Specters of history: on nostalgia, exile, and modernity

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Analyzes the reorganization of the Western sense of time over the course of the 19th century. As a result of the French Revolution history began to be recognized as a comprehensive force of irreversible change, which invited contemporaries in the West to recognize and dramatize their public and private lives in historical terms. This new sense of irreversibility also produced widely felt feelings of nostalgia that mourned the past and acknowledged that it could be repossessed only in fragmentary form. Thus, for many Westerners, history came to be regarded as a marauding force that produced changes which were no longer interpreted as signs of natural decay and regeneration, as they had been in the 18th century, but rather as evidence of untimely deaths, ghostly presences, and alternative lives. Looking at popular autobiographies, the author stresses the social scale of these new ideas of historical change, particularly how an emphasis on the violence of historical ruptures enabled contemporaries to view alternatives in the records and thereby to undermine the imperatives of the present. Changes like these facilitated the creation of a field of difference in which the ideas of temporal periodicity, national particularity, and individual sovereignty flourished. The article contributes to the history of the discipline of history and to the study of the ways in which historical thinking have fashioned modern subjectivity. [History Abstarcts]
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1587-1618
Number of pages32
JournalAmerican Historical Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 2001


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