Walter A. Strauss Lecture Series

This lecture series, in memory of Walter A. Strauss (1923-2008), who was the Elizabeth M. and William C. Treuhaft Professor of Humanities, is generously supported by funds provided by the Paul Wurzberger Endowment.

Past Strauss Lectures


The Author in the Margins

Elisabeth Ladenson

The relation between the literary text and its author has been a subject of controversy for at least two hundred years, since Romanticism popularized the myth of the distracted genius producing great works from the depths of his psyche through a process mysterious even to him (almost always him rather than her).  Throughout the 19th century the “great men” paradigm generally prevailed, even as Nietzsche, for one, insisted that the author was simply “the maternal womb, the soil, or, in some cases, the dung or manure” out of which the work grows.  Academic criticism in the mid 20th century promulgated a view of the literary work as independent of the conditions of its production and best read as such.  In America the New Critics pioneered this view, while in Britain F.R. Leavis and his followers also promoted the idea that close reading and textual analysis should replace the life and personality of the author as a main consideration.  The most enduringly influential formulations of the author as irrelevant to the understanding of literary works came in the form of two essays written in France in the late 1960s: Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”  These essays paved the way for decades of academic insistence on the complete irrelevance of biography and history to the reading of literature (eventually to be curtailed only by the advent of identity as a central category).  In the meantime, however, outside the academy readers remained as avid as ever for literary biography and continued to read works in terms of their authors’ lives.  In this series of lectures, Elisabeth Ladenson, Professor of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University offered a brief history of the place of the author in literary interpretation, along with two salient cases in which the author’s biography seems to be inseparable from the understanding of their works:  Marcel Proust and Colette.

The Author in the Text: A Brief History

In this lecture Ladenson recounted the history of interpretations of the author’s role in the reading of literary texts, from Romanticism through Barthes’s “Death of the Author” and beyond, with particular attention to the importance of Proust’s theory of the complete divergence between the biographical author and the “deep self” which produces the work of art, and its influence on Barthes’s formulation of “the death of the author.”

Collette at the Gas Station: The Woman Author

Colette (1873-1954) started her career as a music-hall dancer and ghostwriter of her husband’s salacious bestsellers; she went on to become the most famous woman author of her time.  Almost all her works draw on her life, and were consistently read as semi-disguised autobiography.  With reference to the recent Kiera Knightley biopic among other popular renderings, Ladenson discussed the relations between Colette’s life and her works, and what depictions of her scandalous life and career can tell us about the ways people read women’s literary works in particular.

Proust and the Marx Brothers

Marcel Proust was the half-Jewish, homosexual author of a semi-autobiographical novel recounted by a Catholic heterosexual narrator who takes a keen interest in Jewishness and homosexuality.  He was also a major influence on Barthes’s idea of the irrelevance of the author’s biography to the understanding of literary works.  In this lecture Ladenson addressed what happens when Proust’s magnum opus is read with and without reference to the author’s life, while arguing that Groucho Marx’s line “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member” is key to understanding the entirety of Proust’s work.   


History and Conscience

Priya Satia

In this series of lectures, Priya Satia Professor of Modern English History at Stanford University, examined how people with conscience have committed unconscionable acts in the modern period. In some ways, the “modernity” of the modern period lies precisely in the growing awareness of conscience as an ethical rather than religious quality–a new self-consciousness about conscience. This understanding of conscience was tied to the modern historical sensibility; it depended on a sense of how much agency, and thus responsibility, humans have in shaping their world and their lives. Professor Satia examined this phenomenon in three lectures covering key moments in the history of the British empire: the question of a Quaker gun-maker’s conscience in the period of the industrial revolution; the way British officials professing deep understanding and love for the Middle East invented a violent regime of aerial policing there during World War One; and how the violence among neighbors during decolonization in postwar South Asia weighed on the conscience of all those involved. Together these case studies enable exploration of the well-meaning yet destructive nature of modern imperialism itself. 

Pacifists Making Guns: The Galton Family and Britain’s Industrial Revolution

The biggest gun-making firm in 18th-century Britain was owned by a Quaker family, the Galtons of Birmingham. They were major suppliers of guns to the slave trade in West Africa, the East India Company, settlers and trading companies in North America, and the British government, which was at war almost constantly from 1688 to 1815. But a core principle of the Quaker faith is belief in the un-Christian nature of war. How, then, do we explain the Galtons? And how do we explain why the Galton family business attracted no critical notice in the Quaker community until, suddenly, in 1795, Samuel Galton Junior was threatened with disownment. Why did the Galtons’ gun-manufacturing suddenly become a scandal? And what was the result? In probing Galton’s conscience and the Quaker community’s shifting judgment, Professor Satia assessed the difficulty of avoiding participation in war in eighteenth-century British industrial society, whatever one’s principles. The Galton story reveals a hidden truth about the role of war in the Industrial Revolution.

The Defense of Inhumanity: Interwar Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia

In this lecture, Professor Satia took up the question of aerial control, a military surveillance system the British invented in Iraq between the world wars. This brutal regime was, ironically, the brainchild of a group of British officials professing deep understanding and even love for the region. Prof. Satia showed how particular cultural perceptions of the region and its inhabitants enabled those officials to reconcile their genuine ethical scruples with the actual violence of aerial control—and their enduring influence on military thinking about the region today.

The Self Divided: The Partition of 1947

The Partition of South Asia into Pakistan and India in 1947 resulted in the biggest human migration in history, accompanied by horrific violence on a mass scale. In this lecture, Professor Satia explored the enduring mysteries around the violence: the complicity of the departing British rulers; how neighbors became enemies overnight; and how Partition laid the groundwork for a new, divided South Asian self—a split consciousness and conscience.


Education and Democracy

Philip Kitcher

Celebrated philosopher Philip Kitcher of Columbia University is known for his studies of the role of scientific inquiry in democratic societies from the perspective the philosophy of pragmatism associated with William James and John Dewey.  In a series of three lectures on “Education and Democracy,” Kitcher broadened this inquiry to investigate the aims of education with emphasis on the importance of the humanities and the arts. 

Too Many Aims?

In this lecture, Kitcher suggested that a number of different approaches to the aims of education have considerable plausibility. When they are combined, as they sometimes are by writers such as Mill and Dewey, the task of providing an adequate education looks formidable. Kitcher argues for a way of taking on the challenge. The video of this lecture can be viewed on YouTube.

Shaping the Citizen

One major goal of education is to prepare young people for participation in democratic societies. Existing educational policies tend to offer a shallow view of what is required. In this lecture, Kitcher argued for a rich and demanding conception of democracy, and for a correspondingly rich educational preparation. The Shaping the Citizen lecture can be viewed on YouTube.

The Importance of the Sciences and the Arts

Today in the USA there is much concern about education in the sciences. The reasons offered are typically incomplete. In this talk, Kitcher offered a more extensive account of why education in the sciences is important for everyone, and couples it with the thesis that a broad and deep education in the arts and humanities is equally necessary. The Importance of the Sciences and the Arts lecture can be viewed on YouTube.