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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.

  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.

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