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IV. L’ère de la commémoration et la réécriture de l’Histoire / Rewriting History in the Era of Commemoration

Round Table: Re-writing history in the era of commemoration

Remembering place, revisiting the past
Catherine DELMAS


Dans le cadre de la table ronde organisée lors du colloque, ce texte présente les travaux de recherche mené par le CEMRA à l’université Stendhal-Grenoble 3 sur la mémoire, l’histoire et la fiction, puis propose une réflexion sur le sujet de la commémoration.

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1“Histories of Forgetting,” the international conference organized by Matthew Graves and Valérie André for the LERMA in Aix-en-Provence and published in this volume by E-rea, focuses on the paradoxical relationship between history and oblivion, and how silent or forgotten histories contribute to the building up of the community and participate in the writing of official history. The issue at stake dovetails with the topic of the two conferences I organized in Grenoble in 2007 and 2011. They were centered on history and memory, and how fiction writes or rewrites history, and fills in the blanks of official history. The two series of conferences actually form a diptych, which shows that the writing of history is articulated on both memory and oblivion.

2My starting point was a keen interest in the seminal works of Paul Veyne (Comment on écrit l’histoire, 1971), Paul Ricœur (La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, 2000, Temps et récit III, 1985), François Dosse (Paul Ricœur, Michel de Certeau. L’histoire entre le dire et le faire, 2006) and Michel de Certeau (Histoire et psychanalyse, entre science et fiction, 1987) and their new approaches to the writing of history. Even though the work of the historian is based on the selection and analysis of documents and primary sources, even though it aims at telling the truth about past events, it is also a narrative, a textual construct, which can interestingly be set in parallel with the writing of fiction. The purposes of a history book and of a work of fiction, the reality of past events and the unreal dimension of fiction, the readers’ horizon of expectations and the contract between author and reader are of course different. However, the “antinomic pair” (Ricœur 2000, 339) relies on a narrative process and emplotment.

  • 1  “L’histoire doit éclairer la mémoire et l’aider à rectifier ses erreurs” (Le Goff 1988, 194).

3The historian studies traces − for Marc Bloch, documents are traces and history is a science based on traces (Ricœur 1998, 12) −, and from them he reconstructs the past. The narrative thus helps to “re-present” the past, i.e. to make the absent past present, and for Ricœur, it has a function of “representance” (re-presenting) or “lieutenance” (standing for). The past is thus reconfigured and the historiographic process relies on the blending of memory and fiction − “La représentance […] exprime le mélange opaque du souvenir et de la fiction dans la reconstruction du passé” (Ricœur 1998, 15) – even though, for Jacques Le Goff, the historian’s role is to explain memory and correct the errors it makes.1 Both history and fiction keep tracks of the past, represent and re-present what is threatened with oblivion and erasure. It was thus challenging and fruitful to set this process in parallel with modes of representation of the past in fiction, and to compare the two genres in the reconstruction of Indian history.

  • 2  To borrow Salman Rushdie’s neologism from Midnight’s Children, a novelwhich sets in parallel the b (...)

4The purpose of the first conference, “History/Stories of India,” organised in April 2007 by the CEMRA (the Research Center on Modes of Representation in English studies at Stendhal University, Grenoble), thanks to the government-funded ARCUS project with India, was to examine the way fiction represents and revisits the past, offers oblique, subversive perspectives and deconstructs or fills in the blanks of official history. The opposition between grand history and minor stories, official historiography and individual testimonies (be they real or fictitious) was an opportunity to consider the voices of subaltern, minor characters forgotten by history, and their discursive strategies which often subvert and “chutneyfy”2 a unique, monolithic vision of Indian history. The conference was an opportunity to confront a plurality of genres, voices, points of view and modes of representation (fiction, but also travel writing, theatre, cinema) which counterbalance monologic discourse, especially as far as colonial history is concerned.

