Who invented Vercingétorix?

Julian Jackson

  • Rethinking France: Les Lieux de mémoire. Volume I: The State by Pierre Nora, translated by Mary Trouille
    Chicago, 475 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 226 59132 8

Who broke the Vase of Soissons? Once, every French school child would have known the answer to that question, as they would have known that their ancestors were Gauls with blue eyes and blond hair (they knew this even if they were learning their lessons in Africa or the West Indies); that Charlemagne had a flowing white beard and cared about education (but he may have been most popular because his coronation date, 800, was so easy to remember); that Philip Augustus was a good king because he beat the Germans; that Catherine de Médicis was a bad woman because she killed so many Protestants; that Henri IV wanted every peasant to have a chicken in the pot on Sundays.

The children learnt all this from their primary school textbook, popularly known as the ‘Petit Lavisse’. It offered them a seamless account of the history of France in which even the monarchs of the Ancien Régime had contributed to the sacred task of making the country that beacon of humanity which culminated in the Third Republic. Its author, Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922), one of the luminaries of that Republic, was also the editor of an 18-volume collective history of France which was later much derided by the Annales school as the worst kind of positivist and exclusively political history.

Almost a century later, the seven volumes of Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire, of which this is the latest to be translated, stand comparison with Lavisse at least in ambition and scope. Sumptuously produced and copiously illustrated, they contain 130 articles by the most distinguished contemporary historians. The series appeared in stages: one volume entitled La République in 1984, three entitled La Nation in 1986, three entitled Les Frances in 1992. This is not history à la Lavisse. Nora and his contributors offer not a linear history but a history of France through the sedimentations of national memory; they study not the past ‘in itself’ but its construction through memory and myth. The ‘sites of memory’ include buildings and monuments (Notre Dame, Vézélay, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre), symbols and emblems (the tricolore, the Gallic cock), traditions (wine, the café, gallantry), individuals (Joan of Arc, Descartes), dates and commemorations (the centenaries of Voltaire and Rousseau), writings (Larousse dictionaries, A la recherche du temps perdu), institutions (the Collège de France, the Académie Française) and so on.

The Lieux de mémoire was symptomatic of a return to favour of political history after the collapse in the 1980s of the previously dominant Marxist or Structuralist paradigms. One sign of this was the new fashion for biography, a genre previously looked down on by the Annales historians. Now even some of them have tried their hand at biography – though not of an entirely conventional kind. The return to politics also avoided straight narrative and focused instead on ‘political culture’. No one has been more sensitive in sniffing out and amplifying these shifts than Pierre Nora, who is one of the most enterprising intellectual impresarios in France, operating at the intersection of three worlds: publishing, journalism and academia. As an academic, he teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes; as an editor at Gallimard he has helped to launch the publishing careers of several historians (Le Goff, Duby, Le Roy Ladurie) and edited volumes serving as manifestos for the ‘new history’; as a journalist, he has links to the left of centre Nouvel Observateur, and in 1980 he founded his own journal, Le Débat (published by Gallimard), which set out to fill the void left by the collapse of the intellectual certainties of the 1960s and 1970s, setting itself implicitly both against Foucault and against the Sartrean Les Temps modernes.

Three volumes of the Lieux de mémoire, whose contents represent about a third of the total, appeared in English under the general title of Realms of Memory between 1996 and 1998. For this, Nora regrouped the articles in three volumes entitled Conflict and Divisions, Traditions and Symbols. In a foreword he promised that a selection of the articles ‘which could not be fitted into the redesigned series’ would appear subsequently. What we have here is the first of three volumes of that ‘selection’, although, curiously, the continuity with the first set of translations has been broken by jettisoning the original title of Realms of Memory, and the quality of the translation itself isn’t a patch on those done by Arthur Goldhammer, which might lead some to fear we’re being given only leftovers. In fact the riches of Les Lieux de mémoire are so considerable that even after all three of the new English volumes have appeared, approximately a third of the original will remain untranslated.

The contents of this volume on ‘The State’ are variable in quality. Nora himself has a rich essay on ‘Memoirs of Men of State’ (wouldn’t we normally say ‘Statesmen’?) from Commynes to de Gaulle. Alain Guéry’s chapter on ‘The State’, by contrast, is a turgid discussion of the emergence of the modern notion of the state at the end of the Middle Ages. There are two articles on shifting perceptions of French borders. An essay on Versailles debunks many myths about the Palace: contrary to popular belief, there were lots of toilets; the famous lever and coucher ceremonies were apparently never central to the life that was led there; and there was little solar iconography. Indeed, the author tells us that the expression ‘Sun King’ is as apocryphal as the phrase ‘L’Etat c’est moi,’ though this is contradicted in a chapter on the ‘Symbolism of the State’, which tells us that the sun was ‘the official, omnipresent emblem of Louis XIV’s reign’. The essay on ‘The Centre and the Periphery’ by Maurice Agulhon revisits his familiar argument that the Jacobin state was more tolerant of regional diversity than its critics allow: President Poincaré received the Provençal writer Mistral with great deference; the state overlooked its laws against cruelty to animals so that bullfighting could continue in the South.

