Recalling of things French

Realms of Memory
April 16, 1999

This impressive book rounds off the English-language version of an ambitious French series, undertaken by Pierre Nora between 1984 and 1992 in order to encapsulate "one moment in the French contemplation of France". Having dealt with "Conflicts" and then "Traditions", Realms of Memory finally attends to "Symbols".

The individual pieces begin with symbols of the republic: the tricolour; the Marseillaise; the revolutionary slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; and the commemoration known (only outside France) as Bastille Day. All four interlocking studies reveal the degree to which significance has accrued gradually and haphazardly to the emblems that now epitomise France. The tricolour won out over the white flag of the ancien regime and the red flag of revolt and the anthem was destined to prove itself against the Internationale .

The motto is equally a story of terms acquired (with fraternity the late starter) or lost (justice, fatherland, solidarity), and the fête nationale has survived despite consecutive or even simultaneous opposition from both right and left. What these emblems have in the end displayed is a capacity to transcend a purely republican significance in favour of a national one, after a series of mutations in which the successive regimes of post-revolutionary France have seen fit to revise these most public features of their self-projection.

The second part turns to "major sites", and deals in chronological order of foundation with Lascaux, Reims, the Louvre, Versailles, the Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower and the battlefield of Verdun. The first of these chapters deals with a diversity of prehistoric sites, engaging combatively with contemporary academic debate as to their purpose and status. It also tells the story of the cathedral of the kings of France, Notre-Dame de Reims, charting the transition in the coronation ceremony from sacred anointing to grand opera. The royal palaces come next. A highly readable account of the chequered evolution of the Louvre into its present status as a national museum is given, followed, quite logically, by the similar trajectory of its successor, Versailles, originally a place of festivals and fable, and of the "image and parable" of the reign of Louis XIV.

Contrasting in their purpose if not in their ambition, and certainly holding an unequalled place in French affections, are the bleak spaces of the Pantheon - superbly encapsulated by Mona Ozouf as a place for the "sanctification of anonymity" - and the Eiffel Tower, fundamentally symbolic because, in Roland Barthes's formulation, it is an essentially useless monument to the age of iron. Finally Verdun is considered as a quintessentially French commemorative site, eclipsed in the national imagination by the second world war, yet still resonant as a testimony to unimaginable hardship and sacrifice.

The first of the less obviously connected chapters that follow deals with the Gallic cock, an unofficial, accidental and at times degrading national symbol, whose current decline is attributed to its rural, Gaulish and potentially ironic connotations. Then, treated in a fertile and complex essay, is Joan of Arc, adopted surprisingly late as a national heroine (her canonisation was in 1920). Here, she is understood as a focus of violently antithetical associations, not least in her symbolic status for the modern far right, the Front National.

Descartes, in an appropriately austere contribution that assumes a good knowledge of the philosopher, is subjected to a kind of Rezeptionskritik treatment that charts the gradual assimilation of his name to all that is rational and reasonable in the French spirit.

The final two chapters are highly ambitious but in some respects disappointing. That on Paris is a clever essai à thèse - taking a single "traversal" of Paris from east to west as both its physical route and line of argument and imposing a political topography onto the urban grid. What it clearly shows is how certain buildings, statues and names have changed in their significance over the decades, before finally attaining a harmonious coexistence; yet what inevitably and obviously falls victim to such a reading are the quartiers which have the misfortune to lie in the symbolically less resonant north and south of the city.

Finally, Marc Fumaroli's task to encapsulate the genius of the French language is a highly perceptive exercise in diachronic linguistics from the Middle Ages to the end of the 18th century (an oddly unexplained terminus ad quem ), although it lacks the panache he mustered in his earlier apologia for the Academie Française.

The whole project concludes with a "culminating overview" by Pierre Nora, which identifies the period between May 1968 and the bicentennial celebrations of 1989 as "the era of commemoration". Despite the occasionally self-satisfied tone, this is a tremendously persuasive afterword. Nora argues forcefully that issues of identity, memory and patrimony have superseded any more monolithic understanding of history. He suggests that the act of commemoration may well be as or more important than what objectively is being commemorated, notably in its potential for politicisation, and he draws attention to the importance of more local examples of commemoration, such as centenaries, exhibitions and colloquia.

Overall, as in previous volumes, some questions of randomness still arise.If Joan of Arc, why not Bernadette ofLourdes or Theresa of Lisieux? Inevitably, too, there are some areas of overlap.Here, as in volume two, the preciseboundaries between sections within the whole are unclear, and it will on occasion strike the reader that what is exploredconsecutively and in parallel could equally be susceptible to a synchronic and synthetic treatment. Yet the advantage of such an approach lies in its capacity to challenge rather than confirm received views and stereotypes, resulting in an exercise in anamnesis that decodes for an English reader much that is taken for granted in France, and which both dismantles and rebuilds the history of the hexagon.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, Volume Three: Symbols

Editor - Pierre Nora (direction), Lawrence D. Kritzman (English language edition)
ISBN - 0 231 10926 1
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 751
Translator - Arthur Goldhammer

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments