Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds: Everyday Life and Narrative Sources (France 1939-1945)

Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds: Everyday Life and Narrative Sources (France 1939-1945)

Article excerpt

The time may well seem distant when personal testimonies, letters and diaries, oral and written memoirs were mistrusted as sources in historical scholarship because they were regarded as too subjective, too partisan and too partial to have credibility. Notwithstanding resistance from some quarters, over the last twenty-five or so years, numerous historians have rebutted the naysaying and actively looked to personal stories to open or re-open lines of enquiry and new areas of research. Such sources, whether described as "life writing", "life history", "documents of life", "ego-documents" or "narrative sources", have an intrinsic and undeniable historical value. On one hand, they can serve as explanatory illustrations of widely-accepted historical facts, deepening, broadening or consolidating a particular point or perspective. On the other, they have a more profound, generative value. They are epistemologically revolutionary, reshaping what it is possible to know. They create new ideas, they open new fields for research, they bring new historical actors into the frame; what is more, they may well challenge dominant versions of the past - whether scholarly, public or both - which have, by dint of their articulation and reiteration through influential realms of power such as media or commemorative practices, fixed biased and noninclusive narratives in the popular consciousness.

This methodological turn towards the personal is vividly present within critical enquiry into representations of fact and the articulation of memory concerning the German Occupation of France between 1940 and 1944. This period of French history is among the most assessed and re-assessed over the last 70 or so years; the continuous reworking of this difficult time has been driven not only by political and ideological tensions but also by the conflicting aims of commemoration, research and restitution. Accepted narratives have been progressively invalidated when omissions, identified and reinstated, have come to shed new and - sometimes - controversial light, on events previously accepted as described. Testimonies either unheard or unseen from the perspective of nonelite civilians who lived the same events, the same grand lines of the historical narrative, have overlain existing narratives and shift our interpretive possibilities. They illuminate the presence of these ordinary historical actors swept up in events, active and proactive, onlookers and bystanders, obscured and even forgotten as the dominant interpretations plough onwards creating a "settled upon" version of the past. Yet to every person who lived through this period a history belongs, a history with disruptive potential. The increasing availability of empirical data drawn from the everyday stories of men, women and children makes unstable what was once settled; such data make visible the experiences of marginalised or hitherto forgotten social categories and communities, enriching the historical narrative with lives lived differently.

We named the issue 'Hidden words, hidden worlds'. The idea of hidden words underpinned the methodological dimension of what we hoped our call for contributions would inspire: sources which have rarely, if ever, come to light before; sources voiced by those whose lives have been marginalised because of gender, race, nationality or politics; sources buried in archives, either actively or unwittingly; sources unheard until solicited; single voices or groups of people with common problems, common goals, common stories; sources which would not have come to light unless scholars such as our contributing authors had not seen in them a value beyond the personal, subjective and small-scale. If the words were hidden, so too were the worlds which they described. Our histories are often told as national stories and as such they privilege events and themes which contribute to that story; likewise our memories become national memories - popular or collective memories - which shed the extraneous in pursuit of a coherent way of remembering the national past. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.