From Paris to Pompeii

Through the iconic example of Pompeii, and the spell this city cast on the early nineteen-century French Romantic imagination, From Paris to Pompeii shows how an archaeological gaze arose in response to a secular anxiety of memory loss and helped define our modern relationship to history.

From Paris to Pompeii
French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

Göran Blix

2008 | 320 pages | Cloth $59.95
Literature / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Neoclassical Pompeii
1. The Antiquarian Comes of Age
2. The Archaeological Turn
3. The Specular Past
4. Body Politics
5. Lost Worlds and the Archive
6. The Uses of Archaeology


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


When Théophile Gautier ridiculed the claims of progress in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-6), he could imagine no better insult than to forecast the future exhumation of Paris by disappointed archaeologists. What if "tomorrow a volcano opened its jaws at Montmartre," he mused, "and buried Paris under a shroud of ashes and a tomb of lava, just as Vesuvius did earlier at Stabia, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, and in a few thousand years the antiquarians . . . exhumed the cadaver of the dead city, what monument would remain to testify to [our] splendor?" None, he suggests, only helmets, lighters, and ugly coins, and these archaeologists would be tempted to conclude that "Paris was nothing but a barbarian encampment" (50).

Beyond Gautier's sarcastic reminder here that art trumps utility as a measure of civilization, the device that he uses—evaluating his own culture from a future perspective—points to a radically new experience of time that arose in the nineteenth century. The age of archaeology had begun: writers and artists were embarking on a massive enterprise of retrieval which involved resurrecting extinct animals, lost languages, buried civilizations, and human prehistory. The past was becoming a new frontier as the age of exploration drew to a close, and as an exotic aura of novelty came to color the past. Like the Ancien Régime, the entire past seemed an endangered species in a time of rapid change that underscored the fragile and mortal character of civilizations; the Revolution, and later capitalism, had opened a palpable gap between past and future that broke the chain of tradition and undid the predictive, stabilizing power of historical examples. In this context of turbulent change, much nineteenth-century writing exhibited a tangible anxiety of loss, and gave free rein to an urgent archival impulse that reflected the period's sense of its own mortality much more than the nostalgic desire to emulate golden ages characteristic of revivals.

The mortality of cultures was a key experience of modernity: if history had come to resemble a drawn-out apocalypse more and more, this was in large part due to the rapid and relentless transformations that were changing the face of France. Every day, Balzac complained, something vanished from Paris—a type, a building, a practice—provoking a sense of homelessness that Haussmann's midcentury urban reforms would only aggravate. In response to this ceaseless internal exile, romantic writers embarked on a vast salvage operation that made them record their own culture compulsively, ostensibly to convey an exact image of it to future readers: fashions, customs, speech habits, social types, private life. The more ephemeral a thing was, the more urgent it was to embalm it in writing. Balzac of course cast his literary project in such terms, presenting the Comédie humaine as "that book which we all regret that Rome, . . . Persia, and India have unfortunately not left us on their civilizations." Balzac's comparison reveals the close link between retrieving the past and the modern fear surrounding the fugitive character of the present. The period's fascination with lost worlds, such as Pompeii, and its urge to resurrect them in words and images, can be seen as the flipside of the vast journalistic project of recording the modern world, and both endeavors were symptomatic of a culture that had grown hyperconscious of its own mortality.

Gautier's analogy of Paris and Pompeii was no random juxtaposition, then, but an image that associated past and present destruction. Pompeii would indeed often serve as a cipher for Parisian fears throughout the century, as if Paris were also destined to vanish in a catastrophic upheaval, or expire slowly as history moved on; the disaster could take many shapes: revolution, transformation, or decline, but in the big picture they all blended into the same somber archaeological allegory. The specter Gautier evoked was moreover a commonplace of nineteenth-century literature: take Joseph Méry's burlesque story, for instance, "The Ruins of Paris" (1856), in which two archaeologists from the Atlas Phalanstery in North Africa tour the muddy remains of Paris and Marseille in 3844 and confuse France with ancient Rome. The satirical thrust of such fictions would seem to suggest that Paris was not worth grieving, but their critical edge in fact always masked a deeper anxiety of impermanence. Indeed, Gautier would live to witness the realization of his own prophecy during the violent suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, in the aftermath of which he penned a visionary reportage on the ruined city: "it seems as if two thousand years have passed in a night," he wrote, and as if Paris were "a dead city" reduced to "some scattered debris on the banks of the deserted Seine." Pompeii and Paris had here become twin cities: the burnt papers of the ministry of finance floated in the air like "the lapilli of this Vesuvius opened in the heart of the city" (622).

