Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 523-524
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The Construction of Memory in Interwar France
The Construction of Memory in Interwar France.Daniel J. Sherman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. 414. $45.00.
Writing about the cultural impact of the Great War in Britain, Samuel Hynes observes that literary critics have paid excessive attention to the "Waste Land Myth of the War," authorizing faithless, uncomprehending despair as "the authentic expression of post-war reality." 1 In fact, he asserts, a powerful discourse of consolation prevailed in the interwar years, a discourse in which the bereaved successfully mourned the dead, finding meaning in sacrifice. Several recent cultural histories focusing on British and continental commemorative practices have corroborated Hynes's point, underscoring the gap between the anticonsolatory themes of modernist literature and the work of mourning accomplished in popular and public culture. 2 Daniel Sherman's book is the newest addition to this vitally important area of modernist studies. Focusing on the interplay between individual souvenirs and collective mémoire, it documents a wide range of cultural practices: the writing of war-memoirs and novels and of eyewitness accounts for the "trench press"; the promotion of battlefield tourism; the production of postcards and posters; the building of war memorials and the ceremonies that consecrated them; and the representation of all these practices initially in journalism and ultimately in museums. Though it takes its examples exclusively from France, this study's analysis and conclusions can teach us a great deal about other mourning nations in the 1920s and beyond.
The chief purpose of commemoration is to represent a society's past to itself, and one of Sherman's first concerns is to examine the struggles over which individual memories of the war were to "count" toward this representation (15). His survey of arbiters of the matter, such as the editor of the influential anthology Témoins (1929), Norton Cru, shows the systematic privileging of "participation in the war, rather than observation of it," of "action" over mere "spectatorship" (14). That act of selection, moreover, invariably produced a paradox: the memoirs and battlefield guidebooks whose purpose was to communicate those experiences simultaneously emphasized the impossibility of bridging the gap between combatants and noncombatants. Sherman relies on a Foucauldian model to explain this phenomenon, portraying it largely as an ideological effort to mask the preservation of knowledge/power.
The cultural practice to which Sherman gives the most detailed attention is the construction and dedication of war memorials. The most original aspect of this part of his study is his analysis of the secondary, even tertiary representations that they spawned: the speeches given at the dedication ceremonies and the newspaper articles and critical reviews reporting those occasions. These documents offer dramatic evidence of how commemorative practices function as strategies of containment, channeling private grief into national solidarity. The bereaved may have been invited to meditate on the loved ones whose names are inscribed on the monument, and thus to experience the depths of personal loss, but the mediating texts, he shows, provided the crucial narratives in which that loss became socially meaningful.In these and later representations, such as those produced in present-day war museums, the act of commemoration itself becomes an object of study, a sign of community and, in the terms Freud used to describe the work of mourning, a libidinal object displacing the dead. The overarching paradox of commemorative practice, as Sherman tells it, is that, by encouraging such displacement, it "promote[s] forgetting as an integral part of public memory" (281).
Sherman's account of the art criticism assessing public monuments in the 1920s (in a chapter with the provocative title "Seeing the Signified") foregrounds two patterns of great significance to discussions of the gender and politics of modernism. One is the tendency among art critics to favor realism over allegory in monumental art. Statues of the poilu, or common soldier, have in [End Page 523] particular proved the favored form because they evoked authoritative, eyewitness experience; allegory, with its implied need for "explanatory speech," was associated with the Home...