5The past may be a traumatic experience which story-telling helps to overcome, for example when fiction evokes painful events in Indian history such as Partition. Narration, contrary to the epistemic value of the narrative process in historiography, may be a way to pay tribute to past victims, or to heal wounds. This point led us to the second conference which André Dodeman and I organised in October 2011 on “Re/membering Place.” It was not exclusively centered on India but extended to other Commonwealth countries. The issue at stake was how “place” is reconstructed by memory, imagination, fantasy, desire, language, myth in a colonial or post-colonial context of displacement, migration, transportation or exile entailing a sense of loss.

6Our purpose was to examine how displacement from the place of origins, or the separation from a community or a national past, are represented in fiction, autobiography, travel writing, commemoration sites, museography, and the arts. The issues we discussed covered large literary and geographical areas ranging from Australian, Canadian, American, Indian, New Zealand, Nigerian, South African literature, literature from the West Indies, the Philippines, and they mainly focused on fiction and autobiographies, enriched by one paper (by Gilles Teulié, from the LERMA) on South African civilisation and commemoration. The issue of commemoration was more precisely examined by academics at the international conference in Aix-en-Provence last December. It provided a most interesting sequel which counterbalanced what we studied in literature and offered new vistas on topics we had not tackled.

7The slash in the title of the Grenoble conference enabled us to introduce a dichotomy between Re/membering vs Dis/membering, i.e. both a process of remembrance and reconstruction vs dismemberment. Homi Bhabha in “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” in Nation and Narration, opposes the scattering of people in the diaspora, a term which comes from the Greek “speirein,” the sowing of seeds (Israel 2000, 1), and the gathering

8of exiles and émigrés and refugees, gathering on the edge of ‘foreign’ cultures; gathering at the frontiers; gathering in the ghettos or cafés of city centres; gathering in the half-life, half-light of foreign tongues, or in the uncanny fluency of another’s language; gathering the signs of approval and acceptance, degrees, discourses, disciplines; gathering the memories of underdevelopment, of other worlds lived retroactively; gathering the past in ritual of revival; gathering the present. (Bhabha 1990, 291)

9The dichotomy underlined by Homi Bhabha, opposing scattering and gathering, led him to consider the “ambivalence of the nation as a narrative strategy” (292) and Derrida’s concept of dissemination. Rather than the writing of the nation, we preferred to examine “re/membering” as a process of recollection, and of reconstruction of what has been dismembered, displaced, dislocated. We thus focused on how the past is recreated through the memory (be it individual or collective) of place, re-appropriated through collective myths, art and literature, how traumas (loss, exile, the Middle Passage) are re-assessed, and how the re/membering process contributes to the reshaping or reaffirmation of personal and collective identity.

10Memory is constitutive of personal and collective identity. It is linked with place, as Maurice Halbwachs shows in La Mémoire collective: the place of origins, childhood, home, school, family, the community, especially if the group experienced the trauma of separation, displacement, or exile. The memory of place creates our sense of belonging, identity and anchorage, as opposed to space: “Place is space to which meaning has been ascribed” (Carter, Donald and Squires 1993, xii). Place is “inscribed space,” and it refers to “how humans write their presence on their surroundings, how experience is embedded in place and how place holds memories that implicate people and events” (Low and Lawrence-Zuniga 2003, 13). The result is that forced displacement entails a sense of alienation, and the loss of traditions, cultures, and languages.

11Our conference was about exile, loss, displacement and alienation, about one’s quest for home, origins and identity. In his introduction to his book Postcolonial Contexts, John Thieme quoted Roland Barthes: “Isn’t storytelling a way of searching for one’s origin?” i.e. both the origin of texts, when they are revisited (for example by Coetzee in Foe or The Master of Petersburg), and the place of origins. But like Derrida, we can also consider that there is no origin, only traces; the quest is thus infinite, never achieved. Traces can be both memorial and textual traces, as the text is “affected” by the sense of loss and alienation, or traces left in people’s minds and bodies, “affected, hit, shocked, wounded, hurt by past events” (my translation) as Ricœur explains about witnesses whose testimonies can be confronted and used by historians, testimony being a “structure of transition between memory and history” (1998, 17). In a colonial or postcolonial context, fiction, autobiographies often bear the trace of the past, collect, rely on, or act as testimonies, be they real or fictitious, and can thus be seen as a place of mediation between here and there, now and then, trauma and reconstruction.

12Such traces can be flimsy, nearly obliterated, and reappear suddenly in an epiphanic manner as in Maya Angelou’s autobiography All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes or in David Dabydeen’s novel Disappearance. They can also be gradually and voluntarily wiped out, for instance by eugenicist measures used among Aborigenes to preserve the “purity” of White Australia, leading Kim Scott, an Australian writer of Aboriginal descent, to reclaim the past in his novel Benang. Re/membering nation and identity is an issue tackled by Merlinda Bobis in Fish-Hair Woman and Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a context of dictatorship, war, leading to the dismemberment of identities. Re/membering clearly dovetails memory and reconstruction in order to make sense of the trauma.

13The loss of home by emigrants or because one feels alienated from it (in New Zealand autobiographies by women) and the very definition of home (a problematic one as analysed by our participants Lilian Cameron in postcolonial fiction or Elodie Raimbault in Kipling’s short stories) were also an issue tackled during the conference. Displacement in a context of exile and emigration (for Canadian writers Alice Munro and Anna Jameson) led to the study of uprootedness and in-betweenness as in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s or Kiran Desai’s novels (Three Continents, The Inheritance of Loss), with a deeper historical and political insight with the representation of the Middle Passage, or segregation in Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island.

14The memory of place can also be read in the landscape, as Claire Omhovère showed in her analysis of the Canadian landscape; it can affect our reading of the land, as it affects our reading of History. It can be appropriated by new settlers, for example when settler Australia turns to an indigenous past in a quest for identity; it can be revered, as with Acadian identity discourse, or manipulated, to serve national interests.

15Our discussions focused on how memory and personal testimonies, oral as well as written, reconstruct the lost place of origins, serve to fill in the blanks of historical discourse, give voice to displaced people, a forgotten community, revisit historiography and question grand narratives which tend to exclude the (hi)stories of others, thus opposing centralizing monological discourses to the decentralizing polyphony of the postcolonial world (Bakhtin).

16 “Re/membering” is a process of preservation, to be opposed to erasure, obliteration, dissolution. And literature can play this part, as it makes the transmission of culture, tradition, identities, languages possible, as Jacques Hassoun showed (1994); but it does not mean that the past, place, identities are fixed and petrified. The place of origins remains an object of desire, and as such it can be fantasized, idealized, reinvented, and it has a mythopoeic function.

17Thus our conference also was about positive issues: crossing borders, mapping ways between countries, reaching people and cultures, shifting identities. And we wondered how all this “affects” literature, i.e. a place loaded with affect, but also a place now “affected” by hybridity, cross-pollination advocated by Rushdie (1991, 21), or dissemination to borrow Derrida’s concept. Fiction creates “imaginary homelands” (Rushdie 1991) and reinvents place and identity, and we tried to see what forms and genres emerge from the process, and how the traces of the past and place disseminate in narratives, condense in metaphors, destabilize and call the present into question. The dissemination of tropes was more precisely analysed by our two keynote speakers: John Thieme in his paper on botany and botanical tropes in Caribbean writing, and Chitra Krishnan on “the India of cabbages and kings” and the Indian construct in the literatures of displacement.


18Re/membering means “recollecting,” re/collecting, i.e. gathering scattered people, cultures, memories and traces, and “commemoration” is of course an essential symbolical component of this “gathering” process (“gathering the past in ritual of revival; gathering the present” says Homi Bahbha, quoted above) which is necessary for the preservation of identity, both collective and individual. The memory of place can thus be linked to memory sites, or “lieux de mémoire,” analysed by Pierre Nora in his seminal work (1984-92).