Gautier's archaeological imagery was in fact a vital component in the nineteenth-century vision of history and of itself. Both past and present carried the imprint of an entropic time that condemned all things to an ephemeral existence marked by ceaseless becoming rather than by any enduring identity. This elegiac view is no novelty, of course, but it grew into an all-encompassing outlook that included not just men but also cities, species, cultures, languages, and nations. At the same time, the transcendent horizon that had formerly guaranteed the soul's immortality began to erode, as human life gravitated increasingly around a purely earthly existence. A central argument here will be that as the religious faith in the afterlife declined, inclusion in collective secular identities, such as race, nation, or humanity, emerged as a weak form of compensation: though death was becoming more final, individuals also survived, to a greater degree, in the group. In a telling meditation on oblivion, Ernest Renan confessed to being haunted in a village cemetery in Bretagne by the "millions and millions of beings that are born and die . . . without leaving a trace," but he also expressed the reassuring conviction that "these obscure children of the hamlet . . . are not dead" since "Bretagne still lives, and they have contributed to making Bretagne." And "when Bretagne is no longer, France will [still] be; and when France is no longer, humanity will still be." The reckoning with mortality thus provokes a long chain of secular assimilations whose function is to guarantee that "not a single word that has served the divine work of progress will be lost" (262).

All the silent and seemingly futile sacrifices of the nameless masses thus help pave the collective path to the future, so that nothing, and no one, is truly lost, and every life becomes absorbed into an ideal, perfectible humanity. This compensation is of course radically diminished not only by the loss of self but also by the mortal nature of entities like Bretagne and France; in principle it led to an infinite regression, which could only dissolve, in the end, in the empty abstraction of the universe. This is where archaeology comes into the picture: it was widely regarded as a magic science capable of undoing the work of erosion, and of rescuing even the most traceless beings from amnesia, and in that capacity it offered an imaginary guarantee that nothing was truly lost and that every life left some kind of legible trace. Archaeology thus underwrote the myth of an earthly memorial survival that could plausibly take the place of immortality. The promise of assimilation into larger collective beings, such as France, and the strength of one's commitment to them was partly a function of their power to absorb and perpetuate the group's memories. This postreligious memorial burden of the collectivity helps explain the urgency with which many Romantics turned to archaeology.

This thesis is not offered as a totalizing explanation; religion clearly remained a vital force throughout the century, and indeed regained some lost ground at the outset with Napoleon's Concordat. But by and large faith was becoming a private matter that no longer framed public life, while the modern secular nation was taking its place as the horizon of collective life. It is at the level of this global trend, rather than of individual beliefs, that archaeology performs its role as a guarantor of memories; indeed, its promise in no way challenged religion with an overtly rival discourse, and Catholics often adopted its rhetoric of memory to defend an enduring Christian identity. The decisive shift does not take place at the level of individual beliefs, but turns on the loss of a public form of transcendence that transforms the earthly community into the site of a secular immortality. Archaeology emerged in this context as a modern myth that secured memorial survival on three overlapping levels: the persistence of personal traces; the individual's assimilation into the collectivity; and the relative longevity of the group's identity.

This seems to charge archaeology with a rather heavy symbolic burden, at least when measured against its marginal role before it was professionalized in the second half of the century. Up until then it was marked by amateur efforts, provincial antiquarian societies, and sporadic public subventions, but the claim here is also not that this nascent field carried this burden alone or directly. This book is not about the rise of archaeology as a professional discipline, but about its broader mythical impact on romantic culture. Indeed, as an idea, it quickly shaped the consciousness of the period, left a large cultural footprint, and gained a symbolic prestige that far outweighed its real impact. Naturalists, geologists, historians, philologists, and writers all adopted its rhetoric of excavation, its interpretation of material remains, its vision of stratification, and its promise of resurrection to reinforce their own efforts to reconstruct the past. Thus the naturalist Cuvier saw himself an "antiquary of a new species" while the philologist Renan promoted a linguistic archaeology that would retrieve "the primitive world" from beneath the "numerous strata of people and idioms." Michelet consistently presented his history as a national archaeology, while writers revived lost worlds from Carthage and Pompeii to medieval Paris and the Ancien Régime.

