Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past
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…
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