A Review of The Future Looks Backward: Projection and the Historical Imagination in 19th-Century France, by Thomas Chapman Wing.
A sense of the future is intrinsic to human life. Yet writing about the future in a secular context is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that critics such as Paul K. Alkon argue grew out of the late Enlightenment in Europe. The impetus for this new interest in the future as such was the coeval shift in the perceived nature of history. Until then, the dominant model of history had been cyclical: past events could be used to predict and understand future ones, and thus society was not expected to experience any radical transformations until the Judeo-Christian apocalypse arrived to put an end to history altogether. In the wake of scientific discoveries about the age of the Earth, increased secularization, and the French Revolution’s cataclysmic upending of traditional political structures, however, history came to be understood as unidirectional, a linear progression of time with no foreseeable end, composed of sequential events that had no precedents in the past. The future now appeared to be infinite and mysterious, and thus a ripe topic for literary and artistic speculation.
Chapman Wing’s award-winning dissertation, “The Future Looks Backward: Projection and the Historical Imagination in 19th-Century France,” traces the development of fictional and non-fictional writings on the secular future over the course of the long nineteenth century in France, and argues that writers used the future mode not to speculate about the shape of things to come, but rather as a means of preserving the present and the past in the face of an uncertain future. Through meticulous and inspired readings of texts by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Stendhal, Émile Souvestre, and Jules Verne, among others, Wing demonstrates that literary projection in the nineteenth century was intimately linked to retrospection. In these texts, the imagined future becomes a vehicle for thinking about the past and, in particular, what Wing terms “the management of history.” In other words, these texts are haunted by the notion that the present will somehow be distorted, misinterpreted, or completely forgotten by future generations.
This fascinating insight nuances prevailing accounts of early futuristic writings as responses to scientific and technological progress. Wing argues that although futuristic writings from the late nineteenth century onward do engage with scientific models, the literature on the future that appeared in the late eighteenth and over much of the nineteenth century was preoccupied with a quite different set of concerns. In the Introduction, Wing defines his corpus as “speculative fabulation,” borrowing Robert Scholes’ term, and refuses to conflate this mode of writing with later fin-de-siècle and twentieth-century texts that would come to be known as science fiction. In so doing, Wing challenges the place of early experiments in literary speculation in a teleological narrative that anachronistically designates such texts as precursors to the genre of science fiction.
Throughout his thesis, Wing demonstrates a deep understanding and careful consideration of the social, political, and philosophical contexts within which the texts in his corpus were produced, examining, for example, how writings on the future were in dialogue with pivotal moments in French history (the Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, Haussmannization). Moreover, Wing offers not only new readings of texts by canonical authors but also pathbreaking and illuminating analyses of the work of more obscure writers such as Albert Robida, Victor Fournel, and Louis Geoffroy. As a result, this thesis makes important contributions to the broader field of nineteenth-century French studies, and it sheds welcome light on understudied texts deserving of increased scholarly attention.
The first chapter focuses on Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s novel L’An 2440: rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771), and it reveals the mechanisms by which this novel (often cited as the inaugural text of speculative fiction) stages confrontations between the future, the present, and the past. In the novel, the narrator falls asleep in the present day and awakens in the twenty-fifth century. He then proceeds to explore future Paris, noting the myriad changes that 700 years have wrought upon French civilization. Wing begins his analysis by exploring the complex temporal relationships embodied in the title of the novel and in its narrative conceit. As Mercier’s narrator exists both in 1771 and in 2440, the text enacts the simultaneity of different historical periods. This dual temporality facilitates comparisons between the future and the present, and even between the future and the past. Wing compellingly shows how Mercier’s future is fixated on the past, pointing out that it is not only the present-as-past which is so prevalent in twenty-fifth-century culture, but also the more remote past. (References to Henri IV abound.) Wing argues that the novel’s retrospective gaze allows Mercier to advocate for present reform by contrasting future progress with present failings, but that, perhaps more importantly, the posture of future retrospection is also a means for Mercier to critique historiography. Wing skillfully identifies historiography as a central concern in Mercier’s text: How will the future construct history? How will the present be judged now that it has become the past? These questions are Mercier’s legacy to nineteenth-century speculative fiction, as Wing will demonstrate in the following chapters.