Wherever the past had to be reconstructed, archaeology proved to be a useful and elastic model that was easy to exploit. With the rise of historical consciousness, and the modern perception of things as changing entities without stable essences, the archaeological image of a ceaseless stratification of the past became a useful master metaphor: texts, languages, nations, landscapes, and minds also changed constantly, and deposited their pasts in invisible strata that might be excavated, reconstructed, and revived. The entire past was taking the shape of a vast archival accumulation in which heterogeneous records (words, fossils, monuments, relics, psychic traces) came together in a single great imaginary deposit. Thus when Élisée Reclus evoked the prehistoric Swiss lake-dwellers discovered in the 1850s, his rhetoric blurred the frontiers between geology, philology, and archaeology: "wherever historical monuments and written testimony is lacking, there begins the role of the geologist. He explores the strata deposited by the water, sand grain by sand grain; he exhumes the gnawed bones, the pottery, the debris of every sort already gathered in the stratified archive, and the study of these objects allows him to conjure [these] vanished people from oblivion."

This symbolic confusion would be an obstacle for a narrowly conceived history of the discipline, but this fluidity, conversely, provides the basis for my claim that a diffuse archaeological gaze marked much of romantic culture. The field's undisciplined and amateur character even reinforced its global impact by making it available for appropriations and imaginary uses. Balzac's use of the term in Le Cousin Pons gives a good illustration of this extreme flexibility; there Pons, an impoverished art-lover, claims it as the master science that informs his strategy of collection: "archeology comprises architecture, sculpture, painting, jewelry, ceramics, cabinetmaking, a very modern art, lace, tapestry, in fact all the creations of human labor." Archaeology also formed the core of Balzac's own practice of observation, which sought above all to expose the secret histories of the characters, buildings, and objects that peopled his novels: "archeology is to social nature," he wrote, "what comparative anatomy is to organized nature."

Such broad and flexible uses were to some degree authorized by the vague nature of the field itself; both as a term and practice, archaeology was replacing an older antiquarian culture that had declined steadily during the eighteenth century, but not without inheriting some of its imprecision: did it study words or material remains, artistic works or every trace of human culture? Was it an aesthetic or historical discipline? Could it look beyond classical antiquity to the national past, or further back, to prehistory? The courses on archaeology in the early nineteenth century were mainly art-historical, and focused on the development, dating, and quality of artistic forms, but at the same time the modern idea of a strictly material science of past civilizations was gaining ground. By the time Napoleon III ordered excavations at Alésia to unearth material for his History of Julius Caesar (1865-6), archaeology had successfully carved out its own niche beside philology, art history, and history, not least because the mid-century recognition of man's prehistoric existence had made the need for a science of nonverbal and non-artistic traces obvious.

While the field's loose boundaries no doubt facilitated its broad appropriation, its central concern with past civilizations had emerged quite early, and it was chiefly this meaning that nourished its mythical appeal as a science of memory. No discovery played a greater role in the establishment of this myth than Pompeii; the theme of countless poems, novels, paintings, plays, operas, and travelogues in the nineteenth century, most notably Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), this city embodied a contradiction that lay at the heart of archaeology's power of enchantment: it had been abruptly annihilated, and just as suddenly resurrected, and this stark contrast of violence and redemption provided an irresistible melodramatic script for the comprehension of history; while conceding that history was a violent process that littered the past with vibrant cultures, it also dissociated ruin and amnesia, and suggested that lost worlds might leave imperishable traces. Loss and memory were cemented into a single felicitous narrative at Pompeii, which had of course both perished and survived thanks to the 79 C.E. eruption, as if its death had been the vehicle of its preservation. This fantasy—a leitmotif of Pompeian writing—accounts for the city's great popularity with Romantics as well as for archaeology's symbolic appeal. Accordingly, I here take Pompeii as a thread to study the global impact of archaeology on romantic culture. It is not a book about Pompeii, and does not purport to relate the city's discovery or reception systematically, but it is the central example to which I return again and again, just as it was the example that inevitably came to mind when Egypt, Assyria, or prehistoric sites were excavated. In La Légende des siècles, Hugo marveled at the enormity of oblivion by wondering how "many Herculaneums and Pompeiis / Lie buried in the thick ashes of history!"

