Site de Benoît Melançon / Thèses canadiennes en littérature française du XVIIIe siècle

Boucher, Geneviève, «Histoire, Révolution et esthétique. Le temps et ses représentations dans le Tableau de Paris et le Nouveau Paris de Louis Sébastien Mercier», Montréal et Paris, Université de Montréal et Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne, thèse de doctorat en cotutelle, 2009, 2 vol., [xiv]/575 p. Dir. : Benoît Melançon (Université de Montréal) et Michel Delon (Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne). URL : <>.

This dissertation analyzes the representation of historical time in Louis Sébastien Mercier’s Tableau de Paris (1781-1788) and Nouveau Paris (1798) and seeks to explain how this representation was transformed by the French Revolution, a major event that changed the way contemporaries conceived their place in history. These two works are considered as panoramic literature: as he walks through the neighbourhoods of Paris, the author describes the state of the city of his day as well as its inhabitants’ customs. Although Mercier is mostly interested in painting the present, his exploration of the city leads him to exhume the past that lies, like a palimpsest, beneath the surface. Crowded with specters from the past, the urban space generates a form of temporal density resulting from the coexistence of various times. But the persistence of the past is also highly problematic: Mercier’s faith in progress implies a constant reevaluation – if not a rejection – of antique references and national heritage. After the 1789 disruptions, new conceptual tools were developed to manage the past. If revolutionaries rejected radical destruction after the traumatic experience of the Terror, they invented a new way to put the past aside – patrimony. It is, paradoxically, by its conservational function that patrimony relegates the past to a status of dead history. The future also occupies a large place in Mercier’s works. It is represented under two antithetic forms: degeneracy and regeneration. While he describes the physiognomy of the city of his day, the author anticipates its ruin and establishes a strong correlation between construction and destruction (its inescapable outcome). This pessimistic representation of time modifies his aesthetics: as he evokes the ineluctability of loss, the author deals with a melancholy which colours his style with lyricism and elegy. This imaginative world does not entirely disappear with the Revolution, but it is marginalized. After 1789, the future is viewed mainly through the optimistic and utopian notion of regeneration, in which several conceptions of time coexist (radical rupture, return to an uncorrupted original state, instantaneous regeneration, the building of national unity, etc.). Although Mercier oscillates between past and future, his main goal is to capture a sense of contemporaneousness. As he tries to immobilize the continuous flux of time by writing, he finds himself in a hopeless race in which he is condemned to be perpetually behind the current events he wishes to paint. But Mercier goes beyond the fugitive nature of time and grants the present a status of historical discourse. This historiographical dimension mainly concerns revolutionary history: in order to end the Revolution, contemporaries set it up as historical knowledge and hope to understand its complex evolution. As it acquires an historical status, present history also becomes an aesthetical object. Poetical reforms that had long been called for by Mercier (contemporary topics, stylistic originality, contrast and strength, aesthetical invention and neology) are fully integrated in the representation of recent history.


Couverture de Geneviève Boucher (2014)
Boucher, Geneviève, Écrire le temps. Les tableaux urbains de Louis Sébastien Mercier, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, coll. «Espace littéraire», 2014, 268 p. ISBN : 978-2-7606-3444-2.


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