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

Jessica Stacey is the author of Narrative, catastrophe and historicity in eighteenth-century French literature, the February volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book explores the question of how French eighteenth-century writers used stories of catastrophe to place themselves within history. In this blog post, Jessica Stacey uses the early pandemic as a case study to demonstrate themes of her book surrounding catastrophe, narrative, and historicity.

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.

Copyright Cat O’Neil, www.catoneil.com. 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 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 medievalwas 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.[1] 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)

[1] In the Mémoires d’outre-tombe, ed. Levaillant and Moulinier, 2 vols (Paris, 1951), vol.2, p.534-45.

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.


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