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.

But, in fact, they continue to lead a clandestine life and are still remembered, even though their potency is ignored and officially denied, and, from time to time, they actually reemerge from below the surface for brief periods—during the revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1871. And then, when at the end of the 1870s the Third Republic came into being, nearly a century after the Revolution of 1789 and in circumstances that bear almost no relationship to the events of “Year I” and the following years, the Third Republic sought to found its legitimacy on the basis of popular support and dipped down into this well of shadowy, unfocused memories. The tricolor was adopted as the national flag, the “Marseillaise” as the national anthem, July 14 as the national day, and—a little later—the Church of Ste. Geneviève once again became the Panthéon, the last resting place of national heroes.

And yet the essays devoted to these topics in Pierre Nora’s series show how devious, almost accidental, were the processes by which these seemingly inevitable landmarks became part of the French consciousness. The choice of July 14 as the anniversary of the Revolution was, for instance, by no means certain, as we learn from Christian Amalvi’s detailed analysis of the political bargaining that was to lead to the creation of this most celebrated lieu de mémoire of them all. Why not, some asked, May 5 (the opening of the States General) or June 20 (the Oath of the Tennis Court) or August 4 (the abolition of feudal privileges) or even—forlorn hope of the right—July 15 (the feast of Saint Henry, name-day of the Comte de Chambord, legitimate pretender to the throne)?

Not every emblem of the Revolution was resurrected. No one seems to have put in a good word for the calendar that had been inaugurated in 1793 and abolished in 1806 on the not very surprising grounds that it was cutting France off from the rest of the world—even though its ten-day week of primidi, duodi, tridi, etc., seems simple enough compared to one of those proposed that (we learn from Bronislaw Baczko) would have included such days as “le jour du Niveau, le jour du Bonnet, le jour de la Cocarde….” And, of course, memories did not always last for very long. Though François Mitterrand paid a special visit to the Panthéon in 1981, on his (first) inauguration as president, it is the failure of this former church to establish itself as a true lieu de mémoire that emerges most clearly from Mona Ozouf’s essay on the subject. Restored at intervals to its original Christian purpose, and only finally designated as a resting place “for the great men who have deserved the gratitude of the nation” on February 27, 1885—the very last moment possible—in order to accommodate, just five days later, the politically controversial remains of Victor Hugo (as described by Avner Ben-Amos), the Panthéon has witnessed departures as well as arrivals. Mirabeau, the first to be honored in 1791, was removed in 1793 by a side door, at the very moment that the ashes of Marat were being carried in through the main entrance—though they too did not stay for long. And in 1908 the descendants of Jean Lannes could not bear the thought that this marshal of Napoleon might be contaminated by the presence in the Panthéon of Emile Zola, as Mona Ozouf shows in her essay.

While some of the more colorful emblems of the Revolution aroused anxieties in the national memory, the social and political implications of the upheaval itself were naturally even harder to absorb. A number of essays discuss the varied and usually cautious ways in which manuals of popular history approached such issues as the abolition of the monarchy, the Terror, and the reaction in the Vendée, but it was in the more vivid and emotive medium of pictorial art that the problem arose in its most acute form. In 1833 Louis Philippe decided to turn the palace of Versailles (whose autocratic and monarchical associations had earlier exposed it to the risk of demolition) into a vast museum that was to “contain within it all the historical memories of the nation which it is the province of art to perpetuate.” Some of the consequences of this decision have recently been discussed in a very handsome and informative volume by Thomas Gaehtgens* (who also writes about them in a contribution to the Lieux de mémoire).

Now Michael Marrinan’s Painting Politics for Louis-Philippe: Art and Ideology in Orléanist France provides particularly illuminating evidence of how attempts were made to cope with the dangerously tendentious notion of such historical memories once the more recent ones among them had to be recorded in that museum and elsewhere. Indeed his book, much of which is concerned with the depiction of revolutionary and Napoleonic themes during the reign of Louis Philippe between 1830 and 1848, when “memories” of them were, for the first time, somewhat hesitantly allowed and occasionally even encouraged to emerge from below the surface, can be read with particular profit after examining the many essays in Nora’s volumes that raise similar issues.

