Sie sind auf Seite 1von 30

Ego-Histoire and Beyond: Contemporary French Historian-Autobiographers

Author(s): Jeremy D. Popkin

Source: French Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4, Special Issue: Biography (Autumn, 1996), pp.
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 09/01/2010 05:56

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Duke University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to French
Historical Studies.
Ego-histoire and Beyond: Contemporary French
Jeremy D. Popkin

Ego-histoire: The Creation of a Genre

In France and elsewhere, autobiographies by historians are rare birds.
Our disciplinary training makes us acutely aware of the pitfalls involved
in any attempt to reconstruct the past, especially when the attempt is
made by someone who was directly involved in the events being re-
counted. As the contemporary French historian Rene Remond has
written in the preface to his own recent autobiographical essay, even
though the reconstruction of the past is the historian's raison d'etre,
"the application of this procedure to his own case is completely un-
familiar."The historian's whole training, rather than making the pro-
cess seem natural, raises epistemological barriers to it. "Along tradi-
tion has taught [historians] to be on their guard against subjectivity,
their own as much as others'. They know from experience the pre-
cariousness of recollection, the unreliability of first-person testimony.
Their professional training has taught them that everyone has an un-
conscious tendency to introduce a factitious coherence into the path
of his life. They have no reason to believe that they are better armed
against these distortions. They have no reason to think that they have
any better chance to avoid the tricks of memory that they have learned
to spy out in others."1
Despite his awareness of the pitfalls of the enterprise, Remond
has contributed to the remarkable outpouring of such texts that has
occurred in France in the past decade and a half. In various formats,
almost twenty prominent French scholars have recounted their own
lives, with the specific intent of throwing light on the connections be-

1 Ren6 R6mond, "Le Contemporain du contemporain," in Essais d'ego-histoire,

ed. Pierre
Nora (Paris, 1987), 294.
FrenchHistoricalStudies,Vol. 19, No. 4 (Fall 1996)
Copyright ? 1996 by the Society for French Historical Studies

tween their personal experiences and the history they have written.
In addition to Remond, the authors have included such major figures
as Georges Duby, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Mona Ozouf, Maurice
Agulhon, and the late Annie Kriegel.2 These texts are unique in the
history of historians' memoirs because they form a connected group:
most of the authors knew each other, they make references to each
other, and sometimes even cite each other's autobiographical texts.
In writing about their own lives, these historian-autobiographers have
been conscious of engaging in a collective enterprise that goes be-
yond describing their purely personal experiences. One of them, Alain
Besanqon, has even titled his book Une Generation,a remarkable claim
for a first-person memoir.
The recent French historians' memoirs demand attention not only
because of this collective character but because they have been accom-
panied by a determined effort to provide a theoretical justification for
such enterprises. Pierre Nora, the historian-impresario who has orga-
nized his colleagues into so many pathbreaking collaborative projects
in the past thirty years, has been the main figure in this effort.3 He has
provided it with a now widely accepted identifying label, ego-histoire,
with a bold claim, to the effect that by writing about themselves, histo-
rians create "a new genre, for a new age of historical consciousness."4
American historians know Nora best for his role as editor of the
multivolume collection Les Lieux de memoire(The sites of memory),
whose first volume appeared in 1984. The underlying theme of the

2 The autobiographical texts discussed in this article are, in chronological order of publi-
cation, Philippe Aries, Un Historiendu dimanche(Paris, 1980); Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-
MontpellierPC.-PS.U. 1945-1963 (Paris, 1982); Mona Ozouf, "L'Imagedans le tapis," in L'Ecolede
laFrance(Paris, 1984), 7-24; Pierre Goubert, "Naissance d'un historien: Hasards et racines," in La
FrancedAncienRegime:Etudesen honneurde PierreGoubert,2 vols. (Toulouse, 1984), 1:9-13; Pierre
(Paris, 1987), with contributions by Agulhon, Chaunu, Duby, Girar-
Nora, ed., Essais d'ego-histoire
det, Le Goff, Perrot, and Remond; Alain Besancon, Une Generation(Paris, 1987); Raoul Girardet
and Pierre Assouline, Singulierementlibre(Paris, 1990); Annie Kriegel, Ce quej'ai cru comprendre
(Paris, 1991); Francois Bluche, Le Greniera sel (Paris, 1991); Georges Duby, HistoryContinues,trans.
Arthur Goldhammer (1991; Chicago, 1994), (limited to a discussion of his publications and his
academic career); Elisabeth Roudinesco, Genealogies(Paris, 1994); Pierre Milza, Voyageen Ritalie
(Paris, 1995); Paul Veyne, Le Quotidienetl'interessant(Paris, 1995); and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Me-
moires(Paris, 1995), the first of a promised two volumes. Pierre Goubert, Un Parcoursd'historien
(Paris, 1996) appeared too late to be analyzed in this article.
3 Nora, who holds an appointment at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales and
is also active in journalism and publishing, has written relatively little himself. In the 1960s he
was the instigator of the Archivesseries, a collection of inexpensive volumes combining historical
documents and commentary, which was one of the first and most successful efforts to market the
work of leading French academic historians to a general public. Together with Jacques Le Goff,
he edited the collection Faire del'histoire in 1974, presenting a collective statement on behalf of
the "new" Annales-schoolhistory. He is also the publisher of LeDebat,one of the most important
French intellectual periodicals of the past fifteen years.
4 Nora, Ego-histoire,5.

project is to examine the way in which memory, the unreflective col-

lective representation of the past, is transformed into the analytic con-
struct we call history. In Nora's view, the recognition that history is a
construct calls for a new attitude on the part of those who do the con-
struction. According to Nora,
the historian's role used to be simple and his place in society clearly
defined. He was to make himself the voice of the past and to pass it
along to the future. In this role, his personality mattered less than
his function: he was to be no more than an erudite transparence, a
means of transmission.... In the final analysis, an absence obsessed
with objectivity. A new personage emerges from the upsurge of his-
tory conceived as memory, one ready, unlike his predecessors, to
acknowledge the close, intimate, personal liaison he maintains with
his subject. Even more, to proclaim it, to meditate on it, to make it,
not the obstacle, but the means of his understanding.5
Nora's somewhat overdrawn contrast between objective and per-
sonalized history repeats the Annales school's founders' diatribes
against the "positivist" historiography of their predecessors. Whereas
Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre wanted to liberate scholars to explore
the subjective dimensions of their subjects' lives, Nora contends that
the objectivist paradigm has imprisoned historians themselves, dictat-
ing that they should "keep themselves out of the way of their work, dis-
guise their personality behind their knowledge, barricade themselves
behind their notes, flee from themselves into another epoch, express
themselves only through others." 6 To complete the annihilation of this
paradigm, it is necessary to encourage and promote autobiographi-
cal reflection as part of a larger effort to re-vision the process of the
production of historical knowledge. And so, along with his project on
the sites of memory, Nora recruited leading French historians to write
essays on their own lives. The resulting volume, Essais d'ego-histoire,ap-
peared in 1987.
Nora's introduction to the volume framed the project as part of
the contemporary critique of objectivism, in history and in other disci-
plines. He also linked it to a development internal to the historical
discipline, the resurgence of interest in contemporary history which
has been one of the marked characteristics of French historiography in
the past few decades. Now that the events of the historian's own lifetime
have gained the status of respectable subjects of historical study, how

5 Pierre Nora, "Entre Memoire et Histoire," in Les Lieux de memoire.I. La REpublique

1984), xxxiii.
6 Nora, Ego-histoire,5.

can historians who participated in one way or another in those events

not include themselves in the picture? "How can one ... not be led to
see oneself as an object of inquiry, and above all the historian, doubly
put in question?"7 Nora's contrast between completely self-effacing
"objectivist" scholars and heroically self-reflexive ego-historians was
certainly exaggerated, particularly in France, where many historians,
such as Georges Lefebvre, had openly related their work to their politi-
cal commitments. But his argument provided intellectual justification
for historians to write, not just about their causes, but about them-
selves, at a time when, as Georges Duby notes in his memoir, several
French historians had achieved the status of celebrities and could be
tempted to believe that there would be an audience for such writings.8
Even before Nora's volume appeared, several French historians
had published accounts of their lives conceived independently of his
enterprise. In 1980 Michel Winock, whose personal recollection of the
last years of the Fourth Republic had demonstrated the power of con-
temporary history written by an engaged observer, invited Philippe
Aries to contribute to a series of contemporary memoirs.9 The result-
ing text, an edited transcript of interviews titled Un Historien du di-
manche (A Sunday historian), demonstrated the potential of the genre.
Aries was especially well prepared to succeed as an autobiographer. His
books on the history of childhood and on attitudes toward death had
attracted general readers as well as historians, and there was a special
piquancy to his story because he had achieved celebrity as a historian
while making a living in a completely unrelated profession. (When his
books first began to attract attention, other French historians some-
times identified him as a "banana merchant." In reality, he was a career
civil servant responsible for compiling data on trade in tropical prod-
ucts.) His story also had a certain shock value. Many of Aries's readers,
particularly in the United States, were unprepared for the revelation
that the apostle of the history of childhood was an unapologetic ex-
member of the rightwing Action francaise movement.10 The success of
his book generated a definite imitation effect among other French his-
torians, many of whom knew him personally.

7 Ibid., 6.
8 Duby, History,88.
9 Michel Winock, La Rtpubliquese meurt(Paris, 1978). Covering only the years 1956-58 and
emphasizing public events as experienced by the author, then a student, Winock's book cannot
really be classified as an autobiography. In its personal tone and its linking of personal and public
experience, however, it clearly pointed in the direction of ego-histoire and provided an important
demonstration of the genre's potential interest.
10 Gordon Wright's review of Aries's memoir, TimesLiterarySupplement,10 Oct. 1980, 1132,
is typical of the dismay with which American historians greeted this revelation.

It would be tempting to see Aries as providing a practical example

of a historian's autobiography and Nora as elaborating a theoretical
justification for such projects. In fact, however, Aries's enterprise also
reflected theoretical concerns. In essays written before his major his-
torical works, Aries had expatiated on the intensely personal roots of
his passion for the past and on the reasons why he rejected the sci-
entific model of the scholar as a detached, objective observer. Grow-
ing up in the interwar period, Aries wrote, people of his generation
were acutely conscious of the way in which events invaded the private
realm. They "no longer had a sense of their personal lives as some-
thing autonomous. There was hardly a moment of the day which was
not affected by some political decision or some public agitation."11His
own personal experience was more sheltered: his family clung to tradi-
tional values, supported the Actionfranfaise,and acted in many ways as
though the ancien regime had never died. Nevertheless, growing up
in Paris, "the city of the technical age," he could not share his parents'
uncritical attitude toward the past.l2 His own life experience drama-
tized the distinction that Nora would later underline between memory,
the unconsciously formed representation of the past, and history, its
disciplined reconstruction.
As a child and an adolescent, Aries recalled feeling driven to dis-
cover the true history behind his family's nostalgic recollections. He
devoured textbooks and chronologies, filling in gaps and straightening
out facts. But the force driving him was religious, not scientific. "The
past seemed to him something different, but infinitely desirable. ... It
wouldn't be necessary to push me very far to make me recognize in my
communion with the past my first religious experience." What held for
Aries should hold, too, for all true historians: "In this vision in which
all ages are brought together and reunited, the savant, freed from his
objectivity, experiences a holy joy, something very close to grace."13
From the start of his career, then, Aries was convinced that the quest
for historical knowledge was an intensely personal one, conditioned by
the historian's own experiences. The autobiographical mode was not
something he discovered at the end of his life, but the framework in
which all of his historical projects had been conceived from the start.
At the time of his autobiographical essay, Aries found a response
to his search for a personally meaningful history in the work of the two

11Philippe Aries, Le Tempsde I'histoire(Monaco, 1954), 9. This autobiographical essay, the

first in this collection, is dated 1946.
12Aries, Temps,17.
13 Ibid., 22, 24.

founding fathers of the Annales school, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre.
He gave their approach to history a label quite different from those
usually applied to it: "l'histoireexistentielle," or "existentialist history,"
thereby associating it with the intensely subjectivist philosophical mode
of the postwar years. For Aries, the essential element of this new ap-
proach was not its interest in ordinary people or its openness to the
social sciences, the two characteristics most commonly associated with
the Annales tradition, but the awareness of the contrast between the
historian's consciousness and that of the past. To succeed, the historian
thus needed to be self-conscious: "It would seem difficult to under-
stand the nature of the past, if one mutilates in oneself the awareness of
one's own time. The historian can no longer be a man of the study, the
savant of caricature, barricaded behind his boxes of notecards and his
books, sheltered from the tumult outside. Such a person has deadened
his faculty of astonishment, and no longer recognizes the contrasts of
history." In language more often associated with the historiography of
our own day than with that of the 1940s, Aries wrote that "history con-
ceives itself as a dialogue in which the present is never forgotten." 15
An awareness of the historical conditioning of one's own life thus
seemed to the young Aries a requirement for the success of a re-
searcher's historical scholarship, for only when one understood both
the past and the present could one really understand history. Aries's
autobiographical memoir in 1980 amounted to a restatement and em-
pirical demonstration of the validity of the positions the author had
staked out on philosophical grounds more than three decades earlier.
By enlisting other historians for his ego-histoireproject, Pierre Nora took
up Aries's philosophical challenge on a grand scale, setting out to dem-
onstrate the relevance of personal experience to the development of
the entire Annales historiographical tradition.
Nora's was a bold move. In the three decades since Aries's early
essays, the Annales school had developed in a very different direction
from the self-scrutinizing approach he had suggested. Its leading pro-
ponents emphasized the quantification of data and a rapprochement
with the more impersonal social sciences, particularly economics, soci-
ology, and demography, rather than elaborating on the relationship
between the scholar and the object of study or suggesting that his-
torical scholarship satisfied a need for personal justification. It was
easy to overlook the occasional confessional element that crept into
even the most scientistic discussions of historical issues, such as Fer-

14Aries, "L'Histoireexistentielle," in Tempsde l'histoire,290-311. The essay is dated 1949.

15 Aries, Temps,302, 310-11.

nand Braudel's famous essay on "History and the Social Sciences: The
LongueDuree,"in which Braudel remarked that he had turned to the
contemplation of long time spans "during a rather gloomy captivity"
as a prisoner of war from 1940 to 1945. "Rejecting events and the time
in which events take place was a way of placing oneself to one side,
sheltered, so as to get some sort of perspective, to be able to evaluate
them better, and not wholly to believe in them," Braudel wrote.16The
recognition Aries's own books began to receive in the late 1960s and
1970s was part of a larger turn away from the Braudelian paradigm
toward the histoiredes mentalitesand a more anthropological approach
to the past, but an emphasis on the historian's personality was still not
a prominent element in the Annalesstyle.
Perhaps not wanting to scare off potential contributors, Nora was
careful to define his initiative in such a way as to avoid making it seem
like a complete plunge into the murky waters of narcissism often asso-
ciated with personal recollections. "No falsely literary autobiography,
or unnecessarily intimate confessions, no abstract profession of prin-
ciples, no attempt at amateur psychoanalysis,"he warned his colleagues
in the preface to their joint volume.17Ego-histoire also differs from con-
ventional autobiography in that different life histories are printed and
are meant to be read side by side, forming a sort of series analogous
to the serial data featured in so many Annales-school monographs.
Whereas autobiography highlights the unique and the personal, the
essays in Nora's collection invite comparisons and a stress on common
experiences. Nora thus hoped to overcome historians' habitual reser-
vations about autobiography by presenting autobiographical texts as
contributions to a serious historical enterprise.18
The contributors to Nora's volume were, by design, a mixed group.
Pierre Chaunu, Georges Duby, and Jacques Le Goff were unquestion-
ably identified with the Annalesschool. Maurice Agulhon and Michelle
Perrot, however, were specialists in nineteenth-century social history,
a domain the Annalisteshad never laid claim to, and Raoul Girardet
and Rene Remond were associated with the Institut des etudes poli-
tiques, an institution normally assumed to exist in a hostile relationship

