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A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past

edited by Pierre Nora, English-language edition edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman, translated by Arthur Goldhammer


As you drive along the magnificently engineered, impeccably landscaped autoroutes of France, you cannot miss the unusual information panels set off to the right at frequent intervals. Conspicuous but somehow unobtrusive, in warm earth colors, these cluster in pairs. First comes a panel of two or three symbols—sufficiently simple and pointed to arouse the interest of the speeding motorist, but not immediately self-explanatory: a bunch of grapes, perhaps, or a stylized depiction of a building or a mountain.

Then, a kilometer or so further on, allowing just enough time for the occupants of the car to ask one another what it meant, the panel explains itself in a second panel, similarly sited, telling you that you are now passing the vineyards of Burgundy, the cathedral at Reims, or the Mont Ste.-Victoire. And there, off to right or left (the second panel has a helpful arrow suggesting where you should look), a field of grapes, a Gothic spire, or Cézanne’s favorite hill emerges on cue.

These panels are not necessarily accompanied or followed by an exit road. Their purpose is not to lead you to the thing depicted, much less tell you about it. They are there to alleviate the boredom of high-speed motoring, to tell the traveler on advanced modern highways what it is that he or she is passing through unawares. And there is an obvious irony in the fact that you need to be traveling on roads that rigorously separate you from the minutiae of the landscape in order to have that landscape interpreted for you.

Moreover, these panels are intentionally and unapologetically didactic: they tell you about the French past—or about present-day activities (wine-making, for example) that provide continuity with the past—in ways that reinforce a certain understanding of the country. Ah, we say, yes: the battlefield of Verdun; the amphitheater at Nîmes; the cornfields of the Beauce. And as we reflect upon the variety and the wealth of the country, the ancient roots and modern traumas of the nation, we share with others a certain memory of France. We are being led at seventy miles an hour through the Museum of France that is France itself.

France is unique. But it is not alone. We are living through an era of commemoration. Throughout Europe and the United States, memorials, monuments, commemorative plaques, and sites are being erected to remind us of our heritage. In itself, this is not a new development: at the battle site of Thermopylae in Greece, the Leonidas Monument (erected in 1955) reproduces an ancient text exhorting passers-by to remember the heroic defeat of the Spartans at the hands of Xerxes in 480 BC. The English have long celebrated and commemorated defeats (from Hastings in 1066 to Dunkirk in 1940); Rome is a living memorial site of Western civilization; and the brief story of the US is recounted, incarnated, represented, and monumentalized across the land, from Colonial Williamsburg to Mount Rushmore.

In our day, however, there is something new. We commemorate many more things; we disagree over what should be commemorated, and how; and whereas until recently (in Europe at least) the point of a museum, a memorial plaque, or a monument was to remind people of what they already knew or thought they knew, today these things serve a different end. They are there to tell people about things they may not know, things they have forgotten or never learned. We live in growing fear that we shall forget the past, that it will somehow get misplaced among the bric-a-brac of the present. We commemorate a world we have lost, sometimes even before we have lost it.

In erecting formal reminders or replicas of something we ought to remember, we risk further forgetfulness: by making symbols or remnants stand for the whole, we ease ourselves into an illusion. In James Young’s words, “Once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember…. Under the illusion that our memorial edifices will always be there to remind us, we take leave of them and return only at our convenience.” Moreover, monuments—war memorials for example—blend imperceptibly over time into the landscape: they become part of the past, rather than a reminder of it.1

In the United States discussion of such matters usually takes place under the sign of “memory wars.” Who has the right to design an exhibition, assign meaning to a battlefield, inscribe a plinth or a plaque? These are tactical skirmishes in the greater cultural conflict over identity: national, regional, linguistic, religious, racial, ethnic, sexual. In Germany (or Poland) arguments about how to remember or commemorate the recent past have been distilled into painful, compensatory attention to the extermination of the European Jews—planned in Germany, executed in Poland. Instead of recording and giving form to pride and nostalgia, commemoration in such circumstances rouses (and is intended to rouse) pain and even anger. Once a public device for evoking and encouraging feelings of communal or national unity, public commemoration of the past has become a leading occasion for civic division, as in the current dispute over whether a Holocaust memorial should be built in Berlin.

The place of the historian in all this is crucial but obscure. The contrast between memory and history should not be overstated: historians do more than just remember on behalf of the rest of the community, but we certainly do that too. Mere remembering, in Milan Kundera’s words, is after all just a form of forgetting and the historian is responsible, at the very least, for correcting mis-memory.2 In Nice today, for example, the main shopping street has been relabeled with a plaque reading “Avengueda Jouan Medecin. Consou de Nissa 1928-1965.” This is a politically correct attempt, in the French context, to remind passers-by that the local inhabitants once spoke an Italianate Provençal patois and to invoke on behalf of the city’s distinctive identity the memory of that language. But Jean Médecin, the mayor of Nice between 1928 and 1965, had no particular interest in local dialects or customs, did not use the old Niçois form of his name or title, and was as French, and French-speaking, as they come—as were most of his constituents in his day. This one instance can stand for many where a false past has been substituted for the real one for very present-minded reasons; here at least the historian can help set memory back on its feet.

