Milena Mikhaïlova-Makarius's third monograph--after Le présent de Marie (1996) on Marie de France and the concept of gift, and L'école du roman. Robert de Blois dans le manuscrit BnF fr. 24301 (2010)--continues her work as a structuralist critic in the wake of Roger Dragonetti, who wrote the introduction to her first book when he was eighty years old. This explains, perhaps, why the 2016 volume feels like something out of Proust, as something that could not have been written in medieval French studies in 2016--and perhaps not even when structuralism was en vogue. This is not the book's fault, it is just the way it is, and it lends the work an aura of nostalgia, in my mind.
When I think about how one would write this book more au goût du jour, it strikes me, first, that many medievalists more hungrily read each other's work, and write their books as a dialogue with their field, than this volume does. Second, any colleague, I think, would first want to see if they can suggest their own book's bibliography to their students: does it, at least, parsimoniously list (if not, more liberally, frequent by reading and discussion) major recent publications on optics and medieval French literature (one of the main concerns of the introduction)? What about major publications on other topics discussed in the volume? Is there a list of manuscripts associated with each important discussion (such as on treatises on optics and translations of Aristotle)? I do not want to attribute to the author the failings of (no doubt) excellent readers and editors, but they seem a bit distracted, if not neglectful of her. The names mentioned in the text do not appear in the bibliography, for instance, Francis Gingras (20); on the first page of the bibliography, Alhazen is under Al Alhazen; Chansons de Thibaut de Champagne under Chansons; J.-J. Salvedra de Grave is J. Salvedra. He who never sinned in a bibliography may throw the first stone. Third, the volume is resolutely ahistorical. For example, on pages 16-18 devoted to medieval optics, there is no attempt at finding out what medieval French readership and transmission of treatises on optics may have looked like. This cannot be held against the author: structuralism ignores such concerns. Instead, the argument is based on "ear": if one text sounds like another, they are linked in the analysis. That method can be exciting. For instance, one of my undergraduate students compared Stella to the Invisible Man--the first Haitian allegorical novel about the Haitian revolution, written by a Haitian, to the great allegorical American novel on racism published a century later--and concluded that formal similarities correspond to the necessity on the part of each author to express, in a mainstream genre of the novel, the issues buried within the very rift of their culture. I felt like I learned something valuable about allegory, novel, racism, and each novel's respective constitutive culture--as well as gaining an insight into why Ellison's novel became an instant canonical work, to his avowed surprise. But an ahistorical argument can also fail to convince. This is not to say that the present volume does not provide valuable lessons, it is just that I personally would like to hear another story about the rich and very interesting material and the original arguments that the author discusses. For instance, I am seeing the fountain of Narcissus scene from the Romance of the Rose with completely fresh eyes thanks to the discussion of optics (17-19): I feel like, for the first time, I "get it." However, I find very disconcerting the absence of interest in any primary sources, or in recent discussions of them by medievalists in French and English, in these same pages. This brings forth the larger question of the relationship between formalism, structuralism, and historicism, which is very easy to answer, for me. Foucault could misquote to suit his purpose; but his messy scholarship was in service to his time and contemporaries. Formalists flourished under Soviets; but the only way to avoid collaborating with the regime and its diktat of Marxist analysis was to focus on form. There is no such thing as ahistorical formalism, which is perhaps why this book seems so nostalgic or utopian to me.