Literature, History and Factidiversiality

By Walker, David H. | Journal of European Studies, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Literature, History and Factidiversiality


Walker, David H., Journal of European Studies


The twentieth century is commonly held to be an era when the existence of the individual is invaded by or subsumed under the wider collective adventure - or calamity. Helene in Simone de Beauvoir's Le Sang des autres exemplifies the experience as she contemplates the occupation of France by the Nazis: 'Comme si je n'existais pas [. . .] Je ne compte pas [. . .] Je regardais passer l'Histoire! C'etait mon histoire. Tout ca m'arrive a moi.'[2] However, despite the advantage of hindsight, the lived experience of historical forces swamping the individual often eludes our retrospective grasp. This is in part because even as history is being lived, it is encountered in mediated forms, chiefly through the news: soldiers who have fought on the battlefields, when interrogated for first-hand testimony, as often as not quote the news reports back at the investigator.[3]

Meanwhile, for those not directly involved in great cataclysms there is another arena where private experience is transfigured by being expropriated and projected into the public domain. Turandot, in Raymond Queneau's Zazie dans le metro, becomes aware of it when, having come close to being accused of indecent assault, he trembles at his narrow escape - not from 'l'histoire', but from 'la factidiversialite.[4] For ordinary French mortals, the fait divers is notoriety enough. It does not normally entail appearances on the front page, in due deference to the march of history which has its place reserved there. In fact one of the features of the fait divers is systematically to commemorate the recurrent, rather than ongoing, patterns in current affairs: the crime passionnel, varieties of other crimes and scandals, the curious accidents and paradoxes of everyday life, all are reported in their stark challenge to commonsense and ordinariness, so as to reassure us nonetheless by confirming our belief that 'there's nowt so queer as folk' or 'it's a funny old world'. It is through this material that people relate to their own existences as much as, if not more than, through representations of history on the march.

Thus for Foucault, in Surveiller et punir, the rise of the inquisitorial apparatus policing, anticipating and punishing deviants, which is a dominant achievement of nineteenth-century society in the period following the Industrial Revolution, is manifest in the omnipresence of the fait divers propagating a view of criminality that corresponds to this evolution.[5] For Baudrillard, the fait divers is the cardinal category of thought in the consumer society: it is the form, at once anodyne and miraculous, which articulates political, historical and cultural information in terms which accord with our fantasms of involvement in the dramas of reality.[6]

French cultural history provides many examples that vindicate the views of both Foucault and Baudrillard. Social and ideological undercurrents and tensions frequently find in the fait divers a pretext for expression. The process can be recognized at work when a fait divers becomes an affaire and draws the attention of artists and intellectuals as well as journalists and the judiciary. It seems to occur most readily when explicit socio-historical pressures as such are not at their most acute. For example, the early 1930s have been characterized as a period of historico-political stagnation: the unions were divided, the Communist Party ghettoized through the 'mots d'ordre suicidaires' imposed on it by the VIth Internationale in 1928,[7] and Hitler was not yet perceived as the threat he would soon become. These years saw an intense interest in faits divers.[8] It is as if the rubric provides a framework within which socio-political disquiet can be articulated in displaced forms during a time of political transition and uncertainty. In 1933-4, when Violette Nozieres was arrested and tried for poisoning her parents, the ensuing coverage articulated a complex of ideological anxieties about the family, female sexuality and the corruption of youth. …

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Literature, History and Factidiversiality
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