I met Professor Shapiro in the early aughts, many decades into his long and illustrious academic career, when I took his class at Wesleyan University on French literature by black authors. I had never met anyone like him, and do not expect to ever do so again.
In contrast to most of us, who find our energies greatly scattered and dissipated by the varied demands of modern existence, Professor Shapiro lived a life of concentration and focus so remarkable that it has likely only been matched very rarely in history. A scholar and professor of French language and literature for at least sixty years, Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, he brought his considerable mental energies to bear on a single subject with the devotion of a medieval monk or an Ancient Greek philosopher. When you spoke with him, you knew you were speaking with a profound expert of a kind very rarely encountered, but also with a person who deeply loved his subject, and knew how to pass that love on to his students with playfulness and joy.
Witty and hilarious in class discussions, Professor Shapiro was a master of puns and of mock-seriousness. His self-deprecating humor made an asset of his sphinx-like mysteriousness; I recall, for example, that he once elucidated an antique French term for “wig” by tugging at his own curly locks, as though he were about to remove them from his head. A kind of rhetorical standoff ensued, with my fellow students and I torn between doubting and believing in the gesture. As usual with him, the truth was elusive, the comedy more important (though I am personally certain that the hair was entirely his — in other moments, he seemed rightly, if jokingly, proud of it).
This, and all our interactions with him, were conducted entirely and unstintingly in highly erudite French. I recall another of my French professors, a native speaker and literary scholar, once telling me that she was sometimes nervous to speak French in Professor Shapiro’s presence, so excellent was his command of the language. French linguistic pride being what it is, the number of other Americans who ever have achieved such a feat must be small indeed.
Years after graduating from Wesleyan, I suddenly bumped into Professor Shapiro in Harvard Square. Despite the gaps of time and distance, our conversation during that unexpected encounter was still wholly in French. This happened several more times over the next few years I lived in Cambridge. In fact, in all my years of interaction with him, I only heard him speak English on one occasion, and I still remember it as a shocking moment.
To be Professor Shapiro’s student was to encounter greatness. He inspired me to strive for such dedication and accomplishment in my own life, and though I may never come close to the Montparnassian heights he achieved, my life is the richer for having glimpsed them.