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Collective Memory and the Historical Past$

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226399157

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226399294.001.0001

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The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

(p.168) Chapter 6 The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding
Collective Memory and the Historical Past

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter places in a critical perspective recent forms of historical skepticism voiced above all by Roland Barthes and Hayden White. In the fields of literary criticism and historical theory, each of these authors respectively reduces the historian's representations to the imaginative projection of present constructions onto a past to which they are ineluctably foreign. Since, according to this view, the claim to historical knowledge proves to be an illusory expression of present concerns, historical skepticism undercuts any meaningful distinction that might be drawn between collective memory retained by present generations and the remote historical past beyond all living memory. To refute historical skepticism, this chapter draws less on historical works themselves than on novels. According to its argument, the novels of Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, and W. G. Sebald, highlight the fact that the "reality" of the historical past in its distinction from the present corresponds not only to an assemblage of verifiable details but also to patterns of contextual nuance implicit in the past's symbolic structure. Through an exercise of the "historical sense", novels are capable of sounding the finite depths of collective memory and of revealing the dynamics of its passage into the historical past.

Keywords:   historical sense, historical skepticism, Roland Barthes, Hayden White, Walter Scott, cultural memory, burden of history, W. G. Sebald, Marcel Proust, contented memory

In the preceding chapters, my focus on the theme of collective memory has dealt with it both as a faculty deployed at various levels of human comprehension and coexistence and as an anthropologically centered topic of inquiry. At different points in my analysis, I have called attention to the relation between collective memory and the historical past. As I have interpreted it, the historical past lies beyond the pale of collective memory, which, in the primary sense of the term, arises in the interwoven and symbolically embodied strata of experience shared by living generations.

In the introduction to this work, I presented the historical background of this manner of distinguishing between collective memory and the historical past in relation to a century-long development of theoretical approaches to this theme elaborated by Hegel and by the subsequent critical theorists of historical understanding, Dilthey, Droysen, and Croce. I noted that Hegel initially centered his analysis on the radical historicity in ways of understanding truth and being, and on the margin of incommensurability that this historicity traces between the horizon of a given present and the historical past that lies beyond living memory. Nonetheless, in spite of the radical discontinuities that punctuate the changes in historical epochs, Hegel presupposed that a rational grasp of the past in the present makes possible the comprehension of its essential meaning. This, as we have seen, he conceived in terms of a capacity to penetrate the past in a synthetic act of reminiscence (Erinnerung). The critical theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries elaborated on his insight into the ways in which the quest to make sense of the historical past is necessarily anchored in the here and now of present preoccupations incorporated (p.169) in the language and gestures, the direct recollections, preoccupations, and expectations of living individuals and groups caught up in the multiplicity of their current circumstances. Critical theories of history extended and deepened this insight into the historical variability of human understanding to the point of questioning its compatibility with the all-encompassing rationalist metaphysics that Hegel had imposed upon history as a process. They each adopted an open-ended, anthropological principal of unity underlying the expressions of human historical diversity and making possible present understanding of the essential meaning of the remote past. As I noted in the introduction, critical thinkers like Dilthey, Droysen, and Croce, in interpreting the act of historical comprehension as a work of remembrance, also paid an implicit tribute to Hegelian assumptions. In the wake of Halbwachs, the distinction I am drawing between collective memory and the historical past seeks to radicalize their insight into the historicity of human modes of understanding and of being.

In the framework of our present investigation of collective memory and human historicity, we are faced with a realm of group finitude that cannot be accounted for on the basis of the singular finitude of the members of a given collectivity. This realm of group contingency is situated at a fundamental level that, contrary to the singular finitude of mortal beings through which Martin Heidegger and his school sought to interpret the possibility of group existence, corresponds to unique modes of being arising from the symbolic networks that underlie group cohesion and, through shifts in its structure, sets the phenomenon of human historicity in relief.

Although in the perspective of Being and Time, to which I briefly referred in the introduction, Heidegger dealt with the topic of the “sign” (Zeichen) and the “reference” (Verweisung), symbols and symbolic interaction were hardly prominent themes in this or in other of his writings, which accounts for the paucity of his investigations of the intersubjective realm and his neglect of the specific modes of group finitude set in relief by collective memory and the dynamics of symbolic interaction.1 He therefore presented only a bare outline of human historicity considered as a direct transposition onto a collectivity of shared being-toward-death that brings singular human individuals together in view of a common fate. As Heidegger wrote: “Authentic being-toward-death, in other words the finitude of temporality, is the hidden ground of historicity.”2

My interpretation of the fundamental status of group finitude leads me to draw a very different conclusion. Indeed, human historicity is first and foremost set in relief by the passage of the collective memory of living generations (p.170) into the historical past beyond its range. The cohesion of group perspectives and the finitude of their scope arises not in virtue of an ultimately singular finitude, but from the intermediary symbolic space underlying group cohesion. All expressions in this symbolic interspace emerge in the limited perspective through which human beings communicate and coexist in a common world. As I see it, the task of elucidating this limited perspective is of particular importance in our contemporary period, in which the phenomenon of collective memory has become an increasingly central preoccupation, and in which historical studies often purport to deal with remembrance not only in and of the contemporary period, but of the remote historical past.

The fundamental demarcation I have proposed in the preceding chapters therefore distinguishes between understanding of actions and events that are open to recall in the fragmented perspectives of the memory of living groups, and past contexts that are anchored in the web of symbolic structures and idioms that are no longer available to living remembrance. According to this interpretation, the temporal patterns of shared experience specific to the human world are manifested in two adjoining spheres, those of the historically recalled past and of living memory that collectivities retain. Overlapping and undergirding these spheres lie the latent propensities and long-term dispositions of a shared êthos, but after the disappearance of all living remembrance of the past, this layer of latency and of passive proclivities becomes ever less palpable as it gradually fades beyond the pale of awareness. These passive recesses may at times be brought to awareness, where they lie within the reach of memory of living generations, but they tend to fade into a more opaque and imperceptible form of latency the farther they recede into the historical past. In view of the historicity, contingency, and discontinuity of human groups, of the radical shifts between successive horizons of contemporaneity, the ongoing continuity of the êthos, deposited in the passive recesses of shared symbolic forms, is more often a source of ideological claims and political mythologies than of empirically ascertainable comprehension. It is in light of this limit that our anthropologically centered investigation must designate the line of demarcation between the two spheres of collective memory and the historical past.


If we set aside the traces of the past bequeathed by prehistory, from the Paleolithic vestiges of tool use and burial to the Neolithic revolution in the domestication of animals and sedentary agriculture, the field of historical representation (p.171) may be extended, as is customarily done, as far back as there are interpretable traces or written records or chronicles open to verification. In view of the general schema of historical time, historical periods may be demarcated in terms of longer or shorter intervals. In this sense, Fernand Braudel distinguished what he termed the short duration or “courte durée” of historical periodization from long and intermediate duration (longue, moyenne durée), which lend formal temporal structure to any and all periods under historical investigation.3 It is significant for my analysis of the periodization of collective memory and the historical past that all long-and medium-range historical duration stands outside the bounds of shared memory retained by living generations; only relatively recent years overlap with the temporal sphere of what, for any given contemporary period, might be termed “collective memory.”

According to these general schemata of historical time, however, historical interpretation is by no means limited to the remote past of the longue and moyenne durée, and may also legitimately focus on recent events that are retained by living rememberers. Whole disciplines, under the rubric of contemporary history, “Zeitgeschichte” or “L’histoire du temps présent,” focus on contemporary history in this sense, which draw on recorded oral testimony and other traces of the recent past. In this time-span of the historical present, we may also situate Reinhart Koselleck’s “space of experience,” to which I referred in the preceding chapter. Here the boundary between collective remembrance and historical representation is thin, and the overlap between the two domains is most extensive. In such cases, as I have noted in previous chapters, historical method codifies and critically assesses what, in the sphere of collective remembrance, remains for the most part spontaneous and unsystematic. Nonetheless, this difference points toward a more fundamental consideration that comes to light as soon as we identify collective remembrance and historical interpretation not only as parallel fields of endeavor that retrospectively engage symbolically embodied past experience, but also as different spheres of collective awareness. Here we observe that if collective memory in its primary forms is spontaneous and unsystematic, whereas historical interpretation aims toward coherence and codification, this is because it is spread in its immediacy over a field of shared experience that historical accounts generally presuppose and, in any given situation, take for granted. Where collective memory, above all in its passive recesses, infuses group experience without necessarily occasioning explicit notice or reflection, the historian, far from naively adopting the predominant preconceptions of her present context, seeks to bring them to explicit awareness in order to explore (p.172) their specific difference from the attitudes at work in the past under investigation. This possibility is, of course, always limited, for the historian is never able to step outside the margins of his respective present, whose thick levels are embedded in the passive spheres of personal and group awareness. To a limited extent, however, it is possible to bring these margins to awareness against the backdrop of the past in its specific differences from a later present that reflects on it.

This consideration raises an unavoidable problem: the very spontaneity and diffuseness of collective memory—which does not primarily function as a deliberative activity but as a precondition of experience, emerging out of its passive, symbolically embodied reaches—account for its tacit evanescence once living rememberers have disappeared. Remembrance in the pregnant sense involves the concrete context in which remembered experience was set, and this is why we cannot be said to “remember” the historical past in anything but a secondary and derivative manner. On this basis, I question more recent attempts to break down the distinction Halbwachs initially drew between collective memory and the historical past by stipulating that all knowledge bequeathed by the past, whether remote or recent, is a form of collective memory.4 To my mind, this overlooks the central dilemma posed by the remoteness of the historical past. Collective memory, indeed, concerns not only an abstract capacity to recall given past events and circumstances or elements encompassed in a vast cultural heritage. As I have stressed in different parts of this work, collectively significant modifications concern not only data, facts, or circumstances, but primarily the temporal horizon itself, involving unperceived shifts in the passive, symbolically embodied recesses in which this horizon is anchored. To claim that we collectively “remember” the historical past may carry a certain rhetorical suggestiveness, but it leads to confusion when it is taken as a theoretical axiom. Where the discourse of collective memory is applied to remote history in more than a metaphorical way, there is a danger of obscuring the margin of incommensurability between the horizon of contemporaneity of a given present and the historical past that lies beyond living remembrance. Where it is assumed that the historical past is retrieved as “collective memory,” its opaque dimensions that are not available to present reminiscence risk being overshadowed. Indeed, this distinction between the present scope of memory and the remote past lies at the source of what may be termed the historical sense, understood as the capacity to apprehend nuances that distinguish particular sensibilities and the specific logic that predominate in a given present—and that are couched in the idioms and categories of living, contemporaneous memory—from a past to which they are (p.173) alien. The historical sense presupposes that the opacity of the past is not only due to the incomplete state of knowledge or to the complexity and fragmentary state of its sources, but to the alterity of its remote setting, which reveals itself in piecemeal form and can only be deciphered through painstaking immersion in its unfamiliar contours.5 It is for this reason that I question the methodological presupposition according to which the concept of collective memory may be indifferently applied to all forms of group recollection of living generations and to historical representations of the remote past that only documents and other traces attest.

