Arthur Goldhammer, Torpor and Rage — Page 9

Torpor and Rage: From Haute-Frêne to Hautefaye

by Arthur Goldhammer

Paper prepared for a conference

on the work of Alain Corbin

at the

NYU Institute of French Studies

Sept. 27 and 28, 2002

Torpor and Rage: From Haute-Frêne to Hautefaye

I want to talk about the two works of Alain Corbin’s that I know best because I translated them, The Life of an Unknown and The Village of Cannibals. This might seem at first sight too limited a sample to shed much light on the oeuvre of a historian noted among other things for his astonishing range. Yet these two works serve admirably, I think, to demonstrate that range because they exemplify polar extremes of Corbin’s historical gaze. One reconstructs a murder that takes place in the village of Hautefaye in 1870; the other recovers the lost world of a forgotten man who, as it happens, died within a few years of that event.

The former work is thus a study of what Corbin calls, in the preface to the latter, “a fortuitous event” that casts “a brief and lurid light on the myriads of the disappeared.” But such events were, as Corbin reminds us, “exceptional, products of a paroxysm offering momentary access to an underlying reality without telling us much about the torpor of ordinary existences.” The torpor of ordinary existences: the phrase is striking, and it is not only an apt description of the life of Louis-François Pinagot but also an important clue to what Corbin believed was missing from the reigning schools of French historiography. He set out to remedy that lack by creating a distinctive new style of historical writing, and the success of this bold wager is of course the reason we are here.

I emphasize historical writing because among contemporary French historians Corbin is surely one of the best writers. He explores territory where chiefly poets and novelists had gone before: the sensory and the sensual, the nocturnal, the violent, the mundane. Yet his use of literary genre is never conventional. Indeed, he obliges writers to think in new ways about literary genres just as much as he challenges historians to think in new ways about their subject matter and craft.

Corbin’s use of literary genre is careful and deliberate. In The Village of Cannibals he alludes often to the “tragedy” of Hautefaye and cleverly plays off attributes of that genre by emphasizing the “blindness” of both the protagonist and the antagonist, the implacability of the forces that pit one against the other, and the tragic flaw in social representations stemming from what he calls “anthropological otherness.” I shall come back to this, because I think that Corbin’s insistence on the tragic consequences of this anthropological distance is one of the most important lessons he has to teach.

As for the Pinagot saga, the literary genre it most nearly resembles in scope and magnitude and impressiveness is the epic, yet the feats it recounts are anti-heroic rather than heroic. Pinagot, the protagonist, belongs to the lowest stratum of rural society, yet his chronicler expresses a rather critical view of the traditional practice of “history from the bottom up”: he wants “to stand the methods of nineteenth-century social history on their head” because even popular social history had all too often been “based on the study of a very small sample, of people whose fates were exceptional.”1 These popular “heroes”—“militant witnesses” of the past, Corbin calls them—are precisely those who have shaken off the “torpor of existence” to create “destinies” for themselves, whereas the kind of man that interests the historian is the one for whom such an exalted thing as a destiny was beyond conceiving.

So Pinagot is an anti-hero rather than a hero, yet at this very basic level of existence, this degree zero of humanity, one senses in Corbin a profound respect for a different kind of heroism, a heroism that is not at all “militant,” a heroism that might be called the heroism of endurance. To endure, without a voice, with barely a murmur, leaving the merest trace of one’s passage on this earth, is if not the destiny then at least the lot of most of mankind. Those whose lives are feats of endurance live their allotted time only to vanish without a trace. To live in the sure knowledge that all memory of one’s existence will be “abolished” is, Corbin suggests, a distinctive kind of heroism, a heroism worthy of its own kind of epic.

The literariness of Corbin’s history extends to the substance as well as form. His “return to narrative” is not merely a means of making palatable the otherwise indigestible results of historical “science.” It is rather history as resistance: resistance to the imperious claims of the present, which—however comprehensibly, however justifiably—cannot help but seek to appropriate the past to its own purposes, be they political, administrative, commemorative, or foundational. The late François Furet gave the definitive statement of the contrary orthodoxy at the beginning of his essay on “Tocqueville and the French Revolution.” Tocqueville, Furet wrote, “was not one of those historians with a penchant for losing themselves in the mists of time or for the poetry of the past or for the diversions of scholarship; his historical curiosity was of another type entirely, in which reflection on the present served as the starting point of a quest for antecedents.”2