It then becomes tempting to conclude that the art promoted by the Orléanist regime was essentially one of “anti-mémoires.” Thus it was ironically to the great historian and politician François Guizot (whose decisive contribution both to the national memory and to creating the institutional frame within which it could flourish is emphasized by Pierre Nora himself and by Laurent Theis) that the task was entrusted in 1830 of finding relatively unremembered revolutionary subjects to be painted on each side of a picture in the Chamber of Deputies that was to depict Louis Philippe swearing to abide by the amended charter. Commissions were to be awarded on the basis of a competition. The first scene chosen by Guizot was the moment in June 1789 when, under the leadership of Mirabeau, the members of the Third Estate refused the orders of the King’s master of ceremonies to leave the hall at Versailles designated for the meeting of the States General. The second was the horrifying episode just six years later when the president of the National Convention, Boissy d’Anglas, had calmly resisted the pressures of the rioting crowd that invaded the Tuileries and presented him with the head of a murdered deputy attached to the end of a pike.

Marrinan has no difficulty in pointing out the (entirely sensible) logic behind Guizot’s choice of revolutionary subjects to be recorded in the Chamber of Deputies: refusal to submit either to royal despotism or to insurrectionary mob rule constituted an admirable program for the new regime that had just been installed.

But what is equally striking about Guizot’s choice of subjects, and what must in part have dictated it, is the fact that neither event was calculated to evoke any serious reverberations in the national memory—despite the fact that the resolute behavior of the members of the Third Estate when faced with the orders of the King of June 23, 1789, had occurred only three days after an episode that was indeed very celebrated: “The Oath of the Tennis Court,” in which those same members, excluded from their assembly hall, had sworn never to disperse until the establishment of a constitution. This scene had been immortalized by David in a semiallegorical, unfinished painting and, above all, in a drawing that had been engraved and was very well known.

Similarly, although the gruesome events of May 1795 (including the head on the pike) had been recorded in engravings not very long afterward, the emphasis of these prints had been on the assassination of the deputy rather than on the steadfastness of Boissy d’Anglas. Most of the other official commissions for revolutionary subjects followed a similar pattern. Thus, as the pictures intended to decorate the Hotel-de-Ville were designed to illustrate the history of the particular building, the two episodes chosen from 1789 concerned events that had taken place there after the storming of the Bastille—though, in the case of Delaroche’s painting of the rather bedraggled crowd arriving to announce victory, the events took place only a few hours after. Michael Marrinan explains the political considerations that lay behind commissions of this kind, and he also discusses the sort of compromise that characterized much narrative painting at this time, a compromise between small-scale, didactic genre painting and traditional grandmanner historical scenes.

Although the treatment of revolutionary scenes was obviously a most delicate matter and although Marrinan’s observations on them are to the point and often acute, I feel that he sometimes exaggerates the consciously political control over style as well as over content that would likely have been extended by the authorities (and especially by the King himself), despite the fact that Louis Philippe is known to have taken a close personal interest in the project. Nonetheless, it remains true that the artists who painted the scenes in the Chamber of Deputies were not able to draw pictorial strength from those genuine, but half-concealed, memories of the Revolution that were still widely shared in these years. Nor did their pictures or sketches (even those of Delacroix that failed to prevail in the competitions) have the creative vitality needed to arouse new memories. It is, in fact, instructive to compare the officially sponsored art of the Orléanist period with the many uncommissioned but exhibited pictures referred to and illustrated by Marrinan that also showed scenes from the time of the Revolution and especially from that of Napoleon’s rule. In sheer aesthetic quality there may not be much to choose between them, but images such as Desnos’s The Evening Paper (in which prison inmates during the Terror listen as the names are read out of those due to be taken to the Tribunal on the following day) and Delaroche’s Napoleon at Fontainbleau are truly memorable—indeed it is just such images, retrospective and often crude and sentimental, that, engraved in the popular history books discussed in the Lieux de mémoire, could until recently evoke “memories” of the years between 1789 and 1815.

It is through the perception of such discrepancies, which are familiar enough in our personal experiences of the past—for who does not retain some vivid childhood memory of an event that can be shown never to have happened?—that Les lieux de mémoire makes so very valuable a contribution to our understanding of cultural history in the broadest sense of the term. The schoolbooks read by the French, the public monuments they look at, the institutions and academies to which they aspire, the ideal landscape that their politicians, of all parties, like to recall on their posters in election years, even the changes in their approach to the study of history, which have led to the production of books such as this one—such creations, and many more, are examined (usually with sympathy) to throw light on the nation’s varying memories of its earlier self. Many famous names are included among the authors, as well as many new ones, but in almost every case the editor has drawn from them articles that are as readable as they are instructive, and I can think of very few recent works of history that are quite so satisfying.

This Issue

December 8, 1988