16Fernand Braudel, "History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Dure," in Fernand
Braudel, On History,trans. Sarah Matthews (Chicago, 1980), 47. The preface to Braudel's posthu-
mously published Identityof Francerevealed a scholar with an intensely personal relationship to
his subject, as Braudel proclaimed that he "love[d] France with the same complicated and de-
manding passion asJules Michelet" (Braudel, L'ldentitede la France[Paris, 1986], 3 vols., 1:9-10).
17Nora, Ego-histoire,7.
18 For a more extensive analysis of the conflict between commitment to academic scholar-
ship and autobiography see Jeremy D. Popkin, "Self/Knowledge: Reflections on the Problem of
Academic Autobiography" (forthcoming).

with the Annalistes' bastion at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences
sociales. Nora seems to have given his collaborators common guide-
lines, and the essays tend to follow a similar pattern. The participants
are permitted discussion of family background and schooling ad libi-
tum-six of seven take up these subjects in detail -but with a veil drawn
over most of the traces that a Freudian analyst would seize upon. Nora,
who was one of the first associates of the Annales school to proclaim
"the return of the event,"19 appears to have asked his contributors
to say something about the major political events of the period-the
First World War, February 1934, the Popular Front, Munich, the defeat
of 1940-but not necessarily about the changes in everyday life that
Jacques Le Goff, at least, considers more significant.20 Other obligatory
topics include reactions to the Sorbonne of the 1940s, to the Annales
school, to Communism, to the Algerian War, and to May 1968, the
latter being the last public event referred to in most of these essays
(which were written in the early 1980s).
Nora's schema is a legitimate one but in some ways also confining.
Nora himself notes, for example, the difference in tone between his six
male contributors' essays and that of the lone woman, Michelle Perrot,
who injected a more intimate and personal note into her work.21 The
advantage of Nora's format is its comparative structure. The disadvan-
tage, which becomes clearer when one compares the Nora narratives
with longer autobiographical texts published independently of it-in
one instance, by one of his own contributors-is that the exclusion of
the purely personal and the idiosyncratic deprives the essays of the
individualistic passion that surfaces more clearly when the author sets
his or her own limits.
The contrast between Raoul Girardet's contribution to Nora's vol-
ume and the longer memoir Girardet published a few years later in-
dicates the cost of Nora's exclusions. In his essay for Nora's volume,
Girardet mentions that he was active in the Resistance and later in the
defense of lAlgerie fransaise, but says that the details are too compli-
cated to be explained.22 One has to turn to his book to discover both
his highly ironic view of his Resistance activities as largely purposeless
and the fact that he was nevertheless arrested for them and only nar-
rowly escaped deportation to Buchenwald. And only in the book does

19 Pierre Nora, "Le Retour de 1'evenement," in Faire de I'histoire,ed. Jacques Le Goff and
Pierre Nora (Paris, 1974), 1:210-27.
20 Le Goff, "LAppetit de I'histoire," in Nora, Ego-histoire,174-75.
21 Nora, "Conclusion," in Ego-histoire,359.
22 Girardet, "L'Ombrede la guerre," in Nora, Ego-histoire,154-55.

one also discover that Girardet was an active participant in the clan-
destine Organisation armee secrete (OAS) and spent two months in jail
on suspicion of complicity in its plots to kill de Gaulle.23 The more dis-
creet version of Girardet's life in Nora's volume hardly does justice to
the complexity of his engagement in the making of the history that
he also wrote about in his books on French nationalism and attitudes
toward the French Empire.
Much the same can be said about the memoirs contributed by
former Communist Party members in the Nora volume. Nora opines,
no doubt correctly, that his sample of seven contributors underrep-
resents the Party's influence on the historical profession, an opinion
shared by Rene Remond for whom "the symbiosis established between
the historical discipline and this party is one of the major aspects
of the intellectual history of the postwar period."24 Three of Nora's
seven contributors testify to involvement with the Party, but only one-
Maurice Agulhon-was active in it for an extended period. None ac-
knowledges having been particularly scarred by the experience. When
one turns to the longer, more personal memoirs of Emmanuel Le Roy
Ladurie, Alain Besan_on, and above all, Annie Kriegel, however, one
sees that they were haunted by their time in the Party for years after-
ward, even though France never suffered from McCarthyism and their
careers were never affected. The need to come to terms with their
Communist pasts gives these autobiographies an intensity that Nora's
Judged on the basis of style, none of the independently published
autobiographies are a match for the elegantly written contributions
to the Nora volume, whose contributors clearly labored intensely over
their writing, searching for the striking opening sentence and the
thoughtful conclusion. Several of the full-length memoirs are edited
transcripts of interviews, with both the directness and the rambling
character that goes with such texts. Left to themselves, the individual
autobiographers take up some of the topics Nora directed his collabo-
rators to discuss: all mention the impact of the Second World War, all
discuss political engagement, all those who get that far include reflec-
tions on the events of May 1968. But the emphasis given these events
is very different in these solo projects. More importantly, private con-
cerns, largely edited out of the Nora essays, get their due place. It is
true that, with the exception of Annie Kriegel's massive text and Paul

23 Girardet, Singulierementlibre,69-73, 160-62. Francois Bluche, another of the historian-

memoirists, was also arrested for his OASactivities.
24 Remond, in Nora, Ego-histoire,338.

Veyne's Stendhalian memories of youthful adventures in Italy, we do

not hear much about love, marriage, and family. But we do get Alain
Besanqon's devastating judgment on the retarded intellectual develop-
ment that, in his view, left him vulnerable to Communism, his "ado-
lescence, which I didn't grow out of until I was forty," 25 and we suffer
along with Le Roy Ladurie as he recalls reviewing his own period in the
Party and recognizing "that I had gambled away my youth and lost it." 26

A Collective Portrait
Pierre Nora justified his collective autobiographical project on the
grounds that the French historians born in the interwar years had in
fact shared a common historical experience and pursued a common
approach to the writing of history. He defined his contributors as "an
intermediate generation. Pioneers but heirs of pioneers, who deserve
recognition, if not for having made the decisive breach, at least for
having enlarged it and conquered the terrain, for having carried out
the mass escape from the ghetto of the university . .. [and] installed
the tribe of historians-for how long? -in the promised land."27 In one
way or another, Nora claimed that all his colleagues were heirs of Marc
Bloch and Lucien Febvre and of the Annaliste tradition the two of them
founded. With perhaps a little nudging from Nora in some cases, even
those French historian-autobiographers who have never been particu-
larly identified with that movement, such as Annie Kriegel, wind up
testifying to its influence.28 She and several other authors testify to the
impact of reading through the volumes of the "first" Annales, the pre-
war version of the journal.
The Annales paradigm emphasized the primacy of collective forces
rather than the importance of individual action in the shaping of his-
tory. Autobiographical writing, on the other hand, is an exercise in
individuation, highlighting the unique thoughts and experiences of
the author. There might thus seem to be a paradox in the fact that this
particular group of historians should have produced so many autobio-
graphical memoirs. On the other hand, the Annales school aspired to
a "total" history that would take in all aspects of human experience,
thereby validating the importance of the lives of ordinary people and
the study of seemingly trivial events. It is surely no coincidence that
Philippe Aries, Georges Duby, Paul Veyne, and Michelle Perrot, four

25 Besancon, Generation,50.
26 Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier,
27 Nora, Ego-histoire,368.
28 Kriegel, Comprendre, 687.

