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Creole MedievalismColonial France and Joseph Bédier's Middle Ages$

Michelle R. Warren

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780816665259

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816665259.001.0001

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Postcolonial Itineraries

Postcolonial Itineraries

(p.194) Chapter 6 Postcolonial Itineraries
Creole Medievalism

Michelle R. Warren

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the continuing development of creole medievalism in the present. Since Joseph Bédier’s death, creole medievalism has included engagements with both the Middle Ages and Bédier himself. Bédier’s prestige as a Réunionnais has made him attractive to partisans of nearly every political persuasion. The Middle Ages have an equally varied valence as the fact that Réunion was settled in modern times makes it both a justifying precursor to modern expansionism and innocent of colonialism’s direct legacies. The chapter describes Bédier and the Middle Ages consoling metropolitan ambitions of centralized control while also fostering postcolonial dreams. Creole medievalism has appeared in a number of ways on Réunion since departmentalization in 1946, such as street names and historical commemorations. Each of these manifestations refers either to Bédier or the Middle Ages as symbols of the essence of either “France” or “Réunion.”

Keywords:   creole medievalism, Middle Ages, Réunionnais, Réunion, modern expansionism, colonialism, centralized control, postcolonial dreams, France, Joseph Bédier

RÉUNION CLEARLY PLAYED IMPORTANT ROLES in Bédier’s thinking about the Middle Ages, just as an idealized vision of the Middle Ages shaped his youthful experiences on Réunion. Today, Réunionnais culture and French medieval studies both seem far removed from the terms of Bédier’s creole medievalism. And yet the products of his medievalism still circulate in ways both obvious and subtle. Likewise, Réunionnais of vastly different political persuasions have turned to both the Middle Ages and Bédier in efforts to define their identity within the French nation. On the one hand, those championing greater integration with France claim Bédier and his Middle Ages as proof that the island exemplifies France’s highest cultural ideals. On the other hand, those resistant to French hegemony claim Bédier and his Middle Ages as proof that even the nation’s highest cultural ideals include Réunionnais diversity.

Contemporary appropriations of the Middle Ages on Réunion reshape the legacies of medievalism and colonialism developed during the Third Republic. On one level, the Middle Ages support conservatives who invoke “ancient France” to defend cultural and religious hegemony; they also tend to champion the “positive” value of French colonialism. On another level, the Middle Ages can signify a “savage” time before civilization, denying access to culture altogether (as attested by the Réunionnais migrant cited at the beginning of this book). In this perspective, the medieval conspires with colonialism to delegitimize those not from continental France. On yet another, more optimistic, level, the fact that the Middle Ages predate modern colonialism can facilitate thinking outside of colonialism’s rigid binaries (local versus national, insular versus continental, métissage versus purity, etc.). From this perspective, the medieval can trace a counter-intuitive path toward decolonization. Appropriations of the Middle Ages, and of Bédier himself, on Réunion thus weave together various contradictory tendencies—affirmations of traditional pasts, postcolonial alienation, (p.195) and dreams of radical futures. These appropriations, coupled with commemorative gestures toward Bédier from continental France, reveal both the strength and fragility of cultural memory. They create new “creole medievalisms” that both consecrate and defy the unification of France.

The examples in this chapter illustrate multiple forms of creole medievalism on Réunion since 1950. They emerged, sometimes quite by accident, from my search for Bédier in public places and private archives. They represent a collection of lieux de mémoires manqué(e)s: both the places and the memories resist durable collective narratives. In the first instance, Bédier serves as an authoritative reference for activists promoting the Creole language as a vital component of Réunion’s future. Second, I turn to the pathways and monuments marked on Réunion and the continent by the name “Joseph Bédier”—streets, schools, and a public housing project. Lastly, I analyze the place of both Bédier and the Middle Ages in Réunion’s museum, the Musée Léon Dierx. Each of these scenes turns around language, oscillates between repressed and invented memories, and yokes the past to the future. They are argumentative and artistic, flamboyant and subtle, durable and ephemeral. They expose some of the vital threads that sustain the continual refabrication of identity on Réunion.

“Notre parler créole”

Politicians and activists have enlisted the Creole language in their various (and often conflicting) efforts to define insular identity in the wake of départementalisation in 1946. The island’s administrative status has in fact remained a subject of debate: the “autonomous assembly” long favored by Réunion’s communist party was deemed unconstitutional in 1982; a proposal to divide the département in two failed as recently as 2000; in 2003, Réunion became the only overseas jurisdiction constitutionally barred from changing its administrative relationship with France (a response to the powerful specter of independence).1 Status debates have often pitted “autonomists” against “integrationists,” politicizing Creole speech. While partisans of political autonomy foreground Creole’s linguistic autonomy as a sign of Réunion’s unique cultural integrity, those who favor greater integration with continental France see Creole as an obstacle to national unity (in line with the Leblonds and others from the Third Republic). Both sides have turned to Bédier in different moments to support their positions.

(p.196) For integrationists, Bédier represents the value of Francocentrism and Réunion’s peaceful contributions to national poetry. In a newspaper article published in 1979, for example, Doctor A. Role inveighed against Créolie poetry as artificial, designed to “negrify” Réunionnais culture and promote Creole “patois” to the level of a language as the first step toward separation from France (despite the fact that Créolie poetry was mostly written in French). In defense of the authentic Frenchness of Réunionnais culture, Role cites the familiar canonical poets—Parny, Leconte de Lisle, Dierx, and “the great medievalist Bédier.”2 Like his Third Republic predecessors, Role mobilizes the eminent poets as guarantors of Réunion’s faithful devotion to France.

Creolophone activists also claim Bédier’s legacy. As a self-proclaimed Creole speaker, he lends their arguments the authority of “ancient France” as well as a bilingualism sanctioned by metropolitan prestige. When it became clear in the 1970s that metropolitan programs designed to create a literate citizenry had met with little success,3 activists (primarily socialist and communist) advocated bilingual education to bridge the communication gap between monolingual Creole speakers and monolingual French speakers. As part of these arguments, teacher and novelist Axel Gauvin set out to document the structural and phonetic autonomy of Réunionnais Creole vis-à-vis French. Among the first examples cited for grammatical analysis is a note from Bédier to the Leblonds: “M’sié. [Joseph Bédier de l’Académie Française, Administrateur du Collège de France] y fait bien compliment à vous, y fait dire à vous comm’ça, si z’aut’i vient voir à li un matin (10h.1/2), li sera bien content. J.B.” (Figure 35).4 For Gauvin, this message illustrates the Creole distinction between vous (singular formal) and z’aut (plural, formal or informal): Bédier’s note is addressed to an individual [vous], inviting more than one person [z’aut] to visit (in French, vous would serve both functions). (Addressed to “Marius-Ary Leblond,” Bédier’s note deftly negotiates the “plurality” of this “singular” person.) Of Gauvain’s other five examples of differences between Creole and French, only one other has a specific source—a linguistics textbook comparing French to Spanish (in other words, not about Creole). Bédier, then, functions as a uniquely recognizable Réunionnais authority, the prestigious native anchor for Gauvin’s defense of Creole. On Bédier’s actual card, the handwritten Creole elegantly surrounds Bédier’s preprinted name and titles, subtly challenging ordinary hierarchies between “national” and “local” cultures.


Postcolonial Itineraries

Figure 35. Note in Creole from Joseph Bédier to Marius-Ary Leblond. Archives départementales de La Réunion, 7J1. All rights reserved.

