photo of Leo Bersani
In Memoriam: Leo Bersani

We are sad to report that Professor Emeritus Leo Bersani died on February 20, 2022.

Leo was first appointed to the Berkeley faculty in 1973, after having taught at Wellesley College (1957-1967) and Rutgers University (1967-1973). Already famous as a literary critic when he arrived at Berkeley, Leo elevated the French Department to international renown during his first term as Chair, from 1973 to 1982. He was the person responsible for inviting intellectuals such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Laplanche, Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov, and Monique Wittig for extended visits at the department. These years are affectionately known to many as the "Bersani years."

Leo Bersani was a celebrated scholar and one of America’s foremost cultural critics, writing prolifically on the interrelationships among literature, painting, and film. His early major works of literary criticism included Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art (1965), Balzac to Beckett: Center and Circumference in French Fiction (1970), a collection of essays on Flaubert, Rimbaud, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Pynchon and other writers entitled A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (1976), followed in quick succession by Baudelaire and Freud (1978), The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé (1981), and Théorie et violence: Freud et l’art (1984). With his essay "Is the rectum a grave?" (in the Winter 1987 issue of October on "AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism") Leo’s brilliant psychoanalytic analyses morphed into a newly engaged form of literary criticism found in landmark books like The Culture of Redemption (1990) and then Homos (1995). Leo's work in these years made him one of the key figures in the field of queer studies and in literary, cultural, and visual studies. His collaborative work with Ulysse Dutoit, who taught film at Berkeley for many years—notably in their 1993 volume,  Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais—also attracted enormous and enthusiastic attention. Leo Bersani taught at both Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania during his immensely productive retirement, and his work, including Thoughts and Things (2015) and Receptive Bodies (2018), along with a notable collaboration with Adam Phillips, Intimacies (2008) went on being deeply influential for new generations of scholars in many disciplines.

What was perhaps less well known about Leo Bersani is that he was a gifted and committed pedagogue who helped transform teaching at all levels in our department. For many years, the undergraduate courses Bersani taught in 19th century French literature were a mainstay in the department, a rite of passage for undergraduates—legendary, even, one might say. He also taught remarkable courses on Beckett and other 20th century authors, as well as on literature, psychoanalysis, and sexuality. These were the kinds of courses that appealed to the brightest of undergraduates, spurring many of them to advanced study in literature and critical thought. Leo's graduate courses—which covered not only French literature, but also English and American literature, film, and painting—were also eagerly sought out by students from many humanities departments at Berkeley. But Leo was also centrally involved in revamping the department's composition/criticism courses (French 102 and 103) and urged all ladder faculty to teach one lower division language section (he himself taught a section of French 4). Leo also developed a culture track in the undergraduate major in 1976, before it became more broadly fashionable in language departments. His influence on the quality of teaching in all areas of the department was far-reaching and profound.

When Leo Bersani retired in 1996, he was the Class of 1950 Professor of French.  He served as Professor of the Graduate School for several years after retirement, and returned to Berkeley to teach a graduate seminar in Art History and Film in Fall 2005. It was Berkeley's great loss that Leo did not continue to reside in the area after retirement. Every time he returned to campus to lecture or teach, multitudes of eager students and faculty turned up to hear from him. He leaves a remarkable legacy in the French Department and on the Berkeley campus.

A celebration of the life and career of Professor Emeritus Leo Bersani was held at the Women's Faculty Club on Tuesday April 26 and the recording is available here.