Corbin took the risk—and it was a substantial risk, I think, when he first charted his course—of sailing against this wind. Or, rather, these winds: for the winds of academic orthodoxy did not always blow out of the same quarter. From whichever direction they came, however—the liberal center, the Marxist or non-Marxist left, the religious or Orleanist or post-Marxist right, or one or another social movement: soixante-huitard, MDF, syndicaliste, autogestionnaire—their force was considerable. It is no secret that the methods of the history of the longue durée—the statistical series, the voluminous compilations of trade tonnages, transhumance headcounts, and the like—were also the tools of economic planning and the dirigiste state. Even the history of mentalités—the culturalist reaction to the more unalloyed economism and demographism of some Annales history—was often obliged to pursue the bottom up from the top down: Le Goff read confessors’ manuals to get at how the faithful in the parishes conceived of sin, and Duby plumbed the theoretical speculations of highly placed clerics for clues to how the three orders of medieval society related to one another.3 Yet if social history often sharpened its defective eyesight by donning bureaucratic spectacles, it frequently tinted those spectacles with one or another of the rosy shades of solidarity.

Whether engagement does or does not distort the past is, for Corbin, a moot point, for the past that seems most meaningful to the politically committed historian is not the past that engages him. Of Pinagot, for instance, he says—with, I think, discernable pride—that this is “a man to whom I have no emotional ties, with whom I share no a priori faith or mission or commitment.” And we may take it for granted that, however thoroughly he elucidates the logic behind the murder of Alain de Monéys, he has no wish to associate himself with the brutality of the act. Indeed, he even allows himself to be mildly disparaging of the all too facile solidarities engendered by question-begging identification with the beleaguered of the past: what, he wonders, might “that collective entity known as ‘the people’” have thought of the “studies of ‘working-class language,’ ‘women’s language,’ and the ‘literature of the excluded’” that “since the late 1960s publishers have delighted in publishing?”

I may even be understating Corbin’s resistance to l’histoire engagée, for did he not write in The Village of Cannibals that history “obsessed with the need to distinguish sharply between the good and the wicked” leads to “uncritical” misrepresentation? And, further, that historians “lost interest” in the crime at Hautefaye “when they found that it could not be explained in terms of the same political divisions they used to make sense of the larger society?”4 To be sure, he is writing here of nineteenth-century historians, republican ideologues, who feared “soiling the pages of history with the stuff of reality.”5 But the point carries over, mutatis mutandis, to his own contemporaries. It is simple but profound: there is more to life than politics. The consequences of this point—which Corbin makes quietly, almost by the way, merely by choosing to focus his attention where he does—are far-reaching.

There is more to life than politics. Might not the smells and sounds hidden in what Furet rather peremptorily dismissed as “the poetry of the past” be essential to a fuller understanding of history as it really was? Historians limit their capacity to paint the past when they work with the too broad brush of political history. Yet how fine a brush can they use and still achieve something more than a miniature? How, moreover, should that brush be wielded? A la Monet, Seurat, or Van Gogh? Should the historian paint the cathedral in every possible light, or the haystack? The torpor of existence on a Sunday at La Grande Jatte? Or the forgotten postman who would otherwise have vanished without a trace? If the very variety of the historian’s styles is a measure of his mastery, what sort of coherence can we expect to emerge from such remarkable versatility?

Corbin is clear about the limits of what is possible. The coherence he seeks is not at the level of the individual sensibility. He does not claim to be writing biography, much less interior monologue. In the notes from his diary included in the Pinagot book, he remarks that “it is quite risky even to speak of individuality in this context.” I became aware of Corbin’s caution in this regard when I proposed, as a title for the English translation of the Pinagot book, Biography of an Unknown, which for me held some of the allure of the paradoxical. Corbin resisted this suggestion with a cogent argument: “In fact, the book tries to show that biography (a genre whose legitimacy is any case problematic) is impossible when it comes to nearly any individual who lived in the past. What is possible is simply to evoke the world in which the individual evolved, assuming that he or she did not belong to an elite capable of leaving individual traces, to attempt to see with his or her eyes by acting as a sort of subjective camera.”6 We find the same camera imagery in a passage of Corbin’s diary:

My procedure will resemble that of a filmmaker who shoots a scene through the eyes of a character who remains off screen. I must do everything I can to reconstitute his spatial and temporal horizon, his family environment, his circle of friends, his community, as well as his probable values and beliefs. I must try to imagine his pleasures and pains, his worries, his bouts of anger, and his dreams. I will need to conjure up an image in the round from the shape of the mold, from what the very silence surrounding my quarry reveals.

