Great Books Note:
Speaking English Using French Words
6 December 2018

Ordinarily, it’s enough for me to say that I liked a certain book, and maybe a little bit about why. But every time I read Richard Watson’s The Philosopher’s Demise: Learning to Speak French, I’m overcome by the urge to insist that THIS is a book that every educated American, perhaps every educated Anglophone, really MUST read. And oddly enough, I suspect that my enthusiasm thrives despite the suspicion that I wouldn’t really hit it off with Watson. He’s an exemplary product of the Heartland, an Eagle Scout, athlete, and avid spelunker. He is fundamentally convinced that Real Men do not Speak French. He believes that Jacques Prévert’s verse is “detestable in any language.” The fact that Watson is also an eminent Descartes scholar would probably not make our conversation any easier. 

As the subtitle suggests, Watson did not try to learn to speak French until he was already a philosopher. A long time ago (c 1950), he learned to read French in college; in those pre-Sputnik days, you could learn how to read a language without having to master touristy questions about the location of the toilet and so on. Remember Mrs Fisher’s line, in Enchanted April, when, having been asked for the Italian word for “castor oil,” she replies that “her” Italian does not cover that sort of thing; hers is the language of Dante? I hope that reading courses will be revived at some point, because we could all use plenty beaucoup of Dante’s Italian! For twenty-five years or so, Watson noodled along happily enough as a Descartes scholar at Washington University in St Louis, where the need to speak French has not been pressing for some time. Then he was asked to deliver a paper at a premium Descartes event not only in France but in French. This, after months of intensive tutoring, he managed to do. Along the way, however, he was struck by a determination, stoic and all but fatal, that he must learn to speak French.

If you ask me, he went about it all wrong. What he ought to have done was to immerse himself in some congenial community of French speakers and punted. He claims in the book to have grown too old and stiff for serious cave exploration, but he might have rented a room in the home of a spelunker in which no one spoke English. After six months of saying “pass the butter” and “Are you really going out looking like that?” (or at least listening to the maman saying it), he would have developed a serviceable patois that could be ironed out by the course at Alliance Française. Going straight to the Alliance, without any immersion, was a mistake — as Watson learned. Don’t take my word for this, just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Altre Parole

The pith of The Philospher’s Demise is a love/hate latter to the civilization of France. The words “mean” and “nasty” pop up with unsettling regularity, while the compliments are largely indirect. Eventually, Watson, a biological teetotaler, concedes that French cuisine’s reputation for excellence does not depend on everybody’s drinking too much wine to care what’s on the plate. The most indirect compliment (as befits a modest Midwesterner) comes near the end, when one of Watson’s best French friends observes that he, Watson, could hardly speak a word last summer; “Now you won’t shut up.” Left unspecified: speaking what? A running gag throughout The Philosopher’s Demise features Watson’s continuing frustration with the unwillinigness of his French colleagues to chat with him. They are always too busy. They ask him to give them a call, but they don’t take the call. When Watson has finally cornered his prize pigeon, the leading French Cartesian agrees to speak French — but only if Watson will stick to English. “Your French is terrible.” 

Yes, but he could speak it.

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