Three broad conclusions emerge, none of them especially surprising. First, the importance of the 19th century in the construction of French national memory. Apart from the last two decades of the century, those that stand out are the 1820s and 1830s, when the influence of Romanticism and the efforts of historians to develop a coherent narrative after the upheavals of the Revolution combined to create a veritable factory of national memory. The real inventors of France are Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand, and historians like Michelet, Guizot and the Thierry brothers. The Gauls took centre stage in 1828 thanks to a book by Amédée Thierry. Then in 1865 Vercingétorix (originally an invention of Julius Caesar, who needed to construct a foil to himself) was given a statue by Napoleon III at the presumed site of the battle of Alésia, where he lost to the Romans; and finally the Third Republic turned him into a founding hero of the Republic (displacing the Franks). Or, to take another example, the idealised image of France in painting – a domesticated landscape of gentle contours and peaceable villages (the image which formed the backdrop to Mitterrand’s famous election poster in 1981) – only really emerged with the Barbizon school in the 1830s. It turns out that even French Protestant memory, which is so vibrant that still today there are people in the Cévennes for whom ‘the war’ means not 1940 or 1914 but the war of the Camisards in the 18th century, only alighted on its ‘site of memory’ – the Museum of the Desert – at the end of the 19th century.

Second, the books show that there is no end to the polyvalence of these national memories. Joan of Arc has functioned successively as a heroine for left-wing Republicans, conservative nationalists and Catholics; Louis IX (St Louis), whose cult was revived in the 17th century by Louis XIII, was successively portrayed as ultra-montane, Gallican, absolutist, and then, by de Retz, as the champion of the parlements and an opponent of absolute monarchy.

Third, the series demonstrates how once contested symbols have become consensual ones. The Eiffel Tower, in previous times admired or deplored as a symbol of modernity, is now part of the ‘poetry of Paris’; no one today execrates the Sacré Coeur as a site of Catholic revanchism; even the bicentenary of the Revolution failed to excite any real passions; and de Gaulle, once so hated by many on the Right, is now seen as cosily embodying almost every major French figure from Charlemagne to Gambetta.

This raises the question whether Nora’s ‘sites of memory’ are still genuinely freighted with memory, or now function merely as a kind of bric-à-brac, empty of meaning and useful only as the décor for such exercises in nostalgia as the film Amélie. To answer this question requires a closer investigation of what exactly Nora means by lieu de mémoire. Through the various volumes, he contributes a series of essays reflecting, in beautifully evocative prose, on the purpose of the enterprise. He begins by distinguishing between pre-modern societies, which live within memory and see no separation between present and past, and modern societies, in which the unmediated experience of remembering is broken and we create representations of the past, or lieux de mémoire. These are ‘moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned, no longer quite life, nor death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded’. In another striking image, Nora compares our relationship to a memory site to the situation of the Proustian lover cured of the ‘obsessive hold of passion’ but subject to a more insidious malaise: ‘the true sadness of no longer . . . suffering from what one had once suffered from for so long, nor understanding any longer with the reason of the heart but only of the head’.

When is a lieu de mémoire no longer a lieu de mémoire? According to the present volume, this fate overtook Charlemagne more than a century ago. His stock fell dramatically after 1870, when he started to be perceived as a German memory not a French one. This was bad luck on the sculptor Louis Rochet, who had taken it on himself under the Empire to cast a bronze equestrian statue. Exhibited at the 1878 World’s Fair, it found no buyer. The Paris city council at first refused to have anything to do with it; in the end they agreed to erect it in front of Notre Dame but only after they had decided to erect statues to Voltaire and the Republic. Does anyone notice Charlemagne’s statue today? Sometimes, memories which once seemed dead can re-emerge in a new guise. Reims Cathedral, sacred in memory as the scene of royal coronations, was eclipsed in the national consciousness after Charles X’s attempt to revive the ceremony in 1825 was seen by all but the most fervent ultras as a grotesque masquerade. Yet Reims acquired a new layer of meaning after its destruction by the Germans in 1914 elevated it to the symbol of a suffering, mutilated France.

