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  • Overwriting Time with Space:Memory and Forgetting in Chateaubriand's René
  • Katherine Wickhorst

In René, published in 1801 but set in 1727, Chateaubriand traces the geographical displacements and temporal excavations of a Frenchman who has forsaken his native French soil and social milieu for a new life in America among the Natchez tribe of Louisiana. Embedded within a narrative of incessant wandering reported to us by an anonymous source, the text depicts René in the act of recounting his story to the Natchez chief, Chactas, and a French missionary, Father Souël. René appears haunted by a past that he cannot articulate. On the one hand, the narrative's trajectories seem to be generated by René's desire to run away from something: at a critical moment in the tale, the displaced protagonist confesses to having a "secret," one which has driven him from his birthplace. Yet as the narrative proceeds, René's highly ambivalent negotiations of the space and time of his travels betray both an escape from and a search for something.

Throughout the narrative, Chateaubriand's protagonist portrays himself as haunting the places of the dead and contemplating the memorial and historical functions of a very particular object. The narrative unfolds as a labyrinthine navigation of the edifices and phenomena of memory and forgetting, whose complexities come to be embodied by the troubled—and troubling—figure of the tomb. Indeed, everywhere he looks, René finds a tomb-like object that triggers for him an interrogation of his own place in the world. René appears to be looking for his past. As his reflections on tomb-like structures and his attempts to read them will demonstrate, however, he is also struggling to forge a future space and time, one in which to see himself. René is looking for a space that is both real and imaginary and, to draw on Foucault's theory of "des espaces autres,"1 or "other [End Page 1] spaces,"2 one which is both related to all places and outside of them all, a utopia and a heterotopia. As a material object having a concrete existence in real time and space, meant to signify a body that once existed but does no longer, the figure of the tomb as articulated in Chateaubriand's René furnishes a stunning example of a space that is both real and imaginary, one which certain of Foucault's terms can help us to understand. At every turn, the places of the living depicted in René are eclipsed by the tomb, a real object marker which also acquires a virtual status.

As Michael J. Call has noted in his intriguing study of Chateaubriand, the "first paragraph [of René] contains a strong repetition of the concept of burial."3 Burial sets the tone for all of the action to come. Indeed, the anonymous narrator who introduces René's story to the reader frames the Frenchman's wanderings in Louisiana (which has also been studied as one of Chateaubriand's "other" spaces) as motivated by a desire to bury something, captured in the word s'ensevelir:

Depuis la chasse du castor, où le Sachem aveugle raconta ses aventures à René, celui-ci n'avait jamais voulu parler des siennes. Cependant Chactas et le mission-naire désiraient vivement connaître par quel malheur un Européen bien né avait été conduit à l'étrange résolution de s'ensevelir dans les déserts de la Louisiane4

(167, my emphasis).

[Since the beaver hunt, when the blind sachem had told his adventures to René, the young man had consistently refused to talk about his own. And yet both Chac-tas and the missionary keenly desired to know what sorrow had driven this wellborn European to the strange décision of retiring into the wilderness of Louisiana5

(85, my emphasis).]

As a starting point from which to explore the concept of burial evoked by the verb s'ensevelir, the French dictionary Le Petit Robert offers the following definition of ensevelir: mettre dans une sépulture, or to place in a tomb. Taking into account the verb's definition in the nineteenth century may enhance our reading further. Larousse's Grand dictionnaire universel du...


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