On June 21, 2016, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur honored Laurent Dubreuil and Laurent Ferri with French ministerial distinctions which were presented during a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
Dear Laurent Dubreuil,
Dear Laurent Ferri,
We are here tonight to honor the professional accomplishments of two remarkable individuals.
Laurent Dubreuil, Laurent Ferri, you both lead incredible lives and success has followed you all the way from France to the United States. You have described your life abroad as one of privilege, duty and responsibility, noting that, as French expatriates, you must strive to be as irreproachable as possible. You recognize that on some level, you represent your country abroad. I could not think of two people better suited to the task!
The more we delved into your career paths for tonight’s ceremony, the more we realized how much you have in common–the same name, the same birthplace, you work for the same university, and you share a passion for literature, culture, and travel. In fact, I hear that you both entertain yourselves by learning the piano, which you play frequently, and by tackling one new language after another. You have explored the country on road trips through Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. There is a certain insouciance in making road trips without a driver’s license, or a cell phone, that is both magnificently ironic, and immediately gratifying!
To cap this list of similarities, tonight you are both receiving a ministerial award at the same rank of Chevalier in recognition of your numerous achievements. However, as one might imagine, our research also revealed that you are, of course, very unique individuals.
Let us first begin with Laurent Dubreuil!
Dear Laurent Dubreuil,
Many people have told me that you are unapologetically French, even as you have lived the majority of the past decade away from France. Indeed, you still take the time to enjoy the finer aspects of life like a true Frenchman. You drink good wine, you cook delicious meals, and I hear that you often enter into electrifying and stimulating debates on a wide-range of topics, and push yourself to find answers to unanswerable questions.
Clearly, you are a dedicated and brilliant scholar, one who is passionate in the pursuit of knowledge, as demonstrated by your illustrious academic career.
After passing the Agrégation in French and Comparative Literature, you were a fellow at the École normale supérieure in Paris for five years. Then, you received two Doctorate degrees – yes, two (one was not enough!) – one in French, Francophone and Comparative Literature, from Université Bordeaux-III, and the other in Philosophy and Women’s Studies, from Université Paris-VIII, both summa cum laude. Your advisor in the latter program happened to be none other than the legendary Hélène Cixous, one of the most celebrated Francophone writers and scholars. In fact, you studied under many great French luminaries, one of which was Jacques Derrida, for whom you wrote an obituary in the journal Labyrinthe. You described him as a thinker as important as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes or Pascal. You succinctly captured the disbelieving wonder of hearing or meeting such an individual with a simple thought: “C’est donc lui”! These formative experiences shaped your career as a brilliant young scholar.
Today, as a distinguished professor at a world-class university, you are one of the most accomplished academics both in France and the United States. With a special interest in French literature and philosophy, you are fluent or proficient in many languages including French, English, German, Italian, Classical Greek, Latin, Old French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Yerkish and you are currently studying Mandarin. You have already published 10 books, 47 articles and book chapters, and edited 14 collections. Your research in French studies in the United States has been repeatedly recognized by your peers, and supported by many prestigious fellowships, including the Mellon New Directions Fellowship. Your multidisciplinary approach touches upon cognitive science, linguistics, French and Greek literature, and philosophy. You recently published a groundbreaking book on human thought – The Intellective Space – that combines cognitive science and the humanities. At the moment, you are working on another book titled Poetry and Mind that similarly seeks to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences; a gap that you believe hinders our path to understanding the mind.
Many people can testify that you dive wholeheartedly into your various responsibilities as a professor. However, your work extends beyond illuminating classes and insightful research. Since 2011, you have been an active member of the Grant Review Committee for the Partner University Fund. As a member of the committee, you have played an instrumental role in the selection of exceptional French-American research and educational projects. Thanks to your vision and engagement, the Partner University Fund has enabled researchers to make major discoveries, ranging from cutting-edge archeological breakthroughs to advancements in the fast-growing field of digital humanities.
For many years, you were also the Director of the French Studies program at Cornell. Indeed, both you and Laurent Ferri have repeatedly sought to promote the French culture that you have spent your lives studying. Additionally, you are both very much involved with the French Embassy’s efforts to advocate for a greater presence of French culture and language on US college campuses. At different times, you have both been directors of the Centre d’excellence in Cornell, with Laurent Ferri holding the post at present.
Here at the French Embassy, one of our priorities, along with promoting French culture on US campuses, is to increase and diversify student mobility between the US and France. In fact, we recently launched the Transatlantic Friendship and Mobility Initiative, in partnership with American associations of Higher Education, with the goal of increasing mobility and giving underrepresented groups access to study abroad. This fall, we will launch France Alumni USA, an online platform that will enable American students who studied or researched in France to network with similar alumni. In addition, they will have access to French cultural events in the US as well as internship and job opportunities in France.
Laurent Dubreuil, your own work goes beyond that of an advocate for French culture, your mindset formed by French intellectual and cultural issues, is an asset that you have brought to all of your academic endeavors, including your work editing journals and reviews, such as diacritics or Labyrinthe.
