- L’Éloquence des pierres: usages littéraires de l’inscription au XVIIIe siècle par Sophie Lefay
If indeed the period from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century was ‘L’Âge de l’inscription’, as signalled by the title of a magisterial volume by Florence Vuilleumier Laurens [End Page 602] and Pierre Laurens (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010; see French Studies, 66 (2012), 397–98), one could be tempted to infer that it was followed by an age of decline. Sophie Lefay’s important monograph forcefully complicates this too hasty assumption. Lefay acknowledges that the early Enlightenment coincides with the end of the allegorical model, still in place at the time of the epideictic programme at Versailles (as practised in the Hall of Mirrors and debated in the late-seventeenth-century Querelle des inscriptions). She then traces the emergence of ‘une sensibilité épigraphique nouvelle’ (p. 33) in the long eighteenth century, as inscription moves to other venues, other spaces, often taking a lighter and more mundane form. In the process, inscriptions often shift in function from public celebration to private intimacy, from monument to book; hence the paradoxical title of the volume. While inscription may represent the pinnacle of writing beyond the pages of the book, the eighteenth century nonetheless marks the triumph of the book—the return from stone to paper. Lefay’s project is therefore not primarily archaeological or archival, but is rather an exploration of ‘l’imaginaire lié à cette forme d’écriture’ (p. 36) as reflected in the archive of literature, in a corpus where authors such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Rétif de La Bretonne, Mercier, and Chateaubriand hold a prominent place, but to which most of the canonical writers of the period contribute, including frequent appearances by Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire. The author reveals how the integration of inscriptions in literature becomes a vehicle for thinking anachronism in ways that raise important hermeneutic challenges not only for internal and external readers back then, but also for us today. By inviting us to displace for a moment our hermeneutical focus from meaning to presence, from legibility to visibility, from content to material support, from the signifying outcome to the inscribing gesture, this corpus (and Lefay’s book) highlights inscription as a marker of intensity and of violence. This violence is apparent, first and foremost, in the force of the gesture itself, but also in its charge and expressivity as writing, in what Lefay calls ‘un effet-inscription’; inscription is thus ‘l’écriture dans sa dimension la plus concrète’,‘un superlatif de l’écriture’, and this is, paradoxically, ‘ce qui distingue écrire et inscrire’ (p.309; original emphases). The volume is elegantly structured in four parts according to the different modes or aspects of this enterprise, a single verb serving as title for each part:‘Signifier’, ‘Accomplir’,Éterniser’, and ‘Imprimer’. If this trajectory may itself seem to suggest the victory of the page of the book over the stone of the monument, it is only by reminding us that ‘la dignité du livre tient à sa capacité à graver, bien au-delà de la page, les cœurs et les mémoires’, allowing the book to ‘accéder à la dignité du monument’ (p. 302).