Prosper Mérimée Is Thinking the Revolution
During the first half of the nineteenth century in France, thinking about the Revolution of 1789 produced a new kind of historical consciousness. Historians responded to the demands of a new discipline called "history" by endeavoring to recount the facts and events of the Revolution. Writers of realist fiction responded to the discovery that social reality is essentially historical by attempting to represent the lingering effects of the Revolution on modern life. 1 Both relied on the supposition that history is essentially genetic or evolutionary--that is, that the study of the past may explain the contradictions of the present--and both had recourse to narrative discourse to sketch out this new program for historical consciousness ( Jameson 1988, 2: 154-156). One direct impact of the Revolution on both nineteenth-century historiography and realist literature can thus be seen in their common desire to think the Revolution.
In his Metahistory, Hayden White explains that the new historiography defined itself in opposition to the literary or, more specifically, to the rhetorical, by purporting to follow a factual and literal "historical method" ( White 1973: 41-42, n.7). Although writers of realist fiction would, in some sense, develop their own kinds of historical methods, they also appeared to be troubled by this new discipline that both echoed their goals and excluded their participation. As a result, many writers came to mount what might be called a tacit attack on historical narrative by turning their attentions to the deficiencies of a historical method and by elucidating the problematic status of historical consciousness itself. 2 In other words, a certain trend in nineteenth-century realist fiction can be read as possessing the theoretical stance that Fredric Jameson ( 1988) refers to as "existential history," the experience by which historicity itself may be conceived as a relativized contact between a historian's mind and the cultural objects that mind chooses to study. In taking up this stance, much realist fiction not only dramatizes the difficulties inherent in writing a history of the effects of the Revolution, but it also suggests that thinking about revolutions now past may actually program new modes of revolutionary thought and, in this way, produce new revolutionary