Preserving Pascal In the Days Before Xeroxes
The chairman of the French department at my college in my time was Prof. Frederick Brown, who didn't look the part and could have been the delivery man who shoveled six tons of anthracite through the wrong cellar window. Because of his austerity about academics, he was known as ''Flunker'' Brown, and his grades were dreaded.
I never got into his exalted presence, as my dalliance with his subject kept me among his assistants and associates. Nobody knows where I might have gone if I had been student enough to warrant Flunker's attention, but I seem to have ''made do'' with the tutelage of his underlings and the cooperation of Mme Therese Lacharite, who was not on the faculty but was my landlady at $3 a week at my off-campus digs at 51 Federal Street.
The French I got from my landlady has proved useful, although I seldom bump into anybody who wants to talk about Ronsard, Racine, and others I might mention if I could recall their names -- names Landlady Therese had never heard of.
And Blaise Pascal. Professor Brown had made Blaise Pascal the subject of his doctoral thesis and was considered the best authority on Pascal, not only on the polemics but on the mathematical and scientific contributions of the man. And our story today has to do with the first sabbatical leave of Professor Brown and his trip to France to do further research into Pascal's life.
In this pursuit, Professor Brown came quite by chance to a remote, lonely monastery in the solitude of the Auvergne Mountains, not far from Limoges and the Pascal birthplace. He had a suspicion that this monastery had some odd Pascal material, and was working on a hunch.
But he found it difficult to get into the place. The brothers did not welcome intruders, and the French spoken within the walls was centuries old. The fact that Professor Brown was a student of very old French helped him get inside, and his inquiries about Pascal material got him an audience with the abbot, who was himself a bit of a Pascal student.
So Professor Brown was well received and was given a comfortable cubicle to be his as long as he needed to search the archives. He was introduced to the archivist/librarian and found at once that this older monk was also the catalog: Whatever was in the monastery about Pascal was in his head and in no other place.
Flunker Brown, happy as a palourde, went right to work. There was no immediate success. He found a copy of Pascal's birth papers from parish records and some biographical notes about his father, who had tutored the boy in mathematics, but nothing else from early days because the Pascal family had shortly moved to Paris. Then there were some reports about geometry and Pascal's theorem and his observations on barometric pressure.
But there was really nothing in the monastery's collections that couldn't be found, in one form or another, in other places. It wasn't time to go home, but Professor Brown made his farewell.
But before he left, the venerable librarian wondered if he might shed some light on a bundle of disarranged holograph papers found some time since and never considered significant. The professor's eagerness to be on his way home collapsed instantly when he recognized this bundle of papers was a random assortment of first drafts of Pascal's Pensees -- until now unseen by a scholar's eyes. His knees shaking, Flunker Brown needed to steady himself, and he reached to grasp the librarian's habit with an intimacy that embarrassed both of them.
Xerography had yet to be perfected, so Professor Brown hastened to Paris to find a photographer both available and competent, and he brought him to the monastery. Professor Brown had to return to America for the fall semester, but the photographer would make pictures of the Pascal papers and forward them when he did them all. Very mindful of the stir he was about to create in Pascal circles, Professor Brown sailed home, resumed his classroom duties, and bided with as much patience as he could muster for the arrival of the photographs. They arrived just before Christmas.
The meantime had been nearly intolerable for poor Professor Brown. He was great on phonetics, and could easily lose himself in phonetics as his struggling students handled them carelessly. But now when phonetics appeared, he would find himself looking out the window and daydreaming of the Auvergne monastery.
But now the photographs were here! With a gesture at self-rebuke, he dallied the afternoon and had supper leisurely with his family. The bundle from Paris was unopened on the sideboard. After supper he opened it and was ready to enjoy.
The photographs were beautiful, enlarged, and easy to read. One by one he turned them over. And then, an imperfect picture! The photographer's horrible mistake! Not a word legible! And here's another!
And another! Eight years later, on his second sabbatical leave, Flunker Brown returned to the monastery. The abbot had been replaced. The librarian had ''closed his book.'' The new librarian knew of no Pascal papers. There had been some housecleaning. In Paris, nobody remembered the photographer. Given his freedom in the monastery archives, Professor Brown searched in vain. When his sabbatical ended, he returned to his college and continued to teach until he retired.
He never took another sabbatical.