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Charges against fragmentation

For Michel Vovelle, it is time to reencounter a sense of history

Michel Vovelle was one of the lecturers at the 15th Regional History Meeting, sponsored by the São Paulo nucleus of the National History Association, which took place between September 4th and 8th, in the History Department of USP, the University of São Paulo. The theme of the meeting, which received help from FAPESP for the organization of the scientific meeting, was History in the Year 2000: Perspectives. The theme of Vovelle’s lecture, Jacobins and Jacobinism: the history of a revolutionary practice and the historiography of a concept (19th and 20th centuries) -, the same of his latest  book, launched in 1998 in Italy, in 1999 in France, and now in Brazil.

Jacobins and Jacobinism, hailed by historians somewhat exhausted by theses of a new history that pulverizes its own objects to arrive, in an extreme way, at the very end of history, is one of the three dozen books by Vovelle. A respected historian, he is regarded as one of the major specialists in the French Revolution – which helped him to run the Institute of the History of the French Revolution, in his activities as a public figure. A Professor of the Sorbonne (Paris 1), his research, albeit concentrated on the history of mentalities, has never discarded the theoretical and methodological arsenal with Marxist foundations that comprise the basis of his upbringing. In his visit to São Paulo, Vovelle granted Mariluce Moura the following interview.

In his presentation of your book Jacobins and Jacobinism, Professor José Jobson de Andrade Arruda classifies it as a pioneer in the building of a bridge between the history of Marxist foundations and the history of mentalities. In your own vision, how is this bridge built in your works?
I belong to a generation of historians brought up in the method of social history of the 60s, which was represented by Ernest Labrousse, my tutor. And this quantitative social history, which lays down weights and measures, and willingly makes references to Marxism. Labrousse himself stood, without any ostentation, within this continuum. It was under his guidance that I undertook studies in social history, agrarian history, in the relations in the countryside.  To a great extent, my generation got to know this tradition and, later, perhaps, a change in vocation. I can take as an example my friend and colleague, Maurice Agulhon, but there were others who kept their faith with social history in the Marxist tradition, although they may apparently have abandoned this point of view. This is taking place in an ideological crisis and within a general political context that began in 1956, and which was followed by an overwhelming effort to carry out a revision. But in a simpler fashion, I would say that, in this context, both I and Maurice Agulhon realized that it was necessary to look elsewhere for more complex perspectives than the principles of the dependence of the ideological superstructure on the infrastructure, apprehended in a process of taking awareness, as it used to be said then. And this is to try and understand what happens in people’s heads, history the way they live and tell it.

So in some way, going from social history to study mentalities was a question of necessity?
Yes, for me, it was. And it happened in many stages, since my first studies in social history, going through a theme where my future concerns were already to be found – the Midi counter-revolution – until concentrating on my research on religion, with all the importance that this acquired in the conflict between revolution and counter-revolution. And so I started to work on the brutal dechristianization of Year II (Year 1794, in the terminology of the French Revolution), hence in the domain of religious history that was at last getting close to my profile.  And, between 1963 and 1971, I carried out the research that led to my thesis on baroque piety and dechristianization, and to the work on the collective attitudes in the face of death in Provence.

How did you go from dechristianization to death?
The very dynamics of research drags us to unforeseen results. I set out to study the profane revolution that, in the Era of Lights, made us pass from baroque religiosity, charged with gestures, to what we may call secularization, profane revolution, or even dechristianization.  From there on, I discovered other things, like the attitudes of the representations in the face of death.

Did your studies on death, purgatory, and so on, lead you to understand the history of France? Is it possible to establish this relationship between such studies and the general history of a country?
It certainly is. I think that studies on sensibility, on collective imagination, integrate themselves directly with a history of representations that is now an integral part of our understanding of national history. If we wish, there is something specifically French in this behavior. How was it, for example, that France, which used to be called the favorite daughter of the Church, became, between the 18th and 19th centuries, the country of anticlericalism, the place where the freedom to look acquired prime importance, in comparison with other countries? I do not believe that it would be necessary to compare the official, classical, history, with another one, which would be, if not on the fringe, different in such a way that there could be no possible connection between one and the other.  To me, there is no such thing as two histories.