Gauvin returns to Bédier as he argues that French and Creole speakers should learn each other’s language. Bilingualism will support social, economic, and political development, securing Réunion’s liberation from colonialism [du créole opprimé au créole libéré]. For Gauvin, Bédier represents the ideal yet to be widely attained—an intellectual fully conversant in both languages:

(p.198) Certainly intellectual workers have not all had the luck of a Joseph Bédier who declared: “There is only one language—I would not boast of it to my colleagues at the Academy—that I know how to handle well, and that’s our Creole.”5

Bédier refers to himself here as a second-language learner of French (like many provincial citizens of his generation, who spoke a local dialect prior to schooling in “French”). A few lines earlier in the letter from which Gauvin cites, Bédier performs his Creole bilingualism by laying claim to Réunion as “mon la case” [my house]; the Leblonds remember him regularly telling lengthy stories in Creole.6 Bédier made this unique claim to Creole fluency at the very moment he ascended to the highest ranks of the metropolitan elite as a member of the Académie Française. Bédier’s statement, moreover, was published by his childhood friend and cousin, Maurice des Rieux, in his socialist workers’ newspaper, La victoire sociale: it might therefore have reached an audience of nonelites closely identified with Creole expression.7 Gauvin draws on this dual legacy, borrowing the prestige of the Académie to support his own arguments in favor of bilingual education for the working class. He turns to Bédier as an iconic precursor for a Réunionnais culture that recognizes the primacy of Creole, thereby installing the medievalist as a model of postcolonial identity.

Struggles for greater pedagogical and cultural integration of Creole have been ongoing since Gauvin first issued his call for bilingualism—and Bédier has remained an iconic figure. In 1999, Mèt ansanm, a group devoted to promoting kréol rényoné as a language with both a venerable past and a viable future, began publishing a magazine to promote Creole writing. The second issue of Nout Lang (Our Language) features a thematic selection of writings on “love.” The editors take an approach common in efforts to establish cultural legitimacy for minority languages: they include translations of major texts in established languages—in this case, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Goethe. Tellingly, this pantheon includes Bédier, with a translation into Creole of an extract from Tristan et Iseut—the romance that continues to secure Bédier’s reputation as a literary figure. On Réunion, the romance functions clearly like a medieval Paul et Virginie, rendered truly native to Réunion through Bédier’s authorship and the Creole translation. The other writer translated in the collection is Parny.8 Given the traditional prominence of the nineteenth-century poets Leconte de Lisle and Léon Dierx, the selection of Bédier and Parny (p.199) indicates a particular type of literary politics—one solidly anchored in the prestige of the medieval (the time of national origins) and the eighteenth century (the time of the colony’s development and first recognized literary production). Together, Parny and Bédier resignify national culture as part of the local patrimony, while their translation into Creole weakens the hegemonic hold of “French” on “Réunionnité.”

The year after these translations appeared, Mèt ansanm organized a public exhibit of Creole language and history, “Kréol rénioné, inn lang” [Réunionnais Creole, a language]. Summarizing the panels that illustrated historical figures who worked to promote Creole, Frédérick Célestin (a teacher of French and Creole) quoted Bédier’s statement of Creole competency from 1920, the same one featured by Gauvin.9 Bédier thus confers legitimacy on contemporary activists; he represents both national and local prestige, grounded in the popularization of medieval literature and the approbation of the metropole’s most venerable cultural institutions. Célestin’s appropriation of Bédier as a Creolophone draws the Francocentric patriot into the service of Réunion’s most disadvantaged populations, eliding the fact that Réunionnais Creole itself encompasses a number of regional and class-based variations. Bédier’s legacy, however, must remain ambiguous. A few months after the Mèt ansanm exhibit, Le journal de l’île de la Réunion featured a major review of his life in a Sunday edition.10 This two page reminder of Bédier’s contributions to medieval literature, national history, and local culture followed a four page critical investigation of Réunionnais race relations—just a few days before the December 20 commemoration of the abolition of slavery. The press thus reactivated Bédier’s nationalist legacy for an expanded insular audience, complicating his relation to contemporary linguistic and social politics.

The appropriation of Bédier by Creolophone activists coincided with a revision of Creole’s legal status in the French national education system. As part of omnibus legislation passed in 2000, the government adopted a provision extending France’s 1951 Deixonne law on regional languages to the four overseas departments. Article 2 of the Deixonne Law provides for the use of “local speech” [parlers locaux] to facilitate primary school teaching; it applied initially to continental languages such as Breton and Occitan, and was extended to Corsican in 1974, Tahitian in 1981, and Melanesian languages in 1992. Creole thus gained for the first time the official status already recognized for various other languages used within France’s jurisdiction. The clause referencing the Deixonne law entered the (p.200) new legislation as an amendment, strengthening what had been a general statement of support for regional languages. Thus even though more explicit provisions supported by Réunionnais and Caribbean representatives were not adopted (e.g., use of Creole for public functions, new commissions for adapting the national curriculum to local needs), the final legislation achieved greater legal specificity than initially envisioned by the national government.11

While these laws have limited impact on children’s daily school experiences, given the high proportion of teachers of metropolitan origin, they have fostered some changes in pedagogical structures and official attitudes. In theory, Creolophone instructors have much greater freedom for interacting with their students. The Ministry of Education initiated a new CAPES, the national program for certifying teachers, in 2001, creating an institutional path for the academic study of Creole.12 In 2002, the official publication of Réunion’s school system, Arum (no. 28), devoted an issue to new Creole initiatives; since 2004, Creole integration has been the centerpiece of efforts to increase academic success; in May 2007, for the first time, Creole could fulfill the requirement of a “second living language” on the Baccalauréat.13 And in 2005, Axel Gauvin offered creative writing workshops—in Creole and French—sponsored by the educational administration. Of course, the small number of Creolophone instructors limits program availability; even Creolophones disagree about the writing system.14 Many parents, moreover, object to Creole in the primary schools as a hindrance to French literacy.15 And the Baccalauréat and CAPES exams “nationalize” and homogenize the vast linguistic variety of Indian Ocean and Caribbean Creoles: the notion of a single exam for all these languages is as linguistically problematic as one for “romance languages” covering French, Italian, and Spanish.16 Meanwhile, Roland still appears on reading lists for French literature, serving much the same function as it has since 1880. It stands for the unshakeable imprint of an idealized national culture on an educational system that often still treats French history in the homogeneous terms defined in the aftermath of 1870.

Avenue Joseph Bédier

Bédier remains a recognizable figure on Réunion even outside the political arena. Still known by some as the author of Tristan et Iseut, his name graces the landscape in several places. Bédier’s presence on the streets of (p.201) Réunion originated primarily, if not solely, from partisans of greater integration with France, who deploy Bédier’s image (as the Leblonds did) as a sign of the island’s closeness to the metropole (using his name with the nearly opposite political goals of Mét ansanm). These commemorative gestures echo those on the continent. In both settings, the word Bédier marks a desire for cultural memory, a desire nonetheless prone to fail with the passage of time (as Bédier himself might have predicted). Today, these minor monuments are likely to elicit blank stares or newly invented meanings. And yet the imperial visions that motivated Bédier’s inscription in the public sphere still shape postcolonial France. The combined effects of fading visibility and archival recovery illustrate how “memory” and “forgetting” together keep the terms of national identity open to contestation.

In Saint-Denis, across from a bus station and on the side of a retaining wall between France Telecom and Crédit Agricole, a plaque commemorates the site where the Bédier family house once stood. In white letters etched in white marble, one could still decipher in 2003, through black graffiti:

  • 1864–1938
  • ———
  • ETC.