In its recent expressions, the theoretical conviction that all kinds of approaches to the past may be grouped under the rubric of collective memory is problematic for a further reason. According to this conviction, which has been most consistently defended by Aleida and Jan Assmann, not only living memory and the historical past, but the whole of a cultural heritage that is collectively retained and serves to define group identities comprises collective memory in the broad sense they accord to it. From their standpoint, collective memory assumes two different forms: first, as “communicative memory” shared by living generations over a period roughly spanning eighty to one hundred years, which more or less corresponds to Halbwachs’s conception of collective memory; second, as “cultural memory,” encompassing not only the historical past but legends, rites, myths, literary creations, and all manner of fictive narratives that the past has bequeathed.6 Beyond the scope of communicative memory as it arises from the recent past, the question may be raised whether the concept of “cultural memory,” as the Assmanns understand it and as it has permeated current discourse more generally, might not be so broadly interpreted that it risks leading to conceptual confusion. Indeed, the term culture itself admits of a variety of meanings: besides the notion of oral and written cultural expression that they evoke, the broad concept of culture also comprises, for example, “high” or “popular” culture, human cultural production as opposed to natural phenomena, and “culture” understood as an ethnological category. In the Assmanns’ vocabulary and in much current usage, where the term culture is not explicitly limited to any of these references, it tends to reoccupy the terrain of what previously went under the rubric of tradition. Jan Assmann himself acknowledges this when he defines it in terms of long-standing social bonds that are invested with a quasi-sacred aura and are transmitted by specialized agents, including “shamans, bards, griots, priests, teachers, artists, scribes, scholars, mandarins, and others.”7 In Assmann’s view, “cultural memory” is called to account for a past heritage in a contemporary period where formerly accepted concepts of tradition no (p.174) longer seem viable. The redefinition that he and Aleida Assmann propose of tradition in terms of cultural memory also intends to encompass repressed and unconscious aspects of past group experience, interpreted from the perspective of Freudian psychology, which earlier concepts of tradition tended to exclude. As the word tradition formerly referred to a broad spectrum of domains, from literary and mythical legacies to methods of historical scholarship, so the single category of cultural memory comprises all forms of cultural production and is further expanded to encompass unconscious psychological dynamics.8 In the final analysis, this inflation of the concept of tradition to fit the data of cultural memory proposes a tool of analysis so general that the only salient criterion for qualifying this data lies in its correspondence to productions, acts, or events a group remembers or represses over time. As I interpret it, this amalgam leads to confusion, especially where Jan Assmann concludes that in the undifferentiated perspective of cultural memory, the question concerning the factual basis of remembered events becomes inessential. As he writes, “Here any distinction between myth and history is eliminated.” Indeed, according to his interpretation, cultural memory tends to transfigure historical facts, “thereby turning them into myth.”9

Assmann’s point of view is helpful in reminding us that myths, legends, and collective fantasies often have greater vivacity and longevity than the remembrance of factual events, and also that mythical beliefs lend orientation to historical actions. Once this point is acknowledged, however, a conceptual strategy that conflates myth and history raises what seem to me to be insurmountable difficulties. If, in a metaphorical sense, all of the collectively remembered heritage may be ascribed to the realm of “cultural memory,” the question nonetheless arises whether this dilation of the concept of memory does not risk obscuring what I have equated with collective memory’s finite province. In its more specific sense, collective memory of the living past is primarily spontaneous, diffuse, and fragmented, yet this may well include a cognitive moment of group self-awareness.10 This cognitive moment corresponds to a spectrum of beliefs that, at different levels, draw on representations of what is taken to be the reality of the factual past. On one hand, we may refer to the manner in which collectivities distinguish, to varying degrees and from various perspectives, those aspects of the remembered past that are taken to be anchored in factual reality or, in accord with other forms of belief (e.g., religious faiths, ethical codes, or political creeds), may draw on what is accepted to be a remote factual basis that, in a given present, engages what is invested with a superior spiritual, ethical, or political significance. On (p.175) the other hand, collectivities generally differentiate these beliefs from events, both of the recent and distant past, that are merely reputed to have happened or from legends that are broadly acknowledged to be fictions. Such cognitive distinctions between different levels of factual belief and disbelief are, of course, not always a reliable index for testing the reality of remembered group experience since, as I have noted, collectively retained beliefs are subject to manipulation and may be influenced by fanciful illusions and political myths. Ideally, where it is a question of occurrences retained in the memory of living generations, critical scrutiny may be called upon to reinforce this cognitive moment, subjecting reports to the review of evidence and to logical investigation with the aim of establishing the veracity of what has been recounted. In the final analysis, Halbwachs’s original conception of collective memory has the advantage of covering the field of what Assmann terms “communicative memory,” while opening a space for the diversity of temporal contexts in which the memory of living generations gives way to the different temporal perspective of history. In the framework of this concrete temporal plurality, the possibility of distinguishing between fanciful illusions, mythical beliefs, and factual occurrences depends upon collective assumptions concerning the real contours of a contextually anchored past.

In the case of historical understanding, critical analysis must go a step further, for it depends not only on recorded testimony or documents, but on the exercise of the historical sense that, in its capacity to bring to awareness preconceptions and biases at work in the immediate lifeworld, ideally strives for a measure of impartiality in its understanding of the historical past and of its relation to the present. On this basis, historical understanding, indeed, may claim not simply to retrieve what still resonates in the living memory of contemporaries, nor even a motley collection of traces of past historical events, but to recover a measure of what may be termed the “reality” of the remote past. Where, however, all forms of a past heritage, from historical narrative to fictive creations, are indifferently assimilated to the sphere of collective memory, the question remains concerning the possibility of adequately accounting not only for the cognitive capacity of collective memory but, beyond this, for the critical exercise of historical understanding in its claim to retrieve some aspect of past reality.

The topic of the “reality” of the historical past brings us to the heart of the problem that concerns us in our present discussion: any meaningful distinction between collective memory and the historical past assumes that discontinuities in the temporal horizons that separate them have a real basis. Reality (p.176) in this sense corresponds not only to events that actually occurred or to circumstances that truly existed, for it concerns the capacity to accord a real foundation to a past temporal horizon, comprising a network of symbolic idioms and nuances that distinguish it from the context of a given present.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, a radical challenge to the historian’s claim to retrieve a measure of “reality” of the historical past has come to the fore in both literary theory and in historiography. From the historiographical premise that all understanding is necessarily rooted in the sensibility and the logic, the language and the idioms of the present, this orientation concludes that the remote past in the diffuseness of its factual reality remains essentially opaque and impenetrable to current interpretation. While thus limiting the scope of historical understanding to the linguistic and symbolic horizon of the present world, this skeptical attitude takes historical representation to be a figment of the historian’s imagination that, in overlooking the radical opacity of the past, projects upon it a sensibility and a discourse that it confuses with its reality. In limiting the thrust of historical understanding to representations derived from the historian’s present, this skeptical theory, without evincing any particular concern for the topic of collective memory, nonetheless undercuts any meaningful distinction that might be drawn between interpretation within the confines of the contemporary world in which collective memory is rooted and understanding of the remote historical past. This skeptical doubt, in questioning the possibility of apprehending what lies beyond the context of the present and the recent past, homogenizes the diversity of temporal nuances and collapses the depth of temporal perspectives that a differentiation between collective memory and the historical past presupposes. Here we must grapple not with a theory of collective memory, but of history.

In the following section I analyze this skeptical position, above all as it has been propounded in the literary criticism of Roland Barthes and the historiographical writings of Hayden White. They each have the merit of placing in evidence analogies between the literary qualities of historiography and works of fiction, and the implausibility of earlier positivist assumptions, which overlooked or downplayed the role of selection and organization of narrative in the historian’s work, and thus the unmistakable resemblance of historical emplotment to the writing of fiction. As I interpret them, the conclusions that these authors respectively drew from this insight are, however, too extreme, since each of them equated the writing of history, depicted as a projection of modes of present representation onto the remote past, as a form of fiction. Might one not, however, legitimately draw a different conclusion from their premises? If we accept the idea of an analogy between historiography and (p.177) works of fiction, might we not account for this analogy not only in terms of the literary qualities of the historian’s craft, but also of the eminently historical elements that contribute to the evocative force of exemplary works of fiction? Might it be that the historical aspect of fiction lies not only in the fanciful relations it creates between past facts and events, but in the historical sense it imaginatively engages? Here, as I will argue, in bringing to light the contours of the historical past in its difference from contemporary horizons delineated in collective memory, fiction may indeed provide an exemplary illustration of the real contours of historical time that distinguish past from present. In the concluding sections of this chapter I address these questions in relation to different examples drawn from works of fiction and, by this means, reinforce and substantiate my argument concerning the essential difference between collective memory and the historical past attested by shifts in the temporal horizons that are fundamental indicators of past reality.


In this first part of my analysis, I briefly examine how comparative analogies drawn between historical works and works of fiction have fueled historical skepticism. According to analogies that skeptical interpretations make between historical and literary narratives, historical works, in spite of their claim to resuscitate the past, are no more faithful to its reality than the fictional representations of literature. In assimilating historical narrative to the products of the historian’s imagination, this assumption erases any essential difference between the historian’s present imaginings and his or her representation of the historical past; however, critical analysis of this skeptical assumption enables us later to reestimate the real distance of a given present, configured both by remembered experience and by imaginary creations, from the historical past that precedes it.

Comparative analogies between literature and historical representation that are meant to cast doubt on the historian’s claim are by no means of recent origin. In the eighteenth century, for example, the period in which the modern novel emerged, such comparisons became frequent vehicles for what had traditionally been termed historical pyrrhonism. Consider in this light the opinion of Denis Diderot, in his eulogy for the English novelist Samuel Richardson: “Oh Richardson!,” he wrote, “I will dare to say that the truest of histories is full of lies and that your novel is full of truths.”11 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in espousing a similar attitude, advised in his work, Émile, against the inclusion of the writings of modern historians in his program of education, (p.178) for he accused them of having little relation to the reality of the past: “I see little difference between these novels and your histories,” he wrote, “except that the novelist draws principally on his own imagination while the historian depends more upon that of someone else.”12 In entirely different philosophical frameworks, based on more elaborate epistemological justification, comparisons between historical works and works of fiction as a means of bolstering skeptical doubt concerning the historian’s claim have found important expression in writings from Arthur Schopenhauer’s reflections on history in The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt as Wille und Vorstellung) and Nietzsche’s proclamations in the second of the Untimely Meditations to Theodor Lessing’s History as Making Sense of the Senseless (Geschichte als Sinngebung des Sinnlosen).13

More recent years have witnessed the emergence of an analogous skepticism in the different framework of semiotics and literary criticism, beginning with the seminal writings of Roland Barthes in the 1960s and 1970s. Without engaging in the kind of rigorous analysis of the epistemological conditions of historical understanding characteristic of earlier philosophical investigation, Barthes’ reflections began from Nietzsche’s premise that facts are essentially linguistic constructs: “The fact never has anything but a linguistic existence.”14 On the basis of this theory of the constitutive role of language in the production of what is taken to be factual reality, Barthes developed his comparison between the historical work and the novel into a radical expression of historiographical skepticism. In the opening paragraph of his seminal essay on the relation of fiction and history, “The Discourse of History,” Barthes raised the decisive question that has come to haunt historiography ever since: “Since the Greeks, the narration of past events is generally subject in our culture to the sanction of historical ‘science,’ put forth with the imperious guarantee of being real, and justified by the principles of ‘rational’ demonstration. But is this narration truly different, due to some specific feature or to some indubitable relation, from imaginary narrative articulated in the epic drama, novel, or play?”15 Historical works, according to Barthes’s argument, are narrative constructions that are couched in the linguistic style or rhetorical mode they adopt. Attempts to retrieve the historical past, like the creations of fiction, have little basis in the “reality” of the past, since their narrative constructions are ultimately expressions of the present context in which they are anchored. Motivated by concerns of the present, as so many expressions of its current ideology, historical representations, as Barthes and his school have argued, are essentially fictions, and it is on this basis that historical works are fundamentally comparable to the narratives found in novels. As Barthes has (p.179) written, “Historical discourse is essentially an ideological elaboration or, to be more precise, one which is imaginary, if it is true that the imaginary is the language by which the enunciator of discourse (a purely linguistic entity) ‘fills in’ the subject of the enunciation (a psychological or ideological entity).”16

Here we find the essential argument for historical skepticism in our times, which has gained wide influence since its expression in Barthes’s writings. What counterargument might we advance, therefore, in response to the skeptical current that Barthes’s writings incarnate, permitting us to assume that, beyond fictional constructions couched in the discourse of the present and providing a vehicle for its ideological elaboration, the quest to reconstitute the historical past might find a counterpart in the depths of past “reality”? Without delving into the technicalities of Barthes’s linguistic investigations, or into a detailed examination of the influence of his presuppositions on subsequent historiographical theory, a succinct examination of Barthes’s direct references to historiographical practice will suffice to bring into focus what I take to be a principal limit of contemporary historical skepticism more generally.

It is consistent with Barthes’s critical perspective that his analysis of historiographical practice took as its focus the formative period of modern historiography, which, as he notes, is also that of the modern novel. In this regard, he chose as an exemplary expression the work of Jules Michelet, whose talent for achieving dramatic effects served Barthes’s purpose well, since Michelet’s narrative techniques showed a marked affinity with literary creation, above all with the novel. Michelet’s account of the French Revolution in his multi volume Histoire de France, which was of particular interest to Barthes, dealt with events witnessed by generations directly prior to Michelet’s own time, who were still close to contemporary idioms and symbols and stood in proximity to the recollections of living persons. For dramatic effect, as the semiotician convincingly argues, Michelet introduced linguistic devices and fictive elements, which sustained the illusion that the narrative was anchored in historical “reality.”17 To the grandchildren of the revolutionaries who were Michelet’s contemporaries, the means of portraying recent events that had shaken European civilization to its foundations provided a particularly vivid way of rendering the pathos of the recent past, and it is above all here, as Barthes illustrated, that the historian’s dramatic discourse resembled that employed in the contemporary novel.

If the techniques of historical narrative and the reach of the historical imagination were limited to the creation of such dramatic simulations, the skepticism of Barthes and of his school might seem warranted. But is this all that the quest to retrieve the historical past might accomplish? Might it be, (p.180) on the contrary, that beyond the devices used to create a plausible plot, a palpable—if often only implicitly discernible—“reality” pulses beneath the historical narrative? Since Barthes, in his critical writings, has focused on literary techniques in historiography, he has avoided making any essential distinction between more or less rigorous methods of historical representation, which might have obliged him to nuance his manner of lumping together fictive elements in historical writing, and painstaking efforts to retrieve and compare available sources that, in their contextual interrelation, might lead the historian to impute to them a measure of “reality.” For him, all historiography is ultimately based upon imaginary reconstruction tacitly expressing the current situation of the narrator.

The deeper implications of this position become visible as soon as we examine the unspoken presupposition governing the assumption that “fiction” and “historical representation” are analogous in their essence. This presupposition comes to light if we consider Barthes’s interpretation of the imaginary. For Barthes, the imaginary, as fictive, is spontaneously contrasted with the real. Historical imagination is essentially employed in the production of fictive representations; however, in limiting its grasp in this way, Barthes’s method betrays its dependence on an abstract preconception that he adopted without critical examination. This abstract preconception issues from a long tradition of reflection on the faculty of imagination, according to which its objects are opposed to truths of reason as the guarantors of reality or “Being.”18 And here skeptical theory, in my opinion, by limiting historical imagination to the role of emplotment of “facts” in the fictive sphere of the narrative, fails to apprehend its fundamental significance for historical understanding. This excessively limited theory of the imagination, indeed, risks confining historical reflection within a hermetically sealed circle, in which the historian’s present imposes rigid constraints from which no interpretation is capable of escaping. If we have recourse only to imaginary narratives issuing from the ideological representations of a contemporary world, then the past exists only insofar as it has been covered over with the projections of the present. In this operation, representations of the historical past and literary fiction would equally express wholly contemporary concerns.

In more recent years Hayden White, in the framework of a theory of the historical imagination, has further elaborated the skeptical implications of Barthes’s conception of the analogy between historiography and fiction. In his critical essays, White has provided an insightful discussion of Barthes’s ideas and other contemporary theories of history, and, even as he acknowledged that Barthes’s conception of history relied on a “vast mass of highly (p.181) problematical theories of language, discourse, consciousness, and ideology,”19 he took Barthes’s Nietzschean formulation—“The fact never has anything but a linguistic existence”—as the motto for the volume of critical essays in which his discussion of Barthes is included.20 Where White, in the essay “The Historical Text as a Literary Artifact,” interpreted this to mean that historical narratives are essentially “verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found,” and the contexts of which “are themselves products of the fictive capability of the historians who have studied these contexts,” historiography is very nearly assimilated to literary fiction. From this perspective, the function of the historical imagination, much as in the theory of Roland Barthes, is essentially limited to the task of spinning out imaginary tales.21

The limitations that White imposes on the historical imagination in face of the distant past account for his conception of the present-orientedness of the historian’s task. This task, indeed, lies in the “refamiliarization” of vestiges of the past in the present, “by showing how their developments conformed to one or another of the story types that we conventionally invoke to make sense of our own life-histories.” Here literature and historiography share a common goal securely oriented in terms of present concerns. According to White’s revealing comment in this essay, we recognize the two genres of fiction and history both to be “the forms by which consciousness both constitutes and colonizes the world to inhabit it comfortably.”22

This leads us to the decisive point: if all understanding, and the imagination that guides it, are so radically rooted in the present that they are incapable of penetrating the contextual thickness of past “reality,” what capacity might permit us to apprehend, in its distinction from a “real” past, the precise contours of the present as present? Skeptical interpretation, by limiting imagination to the emplotment of “facts” in the fictive sphere of the narrative, skirts by its broader capacity, which is not only to tell stories, but to demarcate the concrete temporal framework of experience through which historical understanding is made possible. In accord with this capacity, imagination discerns temporal nuances that distinguish the remembered past of contemporary experience from the historical past. In this function, it endows historical judgment with an ability to surmount its absorption in present preoccupations and in concerns arising from the immediate past to illuminate aspects of the historical past lying beyond all living memory. This capacity of the imagination, which is at once deliberative and empathetic, is, of course, essentially limited. It is necessarily “standortsgebunden,” linked to the contextual standpoint from which it emerges; yet history is not for that reason a spontaneously generated product of the imagination. Imagination in its full scope, placed in (p.182) the service of what I have termed the “historical sense,” permits us to distinguish between the timely plausibilities of contemporary existence and past possibilities that have lapsed into the sphere of the unfashionable and the anachronistic. And the mark of the “reality” of the historical past lies primarily in its anachronistic contextual coherence in relation to the present, lodged in the language, symbols, and gestures that, beyond the pale of living memory, it is the task of historical discernment, guided by the imagination, to reinterpret. Against the mirror of that dimension of the past that is incommensurable with the present, the timely aspect of current persuasions and predominant fashions may be revealed in its contingency and ephemerality.

Barthes and his school have brought to light with great perspicacity the fictive elements that the historian’s linguistic devices unwittingly transpose into historical narrative. And there is truth in his pronouncement, and in its reformulation in the work of Hayden White, that the rigidity of traditional distinctions between works of fiction and those of history does not hold. But if this is the case, then it is not only due to fictive elements that enter into historical narrative, but also for the inverse reason: in specific instances, the novel may draw on the historical sense that, although employed toward a different aim, inspires the historian’s efforts. It may thus reveal the capacity of the imagination to illuminate symbolic structures that delineate the “reality” of an historical context.23 It is here too that the past’s real contextual difference from the present reveals a primary distinction between the horizon of contemporaneity in which collective memory is rooted and the historical past lying beyond it. In the concluding sections that follow, I explore this assumption more closely through a series of illustrations drawn from the classical historical novel of the nineteenth century, as well as from twentieth-century novels that stand closer to our own period.


The observation has often been made that the historical novel was inspired by a heightened sensitivity to stylistic, linguistic, and other forms of symbolic expression that, amid all heterogeneity in its manifestations, brought to the fore the concrete texture of an historical epoch. This heightened sensitivity, in turn, was not only directed toward the historical past, but nourished reflection on the historical uniqueness and contingency of the present itself in its difference from previous forms of human historical existence.24 In an early nineteenth-century context that had recently been rent by unprecedented dislocation of the traditional social, political, and religious moorings of the (p.183) European order, the heightened sensitivity to the historical dimensions of human experience came to light not only in terms of an awakening of interest in the remote reaches of the past, but of a widespread conviction concerning the importance of a quest for its singular texture, set in relief in its difference from the present.

The fiction of Walter Scott is of particular significance for my analysis, due to its international acclaim, to the paradigmatic role it played in the early development of the historical novel as a genre, and also to Scott’s insightful commentary on his conception of historical interpretation. In briefly examining Scott’s originality, I highlight his conception of remembrance shared among generations and, on this basis, examine his effort to designate a kernel of historical reality that reveals itself in the midst of his eminently fictive narratives.25 I consider both his commentary on previous romances and novels of the early and mid-eighteenth century, presented in his journals and miscellaneous essays, and his comments in the prefaces to the Waverly Novels, in which he explained his purpose in elaborating the new form of artistic expression for which he became famous.

Scott dealt with novelists who were his eminent predecessors in the volumes of his Biographical Memoirs, written in the 1820s, during which he was elaborating the voluminous series of his Waverly Novels. His comments on Samuel Richardson are particularly revealing in this light, for he credited Richardson with having produced a new, modern style of novel that broke with the romances of earlier periods, dominated by what Scott qualified as “the old French taste, containing the protracted amours of princes and princesses, told in a language cold, extravagant, and metaphysically absurd.” Beyond the artificial situations of the classic romance, Richardson was able to “paint mankind” in a most effective manner, “as it exists in the ordinary walks of life.”26

If Richardson’s talent was immediately appreciated on the British Isles, his success was even greater on the Continent, and the praises heaped upon him by Rousseau and Diderot were clear signs of an “enthusiasm of the passions” that Scott considered to be all too typical of both their artistic works and their criticism.27 In England, as he noted, the critics had signaled this tendency toward bombastic enthusiasm in the French reception of Richardson, typified by Diderot’s declaration, which Scott cited in a footnote: “‘O Richardson! I dare pronounce that the most veritable history is full of fictions, and thy romances are full of truths.’”28 Scott’s appraisal of Richardson, by contrast, as the Biographical Memoirs amply illustrate, did not shrink from critical remarks. He questioned the extensive detail that accompanied much (p.184) of his eminent predecessor’s narratives, above all where the “tediousness” of a “combination of minutely traced events, with an ample commentary on each” was thought necessary for the development of the narrative.29

Scott’s comments on Richardson have a bearing on his own conception of the novel, which, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, he sought to anchor in a portrayal of past manners and customs that had been so rudely challenged by events on the Continent. If, in his estimation, an earlier European reading public might have accepted the exorbitant flights of fantasy and the most implausible anachronisms typical above all of the French school, which, for example, introduced in “the early Republic of Rome the sentiments and manners of the court of Louis XIV,”30 the taste of the contemporary world required a more faithful historical record; yet this style of portrayal should not for that reason be encumbered by a fastidious insistence on minute detail. Here, the experience of his first attempts at historical romance taught him the pitfalls of “tedious” forms of narrative, not only in the development of character and plot proposed by earlier English romances, but above all in the treatment of antiquarian detail in the dramatic portrayal of historical personages. In the years prior to the composition of the Waverly Novels, during which Scott attempted to find an appropriate narrative style, he came to understand the dangers that tedious antiquarian illustrations might involve. In his general preface to the Waverly Novels, included in the 1829 edition of the first of them, Waverly, initially published anonymously in 1814, Scott recounted how, prior to composing this work, he had been commissioned to complete for posthumous publication the unfinished romance of a recently deceased “artist and antiquary,” Joseph Strutt.31 This work, entitled Queenhoo Hall, sought to illustrate the “manners, customs and language” of the people of England during the fifteenth-century reign of Henry VI. Yet, because the romance was weighted down by myriad antiquarian ingredients expressed in a language that was “too ancient,” it was not easily comprehended by the general reading public and, in spite of Scott’s early editorial efforts, proved to be a flop. He subsequently resolved to produce a more engaging mode of historical expression, capable of drawing inspiration from historical events while at the same time arousing and maintaining interest among the reading public.

Scott’s aim, nevertheless, was not to write history but historical romance: “Our purpose,” as he bluntly stated at an important juncture in Waverly “is not to tread on the province of history.”32 And his insistence on grounding his narrative in factual circumstances and contingent historical realities fulfilled the requirements of romance, for the use of historical manners and customs of (p.185) the past intended to enhance the psychological plausibility in the explanation of human affairs. Several generations prior to Scott, his fellow Scotsman David Hume, whose works on English history Scott admired, presented a philosophical theory of fiction and of history that highlighted the dramatic effect of historical illustration and, in its psychological emphasis, roughly anticipated the strategy that the historical novel as a genre would exploit to the fullest extent. In his Treatise of Human Nature Hume had dealt with the essential difference between passions inspired by pure fiction and those which arise from “memory and judgment,” which are the primary sources of historical narrative. As powerful as the former may prove, a different feeling is aroused by historical accounts, because they are accompanied by the belief that they once existed. “There is something weak and imperfect,” Hume wrote, “amidst all that seeming vehemence of thought and sentiment which attends the fictions of poetry.” And this is why poets tend to borrow from historical narrative as a means of making “a deeper impression on the fancy and affections.”33

In Scott’s work, the psychological and dramatic effect of historically grounded narrative was extended through its fictional vehicle in an original direction. It is noteworthy that in his own descriptions of his novelistic creations, he often borrowed metaphors from painting, which he referred to as the romance’s “sister art,”34 for his quest to use historical illustrations in order to produce psychological effect brought him into the proximity of a constellation of assumptions that were voiced in his period in the domain of historical painting and portraiture. Although he himself did not comment on this, his intention to steer between the bombastic artificiality and manifest anachronism of traditional romance and the antiquarian tediousness of contemporary historical novels bore a marked resemblance to the theories of the greatest historical painter of Richardson’s generation, Joshua Reynolds, whom, as Scott noted, had been the novelist’s friend and acquaintance.35 In the journal of Scott’s voyage with his son to Waterloo and Paris, Reynolds’s estimation of Rubens’s paintings in Antwerp are cited with great admiration.36 In his Discourses on Painting, Reynolds had questioned the traditional predominance of the fanciful themes of mythological representation, and he also disparaged the facile anachronisms that had been so common in religious painting. At the same time, if the historical painter was to portray the perspective of his times, this did not mean that historical painting must serve as the historian’s handmaiden. Historians themselves, indeed, took obvious liberties in the interest of producing coherent and agreeable narratives, and the painter must be allowed still greater liberty in this domain. Yet the painter must bear in mind the importance of arousing a sense of plausibility that diminishes where factual (p.186) reality is clearly falsified.37 And, among Reynolds’s contemporaries in France, a parallel interest in historical painting arose, and the theoretical treatment of this genre among authors such as Marc-Antoine Laugier, Jean-Bernard Le Blanc, or Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne similarly insisted on the importance of the psychological effect that fidelity to historical detail might produce.38 In France, too, the interest in historical painting steadily increased up through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period.

In a manner reminiscent of the predominant theoretical orientations in the historical painting of his period, Scott himself, in his dedicatory epistle to Ivanhoe, drew a noteworthy comparison between the writer of romance and the painter. Like the painter, according to his assumption, the novelist produces his best effects where he shuns an overemphasis on detail while at the same time presenting a historically plausible representation, avoiding any “ornament inconsistent with the climate or country of his landscape.”39

In regard to the pictorial themes of the visual arts, Scott particularly admired the satirical and realistic paintings of Reynolds’s contemporary William Hogarth, whose depiction of popular and moralistic motifs Scott lauded in his Journal. Indeed, at a time when Scott’s financial situation took a drastic turn for the worse, he found humorous words to say in comparing his plight with that portrayed in Hogarth’s famous caricature “The Distressed Poet.”40 Here Scott was animated by an interest not only in the historical action of kings and aristocrats but also, like Hogarth before him, in the social and moral circumstances of the modest classes. If the upper classes nonetheless retained their predominant role in Scott’s historical romances, his depiction of the situation and attitudes of commoners at the same time reinforced his broader attempt to present a plausible portrayal of past manners and mentalities. The peasantry of his own country, above all, was according to Scott “the last to feel the influence of that general polish which assimilates to each other the manners of different nations,” and typically marshals the “antique force” and “simplicity of language.”41

Scott’s new genre of historical romance revealed its full potency in the first of the series of novels, Waverly. After the failure of his early attempt at revising the work of Strutt, he decided to deal in his own historical romance with a more recent and more familiar tale, a “Highland story and more modern events.”42 Scott chose as the subtitle for Waverly “‘Tis sixty years since,” which situated it in a recent period. Where in later Waverly novels, Scott often set his romances in more remote contexts, Waverly and the following two novels of the series, Guy Mannering and The Antiquary, formed a group of their own, for they were each set in a context that could be both related to (p.187) significant public events and at the same time recalled to the memory of living generations. As he stated in the “Advertisement” to The Antiquary, Waverly “embraced the age of our fathers, Guy Mannering that of our own youth, and the Antiquary the last ten years of the 18th century.”43 This strategy set up the temporal parameters intermixing the visual imagery “painted” by living memory—or what was skillfully portrayed to be such—with historically significant events; it thereby established the paradigmatic relation between the vivacious portrayal of remembered images of a personally experienced context and historical events that endow this context with public interest and significance. In illustrating historically memorable events through the singular vivacity of what took on the appearance of recollected contexts, Walter Scott elaborated the original vehicle of the historical novel.44

In the first three Waverly Novels and particularly in his commentary on Waverly itself, Scott highlighted this remembered quality of the setting of the novel and of the manners and customs portrayed in it. Hence, in his postscript to Waverly, Scott recounted that although he was not a Highlander, he had spent much time as a child in the highland country described in the romance.45 And he insisted that the narrative of battles and skirmishes recounted in the novel was based on the reports of reliable “eye-witnesses,” just as his written “portraits” presented his personal testimony to “remnants” of the “individual habits of the period” in question.46

In this series, Waverly occupied a special place for another reason: beyond the personal setting of Scott’s childhood, he focused on the remembered context of the broader region that had undergone radical transformation. “There is no European nation,” as he wrote, which “within the course of half a century, or a little more, has undergone so complete a change as the kingdom of Scotland.”47 And, in the postscript to this first work, he stated his aim to call immediate attention to this great watershed in Scottish life that followed the failure of the Highlanders’ 1745 Jacobite revolt against the rule of the English Hanoverian dynasty. Where the Highlanders had sought to maintain their independent way of life and traditional customs, the union of the two countries and the eradication of the Jacobite party marked the end of an era in Scottish life.

And here lay the specific historical interest of the first of the Waverly Novels: in his general preface to the series, Scott underlined the marked historical discontinuity in relation to the present to which Waverly gave testimony, and which, in spite of this temporal dislocation, the remembrance of living generations could still bring within reach. The temporal setting was thus distant enough to appear discordant with the perspective of contemporary society, (p.188) yet near enough to make its precise contours available to the living memory of an ageing generation. However much fiction was involved in the events portrayed, the great psychological impact and the historical interest of this first of the Waverly Novels lends it a quality distinguishing it from later novels set in a remote past.48 Above and beyond the psychological use of historical circumstances as a means of entertainment for his readers, Scott’s choice of a time-span in this first of his historical novels recalls a contextual setting that the younger generations were already beginning to forget. And here, beyond the goal of arousing a psychological impact, he sought to call attention to the implicit dimension of this change, which, “though steadily and rapidly progressive” has not for that reason been apprehended. Like those who “drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river,” as he wrote, “we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the now distant point from which we have been drifted.” Only those older generations who might still recollect the last twenty or twenty-five years of the eighteenth century would be able to recognize the nature of the changes. And Scott’s avowed purpose here was to “preserve some idea of the ancient manners” that he himself could recall beyond the scope of their present oblivion. Certainly, the characters themselves are fictive, and their interactions quaintly romanticized, but this did not prevent Scott from drawing the somewhat paradoxical conclusion that in Waverly “the most romantic parts of this narrative are precisely those which have a foundation in fact.”49

What Scott here attested as the basis of his first historical novel is the essential difference between the manners and habits, indeed the context itself, that are retained in the collective memory of living generations who have experienced them and the historical past which, following a period of rapid change, recedes into oblivion for younger generations. His method was particularly effective in dealing both with the recent Scottish past and, as works such as Old Mortality attest, with the not-yet-remote period of the seventeenth-century English civil war. While they lay beyond living memory, such periods were close enough to the contemporary period described in the early Waverly Novels to lend themselves to portrayal in a romance of the bygone Scottish manners and mentality. By contrast, if we follow Scott’s own assumptions, any attempt to reconstruct the manners and habits and, in general, the deeper contours of a more remote context that had long been unavailable to living memory encounters insurmountable difficulties and must be painstakingly reconstructed on the basis of available sources. Given the fictitious nature of the drama in the first of the Waverly Novels, a close inspection might well detect historical inconsistencies and anachronisms in their respective narratives. Yet (p.189) the temporal setting of the novels in a period in which Scott himself had lived lends his narratives a timeliness that overshadows such discrepancies for a later reader and is the immediate source of their overall psychological effect.

If in many of the later Waverly Novels, Scott chose to anchor his narratives in more remote historical periods, his method of portrayal was nonetheless substantially the same as that adopted in the first three novels of the series. As in his treatment of more contemporary settings, his depiction of remote historical events in the later novels drew on the available documentary evidence and on the works of well-known historians, while producing the psychological impression, through the dramatic narratives of fictive characters, that the events were recounted as if they had been drawn from the recollection of direct experience. In presenting past historical events in this manner, Scott’s method was least plausible where it dealt with historical periods far removed from the scope of living memory. Here the entertaining results of historical romance depended on the psychological impact of a vicarious reliving of the past that could not avoid the artificiality that its means of portrayal required. In such illustrations, the anachronistic character not only of language and costume, but of the world lying beyond the purview of living memory, lends to it the artificial and implausible character that Scott’s critics did not fail to notice.

In spite of the success of many of these later Waverly Novels, this method of anchoring narratives in reliable historical accounts while developing the drama in relation to artificially created language and manners opened him up to similar charges of anachronism that he had leveled against the earlier romances of the eighteenth century. As much as he might refer to sources such as the thirteenth-century Wardour manuscript in Ivanhoe or, in Quentin Durward, to works of Philippe de Commynes, the fifteenth-century historian and direct witnesses of the momentous struggles between the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, Scott acknowledged that the “severer of the antiquaries” would detect great artificiality and obvious discrepancies in the language and costumes that he lent to his characters, as in other aspects of his narrative. Scott nonetheless defended his technique at different points in his writings, and most forcefully perhaps in the preface to Ivanhoe. Here he frankly admitted that he might have “confused the manners of two or three centuries,” but he considered this to be of little consequence since errors of this kind, if noticed by the antiquaries, “escaped the general class of readers.”50 What was uppermost in Scott’s intention in these illustrations of the remote past was not historical accuracy, but the psychological impact aroused in the reader by the belief that the romance was anchored in the authentic historical record.

Among contemporary historians themselves, however, evaluations of the (p.190) impact for historical understanding of Scott’s romances were not entirely negative. The celebrated French historian, Augustin Thierry, whose researches on the history of the Middle Ages were stimulated by Scott’s historical romances, freely admitted that they were not to be considered as “authoritative historical works.” And yet Thierry also highlighted one aspect of the works, concerning both Scott’s treatment of remote and more recent periods, that proved to be of great importance as a spur to a more comprehensive historical study of the setting of past history. Where, indeed, classic historians such as David Hume had often skirted by the deeper social issues in their dry treatment, for example, of the medieval Norman conquest of Britain and considered it to be a “mere change of government” and an affair of kings and aristocrats, Walter Scott enlarged his focus to include broader sectors of the population. In spite of the fictive nature of his dramas, he was able to inspire historians who were subsequently convinced that “the territory, the wealth, the indigenous persons themselves were objects of scrutiny, as well as the royalty.”51 In the attention he devoted to deeper social factors that had been involved in historical change, Walter Scott touched on aspects of the historical past that previous historians had neglected.

Against Thierry’s positive evaluation of Scott, however, the young Leopold von Ranke, to cite another contemporary example, explicitly opposed his own conception of historiography to what he viewed as the liberties taken by Scott with the manuscripts of Philippe de Commynes in his depiction of fifteenth-century French history in Quentin Durward.52 And, a number of decades later, Hippolyte Taine, after admitting that Scott had sparked his initial interest in history, passed what has perhaps been the most durable critical judgment on Scott’s portrayal of the remote historical past: “How […] could these great Catholic and mystical dreams, these acts of gigantic audacity, or these impurities of carnal art enter the mind of this bourgeois gentleman? Walter Scott stops at the threshold of the soul and the waiting-room of history. He chooses in the Renaissance and the Middle Ages only the suitable and the agreeable, erases naive language, unbridled sentimentality and bestial ferocity.”53

In his preface to the medieval romance Ivanhoe, Scott returned to the topic of historical discontinuity and to the problem it posed for his manner of treating distant historical settings. After admitting, as I have noted, that he might have confused the details of “two or three centuries,” he discounted the empirical intuitions of his own historical sense as expressed in the afterward to Waverly and simply grounded his self-defense in metaphysical assumptions concerning human nature, which, in spite of outward veneer, was taken to be (p.191) identical throughout the centuries. The passions, as he wrote, “the sources from which sentiments and manners spring,” are in all of their modifications “generally the same in all ranks and conditions, all countries and ages.” One may therefore freely transpose them from one epoch to another, for they are as “proper to the present time as to those in which he has laid his time of action.”54

In light of the artificial and anachronistic character, however, of Scott’s general representations of the remote past, which would indicate an historical mutability of the ground of human experience that renders problematic such a conflation of different epochs, Scott’s metaphysical assumptions in the preface to Ivanhoe would hardly seem warranted. The more nuanced historical sense manifested in the afterward to Waverly is of particular significance for my present discussion, for it favors a more plausible interpretation of human historicity in admitting an essential distinction between the past available to collective remembrance and the unfamiliar contours of the historical past beyond its grasp. If Scott’s later romances produced an acute sense of anachronism in their treatment of the remote historical past, where he assimilated it to the more familiar language and categories of the present, this sense of anachronism is revealing, for it indicates a capacity standing at the basis of historical judgment itself. It is, indeed, through the exercise of the historical sense that artificiality of representation and implausibility arising from the blurring of the distinction between historical contexts are discerned. This exercise stands at the basis of any capacity to differentiate between a fanciful projection of the sensibilities of a given present onto the remote past from historical constructions that, however partial and incomplete, are nonetheless capable of critically reflecting on the disparity in contextual horizons. Conceived in this manner, the active exercise of the historical sense depends not only on attention to documentary sources and to “facts,” but above all on the ability to liberate historical judgment from the self-evident assumptions of the present in which the historian is working. The distinction Scott himself continually made between romance and history implicitly recognized a proximity of historical research to the “reality” of the historical past that I seek to delineate.

Following his fanciful excursions into the remote historical past in a number of the later Waverly Novels, Scott, in his final years, turned to the writing of contemporary history. In this last period he devoted his efforts to the composition of the multivolume work Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, in which he sketched a broad portrait of the period beginning just before the great Revolution and extending up until Napoleon’s exile and death. He plunged with relish into available documentary sources, frequenting archives and (p.192) investigating the geographical sites of battlefields. Here too it was as an indirect witness of the French Revolution, the Consulate, and Empire that he traced the history of the contemporary period “now remembered by only the most advanced part of the present generation.”55 And, in presenting himself as a witness and portrayer of his times, Scott aimed to retain a vivid recollection of it for posterity. It is perhaps not surprising that it was this eminently ocular quality of the work that Goethe praised in a letter to one of Scott’s friends, quoted in Scott’s Journal, in which the German writer recounted the impact on him of the Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, which Scott had sent him:

I received [Scott’s] Life of Napoleon, and have read it this winter. […] To me it is full of meaning to observe how the first novelist of the century took upon himself a task and business, so apparently foreign to him, and passed under review with rapid stroke those important events of which it had been our fate to be eye-witnesses. […]

The book was in yet another respect of the greatest importance to me, in that it brought back to my remembrance events through which I had lived. […] The work has become to me as it were a golden net, wherewith I can recover from out of the waves of Lethe the shadowy pictures of my past life.”56


First published in 1831, Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris provided an epoch-making French contribution to the genesis of the historical novel as a genre. This work clearly presented itself as a romance and thereby took liberties with the available sources that set it apart from the typical historical works of the period, even those that came closest to reproducing the novelist’s quest for dramatic effect, such as Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France. In this work, Victor Hugo played on an ambiguity that constitutes a principle mode of operation through which the historical novel attains its effect: the narrator relates events of the late fifteenth century with a directness and detail that could only be given by one who has experienced them, while at the same time claiming to present the historical account of distant events drawn from testimonies and documents. Hence, while the plot and most of the characters of the novel are entirely fictitious, they are at the same time portrayed in their interaction with other characters who are modeled on actual personages of the past, such as the late medieval dramatist Pierre Gringoire or Louis XI, King of France. While relating a wholly fictive tale, the narrator refers to himself in the novel as (p.193) “just an historian,”57 whose account draws upon the earlier records of “other” historians, such as the fifteenth-century Mémoires of Philippe de Commynes or Henri Sauval’s Antiquités de Paris, which had been composed in the mid-seventeenth century. The ambiguous mix of fiction and history sustains the dramatic effect by creating for the readers the temporal illusion that they are uncovering a distant prefiguration of the contemporary Paris they inhabit, while in fact the narrative recasts what is most distant, particular, and opaque in the past—beginning with the language, gestures, and other forms of symbolic interaction typical of the fifteenth century—in order to make this remote past accessible to contemporary understanding and sensibility.

In its quest for dramatic emplotment the historical novel is thus anything but “historical,” for it presents what is supposedly “past,” while continually assimilating it to the present, portraying as historical what in fact is fiction, not only in terms of the characters it invents, but of imaginary reconstruction of the contextual structure of the period in which it is situated. This earlier age is brought up to date, while made to look archaic through the selection of isolated relics and piecemeal accounts: the staging of a passion play of Pierre Gringoire with which the novel opens, the detailed topographical descriptions of medieval Paris, the grave illness of King Louis XI. All of these elements simulate a past that, in its essential features, remains fictive. This only highlights the principal artifice introduced by the novel: the remembered past, which in a strict sense is available only to personal and group experience in a contemporaneous world, is extended backward as if to encompass in memory a context that, having long ago disappeared, lies beyond what any living memory might grasp.

This dramatic effect is achieved from the very beginning of the novel by Victor Hugo’s remarkable narrative technique. The narrator explains to the reader in the preface of 1831 that during a visit to Notre-Dame several years earlier, he had noticed an old inscription in an obscure niche of the church, the ancient Greek word anagke, or “fate,” written in Greek capital letters and in medieval Gothic style. He asked himself what troubled spirit might have written this word in his intention to leave a last trace, the “stigmata” of his troubles, before disappearing from the face of the earth. Since his previous perception of this faint trace, the narrator notes that it has entirely disappeared. It symbolizes for him the fate of medieval churches like Notre-Dame, which are doomed to disappear due to disinterest, neglect, and a quest for modernization: “The priest whitewashes, the architect scrapes, and the people arrive to demolish them.”58 Nonetheless, the word itself remains firmly implanted in the narrator’s memory, even after all traces have disappeared, (p.194) and it is the desire to retrieve what has been effaced among the vestiges of the distant past that, as Victor Hugo explains, has motivated the creation of the work itself.

The impact of the novel is, however, not limited to the dramatic effect that is produced by the impression of rediscovering a long-lost past, and by the creation of a fictional impression that we are experiencing this past as if it were being retrieved in memory. Its strength lies not only in this fictive capacity, but also in its sensitivity to the concrete nuances of historical time. This sensitivity, or what may be termed the historical sense, comes to light in Notre-Dame de Paris, where Victor Hugo departs from his dramatic narrative to reflect on the scope of the metamorphosis and thus on the discontinuity between past and present that separates this medieval heritage from later centuries that behold it. Here the author centers reflective imagination on profound changes in the predominant sensibilities and mentalities that rendered gothic symbolism in all of its forms unattractive and even incomprehensible to the later tastes that replaced it. In a poignant description of the ways in which a given “present” relates to its past, in this case an epoch extending over a period of centuries up until the French Revolution, Victor Hugo evokes the loss of a capacity in later times to appreciate the significance and the beauty of the archaic forms of expression of the medieval past. The fashions of each successive present destroyed what they could neither understand nor appreciate, and proved in this far more devastating than revolutions themselves. As Victor Hugo writes,

Fashion has done more mischief than revolutions. It has cut to the quick—it has attacked the very bone and framework of the art. It has mangled dislocated, killed the edifice—in its form as well as in its meaning, in its consistency as well as its beauty. And then it has remade, which, at least, neither Time nor revolutions had pretended to do. It has audaciously fitted into the wounds of Gothic architecture its wretched gewgaws of a day—its marble ribands—its metal pompoons—a very leprosy of ovolos, volutes, and entournements, of draperies, garlands, and fringes, of stone flames, brazen clouds, fleshy Cupids, chubby cherubim, which we find beginning to devour the face of art in the oratory of Catherine de Médicis, and making it expire two centuries after, tortured and convulsed, in the boudoir of Madame Dubarry.”59

Such sensitivity to the past, which aims to grasp the ways in which its contextual sense may lapse into an absence beyond the possibilities of appreciation or of comprehension of succeeding ages is, of course, not the chief (p.195) province of fiction—even if it is vividly evoked in Notre-Dame de Paris—but of historical works. This motif, indeed, furnished a source of intense reflection among contemporary historians culminating several decades later in Hippolyte Taine’s description of the “esprit classique” in his work Les origines de la France contemporaine. The “esprit classique,” as he wrote, which reached its apogee in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century France, reduced the multiplicity of sensibilities at work in the distant past to a set of clear-cut models that were comprehensible to contemporary polite society. In generalizing its own sensibility, the “esprit classique” assumed that human nature is fundamentally the same in all periods: “It has no historical sentiment,” as Taine wrote; “it acknowledges that humanity is everywhere the same.”60 This justified a manifest indifference toward the singular texture of the past and, in particular, toward vestiges of the medieval world that, due to fundamental changes in sensibility and comprehension, it could no longer comprehend.

It might be argued that the fascination for the Middle Ages that gripped historians and novelists of Hugo’s period was itself no more than a fashion that supplanted the classicism that was in vogue in a previous age. And, in doing so, fashionable assumptions became the vehicle of polemical intentions current in their period, fueling above all the radical criticism of the world that had culminated in what they perceived to be the revolutionary cataclysm. Such representations of the past were patent expressions of ideological presuppositions. And yet, does the perception that the historical imagination of this period, as in all periods, was enmeshed in the contemporary orientations of the world in which it arose permit us to conclude that all such forms of historical reflection were no more than functions of that world, of its predominant rhetorical devices or of one or another of the ideological intentions lodged in its discourse?

What seems to me to resist any attempt at reduction to the vantage point of a given present is the incommensurability of the past, as it is temporally configured, with later times; this incommensurability is manifested through symbolic expressions that are not immediately available to later reconstruction, but require imaginative deliberation and conceptual discernment to bring out their implicit sense. Literary creations can suggestively intimate the implicit singularity of the historical past; it is the work of historical investigation to explicate the symbolic texture that imparts to it its deeper contextual significance. The “reality” of the historical past lies in its transcendence of all representations of the present world, and of all ideological intentions that seek to mobilize it, continually enjoining us to rethink its meaning in each successive present. However biased and incomplete even the most impartial attempt (p.196) to recover the vestiges of a past beyond living memory may be, its significance, far from limited to the status of a fictive invention of the present, reveals itself not only where it is capable of illuminating what has preceded current times, but where it enables us to place the fluctuating horizons of our own present in perspective.