of the principal editors of the five-volume Historyof PrivateLife, one of

the major collaborative projects inspired by the Annalestradition, have
also written autobiographies or ego-histoires.
Although the memoirists under study here are not a representative
sample of their generation of French historians-for one thing, they
are all among the most celebrated and successful of their age cohort-
their recollections do point to certain common patterns in their lives.
These authors are primarily social historians, but they make little effort
to analyze the social determinants of their careers. However, one can
see that, with a few exceptions, they came from bourgeois homes. Le
Roy Ladurie's family were aristocratic landowners - his father served as
minister of agriculture under Vichy-whereas Pierre Goubert's father
was a worker not far removed from peasant origins. (Both made their
reputations with exhaustively researched, heavily quantitative regional
monographs focusing on the lives of the poor, indicating the difficulty
of making any simple connection between personal background and
historiographical orientation.) Of the other historians in the group,
six describe fairly prosperous family situations-- Perrot, whose father
was a leather merchant in Paris; Bluche, whose father owned a factory;
Aries, son of an electrical engineer; Besanqon, the son of a doctor;
Vidal-Naquet, son of a politically influential lawyer; and Roudinesco,
whose parents were both psychiatrists. The others came from more
modest circumstances, and their ascent into university teaching repre-
sented a clear move upward in social status. Agulhon, Ozouf, and Le
Goff were the children of lycee professors, Chaunu and Girardet were
raised in military households, Kriegel's father was a salesman, Veyne's
father ran an unspecified business, Duby reports an artisanal back-
ground, and Milza was the son of an Italian immigrant who worked
primarily in hotels. In general, we have to do neither with offspring
of a self-reproducing academic elite nor with true outsiders, but with
beneficiaries of the rigorous meritocratic French educational system,
which allows a certain amount of movement within the bourgeoisie but
not much access to those lacking the necessary cultural background.
(The fact that three of the most recent of these texts (Kriegel's, Roudi-
nesco's, and Vidal-Naquet's) are byJews or part-Jewsand one (Milza's)
is by the son of an Italian immigrant is shifting the balance of the col-
lection toward authors who have had to wrestle with the question of
their Frenchness. None of these accounts reflects any experience of
marginalization within the French school system, however.)
Their geographic origins varied, although Parisians are certainly
overrepresented. Aries, Besancon, Duby, Girardet, Kriegel, Perrot,
Milza, Vidal-Naquet, and Roudinesco all grew up in the capital. Agul-

hon, Bluche, Le Goff, and Veyne hail from the Midi, the only other
region that stands out as having produced a substantial number of
future scholars. It is true that even many of the Parisians recall a strong
tie to some provincial locality, often through summer visits to grand-
parents. In no case, however, does one get a strong sense of identifi-
cation with a particular terroiror with the rural life that was to become
the major subject of so many of these scholars' researches. Agulhon,
whose parents were small-town schoolteachers, remarks that they had
no romantic identification with the countryside. Michelle Perrot evokes
summers at her grandparents' home in the Vendee, but they were
small-town notables, not peasants. Even many of the "provincials"had
parents who had established themselves far from their own places of
origin. Although they do not dwell on it, these future academics were
prepared to become cosmopolitans even before they entered an edu-
cational system designed to give them a national frame of reference.
Most of these historians remember being voracious readers from
an early age. As children, they recall a diverse literary diet. Several,
and not only the men, specify an addiction toJules Verne; others refer
more generally to adventure books or war stories. Most learned from
an early age to find a pleasurable evasion from their immediate sur-
roundings through books, and they see a clear connection between
this childhood experience and their subsequent careers. These ego-
historienswere also products of the Third Republic's schools. Whether
it is because age casts a glow over the years of youth or because they
honestly consider things to be worse now, the group as a whole rates
the present-day schooling received by the generation of their grand-
children inferior to what they went through. "One can hardly imagine
how lucky the lycee students of that 'decadent' Third Republic were,"
Chaunu writes. 'As far as public education was concerned, we enjoyed
an excellent heritage."29None proposes any explanation of why French
education should have deteriorated just at the time when their group
was raising historical scholarship to new levels of excellence.
Most of these memoirists went through their lycee years and some
of their university education during the years of crisis before, dur-
ing, and just after the Second World War. (Roudinesco, born in 1944,
represents a different generation.) More than half attended the Ecole
normale superieure. (Only Vidal-Naquet describes the agony of having
failed the entrance competition.) From there, most went on to the
"old"Sorbonne. In general, they find definite virtues in what they uni-
versally refer to as the positivist orientation of the period's university
29Chaunu,"LeFilsde la mort,"in Nora,Ego-histoire,

history teaching-intellectual honesty, respect for careful research-

but also a sense of intellectual conservatism and a separation from the
dramatic events going on outside university walls. One is reminded
of the French educational system's tremendous centralization by the
frequency with which the same teachers' names-Ernest Labrousse,
Charles Pouthas, Pierre Renouvin-reappear in these memoirs. An
equivalent set of American historians' recollections would certainly
refer to a more varied set of mentors.
Aside from Aries, who never sought an academic post, the entire
group also benefited from the unprecedented expansion of the French
system of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s. All found jobs
easily; few spent much time toiling in provincial lycees-but what an
experience for the students in Compiegne whose history teachers at
one point were a trio composed of Annie Kriegel, Francois Furet, and
Denis Richet! Many recall happy days at growing provincial universities
during the 1950s-Agulhon in Aix, Michelle Perrot at Caen-while
others quickly found posts in Paris. In due time, however, all obtained
positions in the capital. The almost uniform pattern of their careers--
education in Paris, apprenticeship in the provinces, return to Paris-
contrasts sharply with the more diversified experience of American
Can one speak of any common psychological characteristics that
emerge from these memoirs? Surprisingly, in view of the distinction
of his contributors, Nora detects a certain lack of intellectual self-
confidence in the choice of history over other disciplines: "Manyclearly
admit that they didn't think themselves capable of scaling the heights
of philosophy, or worthy of associating with the great figures of litera-
ture .... Going into history for many of them was a further extension
of the act of intellectual and social modesty they had made in choosing
to become professors. [Their choice] reflected a spirit of seriousness, a
humble submission to the record of reality, a willingness to undertake
solitary labor in archives and libraries."30None anticipated that his-
tory, a relatively minor presence in French intellectual life at the time
they started their careers, would obtain the prestige it now enjoys and
elevate them along with it.
Although there are many common elements in these historians'
recollections, the strongest impression one carries away from reading
them is of the diversity of reactions to the traumatic events of mid-
century French history. One event, it is true, seems to have pervaded
all their lives: the First World War, whose lingering aftereffects nearly

30 Nora, Ego-histoire,366.

all of them recall as having dominated the atmosphere into which they
were born. Every one of them could write, as does Raoul Girardet,
that "the time of my childhood was when the monuments to the fallen
were still new." 31In contrast to what one would expect from a group of
American authors of the same generation, only Pierre Milza, the son of
an Italian immigrant whose career was blighted by the period's protec-
tionist legislation, recalls having been greatly affected by the economic
troubles of the 1930s, testimony to the relative mildness of the Depres-
sion in France.
With the exception of Roudinesco, all these historians lived
through the Second World War in France, but its impact on them
varied dramatically. Philippe Aries, Raoul Girardet, and Rene Remond
were old enough to serve in the French Army in 1940, Aries and Girar-
det in the same unit. Aries's recollection is of confusion and military
unpreparedness; Girardet recalls having wept after hearing Petain's an-
nouncement of the armistice. Remond, however, laconically remarks
that he was "happy enough during my service in spite of the circum-
stances. ... I acquired a taste for the exercise of a modest responsi-
bility- I was an officer candidate -which I gave up with some regret."32
For both Aries and Girardet, the defeat shook their previous faith in
Charles Maurras and the ideology of the Action fran_aise, which had
unrealistically glorified France's strength and which offered no guid-
ance for the situation resulting from the German occupation. But the
two friends reacted quite differently. Aries joined the Petain regime's
colonial-administration bureaucracy, "just at the moment when Vichy
France was losing its empire," as he recalls.33 Girardetjoined the Resis-
tance, and although he considers that his activities "were rarely really
worthwhile," they were serious enough to result in his arrest in 1944;
he only narrowly escaped deportation to Buchenwald.34 Chaunu re-
members that his life was barely affected by the war. The Sorbonne
continued to function "almost normally," and on the day of the lib-
eration of Paris, he continued to read at his desk in the Bibliotheque
nationale until a librarian threw him out.35 For the Jews Annie Kriegel
and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, on the other hand, the war years completely
ruptured the pattern of family life and schooling. When her family fled
Paris for Grenoble, in the unoccupied zone, Kriegel joined the Com-

31 Girardet, cited in Nora, Ego-histoire,139.

32 Aries, Historien, 74-75; Girardet Singulierementlibre, 51; Remond, cited in Nora, Ego-
33 Aries, Historiendu dimanche,79-82.
34 Girardet, Singulierementlibre,62, 79.
35 Chaunu, in Nora, Ego-histoire,75.

