Coincidence, Chiasmus, Connection
Put together enough fragments and patterns begin to emerge. That’s what Professor of Romance Studies Jeffrey Mehlman discovered, somewhat to his surprise, when he began to survey his decades-long career as a literary critic and historian of ideas. Looking back at the books he had written and the writers he had studied, Mehlman was struck by the “connective tissue” that began to link seemingly unconnected readings, events, and polemics. “It seemed to me that the sum total of my books formed a structure of sorts.”
In what may be the profoundest coincidence, Mehlman traces the roots of structuralism—an intellectual movement that developed in France in the 1950s and 1960s, and which Mehlman was among the first academics to import to the United States—back to another continent at the tail end of World War II: New York City in 1944, the place and year of his own birth.
Mehlman explains: “Wartime New York was the city where French symbolism, in the form of Maurice Maeterlinck, came to live out its last years; where French surrealism, in the person of André Breton, came to survive; and where French structuralism, in the person of Claude Lévi-Strauss, came to be born.”
Which meant that structuralism—which had been “perceived as this extraordinarily complex French intellectual flower” when Mehlman first began writing about it in the 1970s—was, he says, “actually being made in New York at the same time that I was.”
Such instances of coincidence and chiasmus are recounted in Mehlman’s Adventures in the French Trade: Fragments Toward a Life, published by Stanford University Press. With distance, Mehlman found, “I was in a position to make the same kinds of discoveries, occasionally unsettling discoveries, about my own writing as about others I had written about.” Mehlman’s current book project centers on poems written by Paul Valéry during the last seven years of his life, all addressed to a woman half his age with whom the poet had fallen desperately in love.
In Mehlman’s memoir tracing the story of his own academic life, one thing was clear: where it began. As a high school student in 1960, Mehlman worked at a historic hotel in Touraine, where he took guests’ children on bike tours of nearby châteaux.
“The next year I was at Harvard, and they asked me what I wanted to major in,” Mehlman recalls. “It was so clear I wanted to major in the summer of 1960, which translated as French history and literature.”