Conference 2015‎ > ‎

Conference Report

Admittedly, a slightly airless basement room in Cambridge might not initially have seemed the most auspicious venue for thinking about the posthumous glory imagined or achieved by the cultural producers of early modern France. But just a few hours later, when the audience chose to keep asking questions rather than going to lunch, it was clear that the quality of discussion more than made up for the slightly inglorious location.
        The eleven speakers – postgrads, early career and senior researchers from the UK, France, the USA and Canada – were joined by a similarly wide-ranging and enthusiastic audience. The programme took us more or less chronologically through the period in question, which had been chosen as a starting point for the project both for its proliferation of references to posterity, and because of the social and political changes that seemed to make the concept more pressing for contemporary cultural producers. From factors credited with the development of celebrity (a growing print culture, the decline of patronage) to those more explicitly related to posthumous fame (the culte des grands hommes, the growth of secularism), a whole range of issues meant the question of what it meant to be remembered was increasingly on the minds of those who were writing, painting, sculpting and ruling in France.
        Helena Taylor opened with a discussion of Bussy-Rabutin and his use of posterity as a threat. She suggested that, in his writings to and about Louis XIV, he played on the concept of a future audience who would judge the actions of the King, in the hope of obtaining better treatment at the hands of his monarch. Alain Cantillon then considered Pascal and the ‘second life’ he lived through his writings and literary relics, in particular the Mémorial he kept sewn into his clothing. He outlined how, though the religious philosopher may have preferred the concept of the Christian afterlife to any image of posthumous reputation, there are nonetheless elements of his thought that consider how one might remain ‘alive’ on earth after death, in particular through the fulfilment of wishes expressed in life. Finally, Marie-Ève Beausoleil presented Voltaire’s allegorical Temple du Goût, which seems to posit a posterity based on natural, universal judgements of taste, all the while sanctioning Voltaire’s own critical judgements as echoing or even determining this universality. Discussion ranged across the relationship between posterity and satire, the location of a posthumous presence (in text, memory, the name or a physical relic), and the tenses in which posterity is expressed, all themes that would be developed across the day.
        The second panel of the morning examined materialism and materiality. Nick Treuherz explored how posterity was an alternative to the religious afterlife for materialists, not only as an alternative way to remain present after death, but also as an enticement towards moral behaviour. Unlike the promise of Christian glory, however, a place in posterity could not be acquired through last-minute repentance, but rather relied on consistently virtuous action across a lifetime. Oliver Wunsch then examined Diderot’s thoughts on the relationship between the written word and the fragile material work of art, setting out how the philosophe viewed writing like his own salon criticism as rendering immortal that which would otherwise be subject to the ravages of nature and time. Questions following this panel in particular considered the plurality or distorting nature of posthumous reputation: whose voice becomes the dominant one, and is simply being remembered always enough?
        Fortified by sandwiches, coffee, cake and a little fresh air, we reconvened for the afternoon session, which began with Stéphanie Loubère’s paper on Piron. She explored the tensions between his apparent indifference to a glorious posterity and his ongoing consciousness of his future image: how the poet whose self-penned epitaph declared ‘il ne fut rien’ could also imagine his voice ringing out in the future, in a present tense ‘me voici brillant’. Moving toward the end of the century, John Leigh examined a limited, familial version of posterity, in which one’s future image is aimed at a closed, intimate circle: a surer bet than any broader ambitions in a period of political turmoil. Finally, Laurence Mall outlined Mercier’s view of posterity as an arbiter whose judgements cannot be anticipated, and which is subject to chance and potential catastrophe. She also suggested that his apparently limited ambitions for his own posterity – to serve merely as historical source – were taken too literally, given how long it has taken for him to receive critical attention in any other capacity.
        All three of these papers had furthered our consideration of the potential gap between an imagined future image, and the reality of an author’s posterity. In particular, audience discussion began to revolve around our own complicity as literary researchers and historians in posterity as a process: our interest in particular figures constitutes one form of posterity, but there is often a great difference between the established canon (with all the problems this concept presents) and the half-forgotten individuals we seek to rehabilitate. We would return to this theme at regular intervals for the rest of the conference, with discussion of literary syllabi, the availability of critical editions for teaching, the construction of ‘alternative’ canons, and the problems our own skewed perspective might present in analysing the extent of an author’s posthumous fame.
        The final panel explicitly dealt with posterity in and around the chaotic revolutionary period. Nigel Ritchie discussed Marat’s troubled ambitions for personal gloire, which became bound up in a desire to die for his country, but were ultimately dashed by his posthumous eviction from the Panthéon. Olivier Ritz returned to Mercier to explore how the historians of the revolution tried to fix a troubled past for future readers, using the figure of the monument, the image of the victim, and the models of great classical historians to work together paradoxical models of endurance and ruin; sacrifice and regret. The final paper of the day was Malcolm Cook’s exposition of Bernardin de St Pierre, whose posterity and financial legacy came from quite a different source to that which he had anticipated, residing in his single great success, the novel Paul et Virginie, and not in his (wildly erroneous) scientific theories on the tides, which he believed until his death would one day be vindicated. Questions for this panel investigated the relationship between immediate and lasting recognition, artificial and natural posterity, and what it was that guaranteed the survival of either a text, or an individual’s reputation.
        The key themes that had emerged across the day were summed up by Russell Goulbourne, who contended that we had abided by La Mettrie’s injunction ‘que la postérité soit votre seul point de vue’. The fragility and uncontrollability of posterity, the tenses in which posterity is expressed, the relationship between anticipated and actual posterity, posterity as critic or judge (whether individual or universal), pleasure as a measure of posthumous judgement, the multiple postures (religious, political, artistic, philosophical) adopted towards posterity, and the complexities of our own role as academics in constructing and discussing the authors of the past were all underlined as common points for development.
        As we retired to a well-earned conference dinner, it was generally agreed that this was a conversation that was only just beginning. We very much hope that the future endeavours of the project can involve ever greater numbers of our audience, and if you’d like to be part of that, please do get in touch, or sign up to our mailing list. In the meantime, many thanks to all who attended, in particular our speakers and session chairs, and to the Cambridge School of Arts and Humanities for their generous funding support.