Academic journal article French Forum

The Prison-House of Revolutionary Memory: The Politics of Oblivion in Michelet, Hugo, and Dumas

Academic journal article French Forum

The Prison-House of Revolutionary Memory: The Politics of Oblivion in Michelet, Hugo, and Dumas

Article excerpt

Quand on veut oublier les gens, on n' eclaire pas les oubliettes. Jules Verne, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers

I. Introduction

The French term "oubliette de I'histoire" is one that occurs frequently in modern political discourse to name the violence of forgetting, and to expose the willful repression of marginal memories by institutions of power. To cite a modern French example: the massacre of Algerian demonstrators that occurred in Paris on Oct. 17, I961 has been called "un episode de la vie politique francaise" that was "relegue aux oubliettes de I'histoire officielle." More recently, the alleged French complicity in the genocide in Rwanda has been described as "[une] verite ... que tout, absolument tout, pousse a jeter aux 'oubliettes de l'hitoire."' (1) That the prison cell should serve as a metaphor for silencing unpleasant voices is not surprising, given the exponential growth of political prisoners in modern times, and the panoptic nature of the mechanisms that regulate modern societies. (2) Yet the link between imprisonment and amnesia clearly goes quite far back: as the term "oubliette" itself suggests, power has long operated by "forgetting" its prisoners. The dictionary of the French Academy of I762 defines it as a term used "autrefois"--in the depths of some unspecified past--to name "un cachot couvert d'une fausse trape, dans lequel, a ce qu'on dit, on faisoit tomber ceux dont on vouloit se defaire secretement." But it was not until the romantic period that the image of the gothic cell would be fully exploited, and that the mainstream culture would invest it with a dense cluster of meanings, as Victor Brombert has shown in his classic study of the Prison romantique.

It is tempting to dismiss much prison iconography as flashy romantic noir--one thinks of Gilles de Rais and Joan of Arc, monsters and maidens, a gothic melodrama of bondage and torture (3)--but I argue here that the cachot starts to function in romanticism as a crucial emblem of the concern with recovering buried memories. What consecrates this linkage is the "exposure," during the Revolution, of the infamous oubliettes beneath the Bastille, which prompted Michelet to view that fortress as the very emblem, not just of arbitrary power (a long-standing cliche), but of the horrors of amnesia. (4) Torture and death were in his view nothing beside the gruesome plight of oblivion, because expiring in memory was both less necessary and more final than mere death. As religious belief declined, survival in memory slowly displaced the afterlife as a metaphysical consolation, a trend Michelet reflects by reinventing the modern historian as a custodian of the dead. (5) His own obsession with the oubliette betrays a much broader romantic view of the prison, which was increasingly seen, despite its gaudy horrors, as a place of silence, blindness, and opacity. Its spectacular face concealed a more "authentic" cell, one that remained invisible, indeed hypothetical, existing only as a negative space, a vacuum devouring all traces. As the very site where the state obliterates traces, the cell remains almost ontologically unknowable, and can only claim the status of a heuristic hypothesis, a critical fiction which allows us--heirs in this respect of romantic historiography--to revisit the presumed scene of erasure. Indeed, the cell became, for Michelet and others, a politically charged figure of amnesia. Yet the way this icon emerged can only be described as a paradoxical process: first, because the prison's spectacular horrors masked the actual silence it produced, and second, because this very site of oblivion was so often depicted that it soon became a lieu de memoire itself (in Pierre Nora's sense), and helped counter the harm it embodied. Remembering the cell: this watchword amounted to no less than a reversal of the prison's program of erasure. The cachot thus became a vital but paradoxical emblem of memory, whose aporias I want to explore here in some romantic texts, notably in Michelet's treatment of the Bastille, Hugo's depictions of prisons in Notre-Dame de Paris (I83I) and Le dernier jour d'un condamne (I829), and the cachot on the Ile d'If where Edmond Dantes pines away in Dumas' Comte de Monte-Cristo (I845-I846). …

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