Naming Bédier’s most influential books, the inscription also names those linked to the island itself (see chapter 4). At the unveiling of the plaque on 25 June 1964 (in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Bédier’s birth), Hippolyte Foucque reminded his listeners that Bédier read Roland on this very spot at the age of fourteen, “on this terrace on whose wall we have just placed a commemorative plaque, and in the shade of the old mango tree of which there remains today only the dried-up trunk.”17 Foucque’s wistful comment on natural decay, and the absence of the house itself, suggest the labor of commemoration: without the plaque, nothing (p.202)

Postcolonial Itineraries

Figure 36. Plaque commemorating Joseph Bédier’s childhood home, Saint-Denis.

Photograph by author, November 2007.

about the site recalls past glories (similarly, without Roland the glories of Roncevaux might not exist). The plaque is meant to resist the decadence of forgetting and promote durable awareness of Bédier’s (and Réunion’s) achievements. And yet the plaque itself cannot withstand the ravages of time: by November 2007, the graffiti had been cleaned, but the upper right corner had broken off (Figure 36).

The commemoration of Bédier in 1964 took place in a particularly volatile political context. The direct organizers were ardent “integrationists” who participated in neocolonial efforts to impose French hegemony in the decades after départementalisation. Bédier’s plaque, for example, was presented by Henri Cornu, an administrator aligned with major sugar industrialists. Cornu agitated to eradicate Creole from the school system (in agreement with the educational inspector who famously declared in the early 1970s, “Creole must be shot”).18 Cornu also argued that the island’s (p.203) early settlement had been purely French, refusing to recognize African contributions and métissage. For Cornu, anything that weakened the idea of French influence insulted Réunionnnais culture; he even aligned the eminently traditionalist Créolie aesthetic with the autonomist movement (because the Créolie poets recognized a local culture distinct from the metropole).19

Alongside Cornu, the préfet Alfred Diefenbacher gave a speech that made explicit the integrationist motives for commemorating Bédier. For Diefenbacher, Bédier embodies the “unity” and “cohesion” of the past and future; his scholarly efforts made the Middle Ages central to French nationalist feeling; the epic provides a living source of patriotism as “the Gilded Legend of the Nation” [la Légende dorée de la Patrie]. Diefenbacher emphasizes Bédier’s major discovery of the origins of France’s “cult of chivalry” in pilgrim sanctuaries: for conservative integrationists, Bédier facilitated a marriage of Catholic and creole values that made Réunion a perfect mirror of France. Accordingly, Diefenbacher defines Bédier’s insular identity as thoroughly national: Bédier and his famous compatriots (Leconte de Lisle, Dierx, De Mahy, and Lacaze) contributed to “this feeling of belonging to a community of values brought to us precisely by the history of the Nation and the example of our ancestors.” Bédier thus provides a model of patriotic devotion, showing young people that they can only succeed by remaining faithful to the past: those who travel “to the very heart of our country of France” can follow Bédier’s example of faithful service from a distance (“distance is not forgetting”).20 For Diefenbacher, Bédier exemplifies Réunion’s complete solidarity with France.

The ideals articulated by Diefenbacher underwrote the social and economic policies of Réunion’s newly elected deputy, Michel Debré. The metropolitan Debré, who had no previous ties to the island, served as Réunion’s representative for twenty-five years (he had been prime minister under Charles De Gaulle). Debré and Diefenbacher both assumed their functions in 1963. Bédier’s 1964 centenary, in other words, took place precisely as integrationists consolidated their political hold. Following this line, the Académie de la Réunion celebrated in 1965 Parny, Leconte de Lisle, and the Leblonds; in 1968, the Académie honored them again (Leconte de Lisle for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, the Leblonds for a new street named after them in Saint-Pierre).21 These events, which underscore Réunion’s ties to French national culture, coincided with aggressive programs to force further social integration. Debré (p.204) promoted emigration to the continent, economic policies that deepened Réunion’s dependence on France, and metropolitan political hegemony.22 Diefenbacher, for his part, helped implement Debré’s controversial policies, actively resisted the laws on equal status for overseas departments passed in 1946 and 1948, and regularly interfered with free expression of the press.23 Just a few weeks before Bédier’s centenary, newspapers reported Diefenbacher’s intention to deport “unpatriotic” local functionaries.24 In this context, his comments on migration in his speech about Bédier take on a sinister undertone: he promotes Bédier’s legacy as a model of successful migration while pursuing forced removals of government employees and ordinary citizens. Thus, almost thirty years after Bédier’s death, the reputation that the Leblonds forged for him—as a symbol of Réunionnais Francocentrism—remained alive within right-wing neocolonial policies.

In the years surrounding Bédier’s centenary, population pressures and metropolitan development projects dramatically changed the landscape of Saint-Denis. When Debré arrived, he set out to eradicate shantytowns [bidonvilles] and develop an urban infrastructure based on French norms.25 This meant government-sponsored apartment housing, accessed by newly paved streets. Civic planners took the opportunity to inscribe the island’s venerable cultural history into the topography of the future. In the heart of the reconstructed suburb of Le Chaudron, they named a narrow avenue that stretches along rows of housing projects Joseph Bédier. The street culminates in a dead-end loop (much further up the hill stands the university, built in the early 1970s as part of the same development plan). On one side of the Avenue Joseph Bédier runs the Rue François de Mahy (Bédier’s cousin and the island’s long-serving deputy); on the other side, Avenue Hippolyte Foucque (the prominent local teacher who championed Bédier’s reputation, and helped organize his centennial). By some fit of whimsy or savvy, Avenue Joseph Bédier crosses only two streets—the broad and bustling Avenue Leconte de Lisle at the bottom of the hill and the tranquil Avenue Richard Wagner toward the top. For anyone walking around with even a few fragments of Réunionnais history, this is a rich neighborhood indeed. People who know of Bédier tend to remember him as the author of Tristan et Iseut. He is thus known for his poetic production, in the tradition of Leconte de Lisle, a production that specifically countered the vogue of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Other than a few famous French writers (such as Voltaire and Maupassant), Wagner is one of the only street names not related to the island in some way. At the (p.205) corner of Wagner and Bédier, then, we must think of Tristan and Iseult’s creole love story.

In the late 1960s, when Bédier’s avenue opened, Le Chaudron housed some of Réunion’s poorest and most disaffected citizens. Le Chaudron remains “notorious” for civil unrest and high unemployment. In 1991, some residents protested violently when the metropolitan government forced the closure of the only outlet for television broadcasts in Creole—Télé Free-DOM (similar pirate broadcasts in other overseas départements continued to operate without interference). Founded by Camille Sudre (a metropolitan doctor who came to Réunion in 1976), Télé Free-DOM and its counterpart Radio Free-Dom met people’s desires for Creole language communication in the public sphere. During the protests, some participants reportedly blocked access to the neighborhood to those who could not speak Creole—a test that firmly aligned language, class, and réunionnité. While the television station never reopened, today Radio Free-DOM is Réunion’s most popular station, a unique space for “indigenous” expression.26 And the “events of February 1991” remain a palpable reference to enduring social and economic fissures.27 Avenue Joseph Bédier thus traverses a scene of acute and even fatal conflict between insular and metropolitan interests, and between French and Creole as markers of cultural allegiance.

