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  • Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France between the Wars
  • Edward Ousselin
Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France between the Wars. By Roxanne Panchasi. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. xi + 203 pp, ill., maps. Hb $39.95.

La mémoire has long been one of the main keywords of French historiography, with a focus on the process of elaboration of cultural memory. Roxanne Panchasi’s intriguing premise is to consider instead the representations of l’avenir. The anticipated ‘Future’ thus becomes, as the subtitle of her Introduction puts it, a ‘useful category of historical analysis’ (p. 1). Drawing on a wide variety of sources, from the well known (Charles de Gaulle’s Vers l’armée de métier) to the more obscure (an unpublished essay on the ‘lived future’ by a psychiatrist, Eugène Minkowski), the author has produced five case studies of the ways in which the future, as perceived during what would later be called l’Entre-deux-guerres, was appropriated or rejected: prosthetic enhancements for maimed bodies in the aftermath of la Grande Guerre; grandiose plans for modernized cities; debates over how to prepare the country for the next war; disquieting prefigurations of the future in the United States; and potential threats to the French language from the expected spread of Esperanto. In such an undertaking, the traditional danger of lapsing into anachronism is heightened by the fact that the goal of this book is to look back into the past — towards projections of the future. As Panchasi understatedly puts it, the anticipated future, retrospectively constructed as a conceptual category, ‘is an elusive subject for a history’ (p. 160). From our perspective, the fear of [End Page 365] another war turned out to be justified, while the concern that Esperanto might supplant national languages appears far-fetched. To what extent the ‘culture of anticipation’ was any more developed during the interwar period also remains unclear. For instance, it is perhaps less than surprising, and no doubt less than unprecedented, that the United States, and particularly the skyscrapers of New York, seemed to embody what the future held, for good or ill, for a comparatively less ‘modern’ French society. In a book ostensibly centred on fear or hope of the future, there is much focus on the recent past (for the 1920s and 1930s), and, of course, on the Great War, as the author points out in her concluding ‘afterthoughts’: ‘the future has brought me back to memory many times over in the course of these five chapters’ (p. 161). The section on ‘Paris in Ruins’ (pp. 74–76), for example, which explores ‘a broader cultural anxiety that Paris might not, ultimately, survive the twentieth century’ (p. 76), also reflects the very real and lasting effects of wartime slaughter and devastation. In this case as in others, projections into the future, most of them less than sanguine as to the nation’s long-term prospects, were largely shaped by earlier traumatic events. Instead of a return to normalcy at war’s end, there seemed to be a widespread anxiety about further damage to the social and cultural fabric of French society. The future thus loomed as a continuation of, rather than a break with, the immediate past. Paradoxically enough, the main impression one is left with after reading this well-researched book is that the importance of la mémoire is reinforced.

Edward Ousselin
Western Washington University


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pp. 365-366
Launched on MUSE
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