Making sense of and with the past: catastrophe, narrative, historicity and the early pandemic

Right at the start of the UK lockdown, illustrator Cat O’Neil produced an image to accompany a Financial Times piece on pandemic-themed reading. In this image, itself an homage to a depiction of an eleventh-century St. Vitus Dance by seventeenth-century engraver Matthäus Merian, medieval peasants are dancing hand-in-hand with people in modern dress and face masks, the scenery blending from church and barn to a row of London terraced housing. What I love about this piece is how well it captures our response to catastrophe as a disruption of the order of things; in particular, how we look to the past for images and stories to get a handle on a present in flux. To use the terminology of memory studies, past epidemics were ‘premediating’ narratives for the progress of Covid-19; O’Neil’s image remediates such events, and transmits other resonances accreted along the way. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, the game we imagine children playing in the time of plagues in what is mostly likely a fictional provenance.

© Cat O’Neil. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Around that same time a fair number of people turned, perhaps surprisingly, to eighteenth-century texts to make sense of what they were experiencing. Between organising in our local area and adapting to new ways of teaching, my partner and I were, like many others, reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year – one of the books discussed in the FT piece. We were amazed by how strongly it resonated with our experience of the pandemic-present in London, recognising the narrator’s relation of the consumption and circulation of statistics, and even his assessment of differential vulnerability within the population of the city. We were able to read about others doing the same thing; Catherine Malabou, for instance, turned to Rousseau’s isolation in Messina (which he himself coded as a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ experience) to try to find ‘solitude within isolation’. Finding imperfect resonances in these texts helped us to appreciate and deal with new experiences. At that time, I found reflections on this process more meaningful than the coincident rush to claim the pandemic for particular theories/theorists.

Eighteenth-century French writers themselves used stories of catastrophes past to address uncertainties about the identity of their present, the role of the past, and the trajectory of the future. In the process, they created what François Hartog calls ‘regimes of historicity’, that is to say, principles by which the relationships between past, present and future are governed. In Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature, I focalise catastrophe through four modes: bringing, suffering, prophesying/predicting, and witnessing. These modes are explored through four corresponding figures, some familiar to any literary scholar working on time, others specific to the eighteenth century: the barbarian as the bringer of catastrophe to civilisation (in histories and philosophe works), chivalrous victims of usurpation (in historical fiction), ghosts and time-travellers (in Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s visions of present and future Paris), and Bastille martyrs (placing Henri Masers de Latude’s prison memoirs alongside the work of Sade). An expansive understanding of what counts as a catastrophe narrative – for eighteenth-century writers, catastrophe could still bring to mind the turning point of a drama and could even name an unexpected happy outcome – draws out catastrophe’s role as a meaning-maker expressing hopes as well as fears.

I was especially interested in how the kind of figure we see in O’Neil’s image – coded as ‘medieval’ – was the object of greater focus, part of an increasing interest in the mediating period, often coded as a catastrophic interlude, between ancient and modern. Feelings of closeness to and distance from that middle period were fraught, and were used to fix who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ of a present community oriented towards the future. Frequently cast as barbarian to the ancient/modern civilisé, the medieval was made by a writer like Voltaire to accept the qualities that he saw as having no role in the present. This move was played with by Mercier, who casts eighteenth-century Paris as Gothic to the twenty-fifth century’s Enlightened; a way to warn his own present to shape up if it wants to avoid the return of a Dark Age. A medievalist writer like Baculard d’Arnaud turned to medieval France to recover a lost sensibility, casting the crusades as a foundational catastrophe that also provides an essentially gallant and chivalrous French nation with an origin story. In a telling echo of my reading of O’Neil’s illustration, he even claims this closeness on the basis of a fake medieval text. We do not find, in the eighteenth century, the self-conscious medievalist catastrophilia of Chateaubriand, who lamented an ‘administrative’ present which trivialises the cholera epidemic, and who dreamed of the sublimity of epidemics attended by monks and religious terror (Mémoires d’outre-tombe, ed. Levaillant and Moulinier, 2 vols (Paris, 1951), vol.2, p.534-45). However, the challenge and fascination of a period characterised as catastrophe, but also rejuvenation, as other and ancestor, was growing.