19Commemoration is a collective issue, a ritual located in place and time, which welds the community together. The commemoration site has a metonymic function of re-presenting, in the same way as the function of writing history is “representance” (Ricœur 1998, 15). The architectural site (monument, or statue) becomes a trace of the past and the museum an archive, a set of documents. It is also a metaphor for collective identity; it stands for the group, in a process of condensation. It reinforces social bonds and is a factor of integration and (self) recognition of individuals. We may think of the commemoration of the two World Wars, eventually acknowledging the participation of soldiers from the colonies, and paying tribute to their involvement.

20Postcolonial fiction often makes up for a lack of recognition, and writes about subalterns forgotten by history. We may think of Ondaatje’s novels (In the Skin of a Lion, about immigrants from Eastern Europe who helped build the city of Toronto, or The English Patient in which Kip, the Indian sapper, realizes he has been ‘befriended’ by the Western world and betrayed when the two bombs were launched onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki). We can also think of Indian coolies transportedto Mauritius in A Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. Fiction can thus become a “site of memory”; it can restore a truth forgotten by political powers, and exorcise colonial ghosts, heal wounds and overcome traumatic experience of loss and exile. “Remembering,” “commemorating” are acts of preservation, and recovery (in both senses of the term, retrieving and healing); but it is not always necessarily nostalgic or melancholy, bitter or resentful. Reconstruction is turned towards the future as Rushdie showed in Imaginary Homelands.

21Commemoration can have a cathartic effect for the nation, when it leads to a necessary recognition of past errors or crimes, for example the participation of the French government in the Shoah, or of the Western world in the slave trade and colonial expansion. However, if it is necessary to celebrate the memory of the past, it may lead to an endless process of victimization and repentance. Guilt for past crimes should not be imposed on the younger generations, though, and acknowledgement and rational analysis in order to prevent new crimes are preferable in order to understand the past and move forward. This is what TzvetanTodorov explains in Les Abus de la mémoire: “le culte de la mémoire ne sert pas toujours les bonnes causes;” the cult of memory can indeed lead to more violence, and revenge, as with Ireland, or be used by totalitarian regimes to celebrate their national past and serve their interests (1998, 27). Furthermore, Todorov claims that it is easier to celebrate past victims, rather than deal with present-day ones; he believes that it is more important to fight today’s horror, than to commemorate the victims of past horrors.

22Finkielkraut and Todorov show that an excess of commemoration means that a country is turned towards the past, and it may become obsessional. Past traumas should be used as exemplars to understand the past and become “modes of action for the present,” in order to prevent further catastrophes. It is the issue of Alain Houziaux’s book on La Mémoire, pour quoi faire? in which he explains that guilt is turned towards the past, whereas memory has a responsibility for the future (2006, 45).

23Commemoration thus underlines the link between history and memory, at the core of historiography. History cannot be written without memory and memory needs commemoration and the writing of history to be preserved. It implies the appropriation of the past, and its reevaluation. Furthermore it may illustrate the shift in historiography, as Ricœur explained, from history based on “traces”, (“histoire par traces”, Marc Bloch), to history which takes memory and personal testimonies into account and confronts them (Ricœur, 1998, 14).

24However, if one needs the other, as history makes sense of the past and memory makes it present (Candau, 1998, 127), the process is different. Joel Candau explains that history means ordering, distancing; it is an intellectual process, which calls for analysis and critical discourse, and it has a universal dimension. Conversely memory is marked by the disorder of passion and affects, and emotions; it tries to merge with the past and contributes to the shaping of identity. Commemoration is centered on the effects of the historical event but not necessarily on causes, or the process itself. Commemoration has an emotional dimension which must be corrected by the analytic and interpretative work of historians.

