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Catastrophe and Temporality in late Eighteenth-Century France: Sombre spaces, sombre writing

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

In this thesis, I ask whether catastrophe can be said to have a particular temporality, and how a society’s sense of its own temporal situation can be developed through representations of catastrophe as the beginning or end-point of a past, present, or even a future epoch. My argument rests on the claim that the act of naming one’s era and defining it against others is not just reactive, but is in itself productive. This is especially the case with narratives of catastrophe, which often have a prophetic or proleptic element, enabling new retrospective visions and revisions of the past. Critical work responding to fears around climate change is currently enjoying a period of vibrancy, and my thesis speaks to these contemporary concerns. It both draws on this field, and emphasises that catastrophe is historically constructed by focusing on the late eighteenth century, a time perceived by many contemporaries as being on the cusp of radical, catastrophic change. I ask how writers active in this period conceived of their epoch, expressed anxieties about its instability and conceptualised the possibility of era change – and how they imagined the role of their own texts across ruptured time.
I focus on the interaction between different timelines: of universal progress, of ancient-medieval-modern, of the nation. Often, these are in tension. National time, notably, begins in the moyen âge figured as catastrophic to progress. I access these temporal concerns through writing or art which employs sombre elements. A sombre aesthetic, emerging in the eighteenth century, facilitates the exploration of catastrophic motifs or spaces, and is particularly suited to the depiction of the three major spaces which denote the passage from Ancient to Modern via a supposed Dark Age: ruins, gothic castles and state prisons. The sombre offers a powerful form for the exploration of a Dark Age as past, still partially ongoing and/or as threateningly located in the future.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2017

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