1988 Balzan Prize for Comparative Literature
Among Prof. Étiemble’s (1909 – 2002) scholarly works some titles are self-explanatory: Rimbaud, Proust et la crise de l’intelligence, Le mythe de Rimbaud, and most recently the series entitled Hygiène des lettres. Étiemble’s entire work is characterized therein, because Comparative Literature as he conceives it cannot be separated from his subtle and precise sense for modern poetry, intelligent criticism and the demolition of myths. This last is, in fact, one of those obligations which cannot be set aside by anyone who wishes to follow the “rules of health” indispensable in study. It holds aloof from pseudo-profundity and avoids that exaggeration, always suspect, which can be detected beneath all comprehensive labels. Étiemble is in fact devoted to the investigation of the concrete detail which clarifies the meaning of the text under study.
Étiemble succeeds in eliciting the meaning thanks to many qualities which are to be found in all his books. Among these qualities there is one, the most substantial, which consists in his capacity for being – so to speak – everywhere. Étiemble is well acquainted, not just from books but from direct experience, with the United States and South America, China and the Near East, all countries in which he has most often taught and of whose languages he is a master. There is no better prerequisite for a comparativist whose university career has been devoted to the field of study which automatically benefits from the scholar’s travels. But, more than that, in Paris itself Étiemble is associated with truly literary circles. He moves in the surrealist groups; later, he becomes a collaborator in Temps modernes and La nouvelle revue française. That is why he seems to have known personally all the authors about whom he writes. This does not mean that he adopts their points of view and that he admires indiscriminately anyone who happens to be a friend. His intellectual honesty and exceptional independence – further qualities characteristic of Étiemble – save him from enlisting in any faction. They rather stimulate him to describe minutely all the differences which do exist and which have sometimes given rise to misunderstandings and estrangements. Étiemble, argumentative by nature, does not deny himself the candid and lively declaration of his thoughts and feelings. Though comparative studies are carried out for their own sake, Étiemble makes use of them also for personal commitment and for condemnation of racism, colonialism, Stalinism and anti-Semitism.
The redoubtable zeal with which he defends certain ideas and proscribes others is one of the things which entitle this scholar and critic to honour. Scholar, obviously, because there is no book, no article of Étiemble which was begun without long preparatory work. He needs at his disposal tens of thousands of slips to enable him to expound his opinions with the greatest clarity in a few pages of extraordinary concentration. He succeeds in animating this material, evidence of a remarkable erudition, with a lively literary style which evokes the reader’s enthusiasm and demonstrates the power of the creative writing which Étiemble once practised. In his works literature and criticism tend to be blended.
In everything that he has done, in his numerous critical essays as well as in his reflections on purity and decadence in language, Étiemble is the pre-eminent representative of modem humanism; he reveals, with resolute patience, the greatness and the limitations of human life. And throughout, the comparative method, to which he has rendered admirable service, is the indispensable tool.