"What does literature do for us in the contemporary world?" This is one of the questions underlying the Ph.D. dissertation research of Amanda Vredenburgh (M.A. ’16). She and other advanced students in French/ Francophone Studies are exploring questions that take them far outside the traditional study of literature. For Vredenburgh, Jake Ladyga (M.A.’16), and Cristina Robu (M.A.’17), the most exciting part of their work in French/Francophone Studies is the vast connections to other fields of scholarship.
Vredenburgh studies the fantastic, a literary genre prominent in 19th and early 20th century fiction that features supernatural elements or a general sense of bizarreness. Vredenburgh’s research explores new areas of scholarship by examining the fantastic in the works of four contemporary French authors, each of whom uses it to explore political, environmental, and social questions in unique ways.
“It’s a bit surprising to think that you would use the bizarre or the supernatural to work through these questions that are very pressing, very rational in nature, and also contemporary,” Vredenburgh explains. The authors her dissertation examines use the fantastic to explore topics such as totalitarianism and ecocriticism. She hopes to reveal what the genre of the fantastic can bring to our understanding of these questions that philosophical or rational thinking cannot.
Beyond the enjoyment that Vredenburgh gets out of the exploration of many different forms and ideas in her dissertation, she feels that her research has directly impacted her teaching. In answering the questions central to her research, she has found ways to highlight the relevance of French and Francophone literature and culture for students of all disciplines.
The contemporary French/Francophone novel serves as fruitful ground for scholarship for Cristina Robu as well. Robu arrived at IU in Fall 2015, while she was still working on a Ph.D. dissertation in literary theory at the Academy of Sciences of Modova. She completed that Ph.D. in 2018 and is now working on a second doctoral dissertation exploring representations of the sick body from the third-person perspective in contemporary Quebecois novels and film.
“The body is the point-of-view, the point zero of our perception of the world, and this makes it interesting to look at it from the third-person,” she explains. Her research examines the ethics and aesthetics of putting sickness into words and the way third-person representations of the body transmit meaning to social and narrative discourse. An important aspect of Robu’s dissertation is the exploration of the relationship between the body as embodied first-person point-of-view and the external body as an object of otherness. She hopes to better understand how the representation of someone else’s physical distress is formulated, and what that does for the narrator, reader, and society.
In summer 2019, Robu received a Majorie and Francis Gravit Fellowship from the Department to participate in the Dartmouth University Summer Institute in French Cultural Studies, a biannual summer program which this year centered around the theme “Culture and the Emotions.” The topic fit in well with Robu’s research. She explains that our emotions take part in the way we perceive others’ bodies, and the way our perceptions are put into discourse in turn shapes culture. The Institute provided a context in which she could put the relationship between culture and emotions and the sick body into perspective.
Robu chose Quebecois literature because of its unique development and history. It participates in stimulating conversation with French and Francophone literary culture while maintaining its own distinct voice. In the same way that the body can be conceptualized as a nexus of social, cultural, and historical interactions, Quebecois literature can be as well.
While Robu’s research explores third-person perspectives of the sick body, Jake Ladyga’s dissertation concerns one author’s preoccupation with the body and its relationship to spiritual experience.
“I’ve always been pulled towards the representation of the female body in Renaissance poetry,” Ladyga says, explaining how his research interests led him to the exploration of the literary blason—a form of poetry that praises, mocks, or disdains a particular feature of the body. Ladyga’s dissertation explores the late verse of Marguerite de Navarre within the context of blason poetry.
Ladyga explains that although de Navarre is not typically considered a poet of the blason, she was certainly aware of the tradition. In much of de Navarre’s late verse, the relationship between God and the believer is accompanied by considerations of the body and its individual parts, therefore highlighting the tension between spiritual and earthly experience. According to Ladyga, de Navarre’s works share similarities in structure and treatment with the blason, but often present readers with an unusual twist. Ladyga explains that his research will use the lens of the blason to illustrate de Navarre’s consciousness of both the capacity and limitations of language to articulate spiritual experience. A reader will gain additional meaning from de Navarre’s work by exploring it through the framework of the typical blason and through knowledge of the author’s personal experience as well as the literary and cultural context in which she was writing.
Like Vredenburgh and Robu, Ladyga found the versatility of his research to be the most rewarding. “It has allowed me to explore so many different realms of intellectual thought and culture that I wasn’t aware of before,” he says.
Vredenburgh, Robu, and Ladyga all found the interdisciplinary nature of their research as challenging as it was exciting. They each emphasize the importance of keeping the many ideas they treat in dialogue with one another, as well as maintaining a realistic outlook on their projects.
“Your project is always evolving,” Ladyga explains. “You don’t need to know where you’re going to end up before you sit down to write.” That’s why a dissertation takes time and students benefit particularly from fellowships that release them from teaching duties. Both Vredenburgh and Ladyga received departmental fellowships this year to work on their projects: Vredenburgh the Gertrude F. Weathers and Francis and Marjorie Gravit Fellowship, and Ladyga the Grace P. Young Fellowship. Robu, who is earlier in her studies at IU, will be eligible for these dissertation fellowships next spring.