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When Memory Comes

The Creation of Identity and the Invention of Tradition

REALMS OF MEMORY: The Construction of the French Past. Volume III: Symbols;\o7 Edited by Pierre Nora; English-language editor: Lawrence D. Kritzman; Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer; (Columbia University Press: 688 pp., $39.50)\f7

January 31, 1999|SUNIL KHILNANI | Sunil Khilnani is the author of "Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France" (Yale University Press) and "The Idea of India," which will be published in paperback by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The more directly intellectual purpose of Nora's enterprise stems from his interest in official time--occasions through which the state commemorates itself (1989 being one example)--and subjective time, time that is specific to generations, such as the "1968 generation." It is this entanglement that ensures the steadily changing character of memory, because the meanings of official commemoration are continuously redefined by successive generations, who draw on their own experiences to infuse new meanings into old symbols. It also ensures a stream of symbolic trinkets, "commemorabilia" that give a nation--or a group within a nation--a sense of itself. In the case of France, Nora sees these adornments as compensation for a country that "has been condemned by the feeling that it is no longer a place where history on the grand scale is made." (It is surely also driven by simple entrepreneurial opportunism, though Nora has nothing to say about this.)

Nora understands this commemorative luxuriance as a condition specific to contemporary societies. In France, it is symptomatically linked to the changed purpose of commemoration since the end of World War II. Earlier, Nora asserts, it was possible to assimilate events into a "unified national memory," but now memory is used to affirm difference and distinctiveness. The collapse of a single national narrative and the dismantling of a regulated collective memory have encouraged the emergence of little narratives, attached to shared collective sites and speaking diverse and sometimes contradictory meanings. National history has ceded to national memory, which establishes more intimate but also more capricious relations between individuals and symbols of collective memory.

Nora's inquiry is conducted through a concept of his invention: the lieu de memoire. By this coinage (which has gained entry into the Dictionnaire Robert, the French OED), Nora means a resting point--a moment, a physical site or an idea--where memories settle. The creation of such lieux externalizes and locates in specific, public sites that which is most internal and intimate: memory. In the present volume, Nora identifies two broad types of lieux de memoire. The first are already constituted symbols, usually imposed by the state, and these are susceptible to standard styles of historical study. In this vein, there is a fine essay by Mona Ozouf on the French national motto, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, which since 1880 has been emblazoned upon every public building in France. Ozouf shows how that "illogical motto, a series of partial truths at war with one another," came by a process of complex jostling to settle together in a way that has made them appear to be natural companions. Ozouf also has a superb essay on the Pantheon, "the Ecole Normale of the Dead." Intended to be a monument to les grands hommes, at once a statuary to commemorate citizens of the universal Republic of Letters and a symbol of patriotic unity, it is in fact the partisan property of the political left.

The second type of symbolic lieu de memoire requires the historian creatively to bring the object of study into existence--something that requires much greater imaginative elan. These qualities are on full display in an essay on Joan of Arc, which reveals the malleability of her memory, invoked at different moments by the Republican left, Catholics and the extreme right, and another on Descartes, which shows how the Cartesian spirit came to stand for the French spirit in general. Maurice Agulhon's essay on that most fabulous physical lieu, Paris, sketches a deft topography of the city, showing how the main axis of division is not the river but the line between eastern and western parts of the city, reflecting a left-right division. To the west are the military state monuments (Les Invalides, Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe), while the eastern parts of the city house memorials to popular radicalism (the July Column, Place de la Bastille, the Mur des Federes). As Agulhon notes, this cultural and symbolic division reflects a social geography: Eastern Paris has tended to be home to the popular classes, western Paris to the bourgeoisie.

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