Bédier entered the topography of Paris under very similar social conditions. In the 1950s and 1960s, previously undeveloped areas near the Periphery, populated for decades by squatters and shacks, were brought into the urban grid in order to “civilize” the living conditions of provincial and colonial migrants.28 In both Paris and Saint-Denis, urban development led to new streets and new names. And in both cases, new construction did little to alleviate the social, economic, and racial tensions of peripheral neighborhoods. In Paris, the short Avenue Joseph Bédier occupies a somewhat barren corner in the thirteenth arrondissement just inside the Boulevard Périphérique (near Porte d’Ivry, not far from the former Musée des Colonies). The avenue exhibits many characteristics typical of Paris’s colonial topography: Bédier is a writer linked to the colonies, although he was not chosen for this reason (like Albert Camus, Saint-John Perse, and Leconte de Lisle); the avenue is located on the periphery rather than in the centreville; the street itself is practically invisible.29 Nonetheless, at the inauguration ceremony in 1956, Mario Roques (Bédier’s successor at the Collège de France) expressed deep faith in the power of commemoration: “You (p.206) have linked forever this name to that of Paris, you have integrated it into the very being of the city.”30 All vestiges of colonial memory are forgotten here; henceforth, Bédier is only Parisian. The avenue, though, lies rather far from Bédier’s Parisian home at 11 rue Soufflot—truly the “heart” of the city, within sight of both the Panthéon and the Eiffel Tower, a neighborhood Bédier claimed to leave only rarely.31 Avenue Joseph Bédier, in other words, has nothing to do with the Paris that Bédier himself frequented, while it has everything to do with the colonial legacies that surrounded him and that continue to claim him.

The newly urbanized spaces of the thirteenth arrondissement were filled with tall apartment buildings, designed to house the populations of the periphery in modernist style. And so, along Avenue Joseph Bédier stretch the buildings of the housing project Joseph-Bédier. In 2001, it was one of six projects targeted for rehabilitation by the newly elected left coalition city government.32 This initiative responded partly to the increased political importance of the banlieues, as the peripheral sectors gained influence in city elections due to their larger populations (a demographic fact that had long played into efforts to resist proportional representation). This new politics of the “periphery” favors the voices of the formerly disenfranchised. Today local governments tout the successful urban renewal for the entire “Bédier” neighborhood.33 Avenue Joseph Bédier in Paris, like its counterpart in Le Chaudron, thus occupies a site of ongoing social and political drama as different constituencies grapple with colonial legacies and the national future.

If passersby and housing project residents have little opportunity to learn the history behind the name Joseph Bédier, the school children of the Collèges Joseph-Bédier stand a better chance. In Saint-André (Réunion), the school opened in 1962—around the same time as the street naming and the creation of the commemorative plaque. Its metropolitan counterpart is in the village of Le Grand-Serre (Drôme), where Bédier spent summers at the house of his wife’s family. The “twinning” of these two schools accomplishes the method of commemoration that Ary Leblond recommended in 1931 for colonial writers: erecting monuments that bring together metropolitan and overseas places associated with a writer (beginning with Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, linking Honfleur and Mauritius).34 The commemorative force of Bédier’s name, however, is relatively weak: in the Le Grand-Serre, students I met imagined that Bédier must have been the village mayor, despite both the nearby cemetery containing his (p.207) descriptive headstone and an informative plaque on the wall outside the Bizarelli family house (mentioning both Tristan et Iseut and Roland).35 Nonetheless, the names attest to efforts to maintain Bédier’s memory in places that shaped his own memories.

The tenuousness of Bédier’s identity in the places meant to commemorate his life speaks to the general interactions of memory and amnesia in the formation of collective identities. In the examples of Bédier’s name that I have discussed so far, individuals with vastly different interests “forget” various aspects of his identity in order to install “memories” congenial to their own visions of the future. The fragility of commemorative intentions are most evident on a Réunion monument that no longer bears Bédier’s name—the concrete wall erected in 1965 to mark the site of the island’s settlement in Saint-Paul. The monument and the celebration of the “tricentennial” of the island’s “first settlement” [peuplement] were projects of the same politicians who participated in Bédier’s centennial the year before.36 The date they chose marks the 1665 arrival in Saint-Paul of a group of French settlers sent by the king under the auspices of the Compagnie des Indes. As such, a 1965 tricentennial registers only white European settlement, excluding the ten Malagasy settlers who arrived in 1663 with two Frenchmen, as well as several different groups from the 1640s and 1650s.37 The event thus sparked charges of racism. Indeed, organizers underscored racial differences and French control of history by reenacting the settlers’ arrival—complete with a scene of their being greeted by the French and Malagasy settlers of 1663.38 The selection of actors for this invented encounter proceeded along strictly racial lines, as volunteers were assessed according to their respective “whiteness” and “blackness.”39 This performance of Réunionnais origins thus insisted on a binary model of racial purity, excluding métissage, Asians, and a host of other citizens.

Taking place just two years after Debré’s arrival, the tricentennial underscored Réunion’s racial and cultural attachment to France in direct challenge to Réunionnais autonomists and the specter of independence. By activating the memory of European origins, and denying connections to Africa, organizers reacted to broader contemporary threats to French imperial sovereignty: Algeria, which had been departementalized long before Réunion (and in newly explicit terms in 1958), gained independence in 1962 after a protracted war; nearby Mauritius became independent from Britain in 1968, although some considered independence already imminent in 1965.40 Debré, tellingly, asserted Réunion’s devotion to France by (p.208) quoting Renan: “The Nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.”41 Using the traditional terms of republican nationalism cherished by Bédier, Debré minimized the importance of geography to bring Réunion closer to France. Likewise, the minister of the overseas departments, Louis Jacquinot, declared the national “soul” completely unified and free of racial tensions: “France is undoubtedly the only country where problems of race and color never arise.”42 Jacquinot also identified Saint-Denis as the “town of Joseph Bédier,”43 a gesture that further embedded Bédier’s memory within the discourse of national integration and a “white washing” of Réunionnais history.

The monument erected for the tricentennial solidified Bédier’s function as a guarantor of French purity and Réunionnais fidelity. It bore two inscriptions on either side of a bronze ship—on the left, a description of the 1665 settlers, and on the right a citation from Bédier’s speech to the Académie Française in 1921 (Figure 37):44


Joseph Bedier

Little Bourbon Island, incessantly stretched toward the motherland, and so taken with love for her that she intoxicates all of her children with this love.

Joseph Bedier

Bédier’s citation not only addresses the island’s perfect devotion to France—as if the island literally “drugged” its inhabitants with French patriotism—but does so by casting the island back in time to the reign of the Bourbons (descendents of Saint Louis). As “Bourbon” displaces “Réunion,” creole medievalism becomes synonymous with the aspirations of integrationist politicians like Diefenbacher and Debré. The monument, through Bédier’s citation, actively promotes a collective memory that legitimizes the island’s French assimilation and silences all other identifications.

Today, the 1965 monument stands as a rather desolate hunk of concrete behind the back wall of the outdoor market, its divisive legacies effaced: at some point, Bédier’s name and the other bronze letters were removed (p.209)

Postcolonial Itineraries

Figure 37. Monument to the 1665 settlement of Réunion, bearing an inscription by Bédier, Saint-Paul, 1965. Archives départementales de La Réunion, 13Fi45. Préfecture de La Réunion. All rights reserved.

(Figure 38). In the intervening years, the “center” of memory has shifted literally down shore, toward histories that survive despite generations of casual and purposeful forgetting. Since 2005, a new monument titled Saint-Paul à l’origine du métissage [Saint-Paul at the origin of métissage] locates the town within a multiracial and multicultural genealogy, rather than within a strictly Francocentric orientation (Figure 39). The installation “replies” to a monument erected in 2004 in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar; together, they mark the ports of the slave trade between the two islands. A few weeks after the inauguration of the St. Paul monument, the annual celebration of “December 20” commemorating the abolition of slavery included a reenactment of disembarking slaves—a direct contrast with the disembarkment reenacted in 1965 (an event long forgotten in public memory).45 Tellingly, during December 2005, controversy raged on Réunion and elsewhere in the wake of a provision in a national law, adopted in February 2005, that required educators and researchers to focus on the “positive effects” of colonialism.46 The disjunctions between local (p.210)
Postcolonial Itineraries

Figure 38. Monument to the 1665 settlement of Réunion, without Bédier’s inscription, Saint-Paul.