25The question raised by today’s historians is whether we should commemorate everything and how. The risk is actually to blur the limit between important events like the Shoah, the second Word War, slavery, colonisation, and minor events, or events remote in time, and to put all past crimes on the same level (we may think of the very recent debate in France about the celebration of all war casualties on 11 November, thus putting World War II and colonial wars on the same level). Jean-Claude Guillebaud even speaks of a commemorative mania, «la manie commémorative contemporaine, la célébration réjouie ou contrite du ‘patrimoine’ historique et mémoriel» (in Houziaux 2006, 49). An excess of commemoration may paradoxically lead to a lack of interest and obliteration. Memory and oblivion are caught in a double bind. Excessive commemoration leads to the dilution of memory, and oblivion is often preferable in the shaping of a nation, as Renan suggested.

26The duty to remember may be explained by our debt towards the past, as Ricœur claims in “La marque du passé”but it must be turned towards the future:

La dette oblige. S’il y a un devoir de mémoire, c’est en vertu de la dette qui, en renversant la mémoire vers le futur, met proprement la mémoire au futur. Tu te souviendras ! tu n’oublieras pas ! [...] L’idée de dette, solidaire au passé-ayant-été incline à relier l’idée de dette à celle d’un être affecté par la frappe de l’événement. On dirait alors que le passé qui n’est plus, mais a été, requiert le dire du récit du fond même de son absence. (Ricœur 1998, 28)

27Commemorating, re/membering the past, re/collecting traces are a way to acknowledge and pay this debt, and re-present what is now absent and claims to be told as Michel de Certeau explains in L’Absent de l’Histoire: “absent du dire de l’histoire, le passé ayant-été se fait demande de dire” (quoted by Ricœur 1998, 28).

28Yet, oblivion is also necessary in order to move forward, when the past is too traumatic and unbearable for individual people to reconstruct themselves. Then a compromise must be found between “the duty to remember and the right to oblivion (“devoir de mémoire et droit à l’oubli”, Guillebaud, in Houziaux 2006, 54). Memory and oblivion are paradoxically part of the same process; they are both necessary, and they can unfortunately both be used by totalitarian regimes in the rewriting of history (the celebration of a heroic past, the erasure of past crimes) in order to manipulate people. As Jacques le Goff explains:

Se rendre maître de la mémoire et de l’oubli est une des préoccupations des classes, des groupes, des individus qui ont dominé et dominent les sociétés historiques. Les oublis, les silences de l’histoire sont révélateurs de ces mécanismes de manipulation de la mémoire collective. (Le Goff 1988, 109)

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1  “L’histoire doit éclairer la mémoire et l’aider à rectifier ses erreurs” (Le Goff 1988, 194).

2  To borrow Salman Rushdie’s neologism from Midnight’s Children, a novelwhich sets in parallel the birth of the narrator and that of the Indian Nation on 15 August 1947 at midnight.

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Catherine DELMAS, « Round Table: Re-writing history in the era of commemoration »E-rea [En ligne], 10.1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2012, consulté le 23 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine DELMAS

Professor, Stendhal-Grenoble 3 University; CEMRA EA 3016.
Catherine Delmas is a professor of English literature at Stendhal University in Grenoble and the Director of the CEMRA (Centre d’Etudes sur les Modes de la Représentation Anglophone, EA 3016). Her PhD defended at University Paris IV-Sorbonne and her post-doctoral research are about the representation of the East in English literature, more particularly in novels and travel books published in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her fields of interest focus on orientalist and (anti)imperialist discourse, aesthetics, representation and ethics, modernism and postmodernism. She has published various articles about Joseph Conrad, T.E. Lawrence, Kipling, E.M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Michael Ondaatje or J.M. Cootzee in French university periodicals and a book, entitled Ecritures du désert: voyageurs et romanciers anglophones XIXe-XXe siècles (Writing the Desert in the 19th and 20th centuries: from Burton to Ondaatje), published by the University of Provence Press (2005). She is co-editor of a book on History/Stories of India with Professor Chitra Krishnan, (Macmillan India, Delhi, 2009) and of Science and Empire in the Nineteenth Century with Professor Donna Spalding Andreolle and Christine Vandamme (Cambridge Scholars publishing, 2010).

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