On the other hand, a superb article by Mona Ozouf that appeared in one of the earlier English volumes suggests that the Panthéon, designed to be ‘the centre of the nation, the very heart of France’, has always been ‘a dead spot in the national imagination’, not so much a ‘national memory’ as ‘one of several political memories available to the French’. In another essay, Agulhon notes that the Panthéon has never enjoyed the same place in the French imagination that Westminster Abbey has in the British. (Such transnational comparisons are rare, which is a pity because they could help to illuminate what is specific in France’s experience.) These variations between the intensity of different memories lead Nora to propose a distinction between ‘dominant’ or official memories, like the Panthéon, which are never fully internalised, and ‘memory sites’ like the pilgrimages to Lourdes or de Gaulle’s burial site at Colombey, where the ‘living heart of memory still beats’.

Nora believes that the 1980s represented a turning point in the relationship between the French and their past, and it’s certainly true that in the 1980s and 1990s national identity was an obsession in French politics. The discrediting of Communism and the death of de Gaulle removed the two forces that had structured political life since 1945, and into the void seeped revisionist accounts of France’s past – especially Vichy – which subverted the existing heroic narratives. The passing of de Gaulle also signified the ‘definite interiorisation of the idea that France had passed from being a great power to being a medium one’. The declining influence of the Communist Party, the trade unions and the Church removed traditional vectors of integration; and there were increasing doubts whether Jacobinism – the Republic One and Indivisible – any longer functioned as a matrix of identity or an instrument of assimilation for the immigrant population. The result, Nora writes, was ‘an intense questioning of the coherence and continuity of the national past . . . we formerly knew whose sons we were . . . today we are the sons of no one and everyone.’

Symptomatic of this mood was the fact that in the 1980s Fernand Braudel should have turned to writing a somewhat elegiac book on ‘the identity of France’; or that at the same time the Socialist Minister of Education Jean-Pierre Chevènement tried to reintroduce lessons in civic values in schools and make children learn the ‘Marseillaise’. The Lieux de mémoire emerged out of the same intellectual climate. In his concluding essay Nora worried that because the past was no longer ‘representative of a collective overall identity of the social body in its entirety’ and because the State had abandoned any attempt to ensure a balance between sectional memories and national ones, allowing individuals to ‘negotiate the modalities of their adherence and the extent of their investment in the collective framework’, a breach had opened up which was being filled by the xenophobia of the FN, on the one hand, and, on the other, by the disintegrating multiculturalism of the anti-racist organisation SOS Racisme.

Lieux de mémoire, in other words, had a civic purpose as well as an intellectual one. Nora is fascinated by Lavisse – by his strategic importance rather than the quality of his mind – and two of his own contributions concern Lavisse. He offers his series both as a subversion of Lavisse and as a prolongation of him by other means. At one point, he remarks ruefully that what he had conceived as a kind of ‘counter-commemorative history’ aiming to ‘avoid the risk of celebration’ had been absorbed into the commemorative process it sought to demystify. This was true but from the start there was a tension in the enterprise between critical and celebratory history; and not all the contributions have been free from a teleological nationalism. Somewhere Nora, in writing of memory, distinguishes between the ‘poetry of its mythic truth’ and the ‘prose of its historical truth’. But perhaps the ultimate aim, and indeed success, of his project was to re-invest historical truth with its own poetry.

How Nora would judge the situation now, I’m not sure. In many respects the French mood is more serene than it was even five years ago. The economy has prospered after years in the doldrums; the transition to the euro has been relatively smooth; polls have started to show a more tolerant attitude to the Muslim population (helped by the victory of the 1998 World Cup team which contained few blue-eyed Gauls and seemed very unsure of the words of the ‘Marseillaise’). In the light of recent electoral events – let alone football results – this might seem a rosy view. But it is too easily forgotten that for most of its five-year existence Lionel Jospin’s Government was not only remarkably successful but also retained the approval of a majority of the population (something achieved by almost no other Fifth Republic Government over such a long period): Jospin’s first-round elimination in the Presidential election was an electoral accident, caused by the fragmentation of the Left. In the subsequent legislative elections (at the time of writing anyway) the FN vote actually fell. All this makes it difficult to pin down France’s current mood. But whatever French identity means today, Nora’s lieux de mémoire are part of it, and one does not need to subscribe to his diagnosis of a French malaise to derive enjoyment from his remarkable achievement. To find out who broke the Vase of Soissons, however, you will still have to go back to Lavisse.