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Ata certain point in one’s academic life, the mood changes. I don’t mean the successive kinds or degrees of relief that attend appointment, tenure, and promotion but, rather, the grammatical mood in which we render a narrative account of ourselves. At a certain point, we stop thinking of time and subjectivity in the indicative—I am this, or I have done that—and begin to feel rather acutely the melancholic lure of the past conditional, sharpened in its regret as it slides toward the subjunctive—that is, in that affective continuum that lies between “would have” and “should have.” Oddly—and this brings me to our forum’s topic of the rites of passage in the academy—the shame of missed occasions, opportunities, obligations, or encounters acquires a certain, unalloyed pleasure if I express the sentiment in French. This may have to do with the distance or defamiliarization that cools and detaches affect, or holds it up to the light, when we speak in another language, or it may be a matter of having sufficiently mastered another language to be able to do so, and thus to perform another ritual as one should. In any case, it is oddly consoling to make the following confession: Si j’avais étudié des langues d’une façon plus profonde quand j’étais jeune, je serais devenu un meilleur chercheur (If I had studied languages more seriously when I was young, I would have become a better scholar). Why should this sentence—the texture of it on my tongue—give me such rich satisfaction, when it carries such a burden of regret? It would be inaccurate to say it inheres in the beautiful precision of the verbs, in the equipoise of the clauses, freighted as they are with the pluperfect and the past conditional, because the English translation lacks none of its clarity. No, it’s about something else. I am still in the process of thinking through what this something else might be, but I venture to say that it has something to do with the body that moves between languages, that is, with a sharp savour that accrues in the very movement toward, even as that frequently tongue-tied body has moments of embarrassment that are singularly untoward.

To the truly polyglot—and here I think of my most accomplished colleagues in Comparative Literature at Université de Montréal—such discourse is either tediously self-evident or the unbridled enthusiasm that attends a conversion experience; for them, moving effortlessly and flawlessly among languages is, literally, the very air they breathe, for life as it were. By contrast, Alice Kaplan’s memoir, French Lessons, is consecrated to the queer and entirely embodied lamination of shame and pleasure; here is her anatomization of the French “r”:

In September my “r” is clunky. It is like cement overshoes, like wearing wooden clogs in a cathedral. It is like any number of large objects in the world—all of them heavy, all of them out of place, all of them obstacles. I didn’t realize that my “r” and my vowels were connected. It all went together. By concentrating too much on the “r” I was making it worse because in French vowels are primary and consonants follow from correct vowels. The first priority is for The Mouth to be in the right position to make the vowel sounds: lip muscles forward and tighter than in English, the mouth poised and round.… It happened over months but it felt like it happened in one class. I opened my mouth and I opened up; it slid out, smooth and plush, a French “r.” It wasn’t loud, it didn’t interrupt the other sounds. It was smooth, and suave.


Recent developments in cognitive science have demonstrated that moving among languages can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s; Kaplan’s point seems to be that speaking French well can also make you thin! Why be a large heavy object, when you can be smooth, suave, and plush?

When I began to teach in the department of Comparative Literature in 2005, my French was, by any measure, inadequate, and I began to work...

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