Roger Shattuck (1923–2005) was an American writer and scholar of French culture. He taught at Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia, and Boston University, where he was named University Professor. His books includeForbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography.

In the Thick of Things

With remarkable equanimity, we have since 2001 assimilated into our political metabolism a new Department of Homeland Security, complete with a presidentially appointed secretary, swarming bureaucracy, and enhanced budget. The department already occupies an important position in the Washington pecking order. On the other hand, it is not hard to …

The Shame of the Schools

The great truths in education turn out to be half-truths in search of their other half. On Town Meeting Day in March 2000, some four hundred legal residents of Lincoln, Vermont, elected me to a three-year term on the board of Mt. Abraham Union High School, located in neighboring Bristol.

A World of Words

“That [Helen Keller] has told her story, and told it so well, is half the story itself.”[^1] —John Macy, 1902 At age twenty-three, still a sophomore at Radcliffe College, collaborating with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and with her young editorial assistant, John Macy, Helen Keller published The Story of …

Tumult in the Clouds

Once in a faraway land bounded on all sides by a treacherous river, the King became unusually restless. He was sure that the pastures and the savannas on the other side of the river were more fertile than his. But no one knew how to cross those turbulent waters. The …

‘Think Like a Demigod’

“Madness and debauchery are two things that I have probed so deeply, where I have found my way so well by my own willpower, that I shall never become (I hope) either a madman or a Marquis de Sade.” —Flaubert to Louise Colet, July 7, 1853 “…live …

Farce & Philosophy

In Paris around 1949, “existentialist cabarets” became very chic. That year the Frères Jacques and Juliette Greco, popular singers on the cabaret scene, recorded a song that quickly became a hit. The words were written by a moody ex-Surrealist in his forties, Raymond Queneau. The simple lyrics, set to music …

Decline and Fall?

“All is true.” In the original edition of Le père Goriot, Balzac left this terse epigraph in English. It is the subtitle or alternate title of Henry VIII, an unfinished play uncertainly attributed to Shakespeare. The epigraph acknowledges Balzac’s profound admiration of the Bard. At the same time, it affirms …

The Threat to Proust

As in all branches of science, from subatomic physics to astronomy, order of magnitude can have great importance in literature. A consideration of size and scale in literature, moreover, soon provokes opposing claims. One might claim that all literature tends to the miniaturized condition of haiku and the maxim. And …

Louisiana Story

Edgar Degas, the Impressionist painter of racehorses, ballet dancers, and washerwomen, was the opposite of precocious. It is true that the official Salon jury accepted some of his early paintings. Copying had taught him his craft. But not until he turned thirty did he leave home, give up historical subjects …

Confidence Man

“Le vrai héros s’amuse tout seul.” —Baudelaire For fifty years after he had avowedly ceased painting, Marcel Duchamp spent much of his time advising friends what art works to collect. He helped Katherine Dreier form the one-woman museum of modern art called the Société Anonyme, Inc. When plans were …

Emily Dickinson’s Banquet of Abstemiousness

Forbidden knowledge—for example the closed door boldly lettered “keep out”—usually arouses our curiosity. Other forms of forbidden knowledge may provoke self-restraint and withdrawal. In the latter context, eight lines of a single poem by Emily Dickinson, because they describe the rewards of renunciation, bear comparison with Madame de Lafayette’s 200-page …

The Pleasures of Abstinence

We must beware of standard accounts. In tracing the development of the novel, or perhaps its fall, from idealized romances to particularized realism, literary historians have too often overlooked one of the most significant and enthralling novels of the seventeenth century. Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves was published …

Brinksmanship

The twentieth century in Paris opened with a curious lull, almost a whimper. During the previous century, each generation had staged at least one political upheaval, culminating during the 1890s in a spate of anarchist bombings and the near revolution of the Dreyfus affair. By organizing their own exhibits, the …

In the Magic Circle

A number of modern poets have tended to explore aspects of their sensibility and of their surroundings more boldly in prose than in poetry. Baudelaire excelled at the critical essay; his prose poems and intimate journals complement Les Fleurs du mal in subtle ways we are still exploring. Hofmannsthal made …

Born Again African

On July 7, 1928, the graduation ceremonies of the new French lycée in Dakar, Senegal, were dignified by the presence of the governor general of West Africa Primarily the children of white colonial administrators and businessmen, the school’s hundred-odd students included about fifteen Africans, only one in the graduating class.

Mascot of Modern Music

The eccentric cabaret-classical musician Erik Satie (1866-1925) floated with the fragile equilibrium of a hang glider pilot through l’air du temps at the turn of the century. Just by staying in place he passed through a succession of seemingly contradictory periods and styles. During the Eighties and Nineties he combined …

The Reddening of America

All day, mechanics and construction workers across America keep a radio twanging next to the socket wrenches or hooked on to bare studs. [^*] All night, the ghost army of workers and cleaners who service the offices and classroom buildings in our towns fill the corridors with the same music …

Mad About the Guy

Has Flaubert become our Shakespeare? Or because of the modern attempt by prose fiction to dethrone poetic drama, is he simply overrated? We should listen carefully to what novelists have been saying. Henry James called him “a novelist’s novelist.” Conrad, Proust, Joyce, and Kafka left no doubt about how much …

Catching Up with the Avant-garde

Eight books dealing with various aspects of Western literature and the arts during the last 150 years should tell us something about how we are learning to sort out our recent past. The only artist to whom all eight works assign an important place is Baudelaire. Bergson, Nietzsche, Ortega y …

Not Swann’s Way

We know now how inadequately we have been served by the traditional metaphor for the novel: that it “holds a mirror up to nature.” The metaphor does not fail because there is no nature, no reality out there to mirror. It fails because the novel offers us words, not the …