Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature

BookNarrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature

Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2022:02


February 14th, 2022



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How do communities tell and retell stories of catastrophe to explain their own origins, imagine their future, and work for their survival? This book contends that such stories are central to how communities claim a position within history. It explores this question, so vital for our present moment, through narratives produced in eighteenth-century France: a tumultuous period when a new understanding of a properly 'modern' national history was being elaborated. Who gets to belong to the modern era? And who or what is relegated to a gothic, barbarous or medieval past? Is an enlightened future assured, or is a return to a Dark Age inevitable? Following barbarians, bastards, usurpers, prophets and Revolutionary martyrs through stories of catastrophes real and imagined, the book traces how narrative temporalities become historicities: visions of the laws which govern the past, present and future. Ultimately it argues that the complex temporality of catastrophe offers a privileged insight into how a modern French historical consciousness was formed out of the multiple pasts and possible futures that coexisted alongside the age of Enlightenment. Further, examining the tension between a desire to place the imagined community definitively beyond catastrophic times, and a fascination with catastrophe in its revelatory or regenerative aspect, it offers an important historical perspective on the presence of this same tension in the stories of catastrophe that we tell in our own multiple, tumultuous present.

Author Information

Jessica Stacey is a Career Development Fellow in French at The Queen’s College, Oxford and has a PhD from King’s College London. Her research interests include catastrophe and time, civilisation and barbarism, story and community; she has also published on Antillean volcanoes and queer readings of Rousseau.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of illustrations9
Preface and acknowledgements11
A note on translations17
Introduction: authors of catastrophe19
A brief history of catastrophe26
Orders of time, regimes of historicity41
Chapter outlines55
1. Bringing catastrophe: barbare (br)others, in and around the Encyclopédie63
1.1 Civilisation and its barbare catastrophes: from Deluge to Babel69
1.2 The barbare speaks: from scholastic Latin to French89
1.3 Seeking a constant referent: can language be fixed?101
1.4 Génie, énergie, poésie: grounds for a positive barbare118
1.5 Conclusion134
2. Suffering catastrophe: legitimate and illegitimate lines in Baculard d’Arnaud’s medievalist works139
2.1 The usurper’s world: ‘Everything tends directly to the catastrophe’146
2.2 Genres of catastrophe, or drames nationaux154
2.3 The crisis of ‘Salisbury’ and the catastrophe of ‘Varbeck’167
2.4 ‘The crusades are assuredly one of the most important revolutions of the human spirit’: ‘Le sire de Créqui’182
2.5 Medieval aesthetics as site of resistance and source of anxiety191
2.6 Conclusion208
3. Prophesying catastrophe, predicting utopia: the time travellers of Mercier’s prose tableaux215
3.1 Temporal belonging and exclusion in the tableau221
3.2 Ruination and destruction243
3.3 Conclusion276
4. Witnessing catastrophe as revelation: doing time with Latude and Sade, modern martyrs281
4.1 Narrative contested: ‘a single day has carried us into a new age’288
4.2 A troubling martyr: the body and the book307
4.3 The libertine body, Sade’s book: temporality to historicity?320
4.4 Conclusion343
Works cited359
Pre-1900 works359
Post-1900 works364