Indeed, you have already accomplished an extraordinary amount, much of which can be attributed to your indomitable spirit. And yet, you move forward with the firm belief that there is still so much more that you must do. You are currently working on publishing not one, or two, but three books, and you have many more projects in store that range from teaching, advising, editing, and lecturing to organizing your next road trip! Moreover, you manage to do so while acting as a model French citizen in the United States. Jacques Derrida once said that, “We are all mediators, translators”. You too are a mediator and a translator in many ways – as a professor, reaching into complex texts to find and share ideas that often elude others – and by enriching and spreading French and American culture to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. It is therefore with great honor that I confer on you the Ordre des Palmes Académiques.
Laurent Dubreuil, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académique.
Let us now turn to Laurent Ferri.
Dear Laurent Ferri,
If, in your childhood, someone had told you that you would be receiving the Arts and Letters at the French Embassy in New York, you would have laughed in disbelief. You are the grandson and son of a Communist on your maternal side, and you were a former member of the Freie Deutsche Jugend – the boy scouts of Eastern Germany. The United States of America symbolized a great taboo for you, and yet, tonight, you find yourself being honored by the French government for your work in enriching French-American cultural exchange.
You were born in Lyon. You studied at the prestigious Ecole nationale des chartes in Paris; you then taught there. You subsequently worked at the French National Archives but not before a stint teaching in Rabat, Morocco.
Spurred by your unquenchable thirst for knowledge and your love of learning, you have lived and visited many different places around the world and learned several languages. You speak or read French, English, German, Latin, ancient Greek, Italian, and even a bit of Romanian. You fell in love with words and different cultures early in life, writing your dissertation on Balzac and the now anachronistic practice of heraldry. Your life has taken many exciting twists and turns, and you have always been ready to jump into new challenges.
One of those new challenges came when your partner Laurent Dubreuil was offered a position at Cornell University. They also wanted your expertise and offered a visiting professorship that was to last for a year. You leapt at what you thought would be in your words a “wonderful and exotic experience.” After having spent over 5 years as Conservateur at the French National Archives, you wanted to try something new, something different that would take your life in a new direction.
And indeed, your life changed completely. Previously, at the National Archives, you worked in the heart of Paris, but now you found yourself in the remote setting of Ithaca, New York. The landspace reminded you of a beautiful lyric from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet, “Les Indes Galantes”: “Forêts paisibles, jamais un vain désir ne trouble ici nos cœurs”. After an idyllic year, your visiting professorship came to an end, and while Laurent Dubreuil was able to get on track for tenure, you were left with few options that would allow you to stay. Fortunately, you are a flexible, adventurous, and determined individual. You were offered the job as assistant to a French electrician at the university – a position which you accepted! As you wittily noted, “After all, Benjamin Franklin was an electrician of sorts, too!”
However, you were soon able to return to a position more suited to your talents when Cornell University Library needed a curator for an upcoming exhibition on the Marquis de Lafayette. They turned to you to shape their magnificent collection on the Marquis into a physical story. You put your curatorial skills to work, weaving 11,000 items into a coherent narrative about the legendary Frenchman. The exhibition, the largest outside of France, included objects such as his life mask, a bayonet excavated at the battle of Saratoga, his marriage contract (signed when he was 15 years old!), and various correspondences with distinguished figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Shelley, and James Fenimore Cooper. Naturally, the exhibition was a resounding success. Cornell was so impressed that you were offered a joint appointment from the Library and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Another result of the remarkable exhibition was that you were invited to give a talk at the French Senate on Lafayette to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth. Your topic was “Lafayette, un héros américain.” In front of hundreds of French scholars, senators and authors, you spoke about the cultural significance of Lafayette in the United States. That day, you brought these two countries closer together, and both were enriched as a result.
You have held many lectures, classes, and conversations that have helped strengthen the deep-rooted bond between France and the United States. However, while the lecture you gave at the French Senate helped some in France better understand American culture; the bulk of your work has been the other way around. You have been a keen teacher and representative of French culture in the United States. You are now head of the French Studies Program and you regularly teach French literature and history courses. You have even created your own courses, such as the unique and undoubtedly fascinating, “Versions of Versailles, from Louis XIV, Le Brun, and Le Nôtre, to Jeff Koons and Karl Lagerfeld.” In order to bring French thought, art, and perspectives more effectively to the United States, you have repeatedly invited French scholars, writers and artists – such as Tristan Garcia, Michel Zink, or Hélène Merlin-Kajman – to stay for a week in Ithaca. In many ways, you are an ambassador for French culture at Cornell.
When students want to reach into the past, you provide them with the guiding hand they need. But the scope of your work goes far beyond your relationships with students; it also encompasses the incredible diversity of responsibilities, the long hours of research and the meticulous attention to detail that is required of individuals in your position.
Dear Laurent Ferri,
You have worn so many hats, and accomplished so much, on behalf of France and in support of her ideals. You have lived an extraordinary life, propelled by your boundless drive and your incredible talent; I cannot wait to see what you will do next. It is a pleasure to honor you tonight.
Cher Laurent Ferri, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.