Photograph by author, November 2007.

“progress” toward public recognition of complex racial histories and national “regression” toward state sponsored racism witness the ongoing traumas of colonial slavery.

Traces of those traumas surfaced literally in Saint-Paul in February 2007, when a storm disinterred remains from a previously unknown eighteenth-century slave cemetery.47 Officials reburied the bodies in November 2007 and installed a commemorative marker, registering once again the contested racial memories embedded in the Saint-Paul shoreline. The bones that surfaced in 2007 testify to the unexpected resurgence of forgotten voices, while the (so far) durable concrete of 1965 demonstrates the mutability of the most solid constructions. In this tension between memory and forgetting, between oral and written history, certainties of all kinds dissolve into perennially precarious gestures of becoming.

Musée Léon Dierx

The commemorations discussed so far focus primarily on Bédier, and only secondarily on the Middle Ages. The founding collections of the Musée (p.211)

Postcolonial Itineraries

Figure 39. Monument commemorating the origins of métissage, Saint-Paul, 2005.

Photograph by author, November 2007.

Léon Dierx, organized by Marius and Ary Leblond, explicitly engaged both: writings by Bédier and copies of medieval cathedral statuary. Exhibits of these items translate creole medievalism on multiple levels, returning Bédier’s scholarship to its tropical origins while reconnecting creole chivalry to its distant historical origins. Since its 1911 opening, the museum’s ethos has moved gradually from colonial celebration toward postcolonial interrogation. The medieval statues have followed this route, culminating in a 1994 installation piece by the Paris-based Turkish-born artist Sarkis (b. 1938). Understanding this process of resignification requires a return to the “creole” politics of culture during the Third Republic and the world of the Réunionnais diaspora that included Bédier as one of its most prominent members.

The Leblonds envisioned Réunion’s museum as the institutional consecration of the island’s privileged place in the French empire. As one of the oldest colonies and the center of French expansion in the Indian Ocean, they considered that Réunion should be the first colony to possess a museum: history had “destined” the island to become the “intellectual (p.212) metropole” of the Indian Ocean. Only by cultivating France’s cultural patrimony, the Leblonds felt, could Réunion hope to compete with Madagascar, which received more resources and attention from the national government.48 The Leblonds also posited that the museum would safeguard the “creole race”:

We will attract back to their homeland, through the prestige and fascination of history, several of those island children who have gone to seek their fortune far way and who, uprooted, dry up the sap of their stock … The splendor of nature does not suffice to retain men’s sons at home … By [the museum’s] harmonious solidarity, may young Réunionnais, admiring the works of their race, rise up to the desire to create such beauty!49

Inspired by national art, young people will not only strive to honor their heritage with their own creations, they will do so on the island itself; a successful museum will stem the tide of emigration that weakened white colonial privilege.

For the Leblonds, the museum was only the latest example of the capacity and duty of the “creole race” to “give an example” whereby others could learn exemplary colonial conduct and the highest cultural values. The museum would support Réunion’s status as a “second France” by including reproductions of famous works from throughout European history (including the Middle Ages) as well as original modern art. European art would instill European culture in those who happened to live in other climes. Impressionism, for example, would train the creole eye, blinded by the stark tropical sun, to appreciate nuances of light; classicism and romanticism would teach “masculine” composition to correct the languid “femininity” of the tropical landscape. The Leblonds envisioned children, both white and black, as the prime beneficiaries of these artistic lessons: white children would become “more graceful and active” by admiring the beauty produced by the masters of their race; black children, “sensitive to imitation, will be refined, fortified, by contemplating the love of the great French artists, the purity of their passions, the nobility of their conceptions.”50 Art, then, will inspire colonial harmony, resolving social ills and moral failings of all sorts.

To realize this imperial dream, the Leblonds enlisted the aid of prominent creoles—including Bédier, Dierx, Foucque, Guist’hau (a former classmate (p.213) of Bédier’s who, as a government minister, allocated public funds for the museum),51 and the island’s elected officials (including Gasparin).52 Bédier’s stepfather Du Tertre, as mayor of Saint-Denis at the time, also helped promote and organize the museum.53 Another active organizer and Réunionnais creole, Jean Ricquebourg, used his position as a highly placed administrator in French Indochina to generate support. He addressed his call for subscriptions to the Réunionnais diaspora in Asia, identifying Bédier, “our learnèd medievalist,” as one of the museum’s patrons. When the museum opened, it included a section showcasing Réunionnnais artists—with Bédier alongside Leconte de Lisle and Dierx in an exhibit of “creole literature.”54 In addition to Bédier’s publications, the museum possessed his prizewinning essays from the lycée.55 Early press reports mention Bédier among the island’s most recognizable literary luminaries: “It is literature, everyone knows, which has given us our sweet glories—the Leconte de Lisles, the Léon Dierxes, the Joseph Bédiers, the Jean Ricquebourgs—all celebrated and collected by the Leblonds.”56 In the museum, Bédier—as poet and medievalist—sustained Réunion’s value to the empire. He served as the icon of imperial glories that originated in eleventh-century Europe, lending a venerable medieval past to the Indian Ocean’s “second France.”

The Leblonds accorded medieval art a place of honor in their vision of colonial culture. They thus commissioned plaster replicas of medieval cathedral statuary for the museum: “we intend to present on Réunion almost exclusively gothic reproductions that accentuate, with the elegance and yearning of faith, our feeling of grace, goodheartedness, and mischievousness through resignation and mysticism, intelligence and amenity.”57 This syntactically exuberant statement attributes comprehensive aesthetic powers to the medieval statues. The reproductions, pledged by the government from the very beginning, include a selection of eighteen figures from several different sites (including Chartres and Notre-Dame de Paris) representing romanesque and gothic styles from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries.58 These reproductions extend the museum’s reach to the very origins of French identity, rendering it a complete microcosm of national culture. Indeed, the Musée Léon Dierx exhibited the statues in 1987 to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the Capetian monarchy, including a French royal genealogy from Clovis (465) to Jean d’Orléans (b. 1965).59 This exhibit reinvested Réunionnais identity with an aristocratic inheritance, testifying to the durable legacies of creole chivalry. In various (p.214) ways, the medieval replicas conjoin Réunionnais identity to the national and colonial strains of Bédier’s own creole medievalism.

Early museum visitors did not necessarily share the Leblond’s enthusiasm for the medieval statues. They prompted one observer to protest school children’s visits to the new museum:

I am formally opposed to your bringing my daughter [to the museum]. She could be frightened at the sight of the enormous mounted pieces that represent on the verandah the saints of France’s cathedrals. May my little girl be spared the sight of the small horrors that decorate the museum and are its most beautiful ornament—unless the chaplain, wishing to give the students an idea of the ugliness of mortal sin, wishes to compare it to the paintings.60

This concerned parent continues in this vein, with a mordant critique of the ill effects of modern art on children’s sleeping habits and digestion. His disgust, however, originates with the “frightening” nature of medieval art, perhaps specifically when sited in the quintessential creole space, the verandah. For this parent, the statues purvey the opposite of admirable civilization: they represent the “savagery” of a barbaric medievalism, associated elsewhere with “primitive” colonial cultures. Clearly, the museum’s reception did not always, if ever, fulfill the organizers’ dreams. More divisive than harmonious, its effects on the general public suggest once again the fragility of cultural memory projects, which can veer quite far from their intended purpose.