As ambitious as this program is, it is different from biography in that it conceives its subject and its subject’s subjectivity as individual only in the sense that atoms are individual: in approaching Pinagot, the historian tells us, “it was necessary to choose at random one of a myriad of identical social atoms. There was no other way to honor with remembrance a unique individual from an undifferentiated mass.” As in physics, the behavior of such an atom can be understood only by observing how it moves in the various fields of force that act on it.

But why, if one shares “no a priori faith or mission or commitment” with that “undifferentiated mass,” would one choose to devote “several years” of one’s professional life to “a stranger” for whom one feels “no special affection or empathy?” The answer, I think, has several dimensions. The first might be termed ethnographic: the life of a specimen subject like Pinagot “holds the potential to reveal a range of emotion and a variety of human experience, owing to his longevity, the extent of his family, the variety of roles he played and places he lived, and the diverse nature of employment in the woodworking trade.” A similar case can be made for interest in the fait divers of Hautefaye: the variety of human experience, even the most bestial of human experience, is intrinsically interesting.

The second dimension has to do with the historian’s duty of fidelity. It is a stark and inescapable fact that most people then as now vanish from this earth without a trace. Historians can hide from this fact by saying that their task is to write the history of “economies, societies, and civilizations,” not of “myriads of identical social atoms.” Corbin, however, seems troubled by such a choice. While he may feel “no special affection” for Louis-François Pinagot, something very deep in him is stirred by the thought of those vast legions of the eternally anonymous. For him, writing about a man like Pinagot was indeed the only

… way to honor with remembrance a unique individual from an undifferentiated mass. Anyone whose fate was unusual in any way, who left an unusual record of any kind, had to be eliminated. Anyone who had not been totally forgotten, even by his descendants, had to be ruled out. It was essential to choose a person about whom the only documentary record would consist of materials not brought to light by a specific interest in that individual.

Note the phrase “to honor with remembrance”: not every historian would regard this as part of his duty to the past. We may take it, then, as a token of the specific historical sensibility of Alain Corbin that he does feel such a duty to the silent majority of the dead.

Another aspect of Corbin’s sensibility is respect for simplicity: “The men and women of the milieu and generation to which my still unchosen subject belonged were generally quite hostile toward anyone who put on airs or aspired to leave some trace of his or her existence.” He wants to “imagine the social hierarchy as seen from below.” His humility is at times edged with atonement: in earlier work, he says, he had failed to notice the “logic of the peasants’ position” owing to his “failure to attend, carefully, and without preconceptions, to what people did and said.”7 It is as if the historian who clings to “scientific” methods forecloses access to his subject in much the same way that the bourgeois with his air of prosperous respectability reduces to silence or stammering awkwardness the peasant with whom he transacts business. Thus he contrasts the agricultural show at Nontron, which provided “an occasion for rural society to honor its own hierarchy,” with the fairground at Hautefaye, “a place where peasants could hear their own voices and mingle with their own kind. There was no need for restraint or feigned humility or deference.”8 Corbin wants to see the peasant not on his best behavior but, as Mallarmé wished to see Poe, “tel qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change,” except that here it is not l’éternité but l’anonymité that effects the transfiguration: “The comparative anonymity of the participants [in the fair], the unlikelihood of encountering people one knew well, created conditions in which people felt free to behave with unaccustomed lack of restraint.”9

Ethnographic color, respectful fidelity, transfigurative simplicity: these are three aspects of Alain Corbin’s literary-historical sensibility. But there is another aspect, which I think is revealed more fully in the two books about which I have chosen to speak than in any of his other works. It is less easy to ascribe a name to this fourth aspect of Corbin’s temperament, yet if obliged to do so I think I would call it “religious awe.” Anyone who finds such a characterization excessive would do well to pay close attention to Corbin’s description of his Pinagot project as a “resurrection”:

No resurrection can be anything other than a prelude to ultimate erasure. Conversely, every disappearance presupposes a spectator. As much as the ineluctability of death it is this certainty of vanishing without a trace which accounts for the persistence over the millennia of our sense of the vanity of all things. It was this certainty that gave rise to the idea of the Last Judgment as a vast historical canvas in which every person’s past would be recapitulated in its entirety. Nevertheless, what moves us most profoundly is not the fact that virtually all the denizens of the prehistoric and historic past have vanished without a trace but that such has also been the fate of people relatively close to us in time.