Historians do deal in memory, then. And we have long been in the business of criticizing and correcting official or public memory, which has ends of its own to serve. Moreover, in the writing of contemporary or near-contemporary history, memory is a crucial resource: not just because it adds detail and perspective, but because what people remember and forget, and the uses to which memory is put, are the building blocks of history too. Saul Friedländer has put memory—his own and others’—to exemplary use in his history of Nazi Germany and the Jews; Henry Rousso very effectively turned an account of the way in which the French successively remembered and forgot the Vichy years into a history of postwar France itself. Memory here is made a subject of history, while history resumes, at least in part, an older, mnemonic role.3

Thus when the French historian Pierre Nora draws a clear distinction between “memory,” which “wells up from groups that it welds together,” and “history,” which “belongs to everyone and to no one and therefore has a universal vocation,” he seems at first to be drawing too stark a contrast. Surely we all agree today that such tidy lines separating subjective and objective ways of understanding the past are blurred and arbitrary, relics of an older, innocent approach to historical study? How is it that the director of the most important and influential modern project for the dissection of national historical memory should choose to begin by insisting on so rigid a distinction?4

To understand Nora’s approach, and the cultural significance of the huge three-part, seven-volume, 5,600-page collective work on Les Lieux de mémoire that he edited over the course of the years 1984-1992, we must return to France and to its unique experience.5 France is not only the oldest national state in Europe, with an unbroken history of central government, language, and public administration dating back at least to the twelfth century; it was also, of all the countries of Western Europe, the one which had changed the least until very recently. The landscape of France, the rural community and its way of life, the occupations and routines of daily existence in provincial towns and villages had been less disrupted by industry, modern communications, or social and demographic change than was the case in Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, or any other comparable Western state.

Similarly, the political structure of the country—its forms of national and provincial administration, relations between center and locality, the hierarchy of legal, fiscal, cultural, and pedagogic authority reaching down from Paris to the smallest hamlet—had altered remarkably little over the centuries. The political form of Old Regime France was destroyed in the Revolution, of course. But its authoritarian content and style were faithfully reproduced by the imperial and republican heirs to the Bourbon monarchy, from Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte to Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand.

The serial political upheavals of the nineteenth century left relatively little mark upon the daily experience of most Frenchmen once the disturbances had subsided. Even the postrevolutionary political divisions of the country—right/ left, monarchist/republican, Communist/Gaullist—settled over time into the national cultural topography, sedimented layers of political habit whose very schisms formed part of the shared French experience. In Philippe Burrin’s words, “France has tended to conceive of its conflicts in historical terms, and to conceive of its history in terms of conflict.”6

In the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, this whole edifice—variously and affectionately described and recalled as la France profonde, la douce France, la bonne vieille France, la France éternelle—seemed, to the French, to come crashing down around their heads. The agricultural modernization of the 1950s and 1960s, the migration of the sons and daughters of peasants to the cities, had been steadily depleting and depopulating the French countryside, even as it grew vastly more productive. The towns and cities themselves, long preserved in the dowdy urban aspic of decay and underinvestment, suddenly became crowded and energetic. The revitalized national economy effected a transformation in the jobs, travel patterns, and leisure time of a new class of city-dwellers. Roads and railways that had gathered weeds and grime for decades were rebuilt, relandscaped, or replaced by a virtually new network of national communications.

Much of this began almost unnoticed in the gloomy postwar era and accelerated through the years of high prosperity and optimism of the Sixties. But its effect was only really appreciated a decade later—until then it was the changes and the gains, rather than the losses, that attracted commentary, if at all. And by the time the French did collectively begin to look back in anxiety and perplexity at a rapidly disappearing past that most adults could still recall from their own childhoods, this sense of loss coincided with the precipitous collapse of that other eternal fixture of French life, the political culture inherited from 1789. Thanks to the historian François Furet and his colleagues, the Revolution was displaced from its pedestal and ceased to determine, by projection forward across the centuries, the self-understanding of the French political community. In a related development, the Communist Party ceased during the course of the 1970s to be a fixed star in the ideological firmament, its prestige collapsing along with its vote; in the parallel political universe of the intelligentsia, Marxism, too, lost its appeal.

A Socialist president was elected by popular suffrage in 1981 and proceeded in less than two years to abandon all the tenets of traditional socialism, notably the promise of a grand soir of one-time revolutionary transformation that had marked the left since 1792 and that had, in part, helped to propel him into power. The right was no longer bound together by the person and aura of Charles de Gaulle, who died in 1970, and the fundamental measure of political conservatism in France—the propensity of conservative voters to be practicing Catholics—was undermined by the collapse of public religious observance as the churches of village and small-town France lost their parishioners in the rush to the metropolitan centers. By the early Eighties the ancient foundations of French public life appeared to be crumbling away.

Finally, and belatedly, the French—at least in Pierre Nora’s account—awoke to their country’s shriveled international status.7 No longer a world player, France was not even the most significant regional power, thanks to the steady rise of West Germany. Fewer and fewer people in the world were speaking French, and between the economic and cultural dominance of the United States and the recent addition of the United Kingdom to the European Community, the universal hegemony of English was on the horizon. The colonies were almost gone, and one legacy of the Sixties—the renewed interest in local and regional languages and culture—seemed to threaten the very integrity and unity of France itself. At the same time another legacy of the Sixties—the demand that light be cast on murky corners of the national past—was arousing interest in the wartime Vichy regime that De Gaulle and his contemporaries had sought so assiduously to put behind them for the sake of national reconciliation.

