A few days ago I attended a good friend’s PhD viva at the Sorbonne university in Paris. She’d been working on it for seven years, and the result was a 491-page comparative literature project on the motif of the flâneur/wanderer in Czech and French literature from the end of the 19th century to 1940. Her research had been co-directed by two supervisors: a French professor at the Sorbonne, and a Czech professor at Charles University in Prague.
PhD vivas in France are public and sponsored by Prozac. Candidates are required to ‘defend’ their work. This, as I soon found out, is not a figure of speech. As we walked up the marble staircase to the room in which the Defence was to take place, my friend produced an ornamented shield and an old-fashioned sword studded with rubies which she’d inherited from another doctoral student who had unfortunately perished on the battlefield. She then proceeded to put on a coat of mail which clicked unpleasantly, and finally a relatively rusty suit of armour. All the while she muttered: “I can’t believe I said on page 348 that the protagonist could see the Eiffel Tower in 1868” (NB: this part of it is true, but fret not, no one noticed). Her mother, who had flown from Prague, was difficult to observe, as her constant trembling made her strangely blurry.
Finally we reached the Defence Room. My friend was ready:
In the room were six examiners who didn’t look quite as grumpy as I’d expected, perhaps because it was Saturday afternoon. They were facing us (about ten people were there to attend the fight and a few were taking bets) and she was facing them, with a small no-man’s-land between their desks. A copy of The Thesis to be Defended was placed in front of the chief machine-gunner President of the Jury. Another one was placed in front of the candidate. And so it started.
What I soon realised was the following. First, the room had been booked for five hours. Second, three of the six examiners had flown from Czech Republic, and another one from some provincial town in France I can’t remember (names of provincial towns in France tend to slip my mind), and all were very keen to show that it wasn’t for nothin’. Thirdly, it transpired relatively quickly that my friend’s thesis was just, well, fairly good. So in order to give the impression that she had something to Defend, the six examiners had worked hard on their criticism and their loaded guns were full of ‘I would have liked to see more of’ bullets that they’d acquired at their local ultra-specialised ammunition store.
Concretely, some of the criticism targeted at the thesis was unmistakably helpful, worthwhile, and relevant. She had foreseen some of it, and was prepared to Defend her lack of emphasis on humour or irony. However, it did seem to most of the people present that a lot of time the examiners were contradicting each other, or themselves, as they increasingly struggled to find faults that others hadn’t picked up on. They each talked in turn, for about twenty minutes, after which my friend was invited to respond to criticism. This gave rise to the following dialogue:
Examiner n.2: I am slightly astonished that you did not mention Sterne. After all, A Sentimental Journey is THE canonical text on the wandering aesthete!
Candidate: Regarding what you said about Sterne – I completely agree with you, though I have to say I had to limit myself to Czech and French literature, but it is definitely an omission and I’m very sorry about it. But thank you for mentioning it, as it will provide an interesting opening for further research.
Examiner n.4: I am slightly astonished that you did not mention Joyce. After all, Ulysses is THE canonical text on the wandering aesthete!
Candidate: Regarding what you said about Joyce – I completely agree with you, though I have to say I had to limit myself to Czech and French literature, but it is definitely an omission and I’m very sorry about it. But thank you for mentioning it, as it will provide an interesting opening for further research.
Examiner n.5: I am slightly astonished that you did not mention Gogol. After all, his short stories are THE canonical texts on the wandering aesthete!
Candidate: Regarding what you said about Gogol – I completely agree with you, though I have to say I had to limit myself to Czech and French literature, but it is definitely an omission and I’m very sorry about it. But thank you for mentioning it, as it will provide an interesting opening for further research.
There were slight variations to this theme:
Examiner n.3: I am slightly astonished that you did not mention Flaubert. After all, his novels sometimes feature wandering aesthetes!
Candidate: Regarding what you said about Flaubert – I completely agree with you, though I have to say I had to limit myself to texts that did not just mention wandering aesthetes once every two hundred pages. But it is definitely an omission and I’m very sorry about it. But thank you for mentioning it, as it will provide an interesting opening for further research.
Finally we reached the Godwin point of the discussion:
Examiner n.6: I am slightly astonished that you did not mention Kafka. After all, he is THE Prague writer!
Candidate: Regarding what you said about Kafka – I cannot defend myself. I have indeed failed.
They all agreed, however, that her corpus had more than enough writers.
Then there was the usual French accusation. Wait for it:
We all heard Descartes, who happens to be buried not far from there, chuckle in his grave:
And then we all left the room and the jury deliberated. It lasted for about six years, during which we all went on a voyage around the world in a caravel. And finally the door opened, and the President of the Jury said we could come back in. Everyone was standing up. My friend was starting to boil inside her suit of armour. The examiners were all sporting benevolent smiles. And then the President of the Jury announced that they had unanimously decided to grant her a Doctorat Mention Très Honorable, which is apparently very honourable and the highest thing you can get, save from Very Honourable Plus Congratulations of the Jury, which happens only when Sterne, Joyce, Gogol, Flaubert and Kafka are all gathered for tea and biscuits in the same thesis.
We rejoiced, flowers were given, tears were shed, and my friend invited her six torturers along to a celebratory cocktail at a famous Art Nouveau bistro at the corner of the street, which I warmly recommend for its staggering beauty, delicious café viennois and traditionally unpleasant waiters.
There, the examiners became human again, and we had a good chat. As the champagne bottle was going round they found other things to criticise about the thesis, and then they told my friend she would become a great Czech/French comparatist, and then one of them asked her to contribute to his new book on Prague.
As I left the place I mused over the differences between French and English PhD vivas, and PhDs full stop for that matter. French education has no proper rites of passage. There’s no public graduation, there’s no prom, no uniforms, not even sports days. This was truly the closest thing to a proper rite of passage I’d seen: the public suffering, the redemption, the celebration. As usual with the French, it was merciless – in Gaul, being critical, contrary and disdainful is an important aspect of our relationships to others. But as is customary, in an Astérix fashion, after the fight comes the banquet. Although the Defence, being, basically, a five-hour-long public attack on your work, is probably scarier than the English PhD viva, the scariness is part of what makes it a ritual and not just an examination.
But for my friend the really scary part is only just starting, and it’s called getting a job in academia. And for that, obviously though sadly, she’s leaving France.