Hannah Freed-Thall

Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature
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Hannah Freed-Thall
Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Hannah Freed-Thall approaches literature — particularly modernist French literature — with a comparatist’s perspective and a musician’s sensitivity to the texture and sounds of words.

Zut, zut, zut, zut.  What is that?

“The first dissertation chapter I ever wrote — it later became an article and is now a chapter in my book — started with that expression, which has been translated as ‘gosh,’ or ‘damn.’ It comes from Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, ‘Swann’s Way,’ the first volume of In Search of Lost Time,” said Hannah Freed-Thall, assistant professor of comparative literature. “It’s the narrator’s first aesthetic judgment. He’s taking a walk and comes upon a stunning but perfectly ordinary assemblage: a chicken on a tool shed roof and a splotch of light on a pond. In response to this, all he can do is brandish an umbrella and say, ‘Zut, zut, zut, zut.’ That’s fascinating because Proust has such a reputation for eloquence and his novel is seen as a monument to cultural sophistication — yet here’s a moment of such unsophisticated aesthetic experience.”

But it wasn’t a simple, single moment of non-comprehension. Freed-Thall found a constellation of such moments throughout the novel — instances of befuddlement, of bewildered beholding, of halting, inarticulate response. Taken together, she suggests, these occasions of everyday aesthetic disorientation show us a different side of Proust and of modernism itself. Setting aside familiar concepts like novelty, prestige, and heroism, Freed-Thall argues that Proust and other modernist authors multiply strategies for reading and valuing the ordinary.

Freed-Thall’s training as a musician informs her interest in everyday aesthetics and her sensitivity to the texture and sound of words. She began her college career as a music student, working toward a degree in violin performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston. It taught her a lot about discipline and focus, and she still plays a bit when she can, but her time at the conservatory made one thing plain: She missed the academics, the analysis, the theory, the discussions, the writing, the enjoyment of literature.

She moved to Smith College, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature and French literature with highest honors for a thesis on feminist theory. That led to graduate studies at the University of California–Berkeley (Ph.D., comparative literature, 2010).

There was one more stop on the way to Brown — a three-year term as a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows. She not only taught courses on emotion in modernity, philosophical aesthetics, and French thought — she taught them in French.

In her first year at Brown, she is leading a seminar titled “Fashion and Power” and serving as a postdoctoral fellow in a Pembroke Center seminar, “Aesthetics and the Question of Beauty.”

Ecological criticism is a more recent and growing interest. “Literary texts teach us to see the world differently and make us aware of the power of certain objects,” she said. “They can make us aware of alternative ways to view the world — nature not just as a resource to be exploited. I’m also interested in how art may make us cognizant of forms of damage or toxicity that aren’t immediately perceptible.”

But the interest in and love of French literature and the comparative approach continue strong. “The first piece of advice that every comp lit graduate student receives is that when you get a Ph.D. in comparative literature, you have to be ready to be hired in a national literature department,” Freed-Thall said. “I love French literature and could have been very happy in a French department. But it’s really thrilling and exciting and freeing to be able to work as a comparatist on French literature, on European modernism more broadly, and on U.S. modernism as well.”

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