be true, and it was to deepen still more his deeply intimate friendship with Montaigne that Gérard wrote Montaigne et le Travail de l'amitié.
The final chapter of that book begins with a quotation from Seneca, and two from the Essays. This is the second one:
"Si [la mort] est un aneantissement de nostre estre, c'est encore amendement d'entrer en une longue et paisible nuit. Nous ne sentons rien de plus doux en la vie qu'un repos et sommeil tranquil et profond, sans songes." (III, 12)