In what seemed to fearful local observers to be a single and somehow related process, France was thus modernizing, downsizing, and splitting apart all at once. Whereas the France of, say, 1956 had been in most important respects fundamentally similar to the France of 1856—even down to a remarkable continuity of geographical patterns of political and religious allegiance—the France of 1980 did not even much resemble the country just ten years earlier. There seemed to be nothing left to hold on to—no myths, no glory, no peasants. As Pascal Ory expressed it, with plaintive irony, in his entry on “Gastronomy” in Realms of Memory: “Will French cuisine be all that remains when everything else has been forgotten?”8

Pierre Nora’s ambitious project was born in this time of doubt and lost confidence. It even had a certain urgency about it—all fixed reference points were disappearing, the “ancestral stability” had gone. What had once been daily life was on its way to becoming an historical object. The centuries-old structures of French life, from field patterns to religious parades, from local memories passed on across the generations to official national history enshrined in word and stone, all were going or gone. They were not yet history, but were no longer part of a common national experience.

There was a pressing need to capture the moment, to depict a France passing uneasily from an experienced past to a historical one, to fix historically a set of national traditions that was slipping beyond the realm of lived memory. Lieux de mémoire, as Nora puts it in his introductory essay, “exist because there are no longer any milieux de mémoire, settings in which memory is a real part of everyday experience.” And what are lieux de mémoire? “[They] are fundamentally vestiges… the rituals of a ritual-less society; fleeting incursions of the sacred into a disenchanted world: vestiges of parochial loyalties in a society that is busily effacing all parochialisms.”9

Les Lieux de mémoire is a splendid enterprise, and a very French one. Between 1984 and 1992 Pierre Nora brought together nearly 120 scholars, almost all of them French (all but a few professional historians), and set them the task of capturing, in 128 entries, what it is (or was) to be France. The criteria of inclusion changed over time. The first volume to be published dealt with La République and was concerned with the symbolic, monumental, commemorative, and pedagogic forms of republican life in modern France, the Pantheon in Paris being a notable example. The second volume—three times the size of its predecessor—took on La Nation and addressed everything from geography and historiography to symbols and embodiments of glory (Verdun, the Louvre), the importance of words (the Académie Française), and the image of the State (Versailles, the National Statistics, etc.). The third volume—Les Frances—is larger than the first two volumes combined and contains just about everything that one could conceivably associate with France and that was not already included in volumes one and two.

By 1992, therefore, the project had broken from its moorings and acquired encyclopedic aspirations. The methodological focus of the earlier volumes was gone, too. In Nora’s preface to the English-language edition, the contrast with his introduction to the first French volume, published twelve years earlier, is revealing: “A lieu de mémoire is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community (in this case, the French community).” It is hard to think of anything—any word, place, name, event, or idea—that could not qualify. As one foreign commentator observed, “By the end, the foreign reader loses the thread. Is there anything that isn’t a ‘lieu demémoire‘?”10


Pierre Nora has always insisted that he intended his project to be a sort of counter-commemorative history, de-constructing, as it were, the myths and memories it records. But as he ruefully concedes in his concluding essay in the final volume, the work has had a strange destiny: commemoration has overtaken it and it is now a sort of scholarly lieu de mémoire in its own right. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, Nora is a very powerful figure in French intellectual life and for his magnum opus he secured the services of some of France’s best scholars; their essays are small masterpieces, classic contributions to their subject. Predictably, these volumes have acquired some of the status—and disadvantages—of a work of reference.11

Secondly, the longstanding national “canon” of historical memory—what counted as part of France’s heritage or patrimoine and why—has fallen apart. That is Nora’s theme. In his words: “The dissolution of the unifying framework of the nation-state has exploded the traditional system that was its concentrated symbolic expression. There is no commemorative superego: the canon has vanished.” Accordingly, where the national heritage was once carefully controlled for pedagogic and aesthetic value, today anything and everything is material for memory and commemoration.12

This process was noticeably accelerated in 1988 by Mitterrand’s Culture Minister Jack Lang, whose politically calculated additions to the list of protected items in the patrimoine culturel of France (previously limited to heirlooms like the Pont du Gard or Philip the Bold’s ramparts at Aigues-Mortes) included a nineteenth-century Provençal crèche and the marble countertop of the Café du Croissant at which the Socialist leader Jean Jaurès drank his last cup of coffee before his assassination in July 1914. In a nice postmodern touch the crumbling façade of the Hôtel du Nord on Paris’s Quai de Jemappes was added to the national patrimoine in nostalgic homage to Marcel Carné’s popular film of that name—even though the film itself was entirely shot in a studio.

This recovery of randomly assorted items-for-commemoration is indeed testimony to the collapse of continuity of time and memory in a hitherto centralized culture, and Nora was surely right to invoke it in explaining the origin of his Lieux de mémoire. But what was new in the Eighties is now commonplace, and a standard trope in studies of memory and tradition in changing societies. As a paradoxical result, Nora’s own heroic recovery and recording of memories and commemorations is not so much a starting point for new thinking on this subject as itself a reverentially acknowledged object for admiration: “worth a journey.”

The third reason for the odd career of these volumes is that despite the many brilliant insights in Nora’s own essays, the work as a whole is uncertain about itself: what began as a melancholy exercise in national self-analysis ends on a curiously conventional, almost celebratory note—“In these symbols we truly discover ‘realms of memory’ at their most glorious.”13 That is probably a faithful reflection of the change of mood in France in the years since Nora first conceived his work—from a sense of loss to a sensation of nostalgic pride—but it seems odd that a work of his-tory should become quite so emotionally engaged in its subject matter. Nora has firmly insisted that he did not want these volumes to be just a “promenade touristique dans le jardin du passé”14 but that is what they risk becoming.