For historians of France, the French Revolution is always a paradigm.  How did you come to deal with this fundamental milestone when you began to study purgatory, death, and so on?
There is a long term historiography and, afterwards, an event, a cut, a chapter in which a very complicated 10-year story has to be told. So the Revolution may seem to be an incongruous phenomenon, because it is revenge of the happening, revenge of the history which should be told and analyzed.  But this is what excites me: the dialectic between the short term and the long duration. I have a work on festivals – happily, I have not just worked on death -, The Metamorphosis in the country festival, between 1750 and 1850, in which I questioned myself about the encounter between the long duration festival of Provence, already folklore by the eve of the Revolution, and the civic festival. This is actually connected with the festival of Provence, toned down as a national model for celebration. Perhaps it is an innocent question, but it is, at any rate, fundamental for me: how did this encounter occur? And, shall we say, with forms of contamination: the tree of freedom restarted from the heritage of May, the trees we plant in May at the door of the young women who are going to get married, or the resumption of the carnival parade, of the heritage of Charivarie, what we call the Asinade, that is, the parade of a person representing the cheated husband, on the back of a donkey, with his head turned towards its tail.  It is the old-fashioned Charivari, which is restated in the Saturnalia, in the scornful spectacle of the festival of dechristianization of Year II.

Your studies on the vision of purgatory are also in the picture of the studies of the affections, are they not?
Yes, because there is something about death that, from the 19th century onwards, directly affects the history of affection. The relationship between the world of the living and the world of the dead was ordered, in the long term, in a different manner, always as a kind of commitment that constitutes the work of mourning.

In this picture, does purgatory appear as a necessary region between the two worlds?
Yes. Christianization  first proposed the model for the living and the dead to live together, the model of the resurrection, and afterwards the model of the end of the world, with heaven on one side, and hell on the other. And then there is the invention of purgatory, which Jacques le Goff situated at some point around 1150. It is an invention that is in no way in the original discourse of the Christian church, an invention of popular religion, a formidable thing, because it is a third place, reserved, as St. Augustine would say, for those who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Purgatory made its way amongst 300 images until the 14th century, when it began to find an image that would take off and seek its figurative expression: would it be a lake, a fire, or a prison?  It needs to have an image.  And finally, after a grievous toiling of the human soul, in the baroque era, after the Council of Trent, purgatory is given long term consistency, that is to say, a kind of pseudo hell of a determinate duration. What is marvelous is that one can say one’s prayers for those who are in purgatory, one can intervene for their salvation, and so the work of mourning is overcome in an elegant manner.

When you turned to study Jacobinism, does this point, in some way, to a crisis in hegemonic historiography in France?
Yes, a crisis in the midst of French historiography, but, more widely, in historiography in general, throughout the world. The great systems and the globalizing, totalizing histories adapt badly to the schools that have expressed themselves over the last few decades in a hegemonic way.  We have lived through what François Dosse calls history in crumbs, which is an extreme fragmentation of the fields: there is the history of affections, the history of smells, there is a pile of histories which, I believe, have to be joined into a chain. Because to pulverize history is to renounce giving any sense to history.

And the end of history…
Yes, it is the end of the movement of history, history’s locomotive has gone to the garage. The danger of this pulverization is that the great crisis of historiography, which is inserted in a larger picture, in the crisis of ideologies that we are experiencing today. In this sense, the conclusive chapter on the legacy of the Revolution, a work supervised by François Furet, is brilliant: he explains that now there would only be a technological revolution, in communication. Therefore, in a certain fashion, the end of history appears as this stabilization, in the scenario of neoliberal thinking today.

In which decade do you locate this crisis of ideologies?
I think that it started very visibly in the 50s. In the cold war. With a collective question mark over the adventures of real socialism, which generated a crisis of the conscience that I evoked when I spoke of the shipwreck of the historians of my generation. And it has intensified over the last decade.