By 1953, less than a decade after the island’s départementalisation, much of the founding collection (including the Leblonds’ beloved exhibit of Paul et Virginie) had been consigned to permanent storage.61 The newly postcolonial museum suffered a severe space shortage with the arrival of a major donation of original works collected by Ambroise Vollard, given by his brother Lucien in 1947 at the urging of Ary Leblond.62 The arrival of quality metropolitan art consigned local art to the almost literal dustbin. That this major shift in the museum’s collections took place at precisely the moment when Réunion moved administratively “closer” to France captures the dangerous advantages of the strategy that led politicians to seek départementalisation in the first place: in exchange for greater national “privileges,” Réunion lost the status that formerly distinguished it from (p.215) ordinary provinces. Ary Leblond specifically compares the newly “degraded” museum to other French provincial institutions, finding it a weak reflection of the grandeurs of its metropolitan counterparts.63 Indeed, the museum’s perceived “fall” to the status of a low-grade provincial art gallery mirrors the broader realities of Réunion’s place in postimperial France.

The medieval replicas fared better than the local art, remaining continuously on display until 1992 when the museum took a decisive turn toward postcolonial museology and began commissioning artists to reflect on Réunionnais identity.64 The statues then returned almost immediately in one of these new commissions, installed in June 1994 (the same month as the celebration of Leconte de Lisle’s centennial). Created by Sarkis, the installation brought the medieval statues together with a collection of funerary sculptures [aloalos] from Madagascar purchased by the museum in 1970 (which turned out to be poorly executed counterfeits and were immediately relegated to permanent storage).65 Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion [The Seven War Treasures of Réunion] thus conjoined a set of familiar artifacts (associated with the museum’s founding lessons of French superiority) with a second set rarely seen (and emblematic of French ignorance). The seven new sculptures each included one medieval and one Malagasy figure placed back to back; between them a screen of wire mesh in the shape of a cross supported wings made of florescent tubing (Figure 40). Each ensemble stood on a rolling platform, stabilized by a series of taut wires and trailing an electric cord that lit the wings. Dis-tributed in an irregular pattern around the edges of a rectangular room, the seven sculptures faced a central platform covered with a seemingly random scattering of watercolor paintings (related to Sarkis’s personal and artistic life)—pierced by a grouping of knives (bearing the names of cities Sarkis has visited). Red and green lighting, and music by Granmoun Lélé (a popular singer of maloya, a musical style traced to Malagasy slaves) completed the sensory experience.66

Sarkis’s installation received unqualified praise in the local press as a positive representation of multicultural reconciliation.67 When one of the sculptures was presented in the “France” section of the Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, organizers described the medieval and Malagasy figures as mutual reflections and credited the sculpture with “decentralizing” Western art in relation to other cultures.68 The director of the Musée Léon Dierx who commissioned the installation, François Cheval, imbued the project with a sense of hope for cross-cultural communication: “Orphan (p.216)

Postcolonial Itineraries

Figure 40. Sarkis, Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion, Musée Léon Dierx (June 1994). Copyright 2008 Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York / Adagp, Paris.

Photograph from Banque d’Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, New York.

objects, they become, thanks to the neon wings and the metallic structure on wheels, metaphors of the reconciliation of white and black, large and small, profane and sacred, totemism and monotheism, etc.”69 Cheval’s sense of the sculptures’ postcolonial accomplishment rejoins, in an uncanny echo, the Leblonds’ original ambitions for the display of European masterpieces: they all seem to believe that aesthetic experiences can create racial harmony by reforming memories of colonial history. Cheval also compares the statues to those of Tristan and Iseult, layering the drama of impossible yet faithful medieval love over the statues’ many other connections.70 In this perspective, the seven new sculptures present a postcolonial version of the museum’s founding colonial aspirations, secured by an idealized Middle Ages. Rather than breaking with colonial formations, this postcolonial appropriation shares in their aesthetic logic. In both moments, fragmentary copies of medieval art stand in for ancient French values—rerooted in the tropical landscape as the errant sources of “creole medievalism.”

Sarkis himself invests “war treasure” with the optimistic potential to forge new memories and recover old ones from histories of violence. He has been working with the concept of Kriegsschatz (war booty) since 1976 (p.217) (inspired by an exhibition of African and Oceanic art in Berlin), and has used “found memories” throughout his work.71 For Sarkis, Kriegsschatz designates durable memories that survive transhistorical violence:

The concept of Kriegsschatz is intimately tied to the history of cultures and civilizations … it designates the symbolic importance that works of art have in them as objects of transaction, possession, and appropriation, especially in the course of the conflicts, struggles, and wars that peoples have not ceased to undertake through the centuries: “war treasures” have this particularity of resisting invariably the destructions, deaths, and massacres.72

Sarkis treats surviving objects as reliable vehicles for distant memories, witnesses to forgotten histories, and icons of cultural resistance. At the time of the Réunion exhibit, he emphasized the “victor’s” view: “Kriegsschatz … what one discovers and seizes before adorning oneself with it, in a sign of victory, as witness to power.”73 From both sides of this power equation, objects bear witness: “The works displace themselves with their experiences. Experiences become memory. Each work has its memory—which is perpetually enriched from one place to another.”74 This durable core of untouchable memory lends Sarkis’s Kriegsschatz a resilience that points toward redemption and recovery. His installations put these memories back in motion by reconfiguring the objects themselves, provoking new experiences through unexpected juxtapositions: the installations function as purposeful lieux de mémoire, in which art makes the past readable.75 Through these reappropriations, Sarkis seeks to resist the “fixing” of identities and to liberate the store of experiences accumulated in displaced objects.76 In a sense, Sarkis pursues in art what Glissant articulates in poetics (see chapter 5). His work provides another revealing frame for the representation of war booty in Roland—and for Roland itself as a “war treasure.”

With Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion, Sarkis exposed the museum itself as a site of foundational violence—a particularly poignant project in an institution born of imperial ambition. The very idea of Kriegsschatz addresses museums’ general complicity with historical oppression—for they originated as storage vaults for war booty: “When you remove objects from their context and you take them somewhere, it is at that moment that suffering begins.”77 They can thus easily contribute to cultural stagnation. In (p.218) projects like Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion, Sarkis uses museum collections along with his own extensive repertoire of objects to “curate” installations that interrogate the museum’s traditionally sacral function.78 These interrogations are particularly potent when, like Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion, they involve objects usually consigned to invisible immobility in storage.79 In the case of the medieval and Malagasy statues at the Musée Léon Dierx, the objects cannot even be exhibited in conventional terms: “simulacra of art,” they are embarrassing deceptions (especially the aloalos, which were sold to the museum as historical artifacts). By setting these “frauds” together, Sarkis sought to redeem them for a new “truth.”80 As replicas of absent art, the materials of Sarkis’s seven “treasures” set in motion multiple geographies—Réunion/Bourbon, Madagascar, continental France. They also reference multiple institutions: colonial slavery (the forced displacement of Malagasy people beginning in the seventeenth century), the Catholic Church (religious art from the twelfth century to the fifteenth), and the museum itself (acquisitions from 1910 to 1970). These multiplicities resist the “fixing” of historical relations. The sculptures’ wheeled platforms symbolize this persistent mobility through a conflicting set of associations—ships, funeral convoys, wheelchairs, storage carts, etc.81

If Sarkis’s own discussions of Kriegsschatz emphasize memory, his Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion also bears witness to the corrosive powers of forgetting. Loss, as well as accumulation, goes along with displacement, as one “memory” erases, modifies, or repeats another (as illustrated by the circulation of expropriated goods in Roland). From this perspective, Sarkis’s Kriegsschatz depend on discontinuity, erect barriers, and open fissures of amnesia. Indeed, a dystopian reading of Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion necessarily accompanies the utopian one embraced by Cheval and others. The icons of Malagasy and French religious culture, for example, face away from each other in a static “back off,” cohabitating their individual platforms without interacting. The prospects for “balanced” communications are further infirmed by the substantial difference in size between the French and Malagasy forms: looking at the French side, one cannot see the smaller Malagasy figure, whereas from the other side the contours of the French saint frames the diminutive aloalo. The wire mesh that both separates and links the two figures also materializes a cultural double bind: partly transparent, the mesh maintains open perspectives; crisscrossed by solid lines, it forms a barrier. The modern technology of neon that traces (p.219) the contours of the wings evokes a nondenominational hope for transcendence. Yet this hope is literally enmeshed, trapped in the cold metal of a would-be reconciliation: the figures share a single pair of wings that neither one possesses.

