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Clemens Heller, imprésario des sciences de l’homme

Hinnerk Bruhns
Joachim Nettelbeck
Maurice Aymard

Première partie. Portraits de l’humaniste en stratège des sciences sociales

« Clemens Heller on the Left Bank »

Robert Darnton

Texte intégral

  • 1 Robert Darnton a prononcé ces réflexions comme un Nachwort, une postface, à la conférence de Wolf L (...)

1 After these thoughtful reflections from Wolf, I would like to offer a brief Nachwort1. I’m sure I can speak for all of us, because everyone in this room has been touched, either directly or indirectly, by Clemens Heller. Clemens possessed what we know colloquially as a “magic touch,” and it left its mark on the lives of institutions as well as individuals. That is a point I would like to illustrate by a few anecdotes.

2I met Clemens four years before Wolf did and in the same capacity—as a foreigner who fetched up at 54 boulevard Raspail and was dubbed directeur d’études associé. What did that entail? I wondered as I reported to Clemens in his office. As many of you will remember, it was a mess: books and paper everywhere, telephones ringing, people running about in all directions, jabbering in various languages. After a warm handshake, I asked what I was supposed to do during my six-week stay. Clemens answered without a moment’s hesitation: “Meet people, go to seminars, buy books, explore the archives, have fun.” Then he took me by the arm, led me down the stairs, out the door and along the boulevard Raspail to a nearby bank, where he took out an account in my name and handed me a checkbook.

3 So, there I was. A young man suddenly in the heart of Paris with full liberty to do anything — “Please don’t send me a report,” said Clemens—and a bank account, not a big one but enough to pursue what we in this conference are calling open-ended Möglichkeit. I did as directed. I bought a book by Philippe Ariès, I met Daniel Roche and Roger Chartier, I learned my way around the byzantine catalogues of the Bibliothèque nationale, I attended Les Fourberies de Scapin at the Comédie française. On one of my occasional visits to Clemens’s office, he grabbed me by the arm again. “There is a book you must read.” Out the door we went, this time round the back of the building to the nearby social-science bookshop. Clemens strode to the counter, demanded a copy of La Reproduction by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, paid for it, and put it in my hand. That was the beginning of a long friendship with Bourdieu.

4On the day before my departure, I went to say good-bye to Clemens in his office. “What are you doing this evening?” he asked. “Packing my suitcase.” “There is a great production adapted from Quesneau’s Exercises de style being performed near here. You should not leave Paris without having seen it.” He sent a secretary out to buy tickets—not one, but three, so that I could invite Daniel and Fanette Roche to keep me company. Daniel Roche, Roger Chartier, Pierre Bourdieu, and many others—on this and later visits, I made friends and collaborators whose lives became part of mine, along with Paris itself.

5It happened with the help of Clemens Heller’s magic touch. When I think back on those first trips to Paris, it seems to me that the creative confusion of Clemens’s office stands out as the exception to so much that has drained the magic out of intellectual life. We live in a world of people on the make. They are making money, making c.v.s, making names for themselves. Clemens made things happen—for other people, not himself. He knew how to clear a way for others by cutting through red tape and eliminating institutional impediments. But there was more to it than what we have been calling Möglichkeitssinn. It was a profound sense of generosity. Clemens could make things happen, because he did so without the slightest self-interest; and when he interposed himself, he brought people together and then withdrew, letting them get on with it.

6Although this disinterestedness came with a good deal of confusion, it would be wrong to underestimate Clemens’ capacity for building institutions. He built them with human material: that, I believe, is what made the Maison des sciences de l’homme exceptional. As I made my own way up the academic ladder, I had occasional moments of institutional Möglichkeit. When they occurred, I always thought of Clemens Heller. What would Clemens do? was the first question to ask. If I may cite one example, I received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1987 to create what I called an “East-West Seminar.” The idea was to invite younger scholars from the Soviet zone and from the West to compete for summer fellowships in the multidisciplinary field of eighteenth-century studies. They would meet for a week—ten from the East and ten from the West—to discuss their research in a host institution in Western Europe. Then those from the West would disperse and those from the East European countries would be given three more weeks, with adequate funding, to do exactly what Clemens told me to do when I first arrived in Paris: Go to the archives, wander into museums and libraries, meet people, buy books. We smoothed their way by introductions, and we set up special accounts for them in bookstores. The first seminar took place in Berlin, the next in Paris, then Oxford, and other cultural capitals for several years. After the Mellon grant expired, the seminar was taken over by the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. The rationale of reaching across the Cold War divide soon disappeared, but it was replaced by a commitment to create human networks among young scholars from different countries, and it is still going strong.

7Clemens Heller showed that institutions like the Maison des sciences de l’homme can beget other institutions, which can beget still others, spreading an ethos of what I would call possibilism—the conviction that you can make things happen by opening up opportunities for others and leaving them free to pursue their passions. We will be meeting tomorrow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, which embodies that ethos. I would like to close by thanking its former rector and secretary, Wolf Lepenies and Joachim Nettelbeck, for bringing us together and for reminding us that the spirit of Clemens Heller is still alive, 100 years after his birth.


1 Robert Darnton a prononcé ces réflexions comme un Nachwort, une postface, à la conférence de Wolf Lepenies au Tieranatomisches Theater de l’Université Humboldt de Berlin, le soir du 5 mai 2017 (voir chapitre précédent). Ndlr.

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2018

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