Inevitably, too, there are parts of the garden that suffer unexplained neglect, even under the editor’s panoptic gaze. There is no entry in any of the volumes of Les Lieux de mémoire on either Napoleon Bonaparte or his nephew Louis Napoleon, or even on the political tradition of bonapartisme that they bequeathed to the nation. This is bizarre. As Chateaubriand remarked in Mémoires d’outre-tombe, apropos of the anachronistic coronation of Charles X in 1824: “Henceforth the figure of the Emperor overshadows everything else. It is behind every event and every idea: the pages of this low age shrivel at the sight of his eagles.”15 Chateaubriand was no neutral observer, and we are no longer in 1824, but his point still holds—for good and ill, France is suffused with the legacy of Bonaparte. From the Invalides to the Arc de Triomphe, from the Code civil to France’s periodic dalliances with political generals, from the disabling republican suspicion of strong executive power to the organization of departmental archival collections, the spirit of Napoleon is with us still.

Similarly, every visitor to modern Paris is a beneficiary (or victim) of the ambitions of Louis Napoleon and his Second Empire. The Louvre today is Louis Napoleon’s Louvre, for all Mitterrand’s efforts. The Parisian road and transport network grew out of imperial ambitions, thwarted or otherwise. In Louis Napoleon’s case the lack of direct interest in him and his regime shown by Nora’s collection may also reflect a broader lack of concern with towns, town planning, and urbanism in general: a perhaps excessive care to record France’s love affair with its peasants and its land may account for this.16

No study of lieux de mémoire for Europe as a whole could possibly neglect Napoleon Bonaparte—his battles, his laws, his depredations, his unintended impact on resentful national sensibilities in the Low Countries, Italy, and Germany. “Boney will get you if you don’t eat your food/go to sleep” was a popular threat directed to recalcitrant children in many parts of England and Spain within living memory. And his absence from Nora’s collection is thus an important reminder of just how very French-centered the work is, even down to its silences.17 More than once Nora emphasizes that France is not just utterly unique, but indescribably special. “France,” we learn, has “a history more burdensome than that of any other European country.”18 Really? Germans and Russians, at least, might wish to demur; Poles too.

Only France, we are encouraged to believe, has history and memory on a scale sufficient to justify and fulfill the ambitions of Les Lieux de mémoire. Furthermore, for Nora, “France is…a ‘nation of memory’ in the same sense in which the Jews, long landless and stateless, have survived throughout history as a people of memory.” And—just to nail the point down—only in French, apparently, can one even speak of lieux de mémoire: “Neither in English, nor German, nor Spanish can one find a satisfactory equivalent. Doesn’t this difficulty in moving into other languages already suggest a sort of singularity?”19 According to Marc Fumaroli in “The Genius of the French Language,” this linguistic distinction has something to do with the French tradition of rhetoric, inherited directly from the Latin. The Italians presumably have it too, then; but perhaps they lack the necessary historical burdens? As the Italians say (there is no satisfactory French equivalent): magari (if only!).

Are these distinctively French characteristics of Les Lieux de mémoire—the book and the things themselves—not an insuperable impediment to translation? No: the English-language version, whose third volume was published in June (the previous two volumes appeared in 1996 and 1997), is a major publishing event in its own right. It is as copiously and beautifully illustrated as the original, and the translation, by Arthur Goldhammer, is wonderful—sensitive to the different styles of the various contributors and superbly confident and learned in its grasp of a grand variety of technical and historical terms. The books are a pleasure to read, in English as in French.

Even the title is an imaginative leap across cultures. A lieu, in French, commonly translates into English as a place, or site. Thus for lieux de mémoire one might write “memory-sites,” or “places of memory” (as in “places in the heart,” perhaps). But Nora clearly intended his lieux to indicate concepts, words, and events as well as real places, and the concreteness of English means that “place” won’t do. “Site” might have served, but there are so many actual sites studied in Nora’s collection that the term could seem misleadingly spatial. “Realms of memory” has the opposite problems, of course—“realm” in modern English has retained only the loftiest of the uses of its French cousin, royaume, and is quite abstract, thereby diluting some of the emphasis on soil and territory that is so important in French memory. But as intercultural compromises go it is elegant and suggestive.

Inevitably, there is some loss. Nora has wisely reduced the overall number of articles from 128 to 44, though he mostly kept the longer ones. What is missing, unfortunately, are some of those essays which captured the original spirit of the enterprise at its best: Jean-Paul Poisson, for example, on “the office of the notary,” a fixture in every small French town and part of the life cycle of anyone with any property to inherit, bequeath, or contest—which meant a large part of the population; or Jacques Revel on “the region,” a crucial constituent element in the mental and moral geography of every inhabitant of France. But these, like many of the other contributions not included in the English-language edition, are of more interest to the French reader—for whom they are, precisely, a realm of memory. Perhaps for that reason the majority of the cuts are from the middle volumes on “the Nation,” whose innermost memories and concerns are least accessible to outsiders.

What the English reader gets, as a result, is something far closer to the spirit of Volume III, Les Frances—whose structure is used to regroup the translated essays. A few of the essays on French land and topography have been retained but hardly any of the descriptions of social or educational rites de passage—such as receiving one’s bachot from a lycée or being accepted into a grande école—or the illuminating monographic contributions on the origins of the French fascination with their own heritage. Nora’s original interest in lieux de mémoire like the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre or the Fourteenth of July national holiday as commemorative objects for dissection is thus diluted, and the result is a collection of very high quality essays on mostly conventional historical subjects: political and religious divisions and traditions; significant institutions, dates, buildings, and books.

