This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Maison Française, which is located in Buell Hall—the sole surviving building from the Morningside campus’s days as the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. The Maison Française has hosted household names such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Édith Piaf. ZHU HUI sat down with Shanny Peer, the director of the Maison Française, to learn a bit more about the building and its historical context.
What is the proudest moment in the history of the Maison Française?
That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite sibling! There are periods that I found to be most interesting during the research and the writing for the [ongoing] exhibition [Century 1913-2013], like the period of World War I and World War II.Maison Française was created right before WWI by President Butler, who was very internationally oriented and had really strong ties with European countries. He first created the German house, which incentivized the French to create its own Maison Française and the visiting professorship with La Sorbonne.
When we think of the post-World War II intellectual relations between the U.S. and France, we find strong anti-American sentiments among the leading intellectuals in France, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. When did this anti-Americanism start?
By the McCarthy period, the anti-American sentiments were growing among the French intellectuals, and the intellectual ties were further worsened by the Vietnam War. We found an invitation letter by former Director Eugene Sheffer to Jean-Paul Sartre to invite him to come back to Columbia again, but Sartre politely declined the invitation from Sheffer for its involvement in wars which were opposed by Sartre and many other French intellectuals, who were involved in the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party). When Americans become rabid, anticommunist during the McCarthy era, Sartre decided to boycott the U.S.
Were Sartre and Camus the big names among the American students when they visited Columbia?
When Sartre came, he was actually not very well-known among American student—he was 40 years old. Camus also was not very well-known; in fact his magnum opus, L’Étranger was published in Paris during the trip to the U.S. However, when Sartre came back to France in 1946, the US newspapers started to publish wonderful articles about him. That was the moment when Sartre, a French philosopher, caught the attention of American popular media. Simone de Beauvoir also came and spoke here, but the only trace that we have found so far was a letter asking for payment of $50 for her talk.
Besides intellectuals, many French artists also came here, including the famous French singer, Edith Piaf, who was invited by the director of Maison Française, Eugene Sheffer, who later became her private English tutor before her American debut. In an interview with Eugene Sheffer, he described his tutoring experience [with her] as “teaching a parrot.”
How do you think the role of the Maison Française has developed over the course of the century?
We are not just focusing on the Metropolitan France but the whole French-speaking world, [such as] in Francophone Africa. We encourage interdisciplinary approaches. We [also] propose events like conference, panels, dialogues, and films that are not [just] presenting the Francophone world to the American audience but also introducing French perspectives to the questions of common concern, [such as] climate change. These events are definitely more interesting rather than trying to think of ourselves as trying to “sell” the French culture unilaterally, because we are mutually benefiting from the cultural exchange.
France is generally regarded as more radical in progress on women’s rights; how do you think the French perspective sheds light on the American perception of this issue?
The United States, when compared to France, or even most of the countries in the developed world, has such an impoverished public policy to support employees who are also parents. For example, the United States is one of the three out of 190 countries in the world that doesn’t have paid maternity leave. France also grants public subsidies to childcare, universal free pre-school, university education that is essentially free.
If we look at the discussion in the U.S. around these issues of women’s conditions and work family, we discover that the focus is more on what are the individual women supposed to do to try to figure this out. There is not enough discussion in the U.S. about what can the public policy do to make it easier for the working parents to take good care of their children. So I am hoping that the debate can broaden our horizon on this issue.
Today there is some critique on Columbia’s policy of globalization, saying that students are going abroad for fun but not for cultural immersion. How do you reply to these charges against cultural and language exchange programs?
The global center project is still in its early phase and it is imaginable that there will be different opinions and voices. The Maison Française can emphasize the importance of having a deep understanding of a particular language, culture, and society. Sometimes when we think of globalization, we tend to think of a large historical picture but not a particular society. One of the issues right now is, can a student study abroad in a Columbia global center and speak English the whole time? I believe it is important to make sure that students have opportunities and are encouraged to study the foreign language and get immersed in the local culture.