Thanks for the Memory

Les lieux de mémoire

edited by Pierre Nora
Gallimard, 2,613 pp., fr960

Painting Politics for Louis-Philippe: Art and Ideology in Orléanist France, 1830–1848

by Michael Marrinan
Yale University Press, 472 pp., $45.00

The inscription on a fine statuette in one of the Egyptian rooms in the Metropolitan Museum tells us that it had been set up by Ahmose in honor of his father, Harnofer the Prophet of Amun in Karnak, “that his name may live.” That hope has not been quite forlorn, for any visitor to the Metropolitan may now consult the helpful label (which could, of course, only be compiled because Egyptian script was deciphered early in the last century), and he will then surely find himself wondering for an instant or two about the priest Harnofer, who lived in Karnak more than two thousand years ago. That the struggle to stave off oblivion has again and again provided a powerful impulse for the creation of monuments of all kinds is well known, but cultural historians have paid surprisingly little serious attention to the many other steps taken to preserve—and also to destroy—what men and women have wanted to retain of their creations, their customs, their beliefs, even their appearances. Vague references are made to “folk memories” (with their often sinister overtones), but the actual mechanisms that have come into being to record such memories have not been much discussed except in special cases. Nor has the problem often been studied imaginatively from the other end, so to speak. Just what of the past has been kept alive in the consciousness of later generations—and at what cost?

In Les lieux de mémoire (“The Places of Memory”) Pierre Nora has brought together a series of remarkable essays (some of them written by himself) that tackle both these problems as they relate to France in a discursive rather than in a systematic fashion. Thus we are able to observe the chronicles, the monuments, the cathedrals, the palaces, the rituals, and other devices with which men have tried to outwit time. But we are also given the chance to gauge the successes and failures of these efforts by noting what are the memories that have in fact become crystallized into ceremonies, institutions and laws, popular songs and statues, legends and textbooks, and that have then combined to make up the collective consciousness of one nation’s identity. For example, Bernard Guenée demonstrates, in two separate essays, how the histories—or, rather, chronicles—that were commissioned by the court, at different periods during the Middle Ages, from St. Denis and some of the other great monasteries could give substance to such tenuous concepts as patriotism and royal authority; while splendidly illustrated editions of Les grandes chroniques de France could convey to the nobility a vivid sense of its own significance in the life of the nation—a sense which remained influential for generations after new historical techniques and the invention of the printing press had made a mockery of the contents of such manuscripts and had relegated them to the status of luxurious but rarely looked at heirlooms.

Indeed in his account of “Reims, ville du sacre” Jacques Le Goff invites us to examine the embarrassment that can…

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