“Revival and Metamorphoses of the Gods in Nineteenth Century Art and Literature”
Jean Seznec (1905–1984) came to Oxford in 1950 as Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature and occupied this position until his retirement in 1972. In 1989 Alain Seznec deposited a selection from among his father’s papers in the Taylor Institution (MS Fol. F. 21–28). The holdings include biographical documents, letters, reviews, and miscellaneous working notes on French authors and painters from Balzac to Voltaire – as well as a number of polished lecture texts, never published. Especially worth recovering are the six Messenger Lectures, slide lectures that Seznec delivered at Cornell University in the Spring of 1978 on the theme ‘Revival and Metamorphoses of the Gods in Nineteenth Century Art and Literature’. These six talks are here made available for perusal for the first time.
Of Breton stock, Seznec began his education at the Lycée in Rennes before continuing at the famed Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and the Ecole normale supérieure, where he took the agrégation in 1928. His subsequent career unfolded largely outside of France – in Italy, the United States, and England. First a member of the Ecole française de Rome (1929–31), then a lecturer in French at Cambridge (1931–33) and briefly a Professeur de Lettres at the Lycée Thiers in Marseilles, he then proceeded to the Institut Française in Florence (1934-39), where he lectured on French literature. Having submitted his thesis at the Sorbonne in 1940, and after having served in the French forces until the armistice, he crossed the Atlantic with family in wartime (leaving books and notes behind) to join the faculty at Harvard University. Here he taught as Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (1941–1949) until he received the call from Oxford. In the years that followed, as a research professor and Fellow of All Souls College, he was involved in the great project, undertaken with Jean Adhémar (Conservateur en chef, Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale), of editing Diderot’s salon criticism: The Clarendon Press would publish this work in four volumes (1957–67; 2nd ed. in three vols, 1975–83).
From the outset Seznec’s scholarship was distinguished by its hybrid character. He worked between disciplines and regularly turned his attention to writers who studied art and artists who derived inspiration from literature. He is best known for his classic synthesis, La Survivance des dieux antiques – published in 1940 simultaneously as a thesis in the format required by the Sorbonne (100 copies) and as a book (530 copies) in the series Studies of the Warburg Institute. Owing to wartime conditions the volumes could not be distributed until 1945, but then the accolades came: in 1948 the book was awarded the Prix Fould by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and it would be translated into numerous languages, the English version appearing in 1953 as The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art. The Messenger Lectures can be seen as the continuation of this early fascination with the enduring power of myth on the creative mind and the twists and turns of transmission of mythological material, textual and pictorial.
It was in the early 1930s, when Seznec was resident in Rome as a member of the Ecole Française, that he had begun to investigate the iconography of the ancient gods. Overwhelmed by the great mythological cycles painted in Renaissance palaces, and coming to know art historians working in the capital, he became intrigued by the question of the relation of text and image and fascinated by the impact of the great mythographic handbooks of the early modern era on art and literature.
Unusually for a young Frenchman, Seznec sought out a connection with German scholars at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg, a research library dedicated to the study of the afterlife of antiquity. Its director, Fritz Saxl, offered counsel, and in time the two became close friends. The Warburgians began to call Seznec a Fernschüler – a long distance student. Seznec visited the library, renamed the Warburg Institute, in its new London quarters not long after it had left Nazi Germany. In April 1935 he delivered two lectures there: ‘Mythological Sources of the Sixteenth Century’, and ‘The Diffusion and Influence of the Iconography of the Gods.’ The Institute would publish not only his Survivance in 1940 – which made accessible a good deal of Warburgian material – but also his Nouvelles études sur La Tentation de saint Antoine in 1949. Seznec published many an essay in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, the first in 1937 and the last in 1982, ‘La Fontaine égyptologe’, not long before his death.
Again and again Seznec would return to the theme of the power of ancient myth – not only Greek and Roman. An article he published in 1931, ‘Un essai de mythologie comparée au début du XVIIe siècle’, focused on Lorenzo Pignoria’s preface to an edition of Vincenzo Cartari’s Imagini degli dei (1615) and Pignoria’s efforts to develop a general theory of religion on the basis of comparative study of disparate traditions – Aztec, Japanese, Egyptian.
Seznec’s research into the afterlife of the gods remains impressive for its chronological range. The subject of his 1952 Zaharoff Lecture at Oxford was ‘Marcel Proust et les Dieux’; here he argued that Proust’s work, ‘as modern and singular as it is, remains tributary, through all sorts of diversions, to that great classical river that has never ceased to fertilise French literature’. In 1978, the year in which he delivered the Messenger Lectures, Seznec also gave a series of lectures at Smith College on a parallel survivance: ‘A Nineteenth Century Renaissance: The Revival of Egypt’. The scripts for these talks, too, survive, if in less polished state, among the Seznec papers in the Taylorian. The content of one, ‘Isis Resurrected’, is shared with the fourth of the Messenger Lectures.
Seznec delivered the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University between 28 March and 6 April 1978. Cassette tapes of all six are preserved – valuable documents of oral history even if the recordings are not of highest quality – along with the handwritten texts of the lectures (MS. Fol. F 28). Seznec had planned to publish these talks and had taken the first steps in acquiring relevant black-and-white photographs. He had also had a few of the texts typed up, with occasional amplifications. I offer here straightforward transcriptions of the handwritten texts, replicating Seznec’s system of inserting red dots at points where slides would have been projected. No attempt is made to provide a proper annotated edition. The aim is rather to take the reader into the lecture hall. I am grateful to Professor Walter Cahn (Yale University) for having collaborated in proofing the transcriptions.
George H. Forsyth Jr. Collegiate Professor of History of Art, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
H. T. Levi and F. Haskell, ‘Jean Joseph Seznec, 1905–1983’, in Proceedings of the British Academy 73 (1987): 643–55 (with bibliography of works)
E. Sears, ‘Seznec, Saxl and La Survivance des dieux antiques’, in R. Duits and F. Quiviger (eds), Les Images des Dieux / Images of the Gods, ed. (London: The Warburg Institute, 2010), 3-20.
M. Sheringham, ‘Seznec, Jean Joseph (1905–1983)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/62524, accessed 22 July 2016: accessible within the Oxford University network]