When you’re known as “the immortals,” as are the 40 members of the Académie Française, it’s hard to take yourselves lightly. Over the course of five centuries, 732 of them have walked the earth and reigned as the guardians of France’s most sacrosanct asset: its language. A linguistic secret service, if you like, they project an almost priestly aura when they don their habits verts—long black cloaks embroidered with leafy-green botanical motifs—accessorized with elaborate ceremonial swords. Drawn from the arts and academia as well as the clergy and government, the Académie is considered to include the nation’s finest minds, and is revered accordingly. It is, after all, the most exclusive club in France.
In recent years, however, these august savants (ranging in age from a sprightly 60 up to 99), who serve for life after being elected by the membership, have begun to face some distinctly 21st-century challenges—for starters, replenishing their ranks. Inside their temple-like palace on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre, in the majestic coupole-topped chamber where they convene, a good portion of the numbered fauteuils have sat vacant for long stretches (six were unoccupied in 2017) while the Académie goes through its laborious election process. In May, it chose its fifth living female immortal, and the ninth ever. Opinions on hot-button issues such as “inclusive writing,” which aims to make French grammar more gender-neutral, have created a cultural stir.
The Académie Française remains a unique combination of pomp and real intellectual power—a bastion, in every sense—as I was able to witness one week in May, when the historically press-averse powers of the Académie granted me interviews and access inside their palace. The question at hand: could the arcane, archaic Académie be re-invigorated by new blood, attention, and energy? And just what, exactly, do they do?
Since 1635, when it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Académie’s primary task has been to write the official dictionary of the French language. The first edition took 56 years to complete. A new edition is embarked upon as soon as one is finished, and typically requires decades of labor. Work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, commenced in 1986, has progressed (as of August) up to surhomme. Each Thursday morning, the 15 members of the dictionary committee convene around an oval table, as their predecessors have for centuries, and proceed word by word. “We’ll cover 20 to 30 if all goes well,” says one member. That afternoon, the entire membership assembles for learned discourse, and it’s livelier than you might think.
“We have fun; it’s not stuffy. We have discussions, not arguments. I’ve never had to resort to the sword,” says playwright René de Obaldia, occupant of fauteuil 22 since 1999, who will turn 100 in October. “It is a pleasure to go there because people have a way of speaking to each other with such politeness. It is completely out of today’s time,” says art historian Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, and fauteuil 23 since 1995. “We are not here to stop change,” says author Sir Michael Edwards, the only British immortal (fauteuil 31 since 2013), “but to push language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.”
Read more: Vanity Fair