Building upon the analysis of Mercier’s projected retrospective gaze, the second chapter takes up Stendhal’s (Henri Beyle) autobiographical writings, and demonstrates that the writer uses projection into the future to “establish literary authority in the face of ulterior historical and epistemological changes that he cannot predict” (p. 18). Wing has delved deeply into Stendhal’s journals, letters, notes, as well as his autobiographical novel Vie de Henry Brulard, in order to trace the development of a futuristic discourse in the author’s personal writings. This discourse takes the form of addresses to Stendhal’s future self and to a future readership. Stendhal thus stages the historical transmission of his works within the very pages of the texts themselves, predicting his literary legacy and appealing to imagined future readers to testify as to the veracity of his accounts of current events. As Wing convincingly argues, Stendhal’s use of the future is a “rhetorical bid for authority in the face of history” (p. 67).
Historiography and authenticity are central themes of the third chapter, which investigates the impact of the myth of Napoleon on nineteenth-century speculative fiction and explores how writers constructed alternate or apocryphal histories of this iconic figure in order to test the limits of possible futures. Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde: Histoire de la monarchie universelle (1812–1832), written in 1836, is the primary focus of the chapter, although Wing supplements his reading of this novel’s alternate history of Napoleon with a consideration of other dystopian historiographies found in similarly understudied texts, primarily Émile Souvestre’s Le Monde tel qu’il sera (1846) and Albert Robida’s Le Vingtième siècle (1882). By depicting the future as the outcome of the past as it should have been, authors of alternate histories call into question the very practice of history; as Wing argues with regard to Geoffroy’s novel, “this alternate future, however, just like real history, proves to be inextricably bound to its relationship to the real past, and more importantly to historians’ accounts of the past, which wield a determining influence even on fantasies of liberation from historical determination” (p. 104).
The final chapter takes as its point of departure the numerous and profound transformations undergone by the city of Paris from the Revolution through the Second Empire. Through readings of Théophile Gautier’s “Paris futur” (1852), Jules Verne’s Paris au XXe siècle (ca. 1863) and Victor Fournel’s Paris nouveau et Paris futur (1865), Wing demonstrates that the disappearance of architectural and cultural traces of the past resulting from urban renovations spurred writers to denounce “progress” through depictions of the future erasing or encroaching upon the present. Building upon work by T.J. Clark and Göran Blix, among others, Wing’s research adds a new and important dimension to the study of the cultural impact of Haussmannization and other nineteenth-century urban renewal projects.
“The Future Looks Backward” is an erudite, nuanced, and eminently readable dissertation. Chapman Wing more than accomplishes his goal of uncovering why writing on the future blossomed during the long nineteenth century and what these imagined futures were the future of. His prose is witty and elegant, and he expertly balances big-picture theoretical ideas with attentive close readings. This excellent new research advances our understanding of early futuristic writings and of conceptions of historical time in the nineteenth century in general. I eagerly anticipate the book that will emerge from this project, which will certainly be of great interest to scholars and students across a wide range of fields—as well as to many curious laymen.
Lecturer in French
University of Pennsylvania
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, L’An 2440: rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771)
Stendhal, Vie de Henry Brulard (1835–36)
Louis Geoffroy, Napoléon et la conquête du monde: Histoire de la monarchie universelle (1812–1832) (1836)
Émile Souvestre, Le Monde tel qu’il sera (1846)
Albert Robida, Le Vingtième siècle (1882)
Théophile Gautier, “Paris futur” (1852)
Jules Verne, Paris au XXe siècle (ca. 1863)
Victor Fournel, Paris nouveau et Paris futur (1865)
Yale University, 2013. 201 pp. Primary Advisor: Maurice Samuels.
Image: Louis-Sebastien Mercier, “L’An Deux Mille Quatre Cent Quarante.” Vol.II, Paris: Lepetit Jeune et Gerard, 1802. From Wikimedia.