Placed memories

Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past
April 18, 1997

Few recent publications better justify the term monumental than the seven-volume elegy on French cultural identity, Les Lieux de memoire, directed by Pierre Nora, of which Realms of Memory is the first of a planned three-volume English selection.

The English title, the editors tell us, caused much discussion. "Realms", I think, conveys a less concrete idea than lieux, which in the text is usually conveyed as "sites" or "places". This is no mere detail, for the concept of lieux de memoire, coined by Nora, is the key to the meaning of the whole work, requiring no fewer than four introductions attempting to explain it. The "places" are not only physical places, but anything to which memory adheres. This is not "spontaneous memory" - which seems to mean what people actually remember - but latent collective memory which it requires highly qualified historians to identify and expound. Yet memory is implied to have an existence independent of its interpreters: not simply as one way of representing the past, but that very past imposing itself.

In his reiterated concern to recast traditional national history in the only form he believes intellectually defensible today, Nora seems to be fighting postmodernism with its own weapons. "Memory", in short, is history with the teleology left out - except the implicit teleology of the French nation. The national dimension gives the enterprise its significance. Some of the contributors - especially Francois Furet (on the ancien regime and revolution) and Gerard Noiriel (on the French and foreigners) - do consider whether other countries may have similar "memories", but on the whole international comparisons are briskly disposed of. In what is a deeply felt personal mission (the vehemence of some of his own language is smoothed out in translation), Nora's aim is a new approach to a national past which meets a popular and "civic" need. He does not explain precisely what civic purpose is being pursued, but it seems unmistakeably (although the word is not used) a patriotic one: to restore something of its identity to a divided and forgetful nation in danger of being swamped by the inhuman forces of modernity. One need hardly point out how French such an intellectual enterprise is, and how sharp the contrast with cross-Channel prophets of "the break-up of Britain".

Of course, British readers may chose to ignore Nora's grand design and simply approach the book as a cornucopia of scholarship. Not all contributors seem really to have followed Nora's prescriptions; not all use the phrase lieux de memoire. He notes with disarming if disingenuous candour "the topics are obvious, the material is standard ... and the methods could not be less sophisticated". In fact, a galaxy of French historians have produced individual contributions that are erudite, concise and sometimes original, and which together constitute a collection of unsurpassed importance.

In this first volume, division - political, religious and geographical - is the defining characteristic of French "memory"; but paradoxically, division is seen as creating a shared identity. Topics are drawn from the modern and early-modern periods: "memory" is clearly foreshortened. Part one covers political divisions, which take up nearly half the book. Furet offers a characteristically pithy and trenchant summary of the meaning of the revolution - one that could profitably be read by students. Krysztof Pomian provides an exhaustive scholarly survey (235 footnotes to Furet's ten) of modern representations of Franks and Gauls. "Catholics and Seculars" and Vichy also have chapters. Nora himself (on Gaullists and Communists) and Marcel Gauchet show what can be made of the lieux de memoire idea by writing originally and trenchantly on topics on which it would seem hard to find much new to say. Gauchet's sophisticated 60-page meditation on the meanings of right and left must enter the canon of required specialist reading. Noiriel contributes an important essay on immigrants, which by identifying their lost or concealed "memories" implicitly raises questions about the concept of memory as a heuristic tool. Part two, on minority religions, has weighty essays, predictably, on Jansenists, Protestants and Jews (though nothing on heretics), constructed round actual physical places, including Port-Royal and Drancy. Part three, on time and space, contains a stimulating discussion by Alain Corbin of Paris and la province, a piece on the St Malo-Geneva line by Roger Chartier, and an essay by Nora himself on generation. The very differences of coverage, style and approach between each section, let alone between authors, show that "an attempt to construct a symbolic encyclopedia" is at least as selective and individual a process as any other kind of writing about the past.

There is no space in a short review to discuss adequately the interesting questions begged by Nora's approach, or to comment in detail on the rich profusion of research and thought it has brought forth. It must be mentioned, however, that producing an English edition raises a theoretical and a practical problem. If the original work was meant to be as complete a "cataloguing" as possible of the national memory, what coherence can there be in a differently ordered and reduced selection? Nora's answer is that he was refining and rethinking as he went along, and that the final three volumes, "Les France", on which the English edition is mainly to be based, represent the "marrow" of the whole.

The practical problem is that these essays were written for an educated French readership on the great themes of their "collective memory": they naturally assume contextual knowledge, and are highly allusive. Explanatory footnotes would be desirable, but there would need to be many. Anyone who does not already know who Deacon Pris was, what the Congress of Tours did and what Barodets were, will find it tough going. For whom exactly is this edition intended? Let that remain the publishers' problem: this is a beautifully produced and lucidly translated book, and the American benefactor who made it possible merits our thanks.

Robert Tombsis a fellow, St John's College, Cambridge.

Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past: Volume 1: Conflicts and Divisions

Editor - Lawrence D. Kritzman and Pierre Nora
ISBN - 0 231 08404 8
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 642

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