Yesterday my former professor of French, just retired from 40 years of teaching, was granted an honorary degree in a ceremony at Reed College. I was asked to contribute a few words.
Is it true there was a time when teenagers read current issues of academic journals like they were the latest fanzines? That they looked on contributors to Diacritics and Yale French Studies with feelings usually reserved for rock stars? If I remember these things right, then Bill Ray was a celebrity, a man whose books and essays rubbed shoulders with works of the cosmopolitan intellectual elite. It was Reed College in the mid-1980’s; Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man were distant idols, but Bill Ray walked among us, sporting light blue jeans with an oversize western belt buckle and a tan jacket whose physical composition – leather or naugahyde? – is still a topic of debate among his former students.
Bill Ray ran classes that crackled with ideas. He read passages from literary works and dazzled us with surprising, multilayered interpretations. We in turn tried to guess what lay behind his signature wry humor and generally failed. Once I was the target of a particularly significant object lesson in class. At issue was none other than the queen of literary tropes, irony, whose definition called for a striking example. Bill Ray improvised for the occasion. He glanced at my feet under the table, aimed his eyes straight at me, and, with inscrutable affect, spoke the phrase: “Nice socks.” Ironically – or not? – the socks in question might have hailed from Paris, where I spent my junior year, and where I’ve been many times since leaving Reed, under Bill Ray’s lasting influence.
Harder to gauge is the impact made on those of us who met with him to discuss paper topics or senior theses. The way to his office was through the library and involved an anomalous procession; at the end of a dim row of stacks a door opened directly onto a hallway of modern offices with bright windows. Once in the office you were confronted with an enigmatic poster. If your eyes wandered up the wall behind Bill Ray’s desk you were met with the arresting picture of a kitten dangling from a string, emblazoned with the caption, “Hang in there, baby!” This was the message I tried to decipher while discussing with Professor Ray the narrative innovations of Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, notions of reflexivity, intertextuality and mise en abyme, as well as Barthesian poststructuralist poetics, problems I took with me to graduate school. I was pleased when, in my first year of study, one of my professors specifically recommended Bill Ray’s Literary Meaning to his students. He had brought his own copy of the book to class. The cover shows a writer at his desk, lost in reflection. Staring at the familiar image, my eye couldn’t help drifting up beyond his head, looking for something among that wall of books.