Can you sum up your concept of Jacobinism?
Not the thesis, but the idea behind it that I developed is one of duality, of an ambiguity in concept. That is, there is on the one hand historical Jacobinism, an experience that is precisely inserted into the context of the French Revolution, and what we could call the experience an awakening of consciousness, with an element of discovery of politics, in the context of the ecstasy of communication that forms public opinion, French public society.  But there is another Jacobinism that is different from this. The term was reapplied in a secular adventure, and it also became, we could say, transhistorical – that is Proudhon’s term.  This Jacobinism was brought by the democratic and liberal currents of the 19th century, and it was enriched after 1830 by the neobabovist heritage of Buonarotti, taking on a very important form in 1848, in the Commune of Paris – republican and democratic Jacobinism meets the revolutionary movement after a social movement. This history of Jacobinism as a migration, not only of a concept, but of a practice that accompanies it, is to take it back again from radical Frenchmen to an Italian action party as a, shall we say, petit bourgeois Jacobinism, still not sufficient to make its hegemony triumph, which depends on voluntarism, which will be expressed by Clemanceau. Progressively, we pass on to these radicalisms, both well and badly realized, universal suffrage, the representative systems, the laity, the nation, the army…   From a certain moment, the radicals lose their pugnacity, Jacobinism becomes a posture, an attitude, certainly verbalism. But it is there that the historical movement arises, that will give it once and for all its luck and its bad luck.  Jacobinism migrated to the very heart of revolutionary ideology, even though Lenin, like Marx and even more so Gramsci, distrust analogies. That is why the Jacobin sing, for good or for ill, will last until the collapse of socialist realism.

And what Jacobinism would resist today?
The kind that expresses itself, for example, in the attitude of the movements of citizens, of Jean Pierre de Chevènement. It would be more the heritage of the radical or democratic Jacobinism, but one that insists on the defense of such values as the republic, citizenship, political values, laity, the nation, and the homeland. They are values that are much in jeopardy today, when one has individualism as an indication of identity, which puts back into question the aspects of direction, of authority, and of centrality. But there is another heritage of the French Revolution, that aspiration for a direct democracy. At any rate, the whole sense of Jacobinism was threatened by the single thinking of the end of history, of, shall we say, neoliberal thinking.

In this sense, is your book also a kind of ideological reply?
Let us say that it is a reply that goes straight to the point, at this moment of questioning, of disquiet. And I am not defending the Jacobins passionately, like the last of the Mohicans deserving of our sympathy.  There is a general reflection that pervades the idea of citizenship, of the republic, for example, and questions us in a way that is not archaic, but very contemporaneous.

Do you still give room today to the concept of class struggle?
There’s an embarrassing question. I think of the class struggle, both in the traditional sense of the word, drawn up during the Industrial Revolution, and in the present context of profound social changes, that affect us in our liberal society, and in the equilibrium between rich and poor in the world. If we observe on a planetary scale those that have and those that have not, the class struggle has a sense in which it is not only not archaic, it is entirely tragic.

Can you glimpse new trends of research into history that link social history, economic history, and the history of mentalities?
One can still think that in a certain fashion all history is social, because all history is inserted in a situation, a context, in relations, and in reality. But it would be too simple to take refuge in this contextual evidence. In the current trend for Historiography, there are readings, like, for example, Roger de Chartier’s, according to which the history of representations witnesses the concern or the necessity of rediscovering the anchoring of history in the imagination and in representations, including conceived as a conflict. The anchoring of this history of representations is a point of reference for social history and, if we are still, no doubt correctly, suspicious of ahistory that is both globalizing and totalizing, for the same reasons that one distrusts totalitarianism, I believe that one should keep up this concern. But, for me, it is very important to establish correlations, to rediscover the importance of politics, of geopolitics, and to go beyond a reading that would be outside the social whole, or the political whole, and would abandon much of that which gives history its richness, its complexity.

You are recovering a positive side of Jacobinism.  Is your view of the future optimistic?
What you see as my Jacobinism could be identified, if not as optimism, at least as affection for a sort of heritage of lights, which stipulates that the world can be changed. And, obviously, if hopes can seem dangerous in a historian, because this, consciously or unconsciously translates into a kind of finality, it cannot be forgotten that historians, they themselves, are inserted into a historical process, into a life, and into an engagement.