It would be possible, indeed, to pursue this point through the analysis of any number of historical novels or realist portrayals of the past that, as they emerged over the course of the nineteenth century, provided original experiments in the imaginative retrieval of the concrete horizon encompassing the symbolic embodiments of the past. Where in the quest for dramatic effect and readily comprehensible narratives, representations of the remote past easily fell prey to anachronism, such romances were at times also animated by the attempt to avoid such pitfalls through scholarly research. Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (Promessi Sposi), set in seventeenth-century Piedmont, focused on a historical past that, like the one in Scott’s Old Mortality, was remote enough to reach beyond the scope of living memory, yet close enough to be able to plausibly mobilize language and other symbols that retained their comprehensibility in the contemporary period of their reception. Manzoni’s narrative of the separation of an engaged couple, Lucia and Renzo, and their subsequent attempts to find each other, was enriched not only by reliance on well-known historians but also by research he undertook in the archives of Milan. Here he uncovered material for his narrative of the years of the great plague of Milan in which important segments of the drama were set. Sensitivity to linguistic nuances and to their transformations, as to the differences in regional dialect, contributed essential elements to Manzoni’s attempt to revive the texture of the past in which the novel was set.

Following the vogue of the historical novel and of the different currents of realism and naturalism, the transformation of stylistic and narrative modes of fictive representation of the early twentieth century permits us to explore in a different constellation the capacity of the novel to illuminate what might be termed the real contours of the historical past. Like the emergence in painting of post-figurative representation of the brute data of perceptual experience and of the interpenetration and juxtaposition of different spatiotemporal aspects and planes, innovations in the novel set in relief the stream of intimate apprehension as it draws on and is absorbed in the departed time of the past. In this work too the question of “reality” concerns less the depiction of isolated elements or “facts,” than of the shifting horizon from which they draw their meaning. Here we may place in relief the mode of portrayal of this horizon, articulated in terms of concrete temporal patterns of human interaction and (p.197) communication as they are symbolically embodied and remembered. Among the many examples that might be chosen, Marcel Proust’s novel A la recherche du temps perdu provides a noteworthy paradigm for this investigation.


In chapter 3 I briefly evoked Proust’s conception of forgotten memories that, out of the lost time of the past, may make a sudden and involuntary reappearance at often unexpected moments. Proust’s conception of involuntary memory, as I stipulated, brings to the fore a dimension of personal identity in which the latent, the forgotten, the obscure episodes of experience play an essential role in defining selfhood. Far from being limited to the personal sphere, involuntary memory at the same time resuscitates a network of relations with others.

At this concluding stage of my investigation, I am concerned less with the specific dynamics of involuntary memory than with the broader structure of the passive and tacit spheres of experience that all forms of memory, both voluntary and involuntary, bring to expression. By means of examples, I set in relief Proust’s subtle conception of these shared passive and tacit spheres, which he brings to visibility against the shifting horizon of time. Proust, moreover, portrays not only transformations in the modes of human interaction and communication that, in the flux of temporal horizons, often remain unperceived; he brings reflection on the temporal conditions of group perception and group remembrance into the foreground of the narrative itself. Here he illustrates the transformation of group perception and remembrance among successive generations that transpires in the tacit dimension of an under lying contextual “reality” to which experiencing and remembering groups pay little if any heed.

My first example concerns transformations in collective perception of the visual symbolism of painting. In his Essais et articles, as in his novel A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust dealt extensively with painting and with changes in the way it is judged by the broader public, composed mainly of painters themselves, critics, aristocrats, and the wealthier members of the bourgeoisie. In Proust’s writings, the public reception of the works of two of the best known nineteenth-century painters, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and the younger and less conventional Edouard Manet, played a particularly prominent role. Ingres was held in high esteem by his contemporaries and was the preferred artist of Napoleon Bonaparte and later of his nephew, Napoleon III. Ingres’s celebrity was based on his representations of classical (p.198) themes such as his Apotheosis of Homer or La Source, which portrayed a nude woman carrying a vase, evoking a preferred motif of classical antiquity. The contemporary art critic and writer Théophile Gautier considered that the painting The Apotheosis of Homer, excepting certain modern figures set in the painting’s foreground, “might have been included among the ancient master pieces in the pinacoteca of the Propylaea.”61 And Hippolyte Taine, who otherwise showed little enthusiasm for Napoleon III and for what was considered to be officially sanctioned art of the period, nonetheless expressed great admiration for Ingres’s work: “Raphael,” as he wrote, “does not have a

The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

Figure 13. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Source, 1820–1856, Orsay Museum, Paris.

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.


The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

Figure 14. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827, Louvre Museum, Paris.

© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

more faithful student.”62 At a later moment, when Ingres’s work had begun to seem pretentious and backward in modernist circles, Proust, in a brief text included among his Essais et articles, emphasized that all such judgments need to be qualified, since even a contemporary like Edgar Degas, who was hardly out of step with the fashions of his times, considered Ingres to be one of the great artists in the history of painting.63

By contrast, Proust called attention to the much less favorable attitude that the public accorded to the paintings of the younger Manet, especially in the initial period of his work. He underlined the disparity between Manet’s perception of his painting as an original expression of classical styles and the more general public reaction to his work, which was often vehemently critical of his unconventionalism. Even Manet’s mother, as Proust reminded his reader, had mixed reactions to his talent. Proust alluded to Jacques-Émile Blanche’s reminiscence in Propos de Peintre, to which he wrote the preface, according to which she praised her son’s ability to faithfully copy a painting by Tintoretto, but found it necessary to add that his own paintings would be different, were it not for the circles he frequented.64 The exhibition of his (p.200)

The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

Figure 15. Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Orsay Museum, Paris.

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

painting Olympia provided an occasion for a famous public scandal at the salon of 1865 and, as Proust noted, an outlet for acrimonious attacks on his work. The reasons for this public reaction have often been noted by later art historians: the nude woman represented in Olympia, far from alluding to classical themes and exulting traditional forms of beauty, portrays a well-known contemporary model, Victorine Meurent, lying on her couch and staring directly at the painting’s beholder, while her maid brings her a bouquet of flowers ostensibly sent to her by a client. The public scandal that the painting aroused several years after the general acclaim accorded to Ingres’s La Source attested Manet’s break with traditional conventions of his period that the Impressionist movement would confirm more generally.

It is in this light that the juxtaposition of the two painters at various points in Le côté des Guermantes, the third in the series comprising A la recherche du temps perdu, sets in subtle relief changes in the temporal context of the period—what I have termed its “horizon of contemporaneity.” The narrator of Le côté des Guermantes dwells upon the initial negative reaction of the public to Manet’s Olympia. After a certain number of years, however, this initial reaction was followed by a gradual transformation as the public became habituated to the innovative mode of representation introduced by the Impressionist (p.201) movement, which it even began to find attractive. In this paradoxical situation, as the narrator of the novel noted, the seemingly unbridgeable distance between what the public took to be a chef-d’oeuvre of Ingres and the Olympia of Manet, which it thought would “always remain a horror,” diminished to the point where “the two canvases seemed like twins.”65 And, in a letter written in 1920, Proust affirmed that the greatness of Manet was to be found precisely in his unconventional originality: “I believe one only resembles the masters when one does differently (for example the ‘scandal’ of Manet’s Olympia).”66

Proust attests here an important shift in temporal horizon that, in regard to artistic styles, marked a metamorphosis in public sensibility. What is noteworthy, above all, as Proust remarked, is the fact that this change was barely acknowledged or was even unnoticed by most of the people who underwent it. Proust emphasizes this point in relating the shift in group perception of art to the most recent developments in painting in the years after the Impressionist movement began to win wide acceptance. The young narrator of the novel, while attending a large dinner party to which he is invited at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes, obtains a long-awaited opportunity to see the paintings of a contemporary artist—the fictive painter Elstir—whose originality the protagonist greatly admires and most of the snobbish aristocrats in the milieu of the Duke and Duchess vehemently reject. The young protagonist comments that they remain oblivious to the variability of their own tastes and, more generally, of those of their social milieu. The appeasement of their earlier hostility toward Manet’s innovations has in no way led them to reflect on subtle changes in temporal context, even where they are remembered, although, as Proust adds, the eldest members of the generation, who had witnessed this change, might well have recognized its implications for their present artistic judgments.67

Changes in concrete temporal context that lead the public to gradually accept what it had previously rejected are often tacit occurrences. In a broader sense, shifts in the horizon in which the manners of perceiving and of interacting occur often go unnoticed. It is this obliviousness to the finitude and contingency of a temporal context that Proust qualified as the incapacity to adopt the “perspective of Time” (“la perspective du Temps”).68 Where it is brought to awareness, however, this perspective permits us to appreciate the contingency of our own standpoint, in which the conventional character of attitudes we share with contemporary groups comes to light.

Given these transformations in the horizons of shared experience and remembrance among living groups, how much more radical are the subtle shifts that mark the temporal contexts separating living generations, especially in (p.202) periods of radical dislocation following World War I! Among the examples in Proust’s work that might be evoked to illustrate such metamorphoses, the Dreyfus affair provides a poignant illustration. In his references to this affair in the later volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust interweaves fictive narrative with real historical events and, using a technique reminiscent of the historical novel, portrays them as if they were being experienced and remembered. As a political event, the Dreyfus affair provided a dramatic catalyst that sharply divided fin de siècle French society, pitting those sympathetic to the army’s accusation that Dreyfus was a spy, who were often aristocrats and members of the political right, against the liberal bourgeoisie, who, with Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau, were convinced of his innocence. One of the main protagonists of the novel, the Jew Charles Swann, who is an elegant member of high society, begins to descend the social ladder due to his marriage to a woman of doubtful reputation, Odette de Crécy. His loss of social status is completed when he espouses the pro-Dreyfus position of his coreligionaries and falls into disgrace among his aristocratic contemporaries—represented above all by his former intimate friends, the fashionable Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes and their circle.69 His wife Odette, on the other hand, after first being snubbed by fashionable society, begins to rise on the social scale when she becomes the mistress of the Duc de Guermantes and frequents anti-Dreyfusard and anti-Semitic aristocratic circles into which she is assimilated following her husband’s death. Proust highlights the irony of this situation in his depiction of the emergence of a new generation of aristocrats after World War I, who dismiss, or simply forget, the passionate anti-Dreyfusard stance so often espoused by their parents and grandparents. The new generation manifests a modish and naive hindsight that made fashionable the unquestioned embrace of pro-Dreyfus attitudes. Hence, where the older generations considered Dreyfus and his supporters to be traitors, Proust writes, “Twenty-five years later, after ideas had had the time to settle and Dreyfusism to assume a certain historical elegance, the sons of these same young nobles, waltz dancers and Bolsheviks, would declare to the ‘intellectuals’ who questioned them, that surely, had they lived then, they would have been for Dreyfus, without knowing much more about what the affair had been than the countess Edmond de Pourtalès or the marquise de Galliffet, those other splendors already extinguished on the day of their birth.”70

In his depiction of the social impact of the Dreyfus affair and of its evolution, Proust presents a telling illustration of the ways in which group perceptions and patterns of collective remembrance and forgetting tend to be fragmented along the lines of social class and ethnic group. At its deeper levels, (p.203) however, Proust’s depiction of temporal context—the “horizon of contemporaneity”—affects living generations as a whole and marks their outward appearance, demeanor, and modes of expression in ways that cut across all differences in social group. And, in taking as his example the historical past beyond living memory, Proust points out that such affinities shared by contemporaries in the same historical period may in many instances be more evident to later perception than any distinctions in social class that separated them during their lifetime. Proust writes in this vein,

The perfect conformity in appearance between a petit bourgeois of Combray of his age and the duke of Bouillon reminded me […] that social and even individual differences dissolve at a distance in the uniformity of a period. The truth is that the resemblance of clothing and also the reverberation through the face of the spirit of an epoch assume in the individual a place that is so much more important than his or her caste, which plays a significant role only in the vanity of the person concerned and in the imagination of others. To comprehend that a great nobleman of Louis-Philippe’s period is less different from a bourgeois of his period than from a great nobleman of the time of Louis XIV, it is not necessary to go through the galleries of the Louvre.”71

