Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: The Cultural Revolution of Modern Time

Peter Fritzsche; Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History
Reviewed by Matthew Brown

According to the Romantic poet Novalis, our paths in life lead "always homeward" (immer nach Hause). Read against the background of the French Revolution and its upheavals, the desire to return to a place and time of safety and security becomes easily understandable. But as Peter Fritzsche's Stranded in the Present suggests about this era and its legacy for modernity, we can never truly arrive at this destination. For Fritzsche, the Revolution itself and the entire revolutionary period experienced by its interpreters (and survivors) created a fundamental sense of rupture between past and present as well as between individuals, groups, and their previously accepted sources of personal and social meaning. 

Following the works of George Steiner and Lynn Hunt, Fritzsche argues forcefully and convincingly for the revolutionary mindsets that accompanied the events of the Revolution and its seemingly endless aftershocks.[1] The creation of a new sensibility about the place of the individual in the drama of history provides the impetus for Fritzsche's work, which traces the dislocations experienced by individuals living through these literally unsettling times. Following an introduction and first chapter on the centrality of the Revolution, Fritzsche continues in thickly descriptive prose, creating a rich cultural history that draws upon an impressive array of sources to create a tapestry of this new historical awareness.

Each subsequent chapter examines a symbol of the shift in outlook by modern Western Europeans and Americans between the Revolution and the first decades of the nineteenth century. The second chapter, "Strangers," examines the experience of exile through diaries, memoirs, and biographical-fictional works, the literary forms most common to describing the initial encounters with the Revolution. For Fritzsche, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, the French aristocrat, Romantic author and later diplomat, embodies the modern phenomenon of displacement and discontinuity. His personal experience with the Revolution served as the basis of his enduring feelings of dislocation, which came to structure the ways that he narrated his life. His frustrating efforts to continually recreate himself through his forty-year memoirs, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, stand as a poignant testament to his generation's need to come to terms with loss and exile, not so much from a place but from another time. 

Perhaps best captured by Chateaubriand's insight into the difficulties of modern identity that "Man does not have a single, consistent life" (p. 57), his fellow émigrés expressed similar existential anxieties about their own contingency. Writing their lives against the background of historical experience, contemporaries such as the well-known Germaine de Stael and the less-known Madame de Menerville told their stories to create meaning out of the disruptions of their age. The author's insightful readings of these sources help reveal the important relationship between their content and their literary form, but the crucial point for Fritzsche is that the stranger and the exile serve as compelling symbols for modern life itself, or at least life experienced in this nostalgic, melancholic temporal mode… read more: