- Incipit:The Nineteenth Century (Mis)Reading the Eighteenth
For the next installment of this dialogic series, the journal asked William Paulson (University of Michigan) and Caroline Weber (Barnard College, Columbia University) to reflect on in what ways the nineteenth century (mis)reads the eighteenth. They composed their initial essays without knowing who their interlocutor would be or what would be the content of the other person's essay; the ensuing exchange, by e-mail, took place in the order presented below.
In the nineteenth-century historical imagination, the eighteenth century was often strongly identified with the philosophes and with the Revolution. As a result, when nineteenth-century thinkers strove to reconnect with a prerevolutionary past, or with ancestry and origins that they could view as authentic, they often excluded the eighteenth century in favor of earlier periods. This originally reactionary move could be put to more progressive uses insofar as it helped to account for a sense that key promises of the Revolution remained unfulfilled. It also became a contested move, with Jules Michelet proclaiming the eighteenth to have been the "grand siècle," and Gérard de Nerval integrating the eighteenth century into an otherwise typically romantic construction of French origins. The focus on philosophes and Revolution, rarely, however, took note of the nineteenth century's massive role in realizing the Enlightenment project of a secular and materially-oriented world. (WP)
In my portions of this Incipit, I propose to concentrate on modern (nineteenthto twenty-first century) appropriations of key figures of and from eighteenth-century French history, and to consider the political implications of these rewritings. I understand "figures" primarily in the rhetorical sense, looking, for instance and for starters, at the evolution of the palace of Versailles as a trope of absolutist power and privilege. I will also consider changing conceptions of history and time as such, with a particular focus on the messianic temporalities of René de Chateaubriand and Walter Benjamin and on the ambiguous self-fashioning of President Emmanuel Macron. (CW) [End Page 147]
"Ah! diable! . . . Mais c'est un vaste sujet . . ." This description of Raphaël de Valentin's "Théorie de la volonté" from La Peau de chagrin was the first thing that came to mind on receiving the journal's invitation to write on what the nineteenth century inherits and misreads from its chronological predecessor.1 With no word limit and a five-year grant, this topic could yield something like an old-time thèse d'état, reaching who knows what sorts of conclusions. So some rather brutal reduction and abusive generalization will be inevitable in what follows.
I will attempt to describe a fairly dominant nineteenth-century pattern of excluding the eighteenth century from its historical antecedents. We are accustomed to think of the nineteenth century as the "century of history," an era when being a major thinker typically involved having a developmental philosophy of history, when writers were obsessed with looking back to ancestors and origins, to simpler or more authentic times, to oral traditions and folk tales, to the realm of childhood and mothers and the people. Yet to a great extent, the eighteenth century was excluded from this dive into the waters of things past: too closely identified with the Revolution, and thus with the wound that the quest for antecedents and traditions was supposed to heal. In its unfitness to provide the sought-for connections, the eighteenth century was often described as a time of decadence, rigidity, or artificiality, an intrusion or interruption in the organic development of society and culture. National origins were sought in the newly valorized Middle Ages, subjects for historical dramas in the Renaissance; the Romantics leapt over the previous century to define themselves in opposition to the "classics" of the reign of Louis XIV.
That this schema is reactionary in its origin and its main thrust does not prevent it from being historically salient, or even from remaining pertinent today. It can fairly be said to have begun with Chateaubriand, in opposition to Madame de Staël, and it played a significant role in the early nineteenth century's self-definition, its...