Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



Helverson, S (2020) “Desire to Know: Erudition, Empiricism and Personal Identity,” 20th & 21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, March 26-28, 2020.

DOI: 10.32873/unl.dc.ffsc.022


Copyright © 2020 S. Helverson


Literary erudition, erudition displaced from the realm of fact and research into the space of fiction, presents a curious paradox; can fiction help us understand facts? In this essay, I will explore literary erudition for its effects on the reader. To do this, I will first offer a working hypothesis on the shape of literary erudition today, then offer a limit case: the autofictive novels of Nina Bouraoui, specifically Mes mauvaises pensées (2005) and Tous les hommes désirent naturellement savoir (2018) in order to make the argument that the erudite approach to scholarship can provide an essential mode of engaging with our world, and not only arcane texts. Today, careful reflection is just as important as it has ever been, as are the erudite methodologies of rigorous analysis, careful assessment of documents, and informed selection of the documents to assess. But, erudition is not the same thing as scholarship, with its professional connotations. Instead, as one psychologist puts it, erudition “implies an eclectic, sturdy yet easygoing knowledge. Erudition is an intellectual compass.” Erudition provides a foundation for further intellectual exploration; its value is in the potential for what it might uncover, in the unexpected associations it might furnish; it is an unregulated intellectualism. Randolph Starn understands literary erudition to be a subjective, empirically informed process, a methodology whose findings are a combination of the scholar’s positionality (e.g. vis-à-vis a major library), fortuitous discoveries, and hard work. Before I offer some examples of this kind of engagement in Bouraoui’s novels, I want to clarify what I mean by erudition, and what I understand to be at stake in that label.