munist resistance movement, thereby determining the course of her

life for years to come. Vidal-Naquet's parents moved the family to Mar-
seille; in 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz, although the future
historian and his siblings escaped capture.
Not only do the autobiographies show that there was great diver-
sity reaction to common national experiences, but they demonstrate
that the patterns of this reaction were often unpredictable. Philippe
Aries, in his youth a member of the Action francaise and later a die-
hard defender of the French claim to Algeria, is also the historian-
autobiographer most sympathetic to the student revolt of May 1968, in
which he detected "a suspicion of the centralized state, an attachment
... to intimate communities," and other values not unrelated to his own
communitarian conservatism.36 Paul Veyne, an ex-Communist, joined
Aries in greeting the student rebellion, but for very different reasons:
"I didn't believe a word of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it."37 Kriegel,
Besancon, and Le Roy Ladurie experienced their break with the Com-
munist Party as an agonizing rupture; Agulhon moved away from the
Party so imperceptibly that he claims to have hardly noticed the sepa-
ration. The two most outspoken adherents of traditionalist Catholicism
are Besancon, who arrived at this position from a fervent Communism,
and Aries, who seems never to have wavered in his religious views.
Chaunu and Bluche, two originally Catholic historians with strong con-
servative leanings, both converted to Protestantism-Chaunu in 1954,
before Vatican II had alienated old-line Catholics-whereas Perrot, a
fervent Catholic as an adolescent, later found her way to Communism
and then to a form of feminism. Raoul Girardet, whose spiritual itin-
erary took him from the Action francaise to the Resistance and then
to the anti-Gaullist OASin the early 1960s, sees in his own ideological
itinerary and those of the militants he knew in all three of those move-
ments a refutation of all attempts to give contemporary French history
the character of a rationally explicable clash of ideologies.
Regardless of which movements they embraced, most of these
historian-autobiographers did commit themselves to some significant
cause at one moment or another of their lives. And when one tries to
define what historical lesson they drew from the interplay between per-
sonal and professional life, it is often the tension between ideological
and professional commitments that seems most important. For some,
like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, immersion in historical research pro-
vided a new faith that helped the process of psychic healing after the

36 Aries, Historiendu dimanche,184.

37 Veyne, Quotidien,115.

rupture with a god that had failed. "Destalinization produced a genera-

tion of searchers and hard workers" who sought through their efforts
to disprove the Party's claim that "truth, in particular historical truth
... is always relative to the current needs of the French Communist
Party and the circumstances of the moment."38 Michelle Perrot cites
her brush with Communism in explaining why she opposes making
women's history a distinct subspecialty: "'Feminist science' makes no
more sense than 'proletarian science.' 39For others, ideological com-
mitment led to history. Rene Remond credits his lifelong immersion in
the Catholic tradition with having kept him from believing that social
and occupational status alone determine human existence. "Facts of a
cultural, psychological, intellectual or ideological order have their own
existence and enjoy a certain autonomy."40 Aries and Girardet, both
longtime adherents of the Action franqaise, claim to have outgrown
Maurras's movement but still see it as useful in promoting their under-
standing of history. Girardet claims that the Action franqaise taught
him "to apply a certain logic to political questions, consequently to de-
velop the spirit of analysis and critical acuity, to explore the meaning
of words. ... In other words, it was by following the method that was
taught that it became possible to free oneself from the dogmatism in-
herent in the teaching."41
None of the authors of these autobiographical texts embraces the
postmodernist subjectivism espoused by Pierre Nora. In their pub-
lished historical works one finds few traces of explicit self-reflexivity.
(To date, the clearest exception to this is Pierre Milza's history of
the Italian immigrant community in France, Voyagesen Ritalie. Written
after the publication of Nora's Essais d'ego-histoireand clearly affected
by it, Milza's book combines a reflection on his discovery of his Italian
roots with a fairly conventional social and political history of the sub-
ject.) In the searches for faith documented in these personal memoirs,
however, one finds a vindication of the insights contained in Philippe
Aries's essays from the 1940s. For these scholars, history was indeed a
spiritual commitment. Often, it was a commitment that liberated those
who embraced it from another system of belief, one that had come to
seem too rigid and confining. In other cases, the commitment to his-
tory developed in symbiosis with a commitment to other ideals. More
than the readers of their massive thesesmay have realized, however, the

38 Le Roy Ladurie, Paris-Montpellier,159, 164.

39 Perrot, "L'Airdu Temps," in Nora, Ego-histoire,292.
40 R6mond, in Nora, Ego-histoire,333.
41 Girardet, Singulierementlibre,43.

historians of Alain Besangon's generationfound in the exercise of their

chosen profession a way of giving meaning to their lives. Somewhat to
our surprise, Aries's label, "l'histoire existentielle," turns out to fit them
as well as, perhaps better than, it fits Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre.
On the other hand, we do not find many clues as to what led most
of the older authors in this group to write the history that they did.
With the notable exception of Georges Duby, whose HistoryContinues
is explicitly devoted to his scholarly career, few devote much space to
discussing their own research and the reasons why they chose their
subjects. Even Duby does little to link his interests to any personal as-
pect of his life; he attributes the direction of his work to the impact
of his teachers and of his reading of the works of Marc Bloch.42 If
Raoul Giradet, son of an army officer and ardent defender of lAlgerie
franfaise, seems predestined to have written the books he produced
on the French military and l'ideecoloniale,why did Pierre Chaunu, also
raised in an army household, build his career on a detailed study of
the influx of American silver into sixteenth-century Spain? Many of
these authors emphasize the accidental character of the choices that
led them to their subjects of study, choices made because of the acces-
sibility of particular archives, the preferences of dissertation directors,
and other factors unrelated to their own backgrounds. Avowedly con-
tent with their choices of career, these memoirists nevertheless seem
reluctant to probe very deeply into what meaning the particular sub-
jects they have written about may have had in their lives. There are
several exceptions to this rule, however, and their autobiographical
publications pose particularly interesting questions about the relation-
ship between history and autobiography.

Testing the Limits

Of the recent French historians' memoirs that pose real questions
about the interaction between scholarship and personal life, Annie
Kriegel's Ce quej'ai cru comprendre (What I thought I had understood)
is certainly the most substantial. At eight hundred pages of very small
type, it is almost certainly the longest historian's autobiography ever
written. Kriegel's project started as a contribution to Nora's Ego-histoire
volume, but, as she put it, her response to his invitation was completed
"with years of delay and several hundred pages too many," and in the
form of a text that systematically exceeded Nora's proposed bound-
aries in all directions (11). The enormous length and detail of Kriegel's

42 Duby, History,5-6.

memoir is testimony to a powerful ego. Nevertheless, the book is not

simply the exercise in self-indulgence that its size might suggest. More
than most academic historians, Kriegel had a right to insist that parts
of her life merit recording. In addition to her scholarly career, Krie-
gel had been a Resistance activist, an important figure in the French
Communist Party during the Stalinist period, a leading journalistic
commentator on French politics for nearly three decades, and a promi-
nent figure in French Jewish intellectual circles. She also saw herself
as having lived out many of the tensions inherent in educated French
women's lives in modern times.
Unlike any of the other recent French historians' autobiographies,
Kriegel's opus mimics professional scholarly history, and specifically
the these d'etat, that massive epitome of French standards in historical
scholarship. A "note concerning my archives" at the end describes her
"30 linear meters" of documents, "classified and registered in different
series" in imitation of official depositories, and frequently referred to
in the text. The numerous footnotes-a rarity in autobiographical lit-
erature -cite not only these personal papers but many printed sources,
including scholarly literature dealing with events Kriegel experienced.
Whereas most of her colleagues make it clear that their autobiographi-
cal writings are to be put in a different category from their historical
publications, Kriegel thus wanted her autobiography to be read as
scholarly history, as a documented narrative of past events.
Although Kriegel's book has the appearance of a conventional
work of scholarly history, it differs from conventional autobiography
in its structure, or lack of it. Autobiographies traditionally present a
fairly integrated picture of their authors, usually in the form of a con-
tinuous chronological narrative. Kriegel's book, however, consists of
distinct sections dealing with different aspects of her life. The sections
on her childhood and the war years are fairly simple in form, but from
1945 onward, it becomes increasingly difficult to fit the different pieces
together. Kriegel's ten years in the French Communist Party take up
close to half the total text, a space out of proportion to their chrono-
logical place in her life, and the narrative breaks down into parallel
sections that cover separate aspects of her political activities during
the same time period. The same pattern recurs even more noticeably in
the subsequent section of the book, on her life after her break with the
Party. Private and family life, academic career, journalistic activities,
and Kriegel's struggle with herJewish identity get separate treatment,
rather than being integrated into a single narrative.
One might argue that this pattern simply reflects Kriegel's inability
to organize her material, a difficulty suggested both by the overall size