Within these limits, this new translation makes available to English-language readers some of the best French scholarship today: Jacques Revel on the Royal Court; Mona Ozouf on “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”; Jean-Pierre Babelon on the Louvre; Alain Corbin on “Divisions of Time and Space”; Marc Fumaroli on “The Genius of the French Language,” and others besides.

Revel and Corbin, especially, bring to their subjects great scholarly authority: respectively, the president of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (and longtime editor of the journal Annales) and the holder of the premier chair of history in France, they wear their standing and their learning lightly. Alain Corbin, who has written on everything from economic backwardness in the Limousin to the history of prostitution, illustrates divisions of time and space with a remarkable superabundance of examples. Jacques Revel recites once again the national Ur-narrative of courtly life in early modern France, but he infuses it with so much allusion, subtlety, and significance that the whole familiar story reads as though told and understood for the first time.

Even those essays that don’t quite come off—like that by Antoine Compagnon on A la recherche du temps perdu, where the author is confronted with the precociously self-referential, realm-of-memory character of Proust’s own masterpiece—are still a pleasure to read and full of wit and perception. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the way in which all the contributions manage to cast light on a compact range of themes at the core of any attempt to grasp the French past, and France itself.

The first of these is the sheer ancientness and unbroken continuity of France and the French state (800 years at the most modest estimate), and the corresponding longevity of the habit of exercising authority and control from the center. This is not merely a matter of political power, the well-known propensity of French rulers of all ideological persuasions to aggregate to themselves the maximum of sovereignty and dominion. In his essay on Reims Jacques Le Goff notes that the cathedral there—the traditional site for the coronation of French kings—is a masterpiece of “classical” Gothic, before going on to comment that “in French history ‘classical’ often refers to the imposition of ideological and political controls.”20

The urge to classify, to regulate everything, from trade and language to theater or food, is what links the public sphere in France with cultural and pedagogical practices. It is not by chance that the Guide Michelin (green) authoritatively divides all possible sites of interest into three: interesting, worth a detour, worth a journey. Nor is it an accident that the Guide Michelin (red) follows the same tripartite division for restaurants—both inherited the practice from “classical” French rhetoric and philosophy, which also bequeathed it to dramatic theory and political argument. As Pascal Ory notes, “codification” in France is a lieu de mémoire in itself.

So is religion. Christianity—Catholic Christianity—is so long-established in France that Nora himself has no qualms about treating it, along with monarchy and peasantry, as the essence of true Frenchness. All the essays on religion in Realms of Memory have a robust, engaged quality: Claude Langlois even outdoes Nora, claiming that “in terms of monuments, the lesson is clear: France is either Catholic or secular. There is no middle term.” André Vauchez, who has a fine essay on cathedrals, would probably agree with him—he is trenchantly committed to his subject, defending against the philistinism of the times the appropriately symbolic and otherworldly character of a great cathedral. But in the context of this collection, Vauchez has it easy—as Proust pointed out: “The cathedrals are not only the finest ornaments of our art but the only ones that are still connected with the purpose for which they were constructed”—an assertion even truer today than it was when Proust made it in 1907. 21

But France is not just Catholic or secular—it is, and has long been, Protestant and Jewish as well, just as it is now also Islamic. Jews and Protestants are well served in the essays by Pierre Birnbaum and Philippe Joutard included here, both of which are more thoughtful and less conventional than the contributions on Catholics, perhaps because they must perforce work against the historiographical and national grain. Joutard shows the importance of memory in French Protestant life, so marked that Protestants in rural communities typically have a stronger collective memory of ancient events than do their Catholic neighbors, even when the Catholics were more active in, and were more directly affected by, the events in question. And his essay on the longevity of victim memory is an implicit reminder to the editor that too much emphasis upon the normatively Catholic character of Frenchness can result in new forms of neglect. There is no entry in these pages for the massacre of Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572—a French “memory date” if ever there was one.

If Catholicism is at the “center” of French memory and heretics and minorities have often sat neglected at the cultural “periphery,” the same Manichaean contrast has been reproduced in a rich variety of social and geographical keys. For as long as anyone can remember, France has been divided: between north and south, along the line running from St.-Malo to Geneva that was favored in nineteenth-century economic geography as the point of separation between modern and backward France; between speakers of French and speakers of a disfavored regional patois; between Court and country, right and left, young and old (it is not without significance that the average age of the members of the Legislative Assembly of the French Revolution in 1792 was just twenty-six years), but above all between Paris and the provinces.

The “provinces” are not the same thing as the countryside—campagne in France has had positive connotations for centuries, whereas ever since the emergence of a court, “provincial” has been a term of round abuse. In the subliminal iconography of France, the countryside is peopled by solid peasants, rooted in the soil for generation upon generation. Even today, Armand Frémont, the author of an essay, “The Land,” in Realms of Memory, cannot resist a distinctively French response to his theme: “The land was domesticated without violence to nature’s rhythms, without the large-scale transformation of the landscape sometimes seen in other countries”; the French landscape shows “unparalleled harmony,” etc. The sense of loss today, as rural France vanishes from sight, is palpable.22

No one, however, regrets “the provinces.” The typical “provincial” came from a small town and was conventionally depicted harboring the forlorn hope of “making it” in Paris—unless he stayed at home under the bovine illusion that life in his constricted little world was somehow real and sufficient. From Molière to Barrès, this is the staple tragicomic premise of French letters. It reflects, of course, a widespread prejudice shared by provincials and Parisians alike: that everything of consequence happens in Paris (which is why 92 percent of Parisian students under the “bourgeois” monarchy from 1830 to 1848 were drawn from the provinces). The capital thus was able to drain from the rest of the (provincial) nation virtually all life and energy. Much of French history, from the political economy of Louis XIV’s Versailles through the atavistic ideological appeal of Marshal Pétain’s anti-Parisian rural idyll to the residential preferences of French professors can more readily be understood once this fundamental polarity is grasped.

