2009 Balzan Prize for Literature since 1500
Acceptance Speech – Berne, 20.11.2001
Madam President of the National Council,
Madam Vice-President of the Federal Council,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Members of the General Prize Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me first offer my deepest gratitude to the Balzan Foundation for conferring one of this year’s prizes on me. It is an extraordinary honour, and one that I could not possibly have foreseen: one or two prize-winners of earlier years have spoken of the shock they experienced on hearing of the award, and that was exactly my experience, too. It is important to emphasise, however, that the Foundation designates not only a person, but also a whole research field, as worthy of the prize. That field, in my case, is French literature, and more broadly the European literatures. As you will no doubt be aware, enthusiasm for European languages and cultures is not especially marked in the United Kingdom, and I know that many of my colleagues share with me the sense that our labours can at times be regarded as marginal and “offshore”. By receiving this award, symbolically as it were, on their behalf, and more concretely by using it to spread the benefit among younger colleagues, I shall be able to transmit to them an unequivocal external guarantee that their professional status and achievements are respected at the highest level.
Although my greatest debt on this occasion is to the Foundation, I should also like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to the other institutions who have provided me with support in recent years and thus made it possible for me to reach this point. By generously electing me to an Emeritus Research Fellowship on my retirement in 2001, my College, St John’s College, Oxford, provided me with ideal conditions within which to continue my research. I have also enjoyed the warm support of other institutions where I have acted as research advisor or visiting professor, or both, during the same period: these include in particular Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Oslo, where I recently helped to run a project on practices of cultural transfer in the early modern period.
Looking back over my career as a whole, I owe a debt of gratitude to colleagues too numerous to mention throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and North America who have shared my enthusiasms, nourished my reflections, supported and encouraged me during difficult times, and worked alongside me; and also to my past students, especially the doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to hold academic positions of their own. From them I have learnt more than I can say.
At the risk of imitating the style of Hollywood Oscar acceptance speeches, I would like here to introduce a personal note and remember with gratitude my parents, who underwent considerable hardship in order to ensure that I had an excellent education. It is a pleasure also to be able to offer public thanks to my son Chris and my daughter Hilary, who are present today, for tolerating my eccentric behaviour over the years with good humour; and finally I must offer my gratitude to Kirsti Sellevold, my partner, who has always supported me and whose own academic interests have helped me to move in new directions.
Let me say a word or two now about those new directions. I have always taken an interest in the methodology of research, ever since as a graduate student in Paris in 1960 I attended the cours de méthodologie of the distinguished scholar Georges Blin. At Oxford, I ran a similar course for doctoral students for many years, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic life. Most of my published work has reflected that methodological interest in one way or the other, but it has become increasingly central in recent years. What has above all moved to the centre is the value of literature itself as an object of knowledge, and more specifically the cognitive value of literature: this was already a theme of my book Recognitions, published over twenty years ago, and it has remained a connecting thread in my work ever since. In the electronic era of the twenty-first century, when we are deluged with “knowledge” and “information” which is often of dubious origin, and when academic study is increasingly being evaluated for the immediate, practical benefit it can bring to society, literature and literary study need to be defended, and justified, as never before. Literature, I hope you will agree, is not merely a pleasure to be indulged in when one has nothing better to do. Because it embodies the most complex and imaginative uses of human language, it is an indispensable instrument of thought; it provides us with alternative ways of understanding the world and ourselves. I have begun in recent years to explore that cognitive dimension of literature with the help of colleagues in other disciplines – historians of ideas, linguists, philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, also musicologists – and this cluster of concerns will form the basis for the project I intend to launch with the funding the Balzan Foundation has so generously provided. It is a great delight to me that another of this year’s prize-winners is one of the world’s most distinguished cognitive neuroscientists, a founder of the scientific methodology which is progressively transforming whole swathes of the research landscape, including my own.
I therefore have the greatest pleasure in accepting the prize. I hope that, in the implementation of my Balzan research project, I shall be able to justify the trust the Foundation has placed in me.