of the book and by her overgrown sentences. No such difficulty occurs

in her academic writing, however: her book on the origins of French
Communism, which is comparable in length to her memoir, is quite
clearly organized. Nor is there any indication that she deliberately
chose to produce a "'weird and unsymmetrical'" text as a statement
about the difficulty of being a woman in a male-dominated profes-
sional world, as the American women's historian Mary Beard did in
the 1930s.43 Kriegel was an outspoken critic of feminism, and if she
nevertheless described her life in a pattern that echoes many feminist
scholars' contentions about the difficulty of shaping women's lives into
the linear narratives that men traditionally produce, it was not for con-
scious ideological purposes. Precisely for that reason, Kriegel's book
does suggest that there are special difficulties confronting any woman
who tries to fit all her experiences into one coherent narrative. Her
work, which strains the boundaries of history, also pushes against those
of conventional autobiography.
Although Kriegel's book has the look of a historical monograph,
she was as aware as anyone that self-narration runs contrary to the
usual precepts of the discipline. Like most historians, Kriegel asserted
that she hesitated before embarking on her project. In line with her
discipline's aversion to subjectivity, she had always "scrupulously ban-
ished from my articles, my studies, my books, everything that might
appear to be only personal opinion, subjective judgment, personal tes-
timony" (11). Unlike most other historian-autobiographers, however,
she claimed that her reticence also had roots in her personal experi-
ence and her situation as a woman. She cited the emphasis on pudeur in
her childhood socialization, the "inclination, acquired from the time
I participated in clandestine activities, of secrecy, or at least extreme
discretion," the impact of having been hard of hearing since adoles-
cence, and the conviction, widely shared among women of her genera-
tion, that a woman "had to, out of concern for and deference to those
close to her, be on her guard against exposing herself too much to the
upheavals of the century" (12). (The text itself makes clear how system-
atically Kriegel defied this latter stricture!)
Her autobiography revealed how hard Kriegel had worked to dis-
tance her published scholarship from a personal past that had not
merely colored her thinking but had totally determined much of her
life: her years as a member of the French Communist movement. Un-
like her historian colleagues Alain Besancon and Emmanuel Le Roy

43 On Mary Beard's embrace of "weirdness" see Bonnie G. Smith, "Seeing Mary Beard,"
FeministStudies10 (1984): 399-416.

Ladurie, Kriegel had been not merely a Party member but one of its
leaders. For several years she sat on the central committee of the Party's
Seine Federation and had special responsibilities for matters involving
intellectuals and students (560). Kriegel's Communist past was never
a secret. Her academic contemporaries remembered her activities all
too well, and Kriegel commented that her students enjoyed discover-
ing "traces of my old excesses" while doing their research (381). How-
ever, although her own scholarly work had dealt almost entirely with
the history of the Communist movement, she had rigorously avoided
any mention of her own connection with the subject, even in the 1985
edition of her book Les Communistesfranfais 1920-1970,44 a detailed
sociohistorical analysis which covered the period in which she was ac-
tively involved with the Party.That there was some connection between
her life and her scholarship was obvious, and others sometimes com-
mented on the fact, but Kriegel herself had too big a stake in keeping
her scholarship from being read reductively as a direct reflection of
her earlier activities to address the issue.
Kriegel's autobiography makes it clear that she was always con-
scious of the connection between her life and her historical work.
She was still in the Party when she decided to undertake a thesis
project on its origins in France. Ernest Labrousse, her dissertation di-
rector, tried to talk her out of her plan: "The initial declaration of the
topic I wanted to work on did not inspire him with enthusiasm...
The origins of French Communism, what a ticklish subject! 'Delicate,
Madame, very delicate.' He would have much preferred for me to pro-
pose something more remote in time and less susceptible to polemics.
Nevertheless, realizing that it would be that topic or none, he gave in"
(616). Unlike Michelle Perrot, who around the same time surrendered
to Labrousse's objection that her proposed thesis on French feminism
was "very trendy" and agreed to work on nineteenth-century strikes in-
stead,45Kriegel insisted on a project with an obvious relationship to her
own life. But she kept this fact out of the historical text she wrote. The
success of Kriegel's Aux origines du communismefranfais, published in
1964, owed a great deal to its appearance of scrupulous conformity to
the model of objective, scientific scholarship. Extensively documented,
it made a powerful case for Kriegel's thesis that the French Commu-
nist movement had taken shape during a unique period of crisis just

44 Annie Kriegel, with Guillaume Bourgeois, Les Communistes franfais 1920-1970, 3d ed.
(Paris, 1985). The numerous references to Kriegel in the index all refer to her scholarly publica-
45 Perrot, cited in Nora, Ego-histoire,277.

after the First World War and that it had been permanently marked by
the circumstances of its birth.
Kriegel's decision in 1991 to publish the story of her own life
and bring it into relationship with her scholarship thus involved a re-
versal of the strategy by which she had liberated herself from her
Communist past and established herself as a serious historian. But
she also rejected the combination of self-abasement and defensiveness
that often dominates ex-Communists' memoirs, including those of her
historian colleagues Alain Besan_on and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
Kriegel's historical consciousness came to her aid: she was able to see
her younger self in historical perspective and comprehend the rea-
sons for her involvement in the Party. She became involved with the
Communists during the Second World War, at a moment when her
family's Jewish origins had forced them to flee from Paris. Excluded
by Vichy's anti-Semitic legislation from the French national commu-
nity to which they had always assumed they belonged, young Jews like
Kriegel could hardly resist the attraction of a movement where "after
having lost one's name, one's home, one's neighborhood, one's school,
one's profession, one's family," one could "recover a sense of belong-
ing." Although on a moral plane, her decision cost her "the exorbitant
price of a debt, constantly paid but never extinguished," in a histori-
cal sense, the decision to join the Party was "as inescapable as it was,
at the time, honorable" (195).
At the time of the initial publication of Aux originesdu communisme
franfais, when the French Communist Partywas still essentially the same
Stalinist organization Kriegel had belonged to, an evocation in the text
of her own Communist past would undoubtedly have undermined the
credibility of her conclusions. The embrace of an objective scholarly
paradigm was a way of liberating herself from Communist indoctrina-
tion. By choosing this topic, however, Kriegel remained as involved as
ever with the Communist movement. Her thesis, governed by the para-
digm of objective scholarship, actually violated one of the key tenets of
that paradigm by concealing the author's intimate relationship with her
subject. The publication of Kriegel's intensely personal autobiography
did not simply deconstruct the credibility of her earlier scholarship. For
one thing, Kriegel's memoir makes it clear that only a scholar with her
extensive inside knowledge of the Party could have tracked down the
sources she used, many of them provided by elderly ex-militants. Her
work demonstrates the value of her having been an insider, possessed of
the "local knowledge" that enabled her to find what a perfectly disinter-
ested and objective scholar might never have located. At the same time,
however, her autobiography also convincingly demonstrates the value

