Professor: Olga Anna Duhl
Chair: Oliver Edwin Williams Professor of Languages
Department: Foreign Languages and Literatures
Years at Lafayette: 26
Received Chair: 2015
Song: Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne” performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Connection to Endower
I did some detective work to find out who Oliver Edwin Williams was because when I was honored to receive this title I did not know too much about it, and nobody seemed to know too much about this particular chair. As it turns out, this gentleman was a Lafayette alumnus who graduated in 1883, and then he became a banker. The chair was established in his name in his memory by his daughter, whose name was Esther Williams, and the wife’s name was also Esther—Esther Baldwin Williams. Both Esthers happened to be artists, painters in particular, who were active in Boston, New York, and in Paris. So this, I think, is interesting because obviously I teach French, and it connects me directly to this family. There’s another connection with these names—that’s why I mentioned Esther—my daughter’s name is also Esther. So it all comes together in this wonderful title that I hold.
Connection to Chair
An endowed chair means a lot. An endowed chair means recognition. It means a very special award. It means that the person who is recognized stands out even among professors, and it also means something else to me. It means to make connections with the past, with the present, and with the future. It means to make connections with this family. I’m holding a name that is not mine, attached to my professional title, so it’s very important to know who these people are. I hope that they would be proud of what I’m doing to perpetuate their endowment. It also means, this particular chair, that I’d be recognized as an instructor of languages because it’s not endowed for any particular area within the Foreign Language Department, it’s called Oliver Edwin Williams Endowed Chair for Languages. This makes me think about another connection between languages and bringing people together by teaching languages to them. Making these connections means going back in history, deeper in history.
Connection to Her Specialty
I’m a medievalist, a specialist of late medieval and early renaissance French literature and culture but also comparative literature. So I really make connections not only in time but especially within the comparative literature subject and between different geographical areas. And this is important also from the point of view of the languages that we teach in this department because we cover a lot of geographical areas. Actually the global world in this department. and I’m a part of that.
Connection to Colleagues
This endowed chair gives me a new professional identity, not only because of the name attached to my own name, but also because of the status that it gives me and also the responsibilities that I have. Now more than ever I feel that I have to honor this wonderful title of mine, and I have to connect even more with both the past and the present and project a future that is rooted in tradition, but has something new to offer. I’m proud that I’m the first female that has been the holder of this endowed chair in this department. Prior to my title, the people who receive this were Jean Pierre Cap, another professor of French years ago, and Professor Rado Pribic, who is a comparatist. So I think I bring together these two specialties.
Connection to College
I feel that I am more and more a representative of Lafayette College in many areas. I’ve seen many things change, but I also see some permanence and some values that have been promoted ever since I’ve been here. I think Marquis de Lafayette has a lot to do with that. We keep his tradition alive, and I place particular emphasis on introducing students to the history of the College, including Lafayette’s contributions to the American Revolution and many other contributions to the emancipation of slaves, Protestants, Jews, and many other areas.
I co-curated with Diane Shaw, who is our special collections director at Skillman Library, an exhibition specifically geared towards Lafayette and the anti-slavery movement in general. This exhibit was held at the Grolier Club in New York City between December 2016 and February 2017. Ever since then, the exhibition has received a lot of attention both nationally and internationally, including the catalog that we edited together, that is focused on several aspects of Lafayette’s involvement with the anti-slavery movement.
Connection to Endowed Chair History
Just a little anecdote that I would like to share with you about the endowed chair. So thinking in terms of the roots of the chair goes back to Latin and Greek. Before that the very idea of endowment goes back to the Middle Ages in France, and the chancellor of the University of Paris was responsible for nominating the masters. Those were the people who were the highest achievers in their respective fields, and those people had to deliver speeches of high caliber, and they also received a chair, which was a highly elevated chair. In analogy with the chair in a church because obviously this goes back to the cathedral in a church, especially in France this was a very special piece of furniture. That’s a very objective concrete piece of furniture, but at the same time, it has as an abstract symbolic meaning, to have authority to stand out among your colleagues, but also to have higher responsibilities than ever before.