In all of these ways, differences meet but do not speak in the seven sculptures of Sarkis’s installation. The sculptures, moreover, are not technically Kriegsschatz: although the “original” sculptures all came to the island as the general result of voluntary and forced human migrations, as replicas and counterfeits they were in fact made to travel in place of originals that have not moved. Even before Sarkis, they existed first and foremost as the remains of institutional efforts to commemorate distant origins, severed from the sacral functions of their originals. They are, in this sense, indigenous to Réunion—“creole” icons rather than survivors of civilizational clashes. They are at once full memories (repetitions of originals) and empty of history (made for export consumption). The copies embody, in ways that “original” spolia do not, the losses that accompany commemorative desires.

The violence of forgetting appears emphatically in Sarkis’s centerpiece—a raised platform with a menacing arrangement of knives. The winged sculptures, with their wheels, appear temporarily arrested in their migration toward (or from) this square island. The knives mark this island as a site of violence. Although used by Sarkis in a previous installation,82 on Réunion the knives evoke most immediately the sugarcane harvest—and the many hands that may have held them (slaves, indentured laborers, Sarkis himself). They call up images, if not memories, of the strike of metal on cane as well as the violent extraction of the people made to wield such tools. If remembered fully, Réunion’s brutal histories of slavery and indenture do violence to the dream of reconciled futures attributed to

Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion. This violence also touches the artist and his audience: visitors clustered around the centerpiece must look away from the sculptures of “reconciliation”; to view the sculptures, they must disregard the knives. The resultant tension in perspective and individual memory processing creates a complex layering of identity dreams, alternately failed and realized, utopic and distopic. Interestingly, Cheval does not mention the centerpiece of knives in his letter to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or in the exhibition catalogue): the metropole prefers more uplifting visions of multiculturalism, frequently holding out Réunion as a model for the nation’s harmonious future.83

(p.220) The equivocations of cross-cultural and transhistorical communications symbolized in the physical structure of Sarkis’s installation were also transmitted in the soundscape—the maloya music by Granmoun Lélé (d. 2004). Developed initially from Malagasy religious rituals by slaves in the eighteenth century, maloya music and dance emerged from the historical pressures of French colonialism and the creative energies of resistant people. Its practitioners endured new forms of oppression in the postcolonial period. The communist partisans of insular autonomy made maloya a symbol of their cause, provoking the music’s censure throughout the 1960s and 1970s (most aggressively under the préfet Jean Perreau-Pradier, who preceded Diefenbacher). Open public expression became possible only in the 1980s as the new socialist government in Paris ceased official pressure on the communists and also decentralized cultural programming.84 Since then, performers such as Granmoun Lélé, Firmin Viry, and Danyèl Waro (a “white” creole) have secularized and popularized the music. It now functions as the sonorous sign of a multiracial réunionnité—what Françoise Vergès and Carpanin Marimoutou have called “the common space of a Réunionnais ethos.”85 Thus from its beginnings and into present, maloya has performed anticolonial resistance. Deep in its history, maloya is also a contemporary of medieval Europe. In Sarkis’s installation, Lélé’s music, sung in Creole, wafted over the poised replicas of ancient Malagasy and French religious figures, and over the knives. An aural reminder of displacement and resilience, Lélé’s music conjoined (wittingly and unwittingly, joyfully and sadly) many of the transhistorical and transcultural dimensions of contemporary réunionnité—ancient rituals, multiple migrations, brutal oppressions, liberating celebrations, collective responsibilities, and individual imaginations.

Sarkis’s Les sept trésors de guerre de La Réunion ultimately performed transhistorical collocations that invite reflection on the forces and evasions of memory (including medieval memory) in postcolonial society. The multiple layerings of “positive” and “negative” effects engage history as both an irremediable obstacle and a necessary companion to the future. The installation—itself ephemeral—testifies to a durable colloquy between the medieval and the colonial, in which it becomes difficult to say which came first, in which both are simultaneously “cultured” and “barbaric.” Their interdependence on Réunion stretches back (at least) to the chivalric pedagogy of the nineteenth century. They remain linked in postcolonial (p.221) visions that recognize human diversity in ways that colonial chivalry never did.

Commemorations—streets, schools, public buildings, monuments—teeter between the meaningful and the meaningless, the permanent and the ephemeral. Bédier, in the present, means many things and also nothing. As an urban opportunity zone or middle school, Bédier trades the richness of complex memory for the apparent simplicities of cultural amnesia. Bédier himself sometimes yearned for just this kind of oblivion, sometimes mourned it. The vagaries of Bédier’s own reputation demonstrate, as profoundly as any medieval tradition, the truth of his conclusions on oral memory: “Preserve thus a little while a repository of anecdotes, soon reduced to insignificance, that’s all that oral tradition, left on its own, can do.”86 The same holds for memory projects in any form: their efficacy depends tenuously on the random recollections and whimsical attentions of readers, viewers, and passersby.

In constructing here the traces of commemorative gestures that have engaged Bédier’s posthumous image, I hope to have illustrated how desires for durable memory (the basis of collective identifications) contend with equally powerful desires for new beginnings. Precisely because Bédier rarely if ever signifies in the streets in the ways that his partisans envisioned, his commemoration mirrors the structure of historiography. For the Middle Ages (or any other historical period) perpetually take on new significations and shed old ones (as Sarkis demonstrates beautifully). The work of historical analysis recombines existing elements, fabricating new narratives that themselves become new objects in ongoing elaborations of past and present identities. Bédier and his Middle Ages provided particularly potent “memory fictions” for the Réunionnais diaspora during the Third Republic. They continue—haltingly, erratically, furtively—to relate medievalism and colonialism to the futures of Réunion, France, and medieval literature.


(1.) Gauvin, Michel Debré (1996) 196–200, 306–10; “Projet de loi d’orientation d’outre-mer”; “Loi no. 2000–1207.” On “bidepartmentalization,” Laurent. On Ré-union’s newly unique constitutional status, Diémert 81–82; Isar; Roux 131–32.

(2.) Role; on traditionalist critiques of Créolie: Sam-Long, De l’élégie 198–201; Encyclopédie 7:118–20.

(3.) Sautai; Eve, “Éducation.”

(4.) Gauvin, Du créole opprimé 27–29, citing Boris Gamaleya, “Lexique.” I have transcribed the citation from the original letter.

(5.) “Certes les travailleurs intellectuels n’ont pas tous la chance d’un Joseph Bédier qui déclarait: ‘Il n’y qu’une langue—je ne m’en vanterai pas à mes confrères de l’Académie—que je sache bien manier, et c’est notre parler créole’” (Gauvin, Du créole opprimé 92). Recent repetitions: Axel Gauvin at Littérature (p.298) réunionnaise; Georges and Robert Gauvin (with translation into Creole) (“Alon bien koz kréol,” Témoignages, 12 December 2006, accessed 7 July 2010).

