September 18, 2003

The Knight Tells His Tale

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Knights are heroes of fairy tales and legends, men who seek out honorable quests and deftly wield their swords against dragons and tyrants in defense of virtue. You might think that knights exist only in storybooks today, but think again — you could run into one at Cornell, and he may even be your professor.

Prof. Richard Klein’s weapon of choice is a pen, rather than a sword, and he seeks knowledge, rather than captive princesses, but the French government knighted him for his writings and his contribution to the dissemination of French culture.

Klein ’62 was sitting in his office in Morrill Hall when he opened up an envelope with a notice informing him of his selection to the Order of Arts and Letters from Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the French Minister of Culture.

“I was thinking, ‘I probably don’t deserve this,'” said Klein. After opening the letter he immediately picked up the phone and called his mother, who plans to make him a crown and a sword to help him fulfill his new position as “chevalier.”

The Order of Arts and Letters recognizes artists and writers who make significant contributions to the arts. Previous recipients include Paul Auster, Ornette Coleman, Robert Paxton, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

Klein’s contributions to the arts include research on French literature, poetry, modernism and contemporary French thought. He is a professor in the Department of Romance Studies. “The study of literature teaches people to interpret, and interpretation is important as a way of seeing through the lies and misrepresentations of journalists and politicians,” said Klein with a smile.

Klein has written three books, Cigarettes Are Sublime, Eat Fat and Jewelry Talks in which he addresses current social issues and cultural artifacts using ideas inspired by Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher, whom he called “the most important intellectual influence on my life.”

“I got into jewelry though French poetry,” said Klein. “I wanted to understand what role [poets] assign to jewelry. And I then started getting interested in jewelry itself, trying to understand the cultural uses of jewelry.” According to Klein, a woman’s earrings reveal what she wants whispered in her ears. Hoop earrings are a way of attracting attention. They give off a vibe of “gypsy brassiness;” they’re “naughty, bold and sexy.”

Klein’s recollected life begind at three years old in 1945 on V-J Day (victory over Japan) when he stood with his mother on the street in Atlantic City and watched soldiers throw “everything but the nurses” out the windows.

“I remember pillows,” he said. “I distinctly remember pillows, and … mattresses and I distinctly remember large white balloons they were throwing out the windows, and I wanted one very badly and my mother didn’t seem to want me to run over and get one.”

After growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. and graduating from Wyoming Seminary High School, Klein came to Cornell as an undergraduate. After graduating in 1962 from with a degree in French he went to graduate school at Yale where he got his Ph.D. in French literature in 1968. He returned to Cornell as a professor in 1974.

“I love the experience of teaching and I love reading,” said Klein. “Teaching seemed an important and worthwhile thing to do. [It is] important because [it] is one of the ways to learn how to think critically.”

Klein demands personal effort and hard work, according to Nader Alaghband ’04, who has taken a few of his classes and has known him for three years.

“[He emphasizes] thinking as an end in itself … [and] he encourages students to come up with their own ideas, rather than only teaching them his,” said Alaghband. “He’s very approachable. Not just in a professional capacity but also as a mentor and a friend.”

At the moment, Klein is working on a book about bullfighting, which is a popular sport in the south of France.

“I’m interested in bullfighting and animal rights,” he said. “And I’m interested in the persistence of this rather primitive ritual … the enthusiasm it generates and what kinds of emotions it arouses in people. … I was simultaneously horrified by the cruelty, fascinated by the beauty and moved by the danger [the first time I saw a bullfight].”

Klein tried his hand at bullfighting for the first time this past weekend at a friend’s birthday party in Arles, France. They rented a bull calf and he tried it until the bull got him in a “rather sensitive place behind” and he decided to end his bullfighting career.

Klein believes that French culture, including bullfighting, poetry and food, “has a lot to teach us about the use of language and about pleasure.” His classes, articles and books reflect that belief, which is why he was chosen for knighthood.

Although Arthurian codes of chivalry for knights are long outdated, students find a kind, learned person who embodies these virtues in Prof. Klein.

“I have always thought of him as somewhat father-like in the way he seems to genuinely care about his students,” said Alaghband. “I think he’s completely deserving of the honor [of knighthood]. He is an extremely honorable person. Someone who you can be certain won’t abuse your trust.”

Archived article by Katy Bishop