Resurrection, ultimate erasure, ineluctability of death, vanity of all things, Last Judgment: with his very diction Corbin takes us into a realm where few other historians have ventured. His is a deeply anti-teleological reading of history: there is no final cause, only finality—the finality of life itself. Life for most human beings has no purpose, meaning, or direction. It is simply there, to be enjoyed at times, at other times to be endured, and then it is gone. Hence we cannot fully or properly understand the past if we attempt to impose meaning on it retrospectively:

In the course of trying to understand [Pinagot], I came to believe that what mattered most in shaping his perception of time was the need to survive. He suffered through a series of intense crises during which meeting basic biological needs must have required his full attention. Of course this is only conjecture on my part, but I feel on firmer ground in proposing the calendar of famines as a chronological framework for Louis-François’s existence than I would in, say, ticking off a series of political regimes.10

Yet Corbin, for all that he rejects the political as a suitable framework for conceptualizing a life lived at the degree zero of existence, is also a product of French historiography and French history, hence he cannot ignore the fact that elites were constantly attempting to impose purposes, meanings, and directions of their own on lives that had none. Indeed, the contrast between the historically conscious, for whom history has a destination, and the historically unconscious, who simply put one foot in front of another as they creep in their petty pace from day to day, is for Corbin a fundamental feature of social life. One sees this clearly in his account of the trial that follows the murder at Hautefaye. Those for whom history since the Enlightenment was supposed to have marked progress toward tolerance of difference, mildness of manner, and horror at human suffering simply could not comprehend the murderers’ indifference to their victim’s pain: “Clearly,” Corbin says, “an abyss separated two systems of representing pain, two criteria, two scales of suffering. In other words, two contrasting sensibilities met in court in December 1870.”11

Precisely what role is to be assigned to this clash of sensibilities in Corbin’s vision of history? Is it, as class conflict was for Marx, an explanatory engine? I doubt that Corbin would claim that he knows what makes history move. In fact, I suspect that he would deem any such claim to be a form of self-deception. Self-deception as to the possibility of knowing the course of history was perhaps the characteristic blindness of a certain nineteenth-century elite: republican, progressive, positivist, sûr de lui et dominateur: afraid “of soiling the pages of history with the stuff of reality … fastidious and fearful historians appear to have conspired with the men of the time to cover up horrific events.”12

For Corbin the clash of sensibilities between this elite, which sees history from on high and thinks it perceives its beginning and end, and men like Pinagot or the villagers of Hautefaye reveals a rapid psychological shift. The elite is already living in the future and does not wish to be detained by the unruliness of the present; it no longer feels or perceives what the murderers of Monéys felt and perceived. That is why the event struck contemporaries as so “bizarre,” as “tantamount … to a denial of the nineteenth century.”13 The historian has a striking image for this peculiar survival of an outmoded sensibility: he calls it a “monadnock,” from a term that geographers use “to refer to an isolated hill or mountain of resistant rock that juts up from a surrounding plain as witness to the geological past.”14

The locomotive of history versus the monadnock: detour is inevitable when the past so unexpectedly blocks the direct route to the future. We see now the tragic element in Corbin’s historic vision: what divides the elite’s vision from the Hautefaye peasant’s is precisely the consciousness of a destination, a destiny, a goal toward which action in the present is directed. The peasant is born and expects to die in the monadnock’s shadow. His world changes slowly, and he is too preoccupied with the struggle for survival to devote much thought to it. He is burdened by what Corbin calls “the inertia of representations.”15

We thus arrive at an interesting division of the human race. There are those who live in history, conscious that the human world is a theater of constant and rapid change, and those in whom history lives—lives, at any rate, in the form of inert representations, remnants of a vanished past. Some of the former will try to inflect or master the processes of change in accordance with the theories they form of them. Historians, professional students of these processes, find it almost too easy to wed their point of view. By contrast, the latter—those in whom history lives as opposed to those who live in and for and through history—experience change as an alien threat because their vision of the world continues to be shaped by the inertia of representations. So long as this threat does not impinge too directly on their world, on the “torpor of existence” in which they pursue their daily round, they are content to eye it warily. But when it draws too near, torpor, inertia, and incomprehension can explode into violence. This is what happened at Hautefaye.