Evidently, Proust draws his examples from the wealthier strata of society, extending from the aristocracy to the upper and lower bourgeoisie. And yet, what is important here is not only his remark concerning the immediate relation of the different strata of society as a whole, including their modes of appearance and expression, but also the distinct singularity of the epoch in which they lived. This difference between periods that appears in terms of intricate characteristics shared by contemporary generations underlies the essential discontinuity between concrete temporal horizons, which become all the more opaque and difficult to penetrate the farther they retreat beyond the capacities of remembrance of living contemporaries. Proust’s preoccupation with such temporal discontinuities is similarly reflected in the attention he devotes to memorialists of the past. In this vein, he evokes not only Madame de Sévigné’s autobiographical revelations in her seventeenth-century correspondence with her daughter or the roughly contemporary memoirs of the duke de Saint-Simon, but also the more recent memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, who is mentioned both in his essays and in A la recherche du temps perdu. In this novel, she provides a model for the fictive character, Madame de Villeparisis, who is a high-born and socially unappreciated friend of the (p.204) protagonist’s grandmother. Born in the last years of the ancien régime, the Comtesse de Boigne had frequented the royal family at Versailles in her early youth. Her nephew, for whom she wrote her memoirs, had often been a guest at the home of Proust’s parents and had told them stories his aunt had related, allowing Proust to establish a form of contact with a distant past. Certainly Proust was skeptical of the point of view Madame de Boigne depicted, and he questioned the accuracy of many of her statements.72 Yet his perception of her nephew, “with his own eyes” (“avec les yeux de la chair”), permitted a vicarious participation in the life of an earlier period, including the revolutionary events directly witnessed by those “who had seen Marie-Antoinette pass by.” Proust was careful to stress that through “skillfully manipulated transitions,” such scenes took on the “relief of reality (“le relief de la réalité”) that he could vicariously recreate.73

Proust’s fascination with memoirs of the past, spurred by his profound sensitivity to social metamorphosis, animated his singular quest: in the face of radical change, the narratives of persons who had a living contact with direct recollections of the past generated the impression that historical discontinuity might be surmounted. Yet, as Proust himself realized, this was only an impression. For, even within the limits of the past encompassed by direct experience and personal memory, human existence is continually haunted by “lost time.” Lost time is engendered not by the mere passage of days and years, nor even by the relentless process of ageing, but above all by radical transformations in individual sensibilities that are interwoven in a collective context formed by the shifting temporal horizon of succeeding generations. From this vantage point, Proust’s novel engages an exercise of the historical sense: it reveals changes in finite human modes of understanding and of being which, in light of the shifting symbolic horizon of interaction and of communication with the passage of each generation, casts in its wake a deepening shroud over the past’s singular texture. The obscurity of “lost time” in the brief period in which his efforts at remembrance are set, and which comes most immediately to light through involuntary recollection, underlines the opacity of the more remote historical past beyond the memory of living generations. And yet, according to my interpretation, opacity is tantamount neither to un-nuanced shading nor to wholly irremediable blindness. In its sensitivity to discontinuity and to the metamorphosis in temporal horizon, the historical sense makes it possible to set timely assumptions of our own present in relief and to distinguish them from aspects of the past to which they are foreign. Proust’s reflections on the lost time of the past, deployed in the medium of fictive representations, elucidate this sense through vivid illustrations.

(p.205) VI

In the previous sections of this chapter, my examination of fictive narratives in literature has centered on representations of the historical past developed in different forms of the novel. In the wake of historical dislocation and discontinuity, the different examples I have chosen set in relief, in different periods, a variety of ways of exploring shifts in concrete temporal horizon underlying the historical variability of group perceptions and collective remembrance. The subtle mesh of fictive narrative and historical event is capable of eliciting the impression that historically significant past events might reappear as if they were being recalled to memory. In the novels I have examined, the potency of this impression is due not only to the imaginary status of the narrative, nor to constraints imposed upon it by the quest for a faithful representation of facts; its vivacity depends upon the plausibility of the singular contours of a past context that the narrative sets in relief. If historical novels as a genre and, in a later period, Proust’s literary creation, may in a certain measure illuminate what might be termed the “real texture” of the historical past, this is because their respective ways of exploring the temporal variations in group perception and group remembrance highlight concrete and often tacit metamorphoses in the temporal horizon underlying the historicity of human experience.

The different examples I have chosen thus far have been centered around the two periods extending between the upheaval of the French Revolution and the Revolution of 1848 and between the fin de siècle and the immediate aftermath of World War I, during which Proust elaborated his work A la recherche du temps perdu. In the final section, I complement this examination by extending it to the contemporary period. This permits exploration of the fictive representation of a specific facet of the relation between collective memory and the historical past that has come to play a particularly prominent role in contemporary interpretation. Here I am concerned with collective remembrance and the representations of recent history that highlight their essentially burdensome quality.

In the second of his Untimely Meditations to which I alluded in the introduction, Nietzsche presented his seminal ruminations on this burdensome quality of memory and of history which, in their hypertrophied modern form, had become a hindrance to the fulfillment of vital needs and to original creation. Written in a period in which material development and nationalist aspirations had fueled the ideals of progress and expansion among elites and among broad sectors of Western society, Nietzsche’s warning was decidedly untimely. The catastrophe of World War I, followed by the rise of totalitarian (p.206) dictatorships and the advent of World War II, and culminating in the programmed industrial genocide of the Shoah and in the mass murders that have followed in later decades, have brought to the fore intense reflection, both among survivors and later generations, on the problematic status of the past in its relation to the present. However diversified the perspectives on this topic may be, its prominence in recent sociocultural and intellectual life attests that the dread it inspires in collective remembrance and recent historical study has not ceased to haunt our current period and to mark its singular character. If, indeed, the circumstances that brought about this hiatus now belong to history, their very existence as past reality raises the question concerning the fragility inherent in modern mass existence that, in view of the unpredictable contingency of human affairs, stands like a specter over our increasingly interdependent and globalized situation.74 In view of the loss of vast communities and of whole cultural heritages since the beginning of World War II, it is questionable whether a psychological process of “working through” the burden of the past in the hope of mastering its traumatic legacy might lead to a new form of “contented memory” (mémoire heureuse).75

My purpose in this final section is not to speculate on such possibilities but to explore from another angle the specific question concerning the reality of the historical past that fictive narration may reveal. This question takes on a new significance in view of the temporal position of the early twenty-first century in relation to the recent past: we live at the turning point where the great hiatus wrought by the destruction of large segments of the European population—Jewish communities and other exterminated minorities, vast civil populations, and the combatants themselves—has begun to retreat beyond the purview of the living memory of the survivors into the depths of history. And the passage of the collective memory of living generations into history modifies our perception of this radical caesura within our present horizon of contemporaneity, even while our renewed preoccupation with this period attests the intensity of the burden it has bequeathed.

Out of the many contemporary fictional representations of the dread of collective memory and of the terror of history, I dwell on the seminal example provided by W. G. Sebald’s novel, Austerlitz. In this novel, Sebald deals in a particularly evocative manner with the complex interrelation of the different levels of personal, small-group, and large-scale remembrance of collective memory and the historical past. The novel recounts the story of a young child, Jacques Austerlitz who, at the age of four and a half, in the period between the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the outbreak of World War II, is sent by his mother on one of the last authorized trains of the Kindertransport from (p.207) Prague to Wales. Upon his arrival in Wales, he is sheltered by a Calvinist minister and his wife, who never reveal to him the details of his past. After giving him a new name, they conceal from him his original identity. Following the lead of his foster parents, the child himself, as he is growing up, adopts the practice of avoiding all attempts to recall his early life and, over the years, he succeeds in repressing his memory of it. It is upon completing secondary school, when he has to sign official papers in order to accept a scholarship award, that he learns the name he was given at birth. In the following years, he begins to experience marked psychological troubles that continually haunt him and make it difficult for him to lead a productive life. Gradually, as “scraps of memory” began to “drift through the outlying regions of [his] mind,” he is led to search for the forgotten past that he is not able to obliterate.76 Through a series of fortuitous discoveries, among them the disused ladies’ waiting room in London’s Liverpool Station where, many years earlier, he had waited for his foster parents when he first arrived in England, he is brought to discover his past. This experience provides the decisive triggering event through which memories begin to return—memories, as Austerlitz exclaims, “behind and within which many things much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine vaults I saw in the dusty grey light, and which seemed to go on and on forever.”77 He is able to discover his country of origin and, through the help of a former neighbor following his return to Prague, he is brought to face the traumatic events of his early past, including the separation from his parents, who were subsequently murdered during the war.

Two aspects of this fictive narrative, which adapts techniques of the historical novel to a contemporary theme, are of particular interest for our discussion. The first concerns the interrelation of the personal past with that of the protagonist’s larger social and historical setting. Throughout his youth Austerlitz avoids not only uncomfortable questions concerning his origin but also concerning religion, social status, and group identity: “It never occurred to me,” as he states, “to wonder about my true origins, […] nor did I ever feel that I belonged to a certain social class, professional group, or religious confession.”78 Moreover, although he becomes a specialist of European architectural history, he continually deflects his attention from the recent history of Europe, such as that of twentieth-century Germany, the Vichy regime, the Nazi occupation of Europe, and its consequences. As he grows older, this obliges him to confine his thought within an ever more specialized space of attention, leading him, as he states, to “recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which related in any way to my unknown past.”79 Here the intertwining (p.208) of an individual and a collective past, of personal and group memory with the collective recollection and historical past retained in omnipresent public awareness gradually makes it impossible for him to avoid facing his own personal identity and the social and historical milieu with which it is intermeshed.

At another level of interpretation, the protagonist’s discovery of his personal past and, in relation to this, of frightful aspects of the collective past that have marked his development, reach beyond the framework of a personal psychological problem to encompass awareness of the broader implications of the collective repression of dreadful memories, above all in regard to the recent past. Through the metaphor of architecture that Sebald elaborates toward the end of the novel, he introduces the idea that municipal zoning and urban renewal are effective vehicles for the tacit collective repression of the dreadful memories of the past. Illustrating his description by means of evocative photographic images, he develops this idea in relation to the recent transfer of the old French national library to a new location. The old Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, on the rue de Richelieu, was situated in the vibrant center of the city, near the stock market and financial center, the Opera, and the galleries and passages in neighboring streets, the French Theatre, and the splendid rectangular edifice and public garden of the Palais Royal. Constructed during the reign of Napoleon III in the 1860s, the elegant reading rooms of the old Bibliothèque Nationale were frequented by numerous generations of intellectuals who came from all points of the globe, and it served as a center of intellectual life in France throughout the twentieth century. In the 1990s, in view of the shortage of space in the old Bibliothèque Nationale, the Mitterrand government decided to construct four gigantic modern towers to replace it, which were located in a more or less disaffected part of the city behind the dilapidated Austerlitz train station, which the government and the urban planners sought to develop. As Sebald insists in his vivid and highly critical description, the result of this transfer was to sever intellectual activity in the library from the historic center of Paris and from its social, economic, and cultural life, and to move it to a secluded and sterile modern setting. More important still, the site chosen for the new Bibliothèque Nationale de France was previously occupied by a vast network of warehouses that, like numerous other sites recently renovated by urban planners, had served purposes associated with traumatic episodes of the past. These vast warehouses, as Sebald reminds us, were the sites where the precious belongings of many thousands of Jewish families were stored after they had been driven from their homes, which, like the belongings themselves, were expropriated by the German and (p.209) French authorities before the families were sent to meet their deaths in Eastern Europe. From this large network of warehouses, more than seven thousand trains crammed with confiscated goods transferred them from the Austerlitz station to the German Reich.

It is here, by means of metaphors drawn from architecture and urban renewal, that Sebald brings home a principal motif of the novel as a whole: attempts to obliterate the past, he subtly suggests, are no more feasible on the collective level than they are in regard to the personal past. Far from presenting a solution to the problem, the attempt to exclude dreadful memories of the past, whether on an individual or on a collective level, can only be an invitation to the kind of cramped sterility and rootless amnesia that the fictive protagonist Jacques Austerlitz encounters, which prevent him from surmounting the burden of the past he seeks to avoid.

A plausible objection might readily be raised against this point of view. However much the requirements for urban renewal may have coincided with the effacing of traces of the past, have we nonetheless not developed a culture which, far from forgetting the past, promotes ongoing commemoration, while favoring the proliferation of archives, museums, and monuments, indeed of national libraries themselves, in an ongoing effort to retain the past’s most minute traces? Are these publicly sponsored attempts not born of a desire to prevent amnesia by recalling painful legacies of the past?

