Tag Archives: Jean Seznec

Six Unpublished Lectures by Jean Seznec

“Revival and Metamorphoses of the Gods in Nineteenth Century Art and Literature”

For Blog-Seznec photo-ResizedJean 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.

2016-07-MessengerLectures-ResizedBiographical Matters

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.

Mythographical Ventures

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.

The goddess Aurora in Vincenzo Cartari's Le imagini degli dei (Venice, 1556) Sackler Library, Wind Room

The goddess Aurora in Vincenzo Cartari’s Le imagini degli dei (Venice, 1556)
Sackler Library, Wind Room

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.

Elizabeth Sears
George H. Forsyth Jr. Collegiate  Professor of History of Art, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Lecture 1 – The Passing of the Gods

Lecture 2 – After Strange Gods

Lecture 3 – The Awakening of the Centaur

Lecture 4 – The Resurrection of Isis

Lecture 5 – Olympus Parodied and the Jewelled Gods

Lecture 6 – The Cave at Ithaca

Further reading

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]


Messenger Lecture 2, p. 8

Jean Cocteau in Oxford

Jean Cocteau, by Juliet Pannett (Photo credit: James Legg)

On Tuesday, 12 June 1956, Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary: ‘Je rentre de la cérémonie – très émouvante.’ The occasion was the conferment on the multi-faceted poet (‘omnis Minervae poeta’) of an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford. As the Public Orator had proclaimed, ‘praesento vobis Parisiacae urbanitatis specimen, Ioannem Cocteau, poetam Francogallorum Academiae adscriptum paremque dignitatem apud Belgas adeptum, ut admittatur honoris causa ad gradum Doctoris in Litteris.’ Cocteau was proud of his membership of the French and Belgian Academies and of his honorary degrees, and he was particularly attached to what he habitually referred to as his ‘honoris causa’ from Oxford.

Cocteau's sketch of himself with his Oxford degree (Photo credit: David Thomas)

Cocteau’s sketch of himself with his Oxford degree (Photo credit: David Thomas)

In 2014 the Library acquired a volume of Cocteau’s verse, a copy of his Poésie 1916-1923.

Unremarkable in itself, it is simply a late printing (1947) of a work first published in 1925. What distinguishes it, however, is the fact that on the half-title Cocteau has written a dedication, ‘à Jean Seznec / amicalement / Jean Cocteau / 1956’. And he has pencilled underneath one of his typical drawings of a poet’s head crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves.

Jean Cocteau Poésie 1916-1923 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947): Half title page, with Cocteau's sketch and dedication to Jean Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)

Jean Cocteau Poésie 1916-1923 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947): Half title page, with Cocteau’s sketch and dedication to Jean Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)


Cocteau’s letter to Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)

Envelope adddressed to Seznec in Cocteau's hand (Photo credit: James Legg)

Cocteau’s letter (and envelope) to Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)


Loosely inserted in the volume is an autograph letter, in its original envelope addressed to Professor Seznec, who was Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at Oxford from 1950 to 1972. The letter adds to the rich documentation surrounding Cocteau’s honorary degree.

The story begins at the end of December 1955 when an Oxford University student, Michael Smithies, called on Cocteau at his house in Milly-la-Forêt. ‘Il m’a semblé,’ Cocteau wrote in his diary, ‘que Smithies venait tâter le terrain pour un voyage à Oxford où je serais nommé docteur honoris causa.’ The following March, Cocteau received a letter from Dr Enid Starkie, the indefatigable and irrepressible Reader in French at Somerville, inviting him to give a lecture at Oxford and suggesting that she might be able to persuade the University to confer on him an honorary degree.

Enid Starkie, by Patrick George (Oil on canvas, 66 x 54 cm) Collection: Somerville College, Oxford (Image: Public Catalogue Foundation/BBC Your Paintings)

Enid Starkie, by Patrick George (Oil on canvas, 66 x 54 cm) Collection: Somerville College, Oxford (Image: Public Catalogue Foundation/BBC Your Paintings)

