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“The Allegory of Sight and Smell” (detail), by Jan Brueghel the Elder, circa 1618. – Photo credits: ©Luisa Ricciarini/Leemage

DOSSIER – Historians are trying to renew their discipline by focusing on sensations and representations through the centuries.

CASE - Historians try to renew their discipline by focusing on sensations and representations through the centuries.

The story of the intimate, in particular of sensitivities, is very fashionable today. It corresponds to the crisis of university history which it hopes to renew, not without difficulty. From the 1970s, the collapse of quantitative history first gave more space to social history, then, with the end of Marxism, to a cultural history whose interests were increasingly wide, not to say eclectic. The discipline of history has turned away from certain fields that saturate the media, such as economic or political questions (taken up in the faculties of economics and law), in favor of increasingly individual and particular subjects. If this approach may surprise, on a heuristic level, it arouses real enthusiasm among part of the readership. The bookstore successes of Alain Corbin's works demonstrate this. There is undeniably a real appetite for this genre which corresponds well to the hyperindividualism of our time. We are less and less passionate about grand narratives (and this is sometimes very fortunate given the disasters of certain ideologies) and curiosities now relate to the individual, his impressions, his smells, his feelings, his private life in the wider. We want to know how our ancestors experienced their feelings.

This type of story is not as revolutionary as one would like to believe. The school of Annals had already launched the main themes in the 1930s. The scarcity of intimate sources had posed certain brakes. All these reservations have been shattered. We no longer hesitate to launch an assault on all areas of the intimate, some achievements showing themselves to be original, even very original, such as the fascinating work of Alain Corbin, others more questionable. What about bringing in a story of orgasm, farting, poop, etc.?

This historical approach to intimacy is not without raising other more “political” debates. It touches on sometimes very complex issues, such as that of sex and, more broadly, gender. It also gives certain comfortable and questionable certainties: the risky exploitation of neurosciences, which reject the idea of ​​an irrationality of sensations, allows some to question the works of Norbert Elias, according to which civilization would be a long process of repression of emotions. Convenient mutation: basically, the explosion of our contemporary irrationalities would ultimately no longer be proof of a regression but a simple evolution among others. In a word, everything is going very well, Madame la Marquise.

"Henri IV and Louis XIV stank horribly"

Robert Muchembled

All these debates are ultimately interesting, but they sometimes end up going in circles. For example, what does this Civilization of smells of the historian Robert Muchembled, author of an interesting history of civilized society? A host of anecdotes. “Henri IV and Louis XIV stank horribly,” writes our author. Important revelation, no one will deny it, immediately confronted with another affirmation which better sums up the whole work but which may seem contradictory with the previous idea, since the author recalls that “odors are always eminently social. (…) Because the perception of a scent by the individual is not innate”. And to add a few lines later: "The French of the Renaissance lived in a horribly smelly environment without showing the slightest repulsion towards their excrement or their urine." One of two things. Were people of the time sensitive, or not, to other people's smells? How then can we conclude that Henry IV stank by the “lax” criteria of his time?

This historical approach to domains traditionally related to literature or philosophy poses a final question. There is undeniably a history of the representation of the body which can even turn out to be very instructive. We do not consider the body with the same veneration in ancient times, at the time of Descartes, or today when the praise of the body has become the corollary of the apology of the subject. But can we, on the other hand, engage in a history of images of the body, as if the human body were only an image? Isn't there an open door to an absolute relativism, a form of constructivism, which would consist in suggesting that there would be no body outside of culture?

– Photo credits: Les Belles Lettres

Finally, we can ask ourselves what all this work can bring us that is profoundly new. Are these stories of foot odor, for example, not part of a preoccupation with micro-history, very fashionable in the 1970s, but which ends up being a bit repetitive, especially after the works ofAlain Corbin on this question of smell, in particular Miasma and Daffodil (even if it covers a somewhat more restricted period)? The process seems in some cases a bit threadbare. This is the case with the history of sexuality, love, the couple, etc.

Especially since the approach of the intimate cannot fail to grant a necessarily very large part to literary history and the novel. Because many areas of the intimate escape the classical historical discipline. It is interesting to note the confession made by Alain Corbin, in the interview below, a very instructive confession for the historical community, always obsessed with archives: “I spent forty years in archives, especially departmental ones. Well, it's not all there." And this is not an observation that is limited to intimate stories. Anyone who has worked on matters of state secrets knows well that certain villainous pacts do not appear in the archives. Should we give up ignoring them, never talking about them on the pretext that the historian only evokes what is in the archives? Obviously not. It would be a very blind view of history. However, the method of the historians of sensitivities remains very narrowly limited and can sometimes seem questionable. Could we, to make ourselves understood, imagine writing the history of state secrets with only the novels of James Ellroy?



“The Civilization of Smells”, by Robert Muchembled, Les Belles Lettres, 269 p., €25,50.

Source: History upside down: The Civilization of Smells, by Robert Muchembled

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