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Prof. Antoine Compagnon: Winner of the Third Claude Lévi-Strauss Prize

Antoine Compagnon
p. 18-19

Notes de la rédaction

Source: La lettre, no. 33, May 2012

Texte intégral

1While it is a great honour and an immense pleasure for me to receive today the Claude Lévi-Strauss Prize for the social sciences and humanities, I consider it first and foremost as a homage to the discipline that I represent.

2It is a discipline that one has trouble naming – literature, lite­rary history, criticism, philology, that is, “love of letters”, or even the humanities, which is the broadest and most ambitious term and the one I prefer. It is also a discipline that may feel fragile in the new century and lost in the digital world. I am therefore particularly grateful to the jury for having chosen to award this year’s prize to a literary scholar, a philologist.

3As I know and admire the work of all of the members of the jury – Raymond Boudon, who is unfortunately absent, Ezra Suleiman, who introduced me too generously, Jean-Luc Marion, my former colleague from the Sorbonne, Mireille Delmas-Marty, Roger Guesnerie, and Philippe Descola, who welcomed me to the Collège de France, and Helga Nowotny, with whom I was brought into contact through the European Research Council, which she presides –, I am all the more sensitive to the fact that they deemed me worthy of such a distinction.

4Another cause for satisfaction is that I shall be succeeding, in this the third year of the Claude Lévi-Strauss Prize, two prize-winners whose work I have esteemed for a long time and with whom I am friends: Dan Sperber, whom I read as soon as his first book on symbolism came out in the early seventies, and Jean Tirole, who went to the same schools as I did, although these did not prepare us for later receiving a prize in the social sciences and humanities.

5Finally, and above all, I am moved by the name that this prize bears. In my Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, I evoked my incursions into the seminars of Claude Lévi-Strauss when I was a student at the École polytechnique. As I said, I sat at the back of the room, silent and attentive. It was there that I listened to Roman Jakobson, in particular, and there that I also heard for the first time Julia Kristeva, who was later to supervise my first doctoral thesis.

6Today I will also evoke another memory, one which discreetly links me to Claude Lévi-Strauss by the back door, so to speak. When I was writing a Master’s thesis in literature during my military service in 1973 in Verdun, I did not yet know how to type and I was looking around for a typist. A common friend recommended to me Claude Lévi-Strauss’ secretary. So this is how I first entered the Collège de France, skirting the walls of the wing where the Anthropology Laboratory then stood. At the time, about a decade before computers were around, the latest thing was the self-copying chemical paper called “carbon­less” or “non-carbon copy paper”. Lévi-Strauss had some shipped over at great cost from the United States, and his assistant borrowed a few dozen of his sheets for my personal use. Imagine my pride at having my Master thesis typed on Lévi-Strauss’ paper! And imagine my confusion when, thirty-three years later, his office, that I would creep past in order to get to his secretary’s, fearing that he should open the door, became mine, in this corner pavilion built for Claude Bernard.

7The first time I read Lévi-Strauss was when I read the passage on the invention of writing among the Nambikwara in Tristes Tropiques. These pages were as remarkable as those of Plato’s Phaedrus on speech and writing. They had been given to us in our preparatory classes as a summary exercise by my pro­fessor of literature, Alain Ferry, present here this evening, who then lent me the volume, which I devoured with passion.

8As you can well imagine, receiving a prize bearing the name of Claude Lévi-Strauss gives me a feeling of profound humility, or even of imposture or fraud. Who am I to deserve it? Just after I heard the news, I left for Beirut, where I was giving a seminar, and there I had this dream: the members of the jury were explaining to me that, on second thoughts, they had changed their mind and were not giving me the prize. I did not protest, as I could understand their about-turn and found it justified. Then, when I awoke, I was unsure for a while of what was dream and what was reality.

9I would like to reflect with you for a moment on the researcher’s concern that was expressed there: the researcher is always on the lookout, he or she is afraid of being wrong, of committing an error, of not being up to the task, no matter how high the recognition he or she has enjoyed until then. I can say that nothing, neither the Sorbonne, nor the Collège de France, nor any prize such as the one that is being awarded to me today can – or should – resolve this feeling of essential vulnera­bility. It is possible that this state of mind has been increased by my unorthodox origins and by the solitary discipline that I have chosen. Physicists or sociologists are probably surer of themselves, because they work in a team and do not sign their articles alone, because they trust in bibliometrics, in impact factors and in their h-index. The lot of the literary scholar is to be increasingly uncertain of the quality and value of his or her work, because, more than others, he or she adds words to words and writing to writing.

10That is why I remain surprised by the indulgence with which I met during my life as a researcher and professor, and I never cease to ask myself whether I was worthy of it then and still am today. It is said that the university is over-cautious. That is not my experience of it: it welcomed me, and I am immensely grateful to it.

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