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The Rhetoric of Historical Representation: Three Narrative Histories of the French Revolution.

The Rhetoric of Historical Representation allows the reader to see inside the complex form of the historical narrative, exemplified by three histories of the French Revolution. The voluminous histories of Lamartine, Michelet, and Louis Blanc began appearing at the same time: 1847. They provide an excellent corpus for study because they share a historical repertory and experience so their different interpretations stand out. Ann Rigney of the University of Utrecht reads this privileged moment of French historiography from the perspective of rhetoric, semiotics, and narratology, using her own accessible critical language. Her book will sensitize any historian, not just those interested in historiography, to textual effects that historical writing necessarily engages in one way or another.

While formalist in nature, Rigney's analysis respects the givens of history. Nineteenth-century historians of the Revolution work within undeniable historical realities handed down in what Rigney calls the "pre-configured fabula" (137). But this flexible fabula is precisely where the manipulations occur. The historical subject or narrative event "does not |naturally' take the form of a unified, linear story" (64). Therefore, historians make choices, implicit and explicit, about what to foreground or leave out, and these choices go "far beyond simply a scholarly conscientiousness" (36).

Rigney deals with three narrative phenomena: the narrator or historian; events; and actors, collective and individual. While writing on the French Revolution, the nineteenth-century historian aimed interpretations of the past at a present audience. This double vision also meant keeping an eye cocked on what rival historians were writing. Rigney calls this part of historical discourse "intertextual antagonism." A phantom text, which nineteenth-century readers might have understood but remains hidden to us, lurks in the regular narrative like a linguistic presupposition. When Louis Blanc described the calm of Paris during the deliberations on the fate of Louis XVI, he was countering Lamartine's story about butchers intimidating supporters of the King. Blanc was writing to counter an event which never happened or was exaggerated. Blanc's history negates a negation or, as Rigney says, "represents an absence" (55). This invisible intertextuality is an instance of what Rigney later calls a narrative en creux (a form hollowed out, the opposite of sculpture in relief). One of the most interesting concepts of Rigney's book, the narrative en creux may also include political allusions or stories covered over that leave traces and echoes.

Rigney analyzes narrative events like the march of the women on Versailles (October 1789), the "massacre" of the "people" on the Champs de Mars (July 1791), or the invasion of the Tuileries Palace (August 1792). Each of these narratives holds within it multiple subnarratives, and the subnarratives--like the King's walk across the Tuileries Garden on the 10th of August--demand still more choices. Through these selections, the nineteenth-century historians are constructing, whether controlled or not, an overall impression, a desired ideological unity. Rigney warns us that "the heaviest symbolic and rhetorical investment on the part of the historian" (77) may be taking place where the reader least expects it, during the dramatic moments. The direct dialogue between Michelet's Louis XVI and Roederer, concerning the safety of the palace guards, leads readers to believe that history is happening before our eyes, that history itself is speaking without intermediaries.

Besides structuring meaningful narrative units, the historian also needs to create a collective subject in the past, embodied at times in an individual, with whom present and future readers can identify. The chapter on the collective actor is one of the best in Rigney's book. She looks intensely at the breakdown of Michelet's two peuples, the pike and bayonet carriers. She sifts out the groupings among both victims and attackers of the Champs de Mars in the work of all three historians. As individual subjects, Danton and Robespierre become saturated symbolic spaces that distribute value, positive and negative. Robespierre's "green coat" serves finally as a "sign-to-be-deciphered" (138). For Michelet, it indicates sterility; for Blanc, decency.

As Rigney's book builds, the historical text depends as much on the various dimensions of absence, choice, and symbolic space as on linear stories. She goes so far as to see in nineteenth-century history a practice where the prestige of reality is shifted onto what is desirable, what has not happened (yet), instead of what has happened.

"It is the desirable which is made 'real' and, in the process, constituted as the possible outcome of an, as yet, incompleted story" (174). Michelet's "Danton" represents a Revolution that, if it appears real" to readers, may yet come about. Rigney does not move from this observation to redefining the practice of history in general. She might have said that history seeks to transform desire into reality while it appears to search for truth. Instead, in the last sentences of her book, she brings the limits of history back. The fiction-writing impulses of the nineteenth-century historians, their "performative" project (to have their words be actions, like decrees) runs into trouble: "if historical discourse gives shape and meaning to historical reality and so can inspire or shape collective action, it is also destined to meet the resistance both of events and of other discourses" (176). A reader might look at Sandy Petrey's Realism and Revolution (Cornell, 1988) for a closer study of performatives, fiction, and history. Rigney's final gesture--to differentiate history and fiction clearly--seems symbolic or "rhetorical" to me but nonetheless important as a bottomline for her.

In the broad tradition of Hayden White and Lionel Gossman, continuing with Stephen Bann (The Clothing of Clio, 1984) and Hans Kellner (Language and Historical Representation, 1989), Rigney's book makes a special contribution. Instead of concentrating on the problem of tropes or figurative language, Rigney systematically adapts narratology (Genette, Bal) to the study of history. Her book shows that every rhetorical move--especially the ones missing--is heavy with meaning.
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Author:Orr, Linda
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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