The Initiation

Dan Edelstein reflects on how his mentor's pedagogy helps him to this day, but the reality that he could never impose such tough love on his own students.

June 30, 2015
Antoine Raybaud

In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks driving around Greece with my girlfriend and my undergraduate adviser. We argued all the time: me and my girlfriend; me and my adviser; my girlfriend and my adviser. One stop was particularly memorable for its unenjoyableness. We spent a day and a night at Monemvasia, a fortified Crusader town on a massive rock off the coast. The whole time, my adviser berated me to learn more about the extensive history of the place and turned his nose up at my girlfriend, who wanted to find a nightclub on the island.

To be fair, my adviser was not actually on the trip. He was in my head, or rather, I had internalized him. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing him remark on the substance (or lack thereof) of my comments. He haunted my relationships and my thoughts. I carried him everywhere, like Anchises on my shoulders.

As my adviser would have pointed out, that was Sartre's metaphor for the superego, which he (Sartre, not my adviser) claimed not to have, his father having died when he was two. And perhaps that’s all my adviser was, a pumped-up academic superego, driving me to know more, to be less dumb, to write better.

He -- and he had a name, Antoine Raybaud, and a face: sea-blue eyes that burned when he stared, a beaked nose, broad smile and churlish gray curly hair -- would have given growth hormones to anyone's superego. His lectures were like Stéphane Mallarmé's salons, two hours of noteless improvisations on poetry and artistic creation. His seminars were fearsome: like a cat toying with its prey, he would hide the answers to his questions in ambiguous phrases, leaving us dangling in confusion. When the inevitable wrong answer was proffered, he would bat us away with a “Non, non, c’est pas ça du tout.” And then a long, oppressive silence would ensue, until another foolhardy student would offer up a sacrificial comment.

He taught in French, because this took place at the University of Geneva, where I was a student. Raybaud himself was French, a graduate of Normale Sup’, the elite French university for future academics. He had come to Geneva to replace the legendary Jean Starobinski, one of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century. I had known none of this when choosing French as my main subject at the university. But Raybaud was well aware of his place in institutional history: perhaps he could hear Staro’s voice in his own head, belittling his lectures.

The atmosphere in Raybaud’s seminars was so tense that every detail of that room is seared into my memory. The tables, arranged in a long rectangle, with a no man’s land in the middle; the door to the hallway, at the center of the room, always slightly ajar; a mobile whiteboard in front of one window; and then, beyond, the tantalizing views of the Salève mountain and the chestnut trees in the Parc des Bastions -- their beauty all the more wrenching when students were driven to tears by Raybaud’s caustic remarks on their presentations.

I didn’t have to take his classes. Still, a tiny group of us kept on coming back. Despite the hardships, Raybaud’s classes were mesmerizing. He interpreted texts like a magician, making meaning appear where we could only see words. The seminars became less painful, as Raybaud slowly warmed to us. But he never relented in his expectations. Every single paper I submitted to him, from my first essay to my final thesis, he made me rewrite. Once, on my way to his office, I bumped into him in the hallway; he glanced at the first few paragraphs of my assignment, then handed it back, saying, “Allez, refaites-moi ça.” (“Do it over.”) I went home and spent hours trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I rewrote the entire paper; even I could tell that it turned out much better.

Natacha, Bernard and I were his last students; he retired the year we graduated. His last seminars were luxurious: we spent six months, just the four of us, reading “Un Coup de Dés.” During that last seminar, it became clear we were initiates. We had come close to being broken, but had broken through.

I often wonder whether Raybaud’s tough love wasn’t the best pedagogy I could have received. I don’t dare repeat his method on my own students. But I fear I may be failing them by being too friendly, by not pushing them to their limits, not giving them a chance to surpass themselves. This is not a teaching style for all students, to be sure. But I know that without his punishing comments, I would be a lesser scholar today.

While Raybaud did not do much to enhance my vacations or relationships, having that voice in my head, for so many years, was not always a bad thing. By forcing me to rewrite every paper I handed in, he turned me into my toughest critic. I needed to internalize him, if I wanted to make any progress. Had Raybaud merely told me what was wrong with my arguments, I would never have learned the most important lesson of all: how to spot my own weaknesses.

After six years -- which was how long most of us spent in our studies, since we paid next to nothing -- the demon who had hounded me across Greece had become a friend. We were close, if not intimate: I could never bring myself to call him “tu,” even though he encouraged me to call him Antoine. He shared his own disappointments, or what he called his “insuccès”: not failure, but something almost worse, a lack of recognition.

But his vulnerability taught me a final lesson. Anchises is not really someone else, only your own voice in disguise. Raybaud was the name I gave to a part of my mind I’ve since recognized as my own. He no longer disrupts my vacations or family life, but without his rigor, there is a side of myself I may never have discovered. Antoine died in 2012, and I never had the chance to reveal just how much I owed him. But a part of him will always be a part of me, reminding me that, no matter how painful or tiring, I should really rewrite that paper one more time.


Dan Edelstein is professor of French and, by courtesy, history, and the W. Warren Shelden University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.


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