The image of the nineteenth century that Corbin gives us in these two books is at first sight rather strange and disconcerting. The familiar pageant of political history takes on an air of unreality. It is reduced to a flimsy, painted backdrop, as was in fact the case in any number of local festivals.16 Revolutions, restorations, and wars are like distant thunderstorms that only occasionally buffet the localities on which our attention is fixed. The rumble of cannon reaches our ears only muffled by the thickness of the forest of Bellême. The transformation of the economy is glimpsed only through its indirect impact on timbering regulations, demand for wooden shoes, tax increases affecting the local peasantry, and what not. Yet the very meticulousness of Corbin’s reconstruction reminds us that life in the remote backwaters was no less real than life in the metropolitan centers. The souls that languished in the torpor of rural existence are no less deserving of a place in the great historical canvas of the Last Judgment than those that manned the barricades or crowded the stock exchanges or toiled in the factories.

In a striking way, Corbin’s nineteenth century, which may have seemed somewhat quaint and exotic when he first began assembling the elements of his tableau, has of late taken on a new and more somber relevance. For the nineteenth century was a time when powerful economic currents swept through la France profonde, isolating islands here and there and exposing the monadnocks of the past that most obdurately resisted change. Today those same currents, fed by a vastly greater number of tributaries, are sweeping not just rural France but the entire globe. Islands of resistance have not been slow to appear. The confident historical vision of metropolitan elites has not failed to mystify and disconcert and anger communities that had hitherto been content to suffer the torpor of their existence in silence. And here and there, as in Hautefaye, the inertia of representations has led to paroxysmal eruptions of violence against imagined enemies. To the metropolitan eye, the equations by which these enemies have been defined seem as bizarre as the amalgam that designated Alain de Monéys as a fit victim in the eyes of his persecutors: he was an aristocrat, hence a wealthy landlord, hence a bourgeois republican lining his pockets with the corrupt booty of a republic implacably opposed to that friend of the peasant, the emperor, hence objectively an ally of the Prussian invader. I will refrain from deconstructing à la Corbin the equally peculiar logic that designates the New York bond salesman as a fit victim in the eyes of the mujahadeen.

Those whom history in its haste would brusquely shove aside have a way of commanding the attention of those who would prefer to ignore them. It is not the least of Corbin’s virtues that he reminds us of this at a time when we are in danger, as the historian puts it, of exaggerating “the anthropological distance” between ourselves and those whom we would relegate to “what Edgar Quinet once called the ‘desert of dread.’”17

Of course Corbin himself would be the first to remind me of the dubiousness of this kind of analogy: “The need to distinguish sharply between the good and the wicked … has led to an uncritical confounding of unrelated massacres. … Attempts to trace the evolution of collective sensibilities have been rejected out of hand.”18 Here, at last, is an answer to the question I posed earlier: where should we look to find the coherence of the many styles that Corbin has brought to the writing of history? To the “evolution of collective sensibilities,” a subject worthy of all the finesse that Alain Corbin has brought to it.


1 Unless otherwise identified, all quotes are from Alain Corbin, The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), “Prelude,” pp. vii-xv.

2 François Furet, Penser la Révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), p. 173.

3 See, for example, Georges Duby, Les trois ordres, ou l’imaginaire du féodalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 19xx), and Jacques Le Goff, Pour un autre Moyen Age (Paris: Gallimard, 19xx).

4 Alain Corbin, The Village of Cannibals, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 118. Hereafter abbreviated VC.

5 VC, 99.

6 Alain Corbin, private communication, 5/5/2000.

7 VC, 28.

8 VC, 50.

9 VC, 50, 49.

10 Corbin, The Life of an Unknown, chap. 9, p. 225.

11 VC, p. 80.

12 VC, p. 99.

13 VC, p. 87.

14 VC, p. 87.

15 VC, p. 75.

16 Stéphane Gerson, “Town, Nation or Humanity? Festive Delineations of Place and Past in Northern France, ca. 1825-1865,” Journal of Modern History 72(3)2000:628-682.

17 VC, p. 97.

18 VC, pp. 99-100.