Life at the Sorbonne

“Four hundred words on life at the Sorbonne”! The request reminds me of a man who wrote me once in Paris, enclosing a dollar, and asking me to send him a few samples of representative French art. The four hundred words is quite as adequate to the Sorbonne as the dollar was to the art. But I have been an editor of the CAMPUS myself and know all about “pressure on space”, and even if I did not I should not refuse the request. It gives me too keen pleasure to know that the CAMPUS still remembers me, and that even if I have lost the ability to conjugate , calculate the orbit of a planet, and present a good figure in Ossoli, yet I still possess a subtle, indestructible connection with the CAMPUS and the life it represents.

So delightful is the memory of that life to me that it quite overshadows the subject given me–“Life at the Sorbonne”–and yet the latter is not to be despised, especially when taken, as I took it, with no sordid cravings after a degree or aggregation, with no other ambition than to understand its spirit, catch its flavor and suggestions, and revel in its atmosphere. Never was a university on earth better adapted to such dilettantism than the Sorbonne. Its very annual opening discourages digging. Indeed, there seems to be no real opening. The institution simply unfolds by degrees and according to the pleasure and inclination of the various members of the faculty.

You learn from a newspaper, or somebody you meet, or from a placard on a wall, that the program of the year’s studies is for sale at a book stand. You buy one. There you find all the professors entered, with subjects of lectures, hours and places. Having selected your course you present yourself for the first lecture–to find usually a note on ;the door to the effect that monsieur le professeur is still in the country, and things go on in this delightfully indifferent way for a month. But when all the learned gentlemen are back, then the Sorbonne awakes, and nowhere on earth, I venture to say, is there a winter of harder, intense work done than in its halls.

The lectures offered are of the classes–open and closed, and beside these lectures are the conferences. To attend the cours fermes and the conferences the student must show that he is a graduate of an institution corresponding to the French lycée, or American College. This gives him a ticket which admits him everywhere. At the cours fermes he hears very technical and learned discussions, and if he is working for a degree, it is quite necessary that he follow those on his subject. In the conferences the student does the work. A text is chosen by the professor and divided into sections which are assigned to members of the class. Each person must produce in the term a lecture of about an hour’s length on the paragraph assigned him. After he has read his paper, it is discussed for an hour by professor and students, the writer being obliged to sustain his arguments and show his authorities. This is, of course, a severe trial of his scholarship. The conferences are the only Sorbonne classes at which attendance is noted or counts.

The cours libees are popular and open to everybody, and they sometimes bring together an audience motley in the extreme. The students go, of course, for the lectures are on their programs and suggest readings essential for their examinations; in case of professors who speak with particular elegance and clearness like Deschanels and Larroumet, today scores of foreigners, Americans, English, Swedes, Russians follow the lectures; there are always present at the popular courses numbers of elderly men and women of evident intelligence, but of no apparent occupation. Those who know the Sorbonne will tell you they have been going there for years. It is the amusement of their lives. I have had individuals pointed out to me who have taken their degrees in the Sorbonne and never left. Having small incomes, they stay on, enamored of the life, lost to the world. In winter a pathetic part of the Sorbonne audience is made up of shabby genteel persons, who follow the lectures to keep warm. To save a fire they shift about all day from library to church, from church to Sorbonne, passing their time in most elevating surroundings for economy’s sake.

There is always some one of the open lecture courses at the Sorbonne which is what the French call a succes fou, and in that case, society, the most exclusive and pretentious of Paris, furnishes a part of the audience. It is not always the value of the lectures which draws the crowd. It is usually the eccentricity or popularity of the lecturer. The last winter I spent in Paris Ferdinand Brunetiere, the eminent literary critic, and the present editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes, was lecturer on Bossuet. His Lectures were held in the spacious and magnificent amphitheatre of the new Sorbonne, yet it was necessary to be fully an hour ahead of time to get a seat. Elegant society women sent their servants to hold places, and came at their leisure, or if they had no lackey at call stood in line themselves. The street for blocks in front of the Sorbonne glistened with two solid lines of handsome turn-outs–many of them with coats-of-arms, or tri-colored cockades. It was ridiculous to suppose that these gay Parisiennes went to all this trouble simply because of a consuming interest in Bossuet and his Oraisons funebres. They came simply because at that moment Brunetiere, by his savage contempt for everything less than a hundred years old, excepting, of course, himself and the Revue des Deux Mondes, by his brilliant sarcasms on women and society and modern literature, as well as by his genuine scholarship and rare critical faculty, had made himself the most talked of literary men in Paris. He was the mode, and for the mode a Parisienne will go to any trouble.

This invasion of the lectures by the idle and fashionable sometimes causes an uproar among the students. At Larroumet’s lectures two years ago, the women were literally hissed and guyed out, on the ground that they came early and took all the seats. It wasn’t gallant, but I confess my sympathies were with the boys, for I, like them, did not have time to go a half hour before time to hold a seat and so had almost invariably to stand. Nor did I ever interpret any such demonstration as against the women who went to the Sorbonne to do serious work. As a rule, a woman has perfect freedom in coming and going about the institution. No man is quicker than the Frenchman to detect a lady, just as no man is readier to see the flirt. Act the femme serieuse and you pass unnoticed. It is a mistake to suppose that a woman is a new thing in French student circles. For two hundred years they have followed, irregularly, the various lectures of the city. At present there are precedents for giving them degrees in all the professional schools. Whatever battles necessary have been fought. A woman can o about the Sorbonne with as much freedom as about Allegheny, if she conforms there to the French usages in the same way that she does here to the American If she has the maladvertness and the bad taste to insist on doing in the Sorbonne all she might do at Allegheny she will probably be annoyed. It is largely a question of her knowledge and tact.

But I have overrun the four hundred words and hear the crunching of the editor’s blue pencil. No sound quicker dries the ink on my pen.

—by Ida M. Tarbell