Incipit: The Nineteenth Century (Mis)Reading the Eighteenth



For the next installment of this dialogic series, the journal asked William Paulson (University of Michigan) and Caroline Weber (Barnard College, Columbia University) to reflect on in what ways the nineteenth century (mis)reads the eighteenth. They composed their initial essays without knowing who their interlocutor would be or what would be the content of the other person's essay; the ensuing exchange, by e-mail, took place in the order presented below.



In the nineteenth-century historical imagination, the eighteenth century was often strongly identified with the philosophes and with the Revolution. As a result, when nineteenth-century thinkers strove to reconnect with a prerevolutionary past, or with ancestry and origins that they could view as authentic, they often excluded the eighteenth century in favor of earlier periods. This originally reactionary move could be put to more progressive uses insofar as it helped to account for a sense that key promises of the Revolution remained unfulfilled. It also became a contested move, with Jules Michelet proclaiming the eighteenth to have been the "grand siècle," and Gérard de Nerval integrating the eighteenth century into an otherwise typically romantic construction of French origins. The focus on philosophes and Revolution, rarely, however, took note of the nineteenth century's massive role in realizing the Enlightenment project of a secular and materially-oriented world. (WP)

In my portions of this Incipit, I propose to concentrate on modern (nineteenth- to twenty-first century) appropriations of key figures of and from eighteenth-century French history, and to consider the political implications of these rewritings. I understand "figures" primarily in the rhetorical sense, looking, for instance and for starters, at the evolution of the palace of Versailles as a trope of absolutist power and privilege. I will also consider changing conceptions of history and time as such, with a particular focus on the messianic temporalities of René de Chateaubriand and Walter Benjamin and on the ambiguous self-fashioning of President Emmanuel Macron. (CW)

William Paulson and Caroline Weber
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