of the historical research paradigm she followed in her thesis, without

which her work could easily have been dismissed as purely ideological.
The case of Kriegel exemplifies the complexity of the ideal of
historical objectivity, for in a sense she produced two "objective" ac-
counts of the French Communist Party: the one that comes out of
her published research alone, legitimated by her adherence to stan-
dard scholarly protocols, and the one that comes from reading those
works in conjunction with her autobiography. These two accounts are
not fundamentally different in content, but they base their claims to
readers' acceptance on conflicting grounds. Are we persuaded on the
basis of rigorous documentation or on the basis of the author's ability
to say, "I was there"? Kriegel further confounded this issue by giving
her autobiography the appearance of a work of scholarship, suggesting
that its own claims to plausibility rested on its documentary character,
rather than, as in the case of most autobiographies, on the author's
claim to be the same person as the protagonist.46 She frequently de-
scribed events in her life as she reconstructed them from her personal
archives, asserting that she had no actual memory of the occurrences
and thus denying that her status as autobiographer gave her any privi-
leged knowledge of her own life. Kriegel's case thus upsets the claims
of both "scientific"history and "personal" autobiography.
History and autobiography mix in another way in the pages Kriegel
devoted to the personal aspects of her life. Such matters are, of course,
a normal part of the domain of autobiography, but Kriegel clearly re-
garded them as part of the domain of history too, even though they
represented an approach to the subject with which she never identified
herself. She was particularly emphatic in distancing herself from femi-
nist ideas. She unfashionably asserted that mothers do have a special
bond with their children and worried that young professional women
would suffer if they sacrificed marriage and family to their careers
(665, 666).
Paradoxically, however, the way in which Kriegel recounted her
experiences as wife and mother clearly stemmed from her recognition
that social history and women's history have made these serious topics
of historical inquiry. If one is to understand "whatmoved a woman and
what made her tick in the 1950s"-even if that woman was a leading
Communist militant-then, Kriegel asserted, one had to write about
home and family (632). Thus she described the pain and difficulty of
going through a divorce in that period, when it was still considered

46 Philippe Lejeune, "The Autobiographical Pact," trans. Katherine Leary, in Philippe Le-
jeune, On Autobiography (Minneapolis, Minn., 1989), 4-5.

abnormal in French middle-class society, and the circumstances of the

delivery of her babies in the clinics of the time, a subject that women's
historians have shown is essential to an understanding of women's ex-
perience.47At the public defense of her dissertation, she recalled that
she had violated accepted proprieties by mentioning her children: "It
was an evocation of my sex which had nothing to do with the mat-
ter ... of penetrating into a private sphere which . . . was not supposed
to be taken into account" (701). Kriegel's awareness of historians' cur-
rent interest in women's lives thus encouraged her to "go public" about
matters that she claimed had not been at the center of her own intel-
lectual concerns and to treat them not as private personal experiences
but as data of genuine historical interest.
More than any of the other recent French historian-autobiogra-
phers besides Georges Duby, Kriegel also accorded to the process of
doing historical work the dignity of being treated as a historical subject
in its own right. Few scholars have described more vividly the pleasures
of chasing elusive testimonies and sources rather than relying on "pre-
digested documentation, prepared by archival services," or have done
a better job of explaining why most historians shun large collective
research projects. "Making one's own collection, even if it is tedious,
allows one to observe first-hand exceptions, incongruities, ambiguities,
which force one to rework one's conceptual framework and one's initial
hypotheses" (677). In contrast to Arlette Farge's elegant essay on the
experience of archival research, which stresses the historian's respon-
sibility to the forgotten individuals whose lives she re-creates,48Kriegel
reminds us that modern historical writing, like the genre of autobiog-
raphy itself, is an expression of individualism, of the conviction that
there is some special value in the unique experience--the historian's,
as well as anyone else's.49
For all its richness, there are many problematic aspects in Kriegel's
autobiography. Her intemperate denunciations of those she dislikes
suggested to some critics that she never discarded the polemical style
she learned in the Communist movement. Although willing to explain
her own life as having been conditioned by historical circumstances,

47 See, for example, the excellent monograph of Francoise Thebaud, Quandnos grand-meres
donnaientla vie (Lyon, 1986).
48 Arlette Farge, Le Goutde l'archive(Paris, 1989).
49 On the connection between individualism and the genre of autobiography see the path-
breaking article of Georges Gusdorf, "Conditions and Limits of Autobiography," trans. James
Olney, in Autobiography: EssaysTheoreticaland Critical,ed. James Olney (Princeton, N.J., 1980), 28-
48; and KarlJoachim Weintraub, The Valueof theIndividual:Self and Circumstance in Autobiography
(Chicago, 1978). Both agree that modern individual self-consciousness and the autobiography as
a genre first emerge in the late eighteenth century as expressions of the modern cultural world.

she frequently denied the same understanding to others. The lengthy

passages about her childhood vacations or her love for her grandchil-
dren bring to mind French critic Philippe Lejeune's comment that
when distinguished intellectuals retell their own lives, often "not only
does critical sense vanish, and they no longer estimate very well what
might interest other people ... but it especially surprises me that they
themselves might be interested in what they are relating."50More than
any of the other recent French historians' autobiographies, however,
Kriegel's, with all its faults and excesses -indeed, in large part becauseof
them-gives us real insight into the process by which a trained scholar
wrings knowledge out of the combination of personal motives and ex-
periences with research findings and disciplinary methods.
Annie Kriegel's autobiography seems to have pushed the possibili-
ties of ego-histoire
to their limits. Her text is a sort of "total autobiogra-
phy," analogous to the "total history" promoted by the Annalesschool.
Like such histories, her autobiography found meaning in every experi-
ence the author could recall, and, like some of them, it threatened
to founder in a massive compilation of detail. No future historian-
autobiographer is likely to want to narrate his or her life in greater
detail than Kriegel has done. Her book also leaves a daunting legacy
in another regard. Kriegel was a direct participant in major historical
events of undoubted significance. Can French historians whose adult
lives will have been lived in the quieter years since 1960 adapt ego-histoire
to their purposes? The recent profusion of French historians' auto-
biographies could prove to be an irreproducible phenomenon, created
by a unique cohort of scholars whose lives happened to coincide with
national traumas of unusual intensity, with the cult of "engagement"
that flourished during their formative years as young adults, with a
marked paradigm shift within the historical discipline, and with the
energetic intervention of Pierre Nora.
Since most scholars' autobiographies are written near the end of
their authors' careers, such prognostications can only be speculative
at this point. One precocious example of the genre suggests, however,
both that the temptation of self-narration will outlive the first genera-
tion of ego-historians, and that the "children of May 1968" will come
up against new problems in presenting the relationship between their
lives and their works. Elisabeth Roudinesco, chronicler of the history
of the French psychoanalytic movement, was born a few weeks after
the liberation of Paris in 1944. She self-consciously undertakes to speak
for the generation "which found in structuralism, this unique com-

50 Lejeune, "Epilogue," in On Autobiography,


bination of literature, linguistics, philosophy, and Marxism, the basis

for an engagement different from Sartre's"(10). Although Roudinesco
was born only twelve years after Pierre Milza, the next-youngest of the
historian-autobiographers discussed here, she does indeed represent
a new generation, one with no personal memories of the era of the
world wars. Her narrative exaggerates this sense of rupture by omit-
ting any reference to her childhood years: we first meet the author at
the Cinematheque in the early 1960s, in an atmosphere light-years re-
moved from that described in the older historians' memoirs.
Roudinesco presents her autobiographical text, Genealogies,as a
"synthesis of my work as whole in the form of what is nowadays called
'ego-histoire,'" indicating a conscious debt to Nora and his collabo-
rators. But she immediately suggests that her psychoanalytic back-
ground makes such a project problematic for her. "How can one nar-
rate oneself, when one has lain on the couch? How can one pretend
to have achieved historical consciousness when one knows, at least in
part, its unconscious determinants?" (9). Not only her experience in
analysis but her coming-of-age as a product of structuralism and post-
structuralism militate against the idea. In the seminars she attended
with Gilles Deleuze and others in the late 1960s and early 1970s, "the
notion of an author was swept away"51 and with it the basic premise of
The problem of how to define the self is particularly difficult
in Roudinesco's case because her life story is bound up even more
closely with her scholarly subject than Annie Kriegel's was. Her mother
was a prominent French therapist, and it was in the family's living
room, in front of the nine-year-old future historian, that her stepfather
suggested to Lacan the name eventually adopted for the breakaway
psychoanalytic movement he helped found in 1953.52 Her later his-
torical researches on the reception of Freudian ideas in France quite
literally amounted to a reconstruction of conflicts between her mother
and her father, a psychiatrist convinced that mental problems always
had physical roots: "It is in fact through the history of medicine . . .
that I was able to understand whomy father and mother were, which
traditions of medical knowledge they belonged to" (45). Roudinesco's
researches were also a retracing of her own personal past: as a young
woman she participated in some of Lacan'sfamous seminars. To her an-