There is something a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing about returning to the early moments of the pandemic – to the theoretical claims, but also to the reflections, the reading and the experiences from a time when the usual order was disrupted but the violence, in the form of lives lost and economic deprivation, was mostly still to come. We now see not only how selective all those feelings of connectedness with the past were, but also how premature were some of the hopes connected with the pandemic. Hopes for lasting change for the better; hopes that the inequalities and self-destructive tendencies revealed in our societies could no longer be ignored. Hopes, in essence, for hope itself – rather than a future which, Hartog has argued, our ‘presentist’ regime of historicity renders as either the more-of-the-same, or menacing. Although only the final chapter deals directly with the French Revolution, it provides a vantage point on the different historicities uncovered throughout the book. This is not the ‘real’ historical Revolution, but rather revolutionary events as they were emplotted by their contemporaries, claimed as catastrophic or revelatory depending on their position, and accordingly freighted with fear or hope. For authors writing before, whether they were explicitly projecting into the future like Mercier, or reaching back to the medieval past like Baculard d’Arnaud, they were crafting a vision of the French nation within history which was disrupted in 1789. Embarrassment can be very revealing: Mercier and Latude engaged in continuous rewriting in order to better claim the role of revolutionary prophet or martyr. Baculard – once so popular – finds himself dismissed as a relic of the ancien régime.

We, too, have seen our connections and analogies come loose; a sense of the pandemic as a repetition of something from the past has ceded as the many threads of distinct future problems become clearer, just as the early ‘we’re all in this together’ narratives have unravelled. The book is a work of critique, seeking in part to expose embarrassments, narratives that go nowhere, attempts to recast contemporaries as anachronisms. But it also aims to understand how reactivating and repurposing stories allows an author to claim points of similarity as anchors, fixing a perspective from which to appreciate some differences between past and present, or imagine some futures – while obscuring others. Our premediating narratives necessarily obscure aspects of our experience, but we cannot even begin to make sense without them.

Jessica Stacey (Queen’s College, Oxford)

A version of this text appeared in the Liverpool University Press Blog.

Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Voltaire at Versailles

This portrait appears as the frontispiece of volume 147 of the Complete works of Voltaire published this month by the Voltaire Foundation.

This trenchant portrait by Jean Huber which appeared in color on the cover and as the frontispiece for The Quotable Voltaire, a bilingual collection of quotes that Edward Langille and I published in 2021, was first brought to my attention in the mid-1980s by the distinguished Voltaire iconographer and University of St. Andrews professor emeritus, Samuel S. B. Taylor, who had included it in his slide lecture, ‘The Creation of Voltaire’s posthumous Image’, at a meeting of the Society for French Studies at Royal Holloway College, University of London, in March 1978.

I later learned from Sergueï Karp, Director of Research at the Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow), that the painting was reproduced in print in 2017 by Dimitri Salmon in the exhibition catalogue Le Saint Joseph charpentier de Georges de La Tour: Un don au Louvre de Percy Moore Turner, and twice in 2019 by Sergueï himself, in his book, Судьба «Вольтериады» Жана Гюбера, an abridged version of which in French, ‘Le destin de la “Voltairiade” de Jean Huber’, was published in Cahiers Voltaire no. 18.

Self-portrait of Jean Huber while painting a portrait of Voltaire (1773) (Musée historique Lausanne).

The painting was purchased for the Musée National du Château de Versailles in 1934 from the London art dealer Percy Moore Turner for £80. In a letter to the museum’s curator, Turner said he’d ‘bought the picture in the trade’ but knew nothing of its provenance. Six decades later, however, Sergueï Karp discovered in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents a ‘Liste des Tableaux du grand Huber’ shipped to Catherine the Great in 1775 by Huber’s friend Friedrich-Melchior Grimm. Thanks to Sergueï Karp, we now know that the Versailles portrait was the first of twelve paintings on Grimm’s Liste – which he described as ‘Un Voltaire en seigneur de paroisse, habit rouge galonné, perruque de gala et son bonnet à la main.’

Born into the patrician governing class of the Republic of Geneva, Jean Huber (1721-1786) fought in the War of the Austrian Succession as a lieutenant in the service of the King of Sardinia. He played the violon, hunted with hawks, and wrote a treatise on the flight patterns of birds of prey. He is best known for his humorous motifs such as Voltaire rising from bed pulling on his breeches or losing a slipper kicking at a horse – two subjects among the dozen tableaux in the same vein sent to Catherine II. These and other compositions in various media (drawings, cut-paper silhouettes, etchings, paintings) were based on first-hand observation of the often irascible Grand Old Man of the French Enlightenment. Huber, it may fairly be said, was Voltaire’s graphic Boswell.

Voltaire’s Last Supper by Jean Huber (c.1772).

