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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 be experienced when one national tradition begins to disintegrate and the subsequent relief provided by the discovery of another to take its place. Ever since the early Middle Ages the ceremonial associated with the coronation at Reims of the kings of France had played a central role in establishing the legitimacy of the monarchy; but when Louis XVI inherited the throne in 1774 it came to be felt that much of this ceremonial was not only exceedingly expensive but also somewhat ludicrous for a century that prided itself on its Enlightenment. After the downfall of Napoleon (who had himself crowned in Paris) the restored Louis XVIII refused to go to Reims to be anointed, but in 1824 his younger brother Charles X tried to retain as many of the original traditions as possible, including (for the last time and almost surreptitiously) that of “touching” the scrofulous to demonstrate the supernatural powers of healing granted to the sovereign.

Thereafter, and for nearly a hundred years, Reims became no more than one of many splendid cathedral towns to be admired by tourists (who were catered to by the guidebooks discussed in an essay by Daniel Nordman) partly for their rich, but now fading, historical associations. But then in 1914 the cathedral was largely destroyed in the early stages of the First World War, and (though Le Goff does not examine this) it soon acquired a new potency as a symbol of the arrogant contempt for cultural monuments demonstrated by German barbarism. The surrender in 1945 of the German armies at Reims was, of course, the result of contingent military circumstances, but the choice, seventeen years later, of Reims Cathedral as the scene for a mass of reconciliation attended by General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer was obviously made with a full consciousness of the now enriched symbolism incarnated by the (restored) building. The destruction had been an appalling disaster, but the transformation of the cathedral’s significance had given it a new lease on life as a “lieu de mémoire.”

Quite different questions are posed by the apparent metamorphosis of artifacts of all kinds brought about by the creation, and multiplication, of museums designed to preserve a disintegrating “national heritage.” This trend has—sadly—long been deplored (even by some contributors to The New York Review), and its origins in eighteenth-century France are discussed in two particularly interesting essays by Edouard Pommier (“Naissance des musées de province“) and Dominique Poulot (“Alexandre Lenoir et les musées des Monuments français“). Although both these brief contributions, as well as that of André Chastel on “La notion de patrimoine,” are written in the lucid narrative style that is characteristic of the book as a whole and makes it so readable, the issues that they raise are of wide and fundamental importance. At some time between the middle and the end of the eighteenth century there occurred a reluctant but self-conscious fusion between the categories of the fine arts (as we, today, conceive of them) and those of religious relics (still often endowed with quasi-magical powers) and of ancestral fetishes (which by now evoked nostalgia rather than devotion) and of a variety of natural and artificially created objects (whose appeal was essentially one for scholars). But, although self-conscious, this fusion has never been a stable one, and much of the fascination of the essays devoted to museums comes from eavesdropping on such (still relevant) controversies dating from the revolutionary period over whether a medallic portrait should be preserved because it was designed by a great artist or destroyed because it represented a great despot.

Les lieux de mémoire consists so far of four beautifully produced volumes, each of some 650 pages and with many illustrations, and at least one more is on the way. It is easy enough to visualize how similar studies could be made of other countries or types of society and to appreciate how very valuable the concept behind the book will be for historians of many different kinds.

Stimulating though they are, the volumes leave an impression of sadness. Like our own memories as we grow older, those of nations tend to become feeble and erratic. Like us, nations too watch with frustrated dismay as the past, recorded though it may be in marble or in epic poetry, floats into nothingness like those dreams, often of piercing intensity, that melt before our eyes even as we strain to hold them back; and memories that seem so real, so true, turn out to be arbitrary and distorted. What is more strictly relevant to the theme of Nora’s book is that memories can be profitably shared by a nation only when their original nature has been so transformed as to have been emptied of any real significance. Michel Vovelle tells us that when, in 1879, after long being suppressed by various governments, the “Marseillaise,” that bloodthirsty battle song of 1792, was chosen as the official anthem of France, it was for a long time played very slowly indeed, in the hope that it would cause less offense to such illustrious state visitors as the czar of Russia, who doubtless did not welcome the prospect of their tainted blood being used to irrigate French farms—this is one of the most absurd and poignant moments in a book that is full of them.

What and how do nations try to remember? Out of the seething mass of “epoch-making” triumphs and “turning points in history” that constantly burst around us, how many become stored within that common stock of experience that is immediately recognizable to all members of the community? The most recent event recorded in these essays is the terrible, but ultimately victorious, battle of Verdun, which, in the words of Antoine Prost, signified in the First World War, as Auschwitz did in the Second, “a transgression of the limits of the human condition.” That took place in 1916, more than seventy years ago, and though other Western countries may have fresher memories to keep alive, whether in mourning or in celebration—the Resistance, the Battle of Britain, the “Great Patriotic War”—it would appear that ours has been an epoch in which we have been keener to forget the past than to remember it.

Perhaps it is in England (where ecclesiastical festivals were far fewer than in most other European countries) that national memories first became institutionalized and treated with reverence. To judge from the essays in Nora’s volumes there do not appear to have been French equivalents for “Guy Fawkes’ Day” (the annual celebration with fireworks held on November 5 ever since 1605 to commemorate the thwarting of a Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament), or the impact on the popular imagination, as well as on eighteenth-century and subsequent legal and political practice, of the signing of Magna Carta and the enactment of habeas corpus. Moreover, the particularly English practice ever since the first decades of the eighteenth century of honoring great writers of the past such as Shakespeare and Milton with busts and statues attracted admiring attention from European travelers, even if (as we learn from an interesting article by Daniel Milo) it was in Paris, and not in London, that streets were first named (in 1779) after literary figures, such as Corneille, Racine, Molière, Voltaire, and others.

As might be expected, however, the Revolution transformed the nature of the French lieux de mémoire in every field, and one fairly consistent pattern can be traced after even the briefest glance through these volumes—so consistent, indeed, that the temptation is great to see in it the fulfillment of some sort of law of the country’s national development, analogous to the “polymorphous perversity” or Oedipus complex of personal history. Thus among the accessories of the Revolution, and the wars and disturbances that accompany it, some very quickly acquire a heightened, symbolic force that may well bear only little relationship to their intrinsic importance: the storming on July 14 of a largely empty and useless fortress such as the Bastille; the composition of a stirring battle song, such as the “Marseillaise”; the adoption of a new banner, such as the tricolor; the reburial, in a de-Christianized church, of such predecessors and martyrs as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Marat. When the Revolution came to an end and was suppressed, at first half-heartedly by Napoleon and then more convincingly by the restored Bourbons in 1815, the memory of these symbols of its triumph was also suppressed—as far as possible.

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