Cocteau was enthusiastic. Enid had promised nothing but Cocteau’s eyes were firmly fixed on the ‘honoris causa’ and he began to suggest that without the doctorate there could be no lecture. Enid duly set to work and handbagged her way through any resistance that might have been shown by the university authorities. ‘I won, in the end,’ she said later to Cocteau’s biographer, Francis Steegmuller, ‘but don’t ask too closely how it was done … I could only use my influence and my prestige to get him the doctorate. That is what got it for him.’ Cocteau was delighted. ‘J’aimerais faire à Oxford quelque chose d’exceptionnel,’ he wrote in an undated letter in the Taylorian’s collection of manuscripts, but he added, somewhat surprisingly, ‘ce petit voyage d’Oxford m’effraye’. His lecture, on ‘La Poésie ou l’invisibilité’, began to take shape (it would be published later in the year as Le Discours d’Oxford) and on 23 May he sent Enid a sketch of himself in cap and gown, with measurements. The following day he wrote to Professor Seznec the Library’s newly acquired letter, giving details of his arrival in Oxford with ‘l’amie et le fils adoptif’, that is, his patron, Madame Alec (Francine) Weisweiller, and Edouard Dermit, who were to accompany him. Cocteau hopes to meet Seznec that first evening to discuss the programme of his stay in Oxford and the letter concludes: ‘Il est inutile de vous dire avec quelle joie j’accepte votre invitation.’

A colourful report in the issue of Picture Post for 30 June 1956 describes Cocteau fizzling through the foyer of the Randolph Hotel ‘like an elderly Puck, wrapped around in a leaf-green cloak’ and being met ‘in a cloudburst of French by a brilliant little lady wearing scarlet slacks, beret and duffle coat’. Enid had a hard day on that Monday, 11 June. A Board meeting in the afternoon was followed by W. H. Auden’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry, a post she had with characteristic energy fought for him to get, then a party for Auden in New College, and, finally, a party for Cocteau given in her ground-floor flat at 41 St Giles’. Cocteau recorded the latter event as: ‘Visite chez Enid Starkie, en kimono et saoule’!

The special meeting of Convocation (the other honorand that day was the geographer Jules Blache, Rector of the University of Aix-en-Provence) took place on Tuesday, 12 June. Enid met Cocteau that morning dressed in her beloved approximation of a French sailor’s outfit, much to Cocteau’s amusement, if not consternation: ‘Enid est charmante, éprise de la France et du français qu’elle enseigne. Mais elle boit … Quelle n’était pas notre stupeur, le matin de mon discours, de la voir arriver en matelot français, avec le béret à pompom, la vareuse, le pantalon à pont et le barda sur l’épaule.’ Lunch was held in New College and, after the ceremony, there was a garden party at the Maison Française. Other lunches and dinners were to follow, with Maurice Bowra, Isaiah Berlin and others, and a visit paid to the Ashmolean.

IMG_9407-ResizedCocteau delivered his lecture in the Taylorian on Thursday, 14 June at 5 p.m. He was introduced by Professor Seznec, and Enid, Cocteau noted with obvious relief, was now ‘en robe et toque de docteur’! The lecture was received with what Cocteau describes as ‘un tonnerre d’applaudisse-ments’, an expression of affection, warmth and enthusiasm, which, Maurice Bowra assured him, had not been the case with either Gide or Mauriac. Cocteau’s one complaint was that students appeared to have been deliberately kept at arm’s length. ‘De ce voyage,’ he says. ‘me reste une amertume, celle d’avoir été séparé des élèves par les maîtres’, but what could he do, when he was pushed around like a pawn on a chess board? Enid, he thinks, must have kept them at bay on the pretext that they would tire him. In any case, exhausted, he retired to London to the relative calm of Claridge’s Hotel.

Mixed emotions, then, but, in spite of being made fun of when back in Paris (‘On ne songe qu’à me ridiculiser, à plaisanter mon costume’), he retained an affection for Oxford and for his honorary doctorate.


Jean Cocteau on Oxford: MS.8o.F.129 (Photo credit: David Thomas)

In a scribbled note added to the manuscript of an address he gave to a student audience, a few years later, which the Taylorian also has in its collection, he wrote, in answer to a questioner in the audience who had asked if he was proud of any of the honours which had been bestowed on him in his life: ‘Oui, un seul – c’est d’être docteur Honoris Causa à l’université d’Oxford’.

David Thomas
Former French and Italian Literature and Language Librarian, Taylor Institution Library (1971-2004)

Further reading
Jean Cocteau Le discours d’Oxford (Paris: Gallimard, 1956) Shelfmark: L/N.3028.A.1
Jean Cocteau Le passé défini: journal 8 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1983-2013) Shelfmark: L/N.3432.A.1 – L/N.3432.A.8. Vol 5 covers the years 1956-1957 Shelfmark: L/N.3432.A.5
Jean Cocteau Poésie 1916-1923 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947) Shelfmark: Arch.8o.F.1947(3)
Joanna Richardson Enid Starkie (London: John Murray, 1973) Shelfmark: TAY.2.D.STA
Francis Steegmuller Jean Cocteau (London: Macmillan, 1970) Shelfmark: L/N.3720.A.2