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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 575-598

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L'absent de Paris:
In the Savage Country

Tom Conley

Michel de Certeau is known for a manner of inquiry-world that combines dialectics and erudition. As a historian of religion he marshaled extensive knowledge of Western languages and clerical practices to study unnameable phenomena, especially religious experience, which he felt at once pathetic, totalizing, and idiotic: an experience, in other words, vital for our relations with the unknown. Events, as he demonstrated through his study of mystical behavior and the science he baptized mystics (in line with chemistry and physics), can only be shown (and never quite stated) by what stirs "language through a torment of the ineffable."1 On even a cursory glance the sum of Certeau's work astonishes and dazzles. Whatever it tackles—glossolalia, the "idiot" as mystic, the bumpkin, or the encounter with Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere—seems to defy knowledge as a whole. Everywhere the reader of Certeau also encounters an extraordinary humility that brushes aside the true erudition informing the history of the French mystic, state reason and public piety in the classical regime, or the politics of vernacular languages at the time of the French [End Page 575] Revolution. Knowledge in Certeau's hands, as we discover, is used to reconstruct relations with absences. In their stagings and their rewritings, Certeau's works rehearse many of the same relations manifested by the style and strategy of their form.

How and why was Certeau impelled to disappear into the worlds he recreated, as might a woodsman or hermit into his inhabited forest? And what might the politics be of those types of vanishment Certeau chose to study? Writing in the manner of an early modern cartographer, plotting spaces, establishing the latitudes and curvatures of the surfaces to be studied, and attending to omissions and lacunae, he also left them intact and vital for the sake of both their realities and the fantasies they inspire. The work demands to be read—like an atlas in the process of elaboration from a wealth of sketches and information exchanged with other travelers and navigators—in all its breadth. It needs to be studied as that of a genial cartographer.

* * *

Among many other omissions or displacements in the Certeau corpus, the third chapter of La culture au pluriel was removed from Culture in the Plural. Entitled "La beauté du mort" ["The beauty of the dead"], it appeared in English, under the topical rubric "Nineteenth-Century Exoticisms," in Heterologies instead, together with chapters on Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and the ars moriendi from Zola and Jarry to Marcel Duchamp.2 Yet in La culture au pluriel this essay figures as keystone to an architectonic movement from reflection on the spaces of the contemporary city to the ideology of national education and the pragmatics of cultural diversification. The migration of "La beauté du mort" from one collection to another is worth following.

If its title is taken literally, La culture au pluriel registers an equivocation between ways of practicing life in a collectively organized space (following a stenographic definition of culture in the sense conveyed by Certeau's trenchant and often caustic treatment of the history of the usage of the term) and a grammatical exercise whereby a singular is conjugated in the plural (e.g., je fais/nous faisons or on invente/ils inventent; "I do/we do" or "s/he invents/they invent"). Grammar plays a pivotal role in this volume. The construction of a "popular culture" and the establishment of the discipline of folklore are tied to the beginnings of the pedagogy of a national image enhanced by the encrusted memories of illiterate ancestors and their ancestral ways. Declensions of the latter give rise to a science built upon its rock-solid foundations as an archaeology. [End Page 576]

"La beauté du mort" thus may be likened to a hinge on which revolve other of Certeau's works. One of them has to do with the politics of secondary schools—the means by which nations have crafted both their most potent forms of self-defense and their mechanisms for producing illusions...


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