French 230A: Pascal’s Pensées, from manuscript to aura: inquiries into the history and reception of a canonical text

Instructor: Déborah Blocker

This seminar is an in-depth investigation of Blaise Pascal’s most famous work, the Pensées, or Thoughts, first printed in 1670 as Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets, qui ont esté trouvées apres sa mort parmy ses papiers. Though left unfinished at Pascal’s death in 1662, the work, once published, immediately became a best-seller, and continues to fascinate literary scholars, philosophers and theologians to this day. After spending several sessions approaching the work in a contemporary standard edition, we investigate the Pensées in four main directions. First, we study the history of its making(s), from manuscript to print in 17th century France, and from one edition to the next in the contemporary world, to take stock of the Pensées’ incompleteness and instability as a text. While doing so, we conduct extensive close-readings of series of pensées, studying how different editions of the text create different hermeneutical possibilities for the unfinished work, with far-reaching implications for the (re)construction of Pascal’s philosophical and theological positions, as well as for the history of Jansenist thought and action. Second, we investigate a variety of ways in which the work has been contextualized in existing critical traditions, asking to what extent these historicized readings of the Pensées mobilize the editorial history of the text to support their claims. Thirdly, we inquire into the text’s continued aura in contemporary French thought, by examining how the fragmentary and discontinuous nature of Pascal’s Pensées provide epistemological and/or stylistic models for two important contemporary French thinkers, Louis Marin and Pierre Bourdieu. Finally, we examine some aspects of the international reception of Pascal’s Pensées, using a few foreign editions and translations as the basis for our inquiries.

The class offers an introduction to 17th century French literature, philosophy and theology, as well as to their enduring presence in French culture, and to their international reception. More generally, it familiarizes students of literature, philosophy and theology with the material study of manuscripts and editions, so that they become comfortable mobilizing philological know-how and the protocols of material bibliography in their own research. Several sessions of the seminar will be taught in the Bancroft Library, to allow for the hands-on study of editions and translations of Pascal’s Pensées. A good reading knowledge of French is necessary. Class discussions will be in French or in English, depending on the student body. For their final paper, students will be given the choice between a paper related to the history and reception of Pascal’s Pensées (to be written in French or in English) and the production of a detailed syllabus for a similar course on another canonical text of their choosing (including in another language than French).