French 117: Studies in 17th Century French Culture and Literature: The “Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi”: Art, Literature, and the Sublime in Seventeenth-Century France

Instructor: Raphaëlle Burns

The “je-ne-sais-quoi” is one of many French expressions that have historically found their way into the English language. But what does this expression mean, where does it come from, and what makes it so untranslatable? In this course, we will delve into the history of seventeenth-century French literature, art, religion, and society, to understand how and why the idea of the “je-ne-sais-quoi” became so popular. We will examine how this enigmatic notion served contemporary ideologies of class, gender, and race but also how, for certain writers, it evoked an aesthetic, spiritual, and/or moral experience that transcended these categories entirely. We will read authors such as Corneille, Molière, La Fontaine, Pascal, Bouhours, Bossuet, and Boileau, and engage together with art and music from the period. Extracts from modern theoretical readings on the “je-ne-sais-quoi”, by the likes of Bourdieu, Jankélévitch, Nancy, and Wittgenstein, will also be introduced. Taught in French.

W 2-4:50               Royce 152