Louis-Sebastien Mercier, between prophetic and historical engagement with time

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

Louis-Sébastien_Mercier

Portrait of Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814), (Public Domain).

In his novel The Year 2440 published in 1770, the French homme de lettres Louis-Sebastien Mercier (1740-1814) evokes an idealized Paris in the twenty-fifth century. In it, Paris has been rebuilt on a scientific plan, luxury and idleness have been banished and education is governed by the ideas of Rousseau.  The historical past, that “shame for humanity, every page being crowded with [its] crimes and follies” has effectively been superseded in favour of an atemporal Enlightenment vision of the ancient regime in such a teleological fashion that the vision of the future delivered by Mercier has merely been “deduced” from the present with which it was already pregnant. Both present and future constitute two distinctive points on a same linear continuity that merely follows its natural course of indefinite ‘perfectibility’.

And yet Mercier seems to repudiate this vision almost as immediately as he had laid it down on paper by questioning the conditions of its enforceability, something The Year 2440 had neatly sidestepped through the device of the dream. In the sequel to The Year 2440, The Iron Man, Mercier presents the reader with a rather different picture, one of Paris in disarray in which an “iron man,” embodying force and justice, deambulates throughout the city in an attempt to wipe out any trace of its barbaric past through moralization, graffiti, and even force when necessary, and to bring it in harmony with the ideal it ought to be. His attempt to enforce the dream of The Year 2440’s enlightened ideal society, and to rewrite the past and script the future, fail miserably and rather farcically when the protagonist is captured and dismembered.

Mercier could not resist the urge to ridicule the demiurgic pretensions of the “fabricators of universe” and self-proclaimed sages of his time who had imposed the tyranny of their own certainty and dogmas on knowledge. They had confiscated knowledge and obfuscated reality through the dissemination of an inaccessible jargon in the shape of ‘artificial algebraic formulas’ which had reduced the infinite complexity of the world to illusory certitudes. And, in the belief in their own narrative of triumphant progress, they had spawned a new form of occultism and intolerance towards knowledge other than mathematical. Reality, in its infinite and sensible complexity was a force made up infiniments petits which escaped all control and defied any simple causal explanation and which, in the revolutionary period, had morphed into a “force,” a chemical poetic replete with “fermentations,” “toxins,” and “explosions.”

Ultimately, “the sphere of sentimental moralities was lit up by a sun whose phases were unknown to our calculators.” Against the tyranny of abstract calculations and predictions, Mercier sought to rehabilitate alternative forms of knowledge including linguistic, in particular. He rejected the mathematization of the sensible in favour of the vibrancy of language.  For Mercier, the writers were the true painters of their time. Language, under the influence of court society, had lost its “colour;” it had become stultified, denatured and “expressionless” and fallen into such a state of decomposition as to have become reduced to “exaggerations” and “unintelligible utterances.” The Terror itself had occurred through the “abuse of words” which, in its dissemination of “magical and sanguinary” jargon had turned words into “words that kill.” For Mercier, meaninglessness bred violence.

Language needed to be constantly renewed for only a language embedded in the here and now could enliven us and “make that unknown fibre vibrate” in us. It was not the preserve of grammarians or bound by fixed rules but a “mysterious art-form” which conveyed the “power of our ideas” and the “warmth of our feelings.” Periods of unrest, such as the French Revolution presented auspicious junctures for the renewal of language. In the preface to the Nouveau Paris, Mercier even advised young authors “to make their own idiom since [they] had to depict the unprecedented.” Mercier’s own endeavour to emancipate language from the hold of the academies culminated with his Neologie of 1801.

In Mercier’s two following Parisian works, Le Tableau de Paris (1781-1788) and Le Nouveau Paris (1798), Mercier reasserted his materialist take on history. Uchronia gave way to concrete and fragmented day to day accounts which sought to convey the urban tumult at the heart of Paris, that gigantic organism which bound together rich and poor, and criminal and law-abiding. In Le Tableau de Paris, Mercier was engaged in the seemingly impossible task of capturing in writing a contemporaneity which was constantly slipping away from beneath his feet.  The city he described was like a palimpsest, a vessel which was constantly renewed but whose past lay hidden just beneath the surface. In this manner, the history of the city of Paris was first and foremost thought through the multitude of superimposed layers which composed its ground. Its temporal density offered itself to the discerning eye; a walk through the city was a walk through time. Within this historical configuration, the past was fully integrated to the present into which it continuously flowed. Each corner and monument resurrected ghosts from the past, further blurring the different temporalities at play.

In Le Nouveau Paris (1798), written after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the experience of time had been still further accelerated and even the immediate past had already been historicized:  Mercier henceforth walked in Paris on “that no longer [was].” The Revolution had marked a radical rupture and given rise to a new sharpened historical consciousness. Historical writing henceforth played the role of a funerary rite, acknowledging the past whilst firmly excluding it. The Terror was held at an incommensurable distance and exorcized: the “shadow” of Robespierre was only evoked to be better purged.  Crucially, history, in the awesome forces it conjured, acquired an aesthetic dimension: in its admixture of greatness and brutality, it became a source of sublime.

Cut off from its past and with no discernible future, post-revolutionary Paris was drifting aimlessly in a state of generalized confusion caught between fantasies of regeneration and prospects of looming destruction. Construction inevitably seemed to spell future destruction, linking ruins, past and future in a strange and seemingly inexorable “poetic of ruins” before which all civilizations were called to disappear. Pure historicity seemed to have reached its logical conclusion.

Ultimately neither fiction nor any authority which struck Mercier as sacralized could ever stand the test of time nor the fickle judgment of the historical process. Writers could imagine the future from the past and speculate as to what of the past would survive but ultimately, only time would tell. In those circumstances, it was incumbent on us to resist the temptation of “pantheonising lightly.” Renown, like all else, was “beholden to the course of events.” Seeking to decide on ruins or great men from the present was absurd: only the future looking back on its past could pass those kinds of judgments. Attempts to overwrite history or to seek to predict it retrospectively through future projections were not only futile, but also hubristic.

Yet, Mercier’s gaze was never stable, torn between present and future, between a materialist and prophetic engagement with time. On the basis of his Year 2440, Mercier would, for instance, later self-style himself the “genuine prophet of the revolution” in the new preface he penned in 1798. He recognized that those projections also expressed a deep yearning toward something that went beyond the purely factual. As he wrote in Adieux à l’année 1789 published in the Annales patriotiques et littéraires, one still had to “dream of public felicity in order to erect its immutable edifice.” (« il faut encore rêver la félicité publique, afin d’en bâtir l’édifice immuable »)

Dream acted as a powerful motor in history; it offered the hope of tearing mankind “from the formless chaos” in which it was mired; it provided it with a horizon toward which it “could run with all its might,” ready to “precipitate its march to reach out for it and grasp it.” That The Year 2440 with its “mass of enlightened citizens” would never come about suddenly was eminently clear; but this would not stop man of dreaming of seeking to escape the historical predicament in which he found himself trapped and its final overcoming, once and for all.

Audrey Borowski is an historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.

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