Here, it seems to me, we may reach beyond Sebald’s fictional metaphors and respond that institutionalized attempts to retrieve and retain what living memory of the past has experienced and physical traces attest are lent a sense of urgency as memory begins to fade, above all following a period of obstruction and neglect of the dreadful memories that the past has bequeathed. If, in light of the enormity of the Shoah and the profound hiatus it occasioned, it has reemerged into the forefront of historical attention after several decades of indifference, this only highlighted long-standing neglect or repression of other kinds of painful memories, experienced by different groups over the course of past decades and centuries. From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that preoccupation with dreadful memories of the recent past should simultaneously call to the fore the difficult experiences encountered in different and more remote periods. Indeed, the painful legacy of the practice of enslavement to which African populations fell victim, though it had different ends than the quest for a “final solution,” was long shunned as a theme of public discussion, in part due to forms of discrimination to which, until recent decades, their descendants were subjected. After centuries of near oblivion and relative public unconcern, such painful themes of the historical (p.210) past and of more recent memory have fueled current preoccupation with obstructed memory and with commemoration and have lent a new significance to historical research.

In the final analysis, Sebald’s narrative in Austerlitz suggests that the real density of the collective past persists in the present, even where awareness of it has been obstructed. This is indeed a manner of response, reaching perhaps beyond Sebald’s own intentions, to skepticism regarding the ongoing reality of the historical past, toward which the historian claims to direct her analysis. At the very least, it provides matter for further reflection concerning the assumption inspired by Nietzsche and propagated in fashionable theories during the decades directly following World War II that the facts of the past “never have more than a linguistic existence” and that, ultimately, they are figments of the historian’s imagination.


(1.) In Heidegger’s work immediately following Being and Time, notably in his 1928 Freiburg course lectures, Metaphysical Foundations of Logic from Leibniz Onward (Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz) and in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, 1929), he related the theme of human finitude to that of memory. He thereby assigned to reminiscence in its fundamental sense (Wiedererinnerung) the metaphysical task of recalling the finite ground of existence that the Western tradition, in the manifold forms of its quest for permanence and for stable criteria of truth, had continually neglected. The task of reminiscence in this finite perspective was not to retrieve, but above all to break with tradition, engaging the resolute critique initiated in Being and Time of all presuppositions concerning self-sustaining historical continuity and the presumption that meaning in history was to be sought in its objective cohesion as an overarching process. Indeed, the only trans-historical unity that Heidegger identified in this early period of his work was that of the forgetfulness of Being itself, which provided a hidden continuity linking together the epochs of history. See Martin Heidegger, Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (1929), 227; and Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz (1928), 186.

(2.) Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 386. It would reach beyond the framework of our present discussion to examine later developments in Heidegger’s orientation when, after 1933, in particular in his Schwarze Hefte, his discourse was extended to embrace the Nazi ideology and the political mythology that animated its monolithic conception of collective existence. “The Germans,” as Heidegger writes in this recently published series of volumes, “are alone capable of poeticizing and saying Being in an original manner.” At the same time, they are “threatened by a growing incapacity to remember” (Unkraft der Erinnerung); by the danger of choosing not their own being (Dasein), but of “relinquishing themselves to planetary machinations” (Machenschaften), whose primary characteristic lies in their “absence of memory.” The identification of these “machinations” with Jews and what he perceived to be other enemies of the Germans is made abundantly clear in these volumes. Here Heidegger’s perspective, nourished as it was by the ideology of the êthos, proved still more blind (p.238) than in Sein und Zeit to the finitude of group existence that the dynamics of collective memory bring to light. See Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen II–VI, 27, 276, 296; Überlegungen, VII–XI, 10; and Überlegungen XII–XV, 55–56, 133, 243, 262.

(4.) In criticizing Halbwachs’s distinction between collective memory and the historical past in recent years, Peter Burke applied the category of “social memory” both to the remembered and historical past, thus eliminating any fundamental distinction between memory retained by living contemporary generations and the recollection of an historical past gleaned on the basis of documents and indirect testimony. My own argument in this chapter submits this assumption to critical scrutiny. See Peter Burke, “History as Social Memory,” 98–99.

(5.) See David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country. More recently, Eelco Runia has focused on the phenomenon of discontinuity between past and present, which he aptly characterizes as the past’s capacity to “spring surprises on us” (Moved by the Past, 81–82).

(10.) In more recent works, Aleida Assmann would seem to acknowledge this point where she refers to symbol and image as a basis for collectively shared cultural remembrance that may be evaluated in terms of rational and moral criteria (Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit, 29–37).

(13.) Schopenhauer noted that if all historical writing lies far from the truth it claims to grasp, the most “interesting” form of historical writing is autobiography because it most closely resembles the novel. See Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 2, pt. 2, 519. Nietzsche’s pronouncements on this theme in the second of the Untimely Meditations, as I noted in the introduction, were particularly influential: “Only when historiography tolerates being transformed into art, and thus becomes a pure artistic creation, can it maintain or perhaps even arouse instincts” (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen I–III, 292). Theodor Lessing’s expression of thoroughgoing historical skepticism in his comparisons of history to the work of art may be found in Die Geschichte als Sinngebung des Sinnlosen, 104–110.

(14.) “Le fait n’a jamais qu’une existence linguistique” or, as Barthes writes, “One understands that from that point onward, the notion of an historical ‘fact’ would often, here and there, arouse a certain suspicion (méfiance). Nietzsche had already said: ‘There are no facts in themselves. It is always necessary to begin by making sense (introduire un sens) in order that there might be a fact.’ From the moment where language (p.239) intervenes (and when does it not intervene?), the fact can only be defined in a tautological manner” (Roland Barthes, “Le discours de l’histoire,” in Le bruissement de la langue,163). See also Barthes’s comparison of Nietzsche’s interpretation of facts with the historiographical practice of Michelet in his essay, “Aujourd’hui, Michelet,” in Le bruissement de la langue, 243 (“It’s Michelet who is right. Here he is, quite paradoxically, standing alongside Nietzsche.”).

(16.) Ibid., 174.

(18.) The parallel to the Cartesian theory of the imagination in Barthes and in structuralist and poststructuralist theory is striking. Suffice it to note in this context the counterconception of the imagination presented by Goethe in a comment to Eckermann, to which I alluded in an earlier chapter, where Goethe underlines the essential role of the imagination in the identification of reality, his notion of an “imagination for the truth of the real” (“Phantasie für die Wahrheit des Realen”); see Goethe, Eckermann Gespräche mit Goethe, 154. On the concept of imagination in Descartes, see Dennis L. Sepper, Descartes’s Imagination.

(19.) Hayden White, The Content of the Form, 35–37 (“The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory”).

(20.) Ibid., ii.

(21.) In his essay, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” (Tropics of Discourse, 83–84), Hayden White refers to Collingwood’s concept of the use of “constructive imagination” in the representation of historical narratives, capable of distinguishing the most plausible story among different possibilities. As he notes, Collingwood’s constructive imagination functions as an a priori faculty through which, on the model of Kant’s transcendental schematism, particular factual instances may be apprehended through general forms of explanation. Where White is critical of this abstract and essentially ahistorical model of the imagination, his own conception of it limits it to the function of organizing historical narratives in terms of rhetorical tropes. In confining the role of imagination to this essentially literary task, his theory reveals an unmistakable resemblance to that of Roland Barthes’s conception of it as a capacity for producing essentially fictive narratives.

(23.) In “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White makes the suggestive comment that the philosophy of language might help us “understand what is fictive in all putatively realistic representations of the world and what is realistic in all manifestly fictive ones” (Tropics of Discourse, 88). I fully concur with Paul Ricoeur’s remark that White “does not really show us what is realistic in all fiction, [since] only the fictive side of the purportedly realistic representation of the world is stressed” (p.240) (The Reality of the Historical Past, 51). There seems to be an ambiguity in White’s use of the term realistic, which may refer to an account of “reality” or to “realism” as a literary genre.

(24.) This point has been developed by Erich Auerbach in Mimesis, 441.

(25.) On the theme of memory in Scott’s novels, see Catherine Jones, Literary Memory, and Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott.

(31.) Walter Scott, “General Preface to the Waverly Novels” (1829), in Waverly; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since, 353.

(34.) Walter Scott, “Dedicatory Epistle to the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust, F.A.S.,” in Ivanhoe, 11.

(37.) Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses Delivered to Students of the Royal Academy (1780), in Works, 1:84–87 and 2:142–43; “Journey to Flanders and Holland in the year 1781,” 314; “Annotations on Du Fresnoy’s Poem,” 110.

(38.) On this aspect of the theory of historical painting in France, see Stefan Germer, Historizität und Autonomie, 11–15.

(40.) “It is ridiculous enough for me,” as he wrote in his Journal, “in a state of insolvency for the present, to be battling about gold and paper currency. It is something like the humorous touch in Hogarth’s ‘Distressed poet,’ where the poor starveling of the muses is engaged, when in the abyss of poverty, in writing an Essay on the payment of the National Debt” (Walter Scott, The Journal of Walter Scott, 1:140).

(42.) Walter Scott, “General Preface,” in Waverly, 354.

(43.) Scott, Antiquary, 3. Ann Rigney has perceptively noted in this regard that “the subtitle to Waverly, the first novel–’tis sixty years since’—had already indicated Scott’s preoccupation with generational change, and with the fascinating transition from first-hand testimony to mediated memory” (The Afterlives of Walter Scott, 21).

(46.) Ibid., 341. On the question of the role of the eyewitness in Scott’s romances, see Wolfgang Iser, Der Implizite Leser, 148.

(p.241) (48.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a particularly astute judge of Scott’s accomplishments, voiced his opinion concerning the unique quality of this work in a comment to Eckermann: “After reading Waverly, you will understand why Walter Scott still designates himself the author of that work; for there he showed what he could do, and he has never since written anything to surpass, or even equal, that first published novel” (Conversations with Eckermann and Soret, reprinted in John O. Hayden, ed., Walter Scott: The Critical Heritage, 308).

(51.) Augustin Thierry, “Lettre V,” in Lettres sur l’histoire de France, 5:61–62.

(58.) Ibid., 53–54.

(66.) Marcel Proust, Letter to Henri de Régnier, 14 April 1920, in Correspondance, 19:214–15. In his book on Manet, published in 1924, Proust’s friend, the painter and critic Jacques-Émile Blanche, summed up in this manner the change in attitude toward the Olympia of Manet: “Today one of the pearls of the Louvre, […] the Olympia, has begun to lose the ‘disturbing’ connotations that earned it, sixty years ago, the insults of decent people and the devotion of certain ‘unwholesome spirits’” (Manet, 34).

(67.) “However, the eldest would have been able to say that during their lives they had seen, the more the years removed them from the event, the unbridgeable distance diminish” (Proust, Le Côté des Guermantes, 420).

(68.) Ibid., 420.

(69.) Proust’s depiction of Swann is at least partly drawn from real-life situations, and notably from the difficulties encountered by Jewish art historian and patron Charles Ephrussi during the Dreyfus affair. On the theme of Charles Ephrussi and contemporary painting in Proust’s novel, see Kazuyoshi Yoshikawa, “Elstir,” 89–94.

(70.) Proust, Le Côté des Guermantes, 400–401. The position of the duc de Guermantes (p.242) in this context is complex. After first espousing an anti-Dreyfusard position corresponding to that of his milieu, the acquaintance with three young pro-Dreyfus women at a spa at a later point in the novel leads him to change his mind, which partly accounts for his failure to be elected president of the aristocratic Jockey Club.

(71.) Ibid., 682.

(74.) In this regard, Hannah Arendt’s admonition that the threat of totalitarianism has not disappeared with the collapse of previous totalitarian regimes, since it derives from the condition of mass sociopolitical existence, takes on a particular significance in our contemporary period. Totalitarian solutions to problems of overpopulation, of economically superfluous and socially rootless human masses, “may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 459).

(77.) Ibid., 192.

(78.) Ibid., 177.

(79.) Ibid., 197.