The pejorative connotation of “provincial” stands in marked contrast to the traditional French affection not just for peasants and the land, but also for the idea of France, as mapped on the territory itself. Here, of course, “traditional” should be understood as something quite recent—it was in the nineteenth century, specifically in the early years of the Third Republic, from 1880 to 1900, that the map of France was imprinted so successfully upon the collective soul of the nation. Great pedagogic works of history and geography (Ernest Lavisse’s Histoire de France and Paul Vidal de La Blache’s Tableau de la géographie de France, both discussed in Realms of Memory) provided generations of French teachers with the tools with which to hone the civic sensibility of the nation’s children.23

The Tour de la France par deux enfants (first published in 1877 and required reading for every schoolchild for decades to come) and the bicycle Tour de France (inaugurated in 1903, the year Vidal de La Blache’s Tableau first appeared) followed fairly closely the route traditionally taken around France by the artisan journeymen (compagnons) on their own tour de France in times past. Thanks to this contiguity of time and place—real and constructed—the French by 1914 had a unique, unmatched feel for the memory of their country, its frontiers, its variety, and its topography, as prescribed in the official cartography of the national past and present. It is the passing of this “feel,” and the reality it reflected, however tendentiously, that Nora is recording and mourning in these pages.

The pedagogical efforts of the early Third Republic—proclaimed in 1870 after Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians—were understandably more appreciated in the disfavored provinces than in the nation’s capital. In a 1978 survey the five most popular street names in France were République, Victor Hugo, Léon Gambetta, Jean Jaurès, and Louis Pasteur: two Third Republican politicians, the pre-eminent “republican” scientist, the French poet whose funeral in 1885 was a high point of Republican public commemoration, and the Republic itself. But these street names show up much more frequently in provincial communities than in Paris, where on the contrary there is a marked bias toward names that are nonpolitical or from the ancien régime. The civic conformity of the moderate late-nineteenth-century Republic echoed and comforted the mood of small-town life.

After 1918, when the time came to commemorate the enormous French losses in World War I, the republican cult of the war dead, what Antoine Prost calls the civil religion of interwar France, was again more marked in the provinces, and not just because it was in the villages and hamlets that the human losses had been greatest. The Third Republic, and everything it stood for, mattered more in the towns and villages of France’s regions and departments than it did in urbane, cosmopolitan Paris: the loss of that heritage is thus felt more deeply there.24

The experience and the memory of war in our century is an important clue to France’s fractured heritage, and perhaps deserves more attention than it receives in Realms of Memory. In the words of René Rémond: “From 1914 to 1962, for nearly half a century, war was never absent from French memory, from national consciousness and identity.”25 The First World War may have been morally untroubling, but it left scars too deep to touch for a long time: in addition to the five million men killed or wounded there were hundreds of thousands of war widows and their children, not to speak of the shattered landscape of northeastern France. For many decades World War I lay, as it were, in purgatory—remembered but hardly celebrated. Only very recently have the battlefields of the Western Front become sites of more confident commemoration—as you enter the Department of the Somme official roadside signs welcome you to the region, reminding you that its tragic history (and its cemeteries) are a part of the local heritage and merit a visit: something that would have been unthinkable not long ago.26

But World War II, not to speak of France’s “dirty wars” in Indochina and Algeria, carries more mixed and ambivalent messages and memories. If Vichy is now a lieu de mémoire for scholars and polemicists, for most French men and women it has yet to emerge fully from the coffin of oblivion into which it was cast in 1945: “four years to be stricken from our history,” in the words of Daniel Mornet, the prosecutor at the trial of Marshal Pétain. The twentieth-century past, in short, cannot easily substitute for the older, longer history whose passing is recorded and celebrated in Nora’s collection.

It is not just that the recent past is too close to us. The problem is that although the land, the peasants, even the Church (though not the monarchy) survived well beyond 1918 and even 1940, something else did not. In the first half of the Third Republic, from 1871 until World War I, there was no difficulty in absorbing the trophies of an ancient royal past into the confident republican present. But there is nothing very glorious or confident about French history since 1918, despite De Gaulle’s heroic efforts; just stoic suffering, decline, uncertainty, defeat, shame, and doubt, followed in very short order, as we have seen, by unprecedented changes. These changes could not undo the recent memories; but they did—and here Nora is surely right—appear to erase the older heritage, leaving only troubling recollections and present confusion.

This is not the first time France has had occasion to look back on a hectic sequence of turbulence and doubt—the men who constructed the Third Republic after 1871 had to forge a civic consensus and a national community in the aftermath of three revolutions, two monarchies, an empire, a short-lived republic, a civil war, and a major military defeat all in the span of one short lifetime. They succeeded because they had a story to tell about France that could bind the past and future into a single narrative, and they taught that story with firm conviction to three generations of future citizens.

Their successors cannot do this—witness the sorry case of François Mitterrand, president of France throughout the 1980s and for half of the 1990s. No French ruler since Louis XIV has ever taken such care and trouble to commemorate his country’s glory and make it his own; his reign was marked by a steady accumulation of monuments, new museums, memorials, solemn inaugurations, burials and reburials, not to speak of gargantuan lapidary efforts to secure his own place in future national memory, from the Arch at La Défense in western Paris to the Very Large Library on the south bank of the Seine. But what, aside from his Florentine ability to survive in power for so long, was Mitterrand best known for, on the eve of his death? His inability fully and accurately to recall and acknowledge his own role as a minor player at Vichy—an uncannily precise individual reflection of the nation’s own memory hole.