Much of the corpus studied here thus deals directly with Pompeii, and in the interests of breadth draws on a wide range of genres, such as travel narratives, erudite reports, fictional resurrections, and visual reconstitutions. Beyond this central example, I also make selective use of archaeological texts on Egypt, Assyria, France and prehistory; the works of Chateaubriand, Mme de Staël, Gautier, Hugo, Renan, and, to a lesser degree, Scott and Carlyle, lie at the center of my corpus. In addition, I also often turn to the works of the major romantic historians, Augustin Thierry, Prosper de Barante, and Jules Michelet. The inclusion of historiography can be justified on two grounds: on the one hand, romantic history drew abundantly on archaeological rhetoric; on the other hand, my reading of archaeology identifies it as the central trope that structures modern historical consciousness.

There are of course a number of major studies of romantic historicism (notably by Stephen Bann, Linda Orr, Ann Rigney, Claudie Bernard, and Maurice Samuels), to which I owe a great debt, but which do not grant archaeology a central place. By foregrounding the archaeological rhetoric of romantic historicism, my aim is to deepen our understanding of it as a modern secular theology, and partly to take issue with its dismissal as a picturesque, spectacular, or naïvely ideological enterprise. While history certainly helped forge national identities, heal the breach of the revolution, and legitimize new regimes, my focus on archaeology subordinates these functions to a deeper existential concern with the being of the past—to a specifically modern preoccupation with the imperishability of memories. Archaeology, or rather its myth, affirmed that nothing perishes, that earthly existence itself embodies a form of immortality, and that the tragic historicity of modern life carries with it a secular ontology that neutralizes its fragile and fugitive character.

The book is divided into three parts, and moves progressively from a concrete study of the archaeological gaze to its broader theoretical implications. Part one examines the birth of a modern archaeological outlook in the early nineteenth century, and begins by looking at the early reception of Pompeii, which was marked by a narrow focus on artworks and a slightly brutal effort to extract them. Chapter two then turns to the romantic revival of the antiquarian as a modern heroic archaeologist, no longer a bespectacled savant, and shows how the gap between erudition and imagination narrowed in Romanticism. In chapter three, I return to Pompeii to show how interest shifted from art to the intimate image it furnished of a civilization known chiefly from its textual accounts, and to argue that this new archaeological gaze turned artifacts into documents whose meaning both illuminated and depended on their setting. At this point, I turn briefly to the debate about the museum sparked by the French Revolution, and use the Pompeian example to argue that both opponents and adherents of the museum shared a similar contextual outlook, but ironically disagreed, as it were, in the name of their archaeological understanding of monuments.

Part two then turns to the poetics of resurrection in history and literature to show how writers mobilized the archaeological gaze to make the past present once more. Two metaphors are central here: vision and the body. Chapter four analyzes the use of visual tropes to produce presence, and interrogates the implicit ontological stakes of this operation. In chapter five, I look at presence in physical rather than optical terms, and explore the desire, at once religious and erotic, to reanimate, touch, and commune with the "body of the past." Lastly, in part three, I address the broader cultural, philosophical, and political implications of archaeological thought. Chapter six examines the romantic myth of the lost world along with the catastrophic view of history it encodes, before reading these as a meditation on the existence of an indestructible archive that safeguards memories. Finally, in chapter seven, I turn to the pragmatic uses of archaeological rhetoric, and show how its secular theology of memory fueled a broad range of ambitions to renew modern society; by securing the past, archaeology had also established a reservoir of energy to nourish the future, and this mythical idea galvanized dreams of artistic, social, and political rejuvenation. By way of conclusion, I consider the exhaustion of the archaeological myth at the end of the century, when it finally lost its power to neutralize the experience of rupture, violence, and oblivion. All the foreign texts cited here are my own translation, unless the reference is to an English edition; for the sake of brevity, full references occur only in the bibliograph