One for the Ages: Arthur Saint-Aubin

By Dick Anderson Photo by Kevin Burke

From writing about a 19th-century French novelist to 20th-century rock 'n' roll pioneers, the newly emeritus professor of Spanish and French studies juggles multiple projects as he prepares for life after Oxy

Arthur F. Saint-Aubin
Professor of Spanish and French studies

Years at Occidental: 44

What’s been your favorite class to teach and why? I teach three different categories of courses, and I have a favorite in each: first-year courses that target principally language acquisition; second-year courses that further develop students’ language skills with an increasing emphasis on exploring the diversity of Francophone cultures; and advanced seminars in literature and culture—courses aimed principally at majors, minors, and native speakers.

The courses I enjoy teaching the most are also the ones that present the most challenges for me to teach successfully. Among the advanced seminars, I find teaching translation to be the most exacting but also the most rewarding. One reward in teaching the course is observing how students come to discover the same joy of translation that I myself experience with each publication. Over the years, my students have produced professional-level translations of works by J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, John Lennon, and Nina Simone, among many others.

The Pleasures of Death, by Arthur Saint-Aubin

Looking at your two most recent books, is there a common thread between Kurt Cobain [and the Seattle grunge scene] and Toussaint and Isaac Louverture [the leaders of the Haitian Revolution]? For several years, I have been researching and writing about grief, melancholy, and cultural practices of mourning. I have been especially interested in how experiences of masculinity can inform and shape expressions of sadness, depression, and suicide. From this perspective, Toussaint Louverture and Kurt Cobain have much in common. Both men wrote compelling, personal narratives of despair.

The Memoirs of Toussaint and Isaac Louverture, by Arthur Saint-Aubin

The formerly enslaved Toussaint Louverture—who attained the rank of general in the French army but who would later become Napoleon’s aggrieved prisoner of war—wrote his 1802 memoir while isolated in a dungeon in France, just months before his death. Kurt Cobain wrote some of his journals in the 1990s while in isolation and suffering from a seemingly ineffable despondency, prior to committing suicide. Although the two men lived during different times and had vastly different experiences, their narratives, nevertheless, can be read in tandem. Together, their writings tell us something provocative about death and despair. 

What are you working on right now? Currently, I am working on two other topics that are, ostensibly, unrelated. First, I am pursuing research on the rock ’n’ roll memoir by developing into a book some short essays from 2015-17 on Chuck Berry and the so-called fathers of rock ’n’ roll. Second, I am pursuing a project on Maxime Du Camp, considered a minor French novelist from the 19th century, one whose fiction anticipates some of the major tenets of psychoanalysis, including Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholy. Because I have a relatively short attention span, I am more successful when I can alternate between working on two or more different projects at the same time!

What are you looking forward to most in retirement? Spending extended periods of time in the French-speaking Caribbean. I have accepted an invitation to serve for at least one year as a visiting professor of languages and cultural studies at the State University of Haiti. With the increasingly violent political and social disruptions that continue to afflict the country, it is very likely that my courses for the 2023-24 academic year will be online. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to return to Haiti and to visit Martinique on a regular basis. I also look forward to making progress in learning Baoulé, a language spoken in West Africa that I first studied in graduate school.

“I was touched by Arthur's unwavering faith in me.”

Narbé Mansourian ’97: I first met Arthur Saint-Aubin as a freshman nearly 30 years ago when I took his French Translation class. During that semester, he pushed and challenged me in craftily interpreting French and English literary and poetic works. He showed me how to find the essence of a text, and ways to preserve the significance of each excerpt, without the beauty of the language being lost in translation.

Saint-Aubin on the steps next to Johnson Hall in a 1986 photo.
Saint-Aubin on the steps next to Johnson Hall in a 1986 photo.