The French, like their late president, don’t know what to make of their recent history. In this, to repeat, they are not so very different from their neighbors to the east and elsewhere. But in France these things used to seem so simple, and it is the contrast that causes the level of unease audible in Nora’s great work. It also, I think, explains his juxtaposition of history and memory that I noted earlier. Memory and history used to move in unison—historical interpretations of the French past, however critical, dealt in the same currency as public memory. That, of course, was because public memory in its turn was shaped by official accounts of the national experience that derived their meaning from a remarkably consensual historiography. And by official I mean above all pedagogical—the French were taught their memory—a theme brought out in Nora’s collection by the essays on French history as taught in nineteenth-century schoolbooks.

Now, in Nora’s view, history and memory have lost touch, with the nation and with each other. Is he right? When we travel the French autoroutes and read those didactic placards, what is actually happening? There would not be much point in telling us that we are looking at Reims Cathedral, approaching the battlefield of Verdun, or driving near the village of Domrémy, for example, unless we already knew why these places were of interest; for this, after all, the panels do not say. Their transparency depends on knowledge that the passer-by has already acquired—in school. We don’t need to be told what these places “mean”; they take their meaning from a familiar narrative which they confirm by their presence. And therefore the narrative has to come first, or else they have no meaning.

Lieux de mémoire—“realms of memory”—cannot, in short, be separated from history. There is no autoroute information panel telling you when you are passing “Vichy” (as distinct from a signpost indicating the exit for the town). This is not because “Vichy” is divisive (Jeanne d’Arc, born at Domrémy, is after all a highly contentious symbol, currently the darling of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front), but because the French have no narrative to which they can attach “Vichy” that would give to it an agreed, communicable meaning. Without such a narrative, without a history, “Vichy” has no place in French memory.

In the end, then, it doesn’t really matter that “old” France has gone forever, or that, in Armand Frémont’s phrase, the state is “reprinting the poem of French rural society” in “eco-museums” and rural theme parks, though much is thereby lost. This isn’t even new—there has always been forgetting and remembering, the inventing and abandoning of traditions, at least since the Romantic years of the early nineteenth century.27 The problem with living in an era of commemoration is not that the forms of public memory thus proposed are fake, or kitsch, or selective and even parodic. As a deliberate attempt to both re-call and outdo the Valois monarchs, Louis XIV’s Versailles was all of these things and an anticipatory pastiche of every lieu de mémoire that has succeeded it to this day. That is just how heritage and commemoration are.

What is new, at least in the modern era, is the neglect of history. Every memorial, every museum, every shorthand commemorative allusion to something from the past that should arouse in us the appropriate sentiments of respect, or regret, or sadness, or pride, is parasitic upon the presumption of historical knowledge: not shared memory, but a shared memory of history as we learned it. France, like other modern nations, is living off the pedagogical capital invested in its citizens in earlier decades. As Jacques and Mona Ozouf gloomily conclude in their essay on Augustine Fouillée’s educational classic Le Tour de la France par deux enfants: “Le Tour de la France stands as witness to that moment in French history when everything was invested in the schools. We have completely lost our faith in the realm of pedagogy, which is why Mme Fouillée’s sharply etched portrait seems to us so blurred.”28

For the moment, at least, Pierre Nora’s themes are still material for a study of lieux de mémoire. But to judge from the virtual disappearance of narrative history from the curriculum in many school systems, including the American, the time may soon come when, for many citizens, large parts of their common past will constitute something more akin to lieux d’oubli, realms of forgetting—or, rather, realms of ignorance, since there will have been little to forget. Teaching children, as we now do, to be critical of received versions of the past serves little purpose once there no longer is a received version.29 Pierre Nora is right after all—history does belong to everyone and to no one, hence its claim to universal authority. Like any such claim, this will always be contested. But without it, we are in trouble.


Not a False Past April 8, 1999

  1. 1

    James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 5. See also Daniel Sherman, “Art, Commerce and the Production of Memory in France after World War I,” in John R. Gillis, editor, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 186-215. 

  2. 2

    Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 128. 

  3. 3

    Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. I: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (HarperCollins, 1997); Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Harvard University Press, 1991). 

  4. 4

    Pierre Nora, “General Introduction: Between Memory and History,” Realms of Memory, Vol. I, p. 3. 

  5. 5

    Les Lieux de mémoire. I. La République; II. La Nation; III. Les Frances, under the direction of Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984-1992). In addition to the translation under review here, four volumes on the themes of the state, space, cultures and traditions, and historiography will be published by the University of Chicago Press. The first will appear in 1999. 

  6. 6

    Philippe Burrin, “Vichy,” Realms of Memory, Vol. I, p. 182. 

  7. 7

    “In France…the intensity of the phenomenon [of commemoration—TJ] owes less to the accidents of chronology than to the richness of the French historical repertoire, to the radical nature of the revolutionary break, and to the memorial rumination to which the country has been condemned by the feeling that it is no longer a place where history on the grand scale is made.” Pierre Nora, “The Era of Commemoration,” Realms of Memory, Vol. III, p. 610. 

  8. 8

    Pascal Ory, “Gastronomy,” Realms of Memory, Vol. II, p. 443. 

  9. 9

    Nora, “Between Memory and History,” pp. 3, 6-7. 