51 Elisabeth Roudinesco, JacquesLacan and Co.: A Historyof Psychoanalysisin France, 1925-

1985, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Chicago, 1990), 529.
52 Roudinesco, Lacan and Co., 248, although Roudinesco does not explain that she is the
child referred to in this passage. She recounts the story again, with herself in the picture, in Ge-

noyance, Roudinesco's work has often been interpreted in the light of

her relationships with her mother and with Lacan: She cites one critic
who "portrayed me as a brilliant academic who had dressed Lacan up
as Nero" and who classified Roudinesco as a "'case': daughter of my
mother, I had written a book that was nothing more than the expres-
sion of my subjective relationship with that all-powerful mother whose
reputation I wanted to embellish" (132). Her autobiographical essay is
thus an effort to prove that she is in conscious control of the interplay
between her life and her scholarship.
Roudinesco claims to have been fully cognizant of the difficul-
ties her personal history posed when it came to writing her historical
books. Curiously, however, she puts the articulation of these difficulties
into someone else's mouth. Reconstructing a conversation she claims
to have had with Jacques Derrida in 1985, she says that he "raised
an agonizing problem. Having been directly involved in the debates
over structuralism in the 1970s, I knew that, the day I turned to the
narration of this period of history, I would be forced to confront the
question of writing in the first person." Up until then, she had put her
historical works in the third person, "which appeared to me as a pro-
tection against the breaking through, always possible, of the I." Der-
rida warned her that if she continued in the same manner, she would
run "the true risk that the historian encounters in distancing herself
from lived events ... that of [claiming] absolute knowledge." Roudi-
nesco claims to have recognized that Derrida was right: "Impossible to
get around the problem of my participation in events with a rhetori-
cal move" (101). She nevertheless went ahead, for reasons she does not
explain, and published texts written in the third person, in which her
mother was referred to either by her maiden name or by the name of
her second husband, so that only those familiar with the author could
appreciate the depth of her connection with her topic.
Roudinesco's essay thus poses the critical questions that any French
historian who grew up in the era of structuralism and poststructural-
ism will have to grapple with: is autobiography possible in a climate
that lacks a firm belief in the coherence of the self? Can historical
knowledge be distinguished from personal experience, particularly in a
case as convoluted as Roudinesco's? Unfortunately, both Roudinesco's
autobiography and her historical publications do not really respond to
the questions she frames so forcefully. The self-portrait in Genealogies
is strangely incomplete, reminding this American reader irresistibly of
the title of Ronald Reagan's autobiography: Where's theRestofMe?Roudi-
nesco-the daughter of a famous child psychologist-omits any men-
tion of her childhood. A former participant in the enormously signifi-

cant encounter between French feminism and Lacan, she says nothing
about sexual identity or intimate relationships other than those with
her parents. Certainly aware of the experiments with personal narrative
form of such contemporaries as Julia Kristeva, whose autobiographi-
cal roman a clef about the Paris intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s,
Les Samourais,covers some of the same ground as Roudinesco's history,
she nonetheless restricts herself to a traditional mode of narration.
Some of the problematic aspects of Roudinesco's self-presentation
come, not from her immersion in poststructuralism but from a sur-
prisingly traditionalist conception of history. Roudinesco, who cites
Georges Duby's Bataillede Bouvinesas one of her inspirations, explains
many psychoanalysts' hostile reactions to her publications by asserting
that the movement "suddenly discovered that its own self-image did
not correspond to the simple truth of the facts" (95-96). She seems
oblivious to Duby's own acknowledgment that the historians of his
generation-now become in many cases authors of ego-histoires-have
given up "the idea of discovering the 'true facts.' "53What could have
been a fascinating reflection on the generation of knowledge out of a
dialogue between subjective experience and voluntary adherence to a
rigorous disciplinary paradigm becomes instead an open invitation for
readers to apply to Roudinesco's history and her self-portrait the re-
ductionist psychological readings she strives to avoid.
Elisabeth Roudinesco is certainly an extreme case among present-
day French historians, and it might well be argued that she is really
less a historian than a philosophically inclined psychologist. Insofar as
she can be seen as representative of an intellectual generation, how-
ever, her writings raise a more fundamental problem that puts autobio-
graphical reflection in question. The generation of Pierre Nora's ego-
historiens,born between the wars and trained in the 1940s and 1950s,
was sustained by a faith in the possibility of historical knowledge. This
came both from the positivistic training of the "vieille Sorbonne,"
whose value is brilliantly demonstrated in Georges Duby's HistoryCon-
tinues,54and, in many cases, from the ideological movements these his-
torians joined. Despite the flagrant distortions of history perpetrated
in the name of Communism and Maurrassianism, for example, both
movements trumpeted the importance of knowledge of the past and
both actively promoted historical writing on the part of their adherents.
The currents into which Elisabeth Roudinesco plunged had no
such faith in history. As she herself shows, Jacques Lacan, the most in-

53 Duby, History,132.
54 Ibid., 17-18, 32-41. These passages would make excellent reading for any history student.

fluential figure in her intellectual development, was profoundly hostile

to any historicist mode of understanding and tried to evade both his-
tory and autobiography. The apparent contradictions of Roudinesco's
autobiographical venture may have their roots in the antihistorical
character of her generation's mentalite as much as in the absence of
distance from her own experience qua historian. If so, the efflores-
cence of ego-histoirewill turn out to represent, not, as Pierre Nora has
proclaimed, a permanent alteration in historical consciousness, but a
phenomenon with its own historicity. Born of the meeting between the
profound faith in the importance of history shared by Nora's genera-
tion and the poststructuralist interrogations of the late 1970s and early
1980s, the genre may not be able to flourish in a different atmosphere.
Awareness of such a possibility is not entirely absent from the re-
cent French historians' autobiographical writings themselves, although
the reasons for their concerns are more sociological than intellectual.
Pierre Nora has hinted at the fragility of the conditions that boosted
historians' confidence in their accomplishments to the point where
they could undertake to recount their own lives. His colleagues, he
said, had "installed the tribe of historians in the Promised Land-but
for how long?" He laments particularly the loss of a stable university
environment, "respectful of its traditional values and confident of its
mission, imbued with professional standards."55 Georges Duby fears
that the discipline has lost its intellectual energy and its confidence in
the possibility of actually rediscovering the past-a loss of confidence
which would undercut ego-histoireas well as history proper. He joins
Nora in concluding that the French university "has withered and died"
and worries as well about the commercialization of history publishing.56
Ego-histoirecould thus end up being remembered primarily as the
tedious lament of an older generation for a lost golden age. Another
outcome is possible, however. Both history and autobiography are ways
of reconstructing the past that have shown a stubborn adaptability to
new conditions. Ego-histoire may have a contribution to make to the
development of both genres. To autobiography it offers the historical
discipline's unique sense of how individual life courses are shaped and
constrained by collective experience; to history ego-histoireoffers a way
of coming to terms with what Paul John Eakin, one of the best Ameri-
can analysts of autobiographical writing, calls "the necessarily subjec-
tive dimension of all historical making."57 Historian-autobiographers

55 Nora, Ego-histoire,368.
56 Duby, History,131-33, 129, 107.
57 PaulJohn Eakin, TouchingtheWorld:Referencein Autobiography
(Princeton, NJ., 1992), 178.

are uniquely placed to show that the historian's subjectivity is not arbi-
trary but rather a result of choices among a historically defined range
of possibilities.
The practice of ego-histoireneed not become compulsory for histo-
rians. (One shudders at the thought of what our library shelves would
look like if every academic historian produced an autobiography on the
scale of Annie Kriegel's Ce quej'ai cru comprendre.)But a reading of these
texts enriches our sense of the range of ways in which the professional
historian can convey an understanding of how human consciousness
is shaped by experience in time. Through these autobiographical ex-
periments, a generation of French historians that has contributed so
much to the practice of our discipline over the past half century has
added one more dimension to its legacy.