Because he was a self-taught painter, this canvas and works like Voltaire’s Last Supper, at the Voltaire Foundation, are typically distinguished by a certain non-finito. That, in part, is why I omitted it from my book, L’Art singulier de Jean Huber: Voir Voltaire (Adam Biro, 1995). Nonetheless, however unpolished the brushwork in much of the picture, the face – as always with Huber – is superbly rendered. No other artist, La Tour or Houdon included, captured the mobile features, taut toothless grimace, and bright-eyed gaze of the man as Huber did in this deceptively modest but compelling portrait.

– Garry Apgar

Digital approaches to ballet as an interdisciplinary theatrical form

What might the discourse around pantomime ballet tell us about the priorities of Enlightenment aesthetics, and what might a literary study of ballet during the Enlightenment reveal about ballet’s legacies? These are two of the larger questions that I address in Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, but they also point the reader toward a third question, less obvious from the book’s title but nevertheless situated at the core of the project: how did the rampant textual borrowing that took place during the Enlightenment shape the creation and dissemination of knowledge? Larger projects such as Commonplace Cultures have addressed this question on a macroscopic level. In Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, conversely, I have used digital tools in combination with close reading to attend to the micro level, focusing on a small number of authors and using paratexts to trace specific borrowings from one publication to the next.

Although the theorizing of ballet might seem an unusual place to begin to answer a question about textual borrowing, ballet’s disciplinary situation in fact makes it an ideal case study: during the second half of the eighteenth century, during which regional variants of the newly established genre of pantomime ballet flourished across Europe, no one seemed quite certain where to situate the artform. In the Encyclopédie, librettist Louis de Cahusac (1706-1759) crafted an interdisciplinary definition for ballet at the crossroads of opera and dance, with strong ties to the spectacular forms of the past, such as comédie-ballet and fêtes de la cour de France. Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the reform-minded ballet master and theorist, made the case in his Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (1760) for ballet as a theatrical form that emphasized its spatial and visual qualities. For Noverre and Cahusac, in other words, pantomime ballet was a narrative, theatrical form that relied on the body to tell a story. Anchoring their writings in the aesthetic theories of Charles Batteux and Jean-Baptiste Dubos, they used ballet’s literary and visual elements to justify its place among the so-called high arts, alongside painting and poetry.

Jean-Georges Noverre, Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets, title page (BnF).

Yet by the last decades of the eighteenth century, when the premise of a narrative ballet had already been widely accepted, editors and theorists of drama and dance would begin to complicate this idea. Charles-Joseph Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique – which brought together ballet-related texts by Cahusac, Noverre, Rousseau, Marmontel, and others – located ballet within five different subject dictionaries: Grammaire et littérature, Arts académiques. Equitation, escrime, danse, et art de nager, Antiquités, mythologie, diplomatique des chartres, et chronologie, Encyclopédiana, and Musique. Each of these dictionaries’ treatments, siloed away from the others, has the potential to be read as a standalone treatment of the subject; readers may have approached them singly, or worked with just a few volumes at a time, as in the case study of Antonio Piazza, editor of the Gazzetta urbana veneta, in my book’s fourth chapter.

Whether read as a whole or independently, the Encyclopédie méthodique is an ideal case study for demonstrating how knowledge was reordered through textual borrowing and editorial decisions. In the case of ballet, Panckoucke’s editors dissolved many of Cahusac’s original cross-references, nullifying the structure that linked his articles together. At the same time, they created new ways of understanding ballet’s past and future, especially through its inclusion under the rubric of dance, rather than the other way around. In this manner, the textual borrowing in the Encyclopédie méthodique demonstrates one way in which encyclopedic structure, just as much as content, can create and change the meaning of individual articles.

Most of the sources upon which this book’s argument rests are literary texts, which I have examined with attention to their underlying structure and arguments. However, I should underscore that I could not have even begun to approach these questions without access to the digital texts that allowed me to map areas of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, to connect it to and inventory changes in the encyclopedic structure made in the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, and to identify textual borrowings across the Encyclopédie and its Supplément, the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, the Encyclopédie méthodique, and Charles Compan’s Dictionnaire de danse. In particular, I have relied on the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Encyclopédie and the Inventaire de l’Encyclopédie d’Yverdon. Through my circuitous navigation of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, I have endeavored to follow the directive prescribed by D’Alembert in his ‘Discours préliminaire’, that is, to understand cross-references as representative of the disciplinary links between articles (and not to define one article by another). This approach has allowed me to reclaim an understanding of eighteenth-century ballet not within a field, as the encyclopedists would have deemed any attempt at its categorization to be reductive, but as a complex form of dramatic performance without disciplinary bounds.

– Olivia Sabee (Swarthmore College)

Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this post appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.