  10. 10

    En fin de parcours, le lecteur étranger perd le fil. Qu’est-ce qui n’est pas lieu de mémoire?” Pim den Boer, “Lieux de mémoire et l’identité de l’Europe,” in Pim den Boer and Willem Frijhoff, editors, Lieux de mémoire et identités nationales (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1993), p. 17. See also Pierre Nora, “Preface to the English-language edition,” Realms of Memory, Vol. I, p. xvii. 

  11. 11

    Nora, as well as being a respected teacher, is editorial director at Gallimard, France’s premier publishing house, and responsible for Le Débat, the country’s most important intellectual periodical. He has drawn on the work of some close collaborators from this enterprise. 

  12. 12

    Nora, “The Era of Commemoration,” p. 614. 

  13. 13

    Nora, “Introduction” to Volume III of Realms of Memory, p. xii. 

  14. 14

    Pierre Nora, “La notion de ‘lieu de mémoire’ est-elle exportable?” in Lieux de mémoire et identités nationales, p. 9. 

  15. 15

    Chateaubriand is quoted by Jacques Le Goff in “Reims, City of Coronation,” Realms of Memory, Vol. III, p. 245. 

  16. 16

    For a fine example of what can be done with the study of towns and cities as sites of memory (or forgetting), see Sophie de Schaepdrijver, “Bruxelles, ‘lieu sans identité’ ou le sort d’une capital incertaine, voué à l’imitation,” in Lieux de mémoire et identités nationales, p. 90: “Le sort de Bruxelles est, je crois, exemplaire de ce qui se passe lorsqu’une ville devient lieu d’oubli, lieu d’une course à la modernité qui n’est freinée par nul instinct de conservation (car au nom de quoi conserverait-on?).” [“Brussels’ fate seems to me an exemplary instance of what happens when a town becomes a site of forgetting, of a rush to modernize restrained by no instinct for conservation—for in the name of what would one conserve?”] 

  17. 17

    Though some contributors, notably Pascal Ory, make a sustained effort to apply a comparative perspective. As he writes, “It makes no sense to accumulate supposed gastronomic references taken out of context from Gallic or Gallo-Roman sources unless one can show by similar methods that other peoples were somehow different.” Ory, “Gastronomy,” p. 450. 

  18. 18

    Nora, “Generation,” Realms of Memory, Vol. I, p. 528. 

  19. 19

    Nora, “Introduction” to Volume III of Realms of Memory, p. xii; see also “La notion de ‘lieu de mémoire’ est-elle exportable?’ in Lieux de mémoire et identités nationales, p. 4: “Ni l’anglais, ni l’allemand ni l’espagnol ne peuvent lui donner d’équivalent satisfaisant. Cette difficulté à passer dans d’autres langues n’indique-t-elle pas déjà une manière de spécificité?“ 

  20. 20

    Jacques Le Goff, “Reims, City of Coronation,” p. 211. 

  21. 21

    Claude Langlois, “Catholics and Seculars,” Realms of Memory, Vol. I, p. 116; Proust is quoted by André Vauchez in “The Cathedral,” Realms of Memory, Vol. II, p. 63. 

  22. 22

    Armand Frémont, “The Land,” Realms of Memory, Vol. II, pp. 25, 34. In 1976 Georges Duby and Armand Wallon edited a four-volume, multi-authored, uncompromisingly scholarly history of rural France, from ancient times to the present (La Fin de la France paysanne was the elegiac title of the final volume). It was a national best seller. 

  23. 23

    Dans ce livre, tu apprendras l’histoire de la France. Tu dois aimer la France, parce que la nature l’a faite belle, et parce que son histoire l’a faite grande.” [“In this book you will learn the history of France. You must love France because nature has endowed her with beauty and history has made her great.”] From the frontispiece of the 1912 edition of Ernest Lavisse’s Histoire de France (cours moyen), reproduced in Realms of Memory, Vol. II, p. 168. 

  24. 24

    Antoine Prost, “Monuments to the Dead,” Realms of Memory, Vol. II, p. 328. 

  25. 25

    See René Rémond, “Mémoire des guerres,” Lieux de mémoire et identités nationales, p. 266. 

  26. 26

    In the little town of Péronne, at the heart of the Somme battlefields, there is now a “Historial” devoted to the history and memory of the First World War. Unlike most such museums, its installations are not merely commemorative but deliberately and self-consciously historical; they offer historians’ interpretations, sometimes controversial and from a German and British perspective as well as a French one, of aspects of the war experience that were not displayed or emphasized in traditional evocations of the grandeur and misery of the war. 

  27. 27

    See Armand Frémont, “The Land,” p. 28. In the 1930s there was already a gnawing sense that peasant France was receding into the past—the 1929 census had revealed that, for the first time, less than half the national population lived in communities defined as “rural.” Various exhibitions and fairs displayed “working models” of farms, artisanal occupations, and village communities, and much anticipatory effort was devoted to remembering and reproducing an idealized country past. See Shanny Peer, France on Display: Peasants, Provincials, and Folklore in the 1937 Paris World’s Fair (State University of New York Press, 1998) and James D. Herbert, Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition (Cornell University Press, 1998). 

  28. 28

    Jacques and Mona Ozouf, “Le Tour de la France par deux enfants: The Little Red Book of the Republic,” Realms of Memory, Vol. II, p. 148. 

  29. 29

    In Patrick Hutton’s words: “No culture can sustain itself with autopsies of the institutional forms and modes of discourse of its discarded past.” See Patrick H. Hutton, History as an Art of Memory (University Press of New England, 1993), p. xxiv.