My frequent trips to his office turned from conversations about interpreting Rimbaud and Césaire to seeking his guidance about navigating through life in general. Arthur had become not only my academic adviser but a mentor during difficult times. He stood patiently by me when I was struggling through some personal issues that made it nearly impossible for me to finish my senior comprehensive exams on time. This required me to make a journal of dozens of French novels that I had read over the course of a year, then use that knowledge to write a dissertation on a common theme that these literary works shared.

When I was ready to give in and throw in the towel at the prospect of such a daunting task, Arthur sat with me and encouraged me on countless occasions. He gave me honest feedback on my work, until I was able to successfully write an excellent dissertation on the intertextuality of all the novels in question. Beyond being ecstatic to receive my B.A. in French literature, I was touched by Arthur’s unwavering belief in me. 

Over the years, Arthur and I kept in correspondence, and our Socratic relationship turned into a lifelong friendship. We now often converse about different stages in our lives and our families. I am now in my 22nd year of teaching, and my love for educating others was sparked in part by Arthur’s interest in me as a scholar.

While our shared love of linguistics and French literature brought us together, it was the human connection that he made with me that etched an impression in my heart. Thank you, Arthur, for sticking by me academically, for helping me find my voice as a leader, and for allowing me to rediscover that joie de vivre. Merci, mon cher ami!

Mansourian majored in French literature at Occidental and has taught at Hollywood Schoolhouse since 2001.

“[He] recultivated my relationship to French language and translation.”

Thomas Robertson ’20: When I entered Professor Saint-Aubin’s Advanced Grammar and Comprehension class, I was coming off of a less-than-ideal semester academically. French was a subject I formerly had so much excitement for, but it was fleeting fast. Professor Saint-Aubin supported me as a person and a student to pursue my passions for French translation. As a distinguished mind in French studies, Black studies, psychoanalysis, and gender studies, he exposed me to the vast interdisciplinary approaches of creative, stimulating scholarship. 

It is because of him that I was encouraged to pursue a Fulbright grant and strengthen my French translation skills beyond Oxy.

I am beyond humbled to have such an expert in French as an academic mentor. Whether by living in a French-speaking country or by doing volunteer translation work, I am constantly reminded of the joy that French language and translation gives me, and the person who recultivated my relationship to French language and translation. Merci du fond du cœur.

A diplomacy and world affairs and group language double major at Occidental, Robertson used his Fulbright award to study how violence in rural Burkina Faso has impacted politics and interethnic community relations in Ouaga­dougou, the West African country’s capital.

“I can only hope that others find a teacher as invested and inspiring.”

Dylan Ryan ’21: My first class at Occidental was French 201 with Professor Saint-Aubin. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect from any college course, let alone an advanced one. The class was indeed challenging, but Professor Saint-Aubin kept us engaged, enticing us on bit by bit with creative projects while expanding our knowledge and developing a love for French culture.

“How interesting could a class on French grammar really be?” you might wonder, and though I might add that his courses were not structured for those just in it for the credits, he managed to take courses that seem rather black-and-white on paper and transform them into immersive glimpses of French culture, all while never leaving campus. 

His remarks would point out areas you could improve, but he would equally praise where it was deserved, encouraging me not only to strive for high marks in the class but also pursue and cultivate my French skills as a whole. His course on the Theory and Practice of Translation remains one of my favorite classes post-graduation, and I continue to use those skills on a regular basis. His theories on the practice of translation gave me a greater appreciation for all languages and their nuances, leading me to pursue a double minor in linguistics and French and focus my senior thesis on the intersection of language and thought.

The study of the many facets of language has been a major focus in my studies and career choices, a pathway that was heavily influenced by Professor Saint-Aubin’s theories and kind remarks. I feel so honored and grateful to have had such a wonderful French experience at Occidental and can only hope that others find a teacher as invested and inspiring as Professor Saint-Aubin. Merci, Professeur,  for giving me a lifelong appreciation for a language other than my own and for a wonderful start to my career at Occidental.

Ryan majored in cognitive science at Occidental and works as an electroencephalographic (EEG) technician at Kern Medical.