Connection to Song
This has been a big homework assignment for me but an extremely enjoyable one. I’ve been thinking about chairs or about furniture in general, and believe it or not, I came across a wonderful French composer who worked especially at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, and who is known as the inventor of the term “furnishing music,” and the more accurate translation would be I think furniture music, chair. So this particular composer, Eric Satie, was considered an eccentric composer because of the nature of his compositions that were not very well understood. He was considered an avant-garde composer because nothing of what he composed resembled the salon music that was played at the end of the 19th century that was customary for people to listen to at concerts. Eric Satie came up with something completely new. But this was deeply inspired by Middle Ages and apparently by the Gregorian chant but also by classical culture and civilization and philosophy in particular. Satie was known as a Gnostic.
So Gnosticism is about a special relationship that the individual has with knowledge, the kind of knowledge that goes beyond the individual’s capacities to know. This was back in the classical times and later in medieval times and even in the 19th century, related to some kind of spiritual experience and knowledge of the divine. That’s why it was considered a sect rather than an official kind of knowledge that people cultivated.
There was a revival of Gnosticism at the end of the 19th century, and philosophers such as Schopenhauer and musicians such as Satie were influenced by this, and apparently this is the background of his composition that I selected for this interview, which is called “Gnossienne.” The recording that I have is, I think, one of the most moving ones by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
“Gnossienne” is nostalgic music, but also it’s a music that makes you think about knowledge, how you connect to knowledge and how you want knowledge to be imparted. How I, as a professor, can actually share the knowledge that I have with the students and with the community. It’s a kind of music that can be considered very modern as I said, but also very traditional. So it has that quality that I think defines also my profession as a medievalist and as a comparatist.
Connection to Her Discipline
I always look at my specialty, of course, as something old because I teach the end of the Middle Ages, more specifically the end of the 15th century and the 16th century, which is in France, associated with the Renaissance. So here I am bridging two worlds, the end of an old period, the Middle Ages, and the beginning of a new, which is the Renaissance. Even the word “renaissance” means that there’s a revival. There is something new happening, and it was the revival of classical culture, in Europe and in particular, from my own perspective, in France in the 16th century. So I look at the Middle Ages from the perspective of the Renaissance, but I also look at the Middle Ages from the perspective of the end of the 19th century, which happens to be a subspecialty of mine. It is called Fin de siècle, and Satie, this composer is part of that movement. At the end of the 19th century, there was again a revival in France, in particular, of the classical world and also of the medieval world, which helped the French to rethink their national identity in terms of Christian tradition and the classical tradition. That’s what I try to do in my research and in my teaching: to make my students and my colleagues aware of all these revivals.
Connection to Research
In most of my research I’ve looked at forms of expression—the rhetoric of one particular culture or manifestation of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, and for a long time, and this goes back to my graduate work, the beginning of my professional career, I wrote a lot about folly as a very important theme in the early Renaissance. I had my own theory about folly in the late Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance. This research led me to the discovery of a text that has never been edited in modern times, actually since 1498, it has never seen the light under print. I edited this text, and it’s about a particular form of folly. It’s about women’s folly, and I was intrigued why this was an issue at the end of the 15th century and why people devoted a whole book to this particular theme. So that was a very important area of my research that I covered for a long time.
My newest research focuses on the rise of subjectivity and the subject, especially in lyric poetry and theater at the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. My argument is yes, the subject was there and was doing well already back then. I’m now in the process of writing a monograph on this particular big, big area of inquiry that I will publish it as a book, hopefully, in a few years from now. So this is both old and new. It’s new because it has been perceived as new as I said mostly associated with modernity, but I really think that it has a lot to do also, not only with the medieval period but going back to the classics as well.