(6.) Bédier, “Lettre”; nearly identical statement about “la langue créole” attributed to Bédier at a banquet for the Leblonds (“Joseph Bédier est mort!”); Marius Leblond reports that Bédier often enjoyed speaking Creole with his compatriots (Les îles sœurs 149) and remembers fondly a teacher who taught that Creole expressed love more subtly than Ronsard or Musset (Les îles sœurs 149, 152–55).

(7.) A reader at the ADR has marked both mentions of Creole in the letter; La victoire sociale advocated unions and better working conditions for Réunion’s laboring class (ADR 1PER59).

(8.) Nout Lang: Magazine pou met an ord la lang kréol Larénion 2 (2000): 7; on the magazine’s goals, Gauvin in Gauthier.

(9.) “Croisade pour le ‘kréol rénioné, inn lang,’” Le journal de l’île de la Réunion (27 October 2001). The crusade metaphor insinuates medieval colonialism right alongside Bédier’s reputation as a Creole speaking medievalist.

(10.) Revel; more recent press biography by Georges and Robert Gauvin.

(11.) Deixonne law (Loi no. 51–46, 11 January 1951, article 2); “Projet de loi d’orientation d’outre-mer” (No. 2322, Article 18); “Loi no. 2000–1207” (Article 34); survey of language laws in Véronique Bertile.

(12.) Certificat d’Aptitude au Professorat de l’Enseignement du Second degré, in Bulletin Officiel no. 11 (15 March 2001); no. 33 (13 September 2001). In 2010, only one of four candidates from Réunion received the CAPES (“Kapes Kréyol”). The French passage for translation was drawn from the Leblonds’ Ulysse, Cafre. Georges and Robert Gauvin aver that Bédier would have been one of the first to take the CAPES for Creole.

(13.) Of 9436 students taking the Baccalauréat exam in June 2007, 33 took sections in Creole (all but two of them as an “option” rather than to fulfill the language requirement); just over 400 had followed the “living regional language” curriculum. A new strategy for Creole pedagogy was adopted in 2008, and enrollment rose to over 700 in 2009: Académie de La Réunion (Web 24 May 2007, 8 July 2010: http://www.ac-reunion.fr).

(14.) Gauvin, “Créolisation” 83; Cellier on controversies around graphology; Chaudenson on sociolinguistic aspects (Créoles); discussion of graphic flexibility in pedagogy on Académie de La Réunion.

(15.) E.g., “Le Kréol à l’école, c’est du pipo,” Le journal de l’île de la Réunion (5 November 2007), cover and 10–11; Rapanoël on the views of some students.

(16.) Chaudenson, “Le cas des créoles” 66–67; revalatory illustration of centralization in the 2006 “Rapport du jury” (“Kapes kréol”).

(17.) Unveiling: “Hommage à Joseph Bédier”; further celebration on 29 October 1964 (lecture by Yves Drouhet on Bédier and the legend of Tristan and Iseult). Citation: “sur cette terrasse au mur de laquelle nous venons d’apposer une plaque (p.299) commémorative, et à l’ombre du vieux manguier dont il ne reste aujourd’hui que le tronc desséché” (Foucque, “Joseph Bédier” 121).

(18.) “Il faut fusiller le créole” (cited in Axel Gauvin, Du créole opprimé 63; Gilles Gauvin, “Créolisation” 76, 79), the phrase is still emblematic of cultural oppression (e.g., Crochet; Tenaille; Gélita Hoarau).

(19.) Cornu, “Economes”; Sam-Long 198–99; Encyclopédie 7:118; Dictionnaire biographique. 2:48. Cornu also directed the right-leaning periodical La voix des Mascareignes.

(20.) “Ce sentiment d’appartenance à une communauté de valeurs que nous apportent justement l’histoire de la Patrie et l’exemple de nos ancêtres”; “au cœur même de notre pays de France qui nous assume tous”; “l’éloignement n’est pas l’oubli” (Diefenbacher 114, 115).

(21.) Bulletin de l’Académie de la Réunion 22 (1965–66), 23 (1967–68) (with the participation of both Cornu and Diefenbacher). The conservative Revue cultuelle réunionnaise also began with Bédier and the poets, in 1976 (Dodille 193).

(22.) Gauvin, Michel Debré (1996) (2006); Debré; Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries 141–54, 165–70; Lionnet, “Disease” 203–6.

(23.) Gauvin, Michel Debré (2006) 307–8; Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries 147–48; Diefenbacher on the 1966 deportation of Réunionnais children to the dé-partement of La Creuse in CQFD: Ce qu’il faut dire, détruire, développer: mensuel de critique sociale 13 (June 2004) (Web 15 June 2007: http://cequilfautdetruire.org).

(24.) Témoignages (10 June 1964). The day that Diefenbacher installed Bédier’s plaque, newspapers reported that the French senate had voted to repeal the “Ordonnance Debré” that allowed these kinds of deportations (Témoignages, 25 June 1964) (the law was finally repealed in 1972).

(25.) Gauvin, Michel Debré (2006) 69–74.

(26.) Ibid. 300–1; Lionnet, “Créolité” 108; Vergès, “‘Do You Speak Creole?’”; Idelson.

(27.) E.g., Martinez vol. 2; Sam-Long, Défi d’un volcan.

(28.) Cohen and Lortie 233–63.

(29.) Aldrich, “Putting the Colonies on the Map” 215, 218, 219, 221. Imperial streets near Avenue Joseph Bédier include Rue Regnault, Rue Paul Bert, and Boulevard Masséna; a few blocks away runs the short medievalist street, Rue Darmesteter.

(30.) “Vous avez lié à jamais ce nom à celui de Paris, vous l’avez intégré à l’être même de la Ville …” (Roques, “Allocution”); also Corbellari, “au sein du panthéon national” (Joseph Bédier 563). The five signs that marked the avenue in 2007 have four different forms, from just the name to descriptions that include “professeur et romaniste,” “médiéviste,” and “membre de l’Académie Française.”

(31.) Lot, Joseph Bédier 161; Pays; undated draft letter to Louis Artus (CFB, liasse 133).

(32.) “Paris propose son projet urbain aux communes de la banlieue,” Le monde (27 September 2001).

(33.) “Ensemble améliorons: le quartier Joseph Bédier-Porte d’Ivry,” no. 1, June 2004 (web, 18 July 2008: http://www.paris.fr; http://www.parisbedierportedivry.fr).

(34.) Ary Leblond in Congrès 98–100. In 1967, Bédier’s name was proposed for Saint-Denis’s restructured lycée. In the end, the lycée remained “Leconte de Lisle” and the collège on the original site took the name “Bourbon” (Lougnon, “Leconte de Lisle décapité”).

(35.) “Maison de Joseph Bédier (1864–1938). Élu à l’Académie Française en 1920, Joseph Bédier est surtout connu pour ses adaptations des grands textes de la littérature médiévale, comme Tristan et Iseut, publié en 1900 ou la Chanson de Roland en 1921” (with a photo of Bédier working at his “Bourbonnais” desk).

(36.) Le mémorial 7:62–65; ADR 380W190.

(37.) The prefect of Réunion wrote in 1956 that settlement began with the Compagnie des Indes and that Africans “did not count” in Réunion’s development (Les richessses de la France: revue de tourisme, de l’économie et des arts 25 [1956]: 23–24). The island was first “taken” by the French in 1638; other “beginnings” include 1640, 1642, and 1649. Saint-Denis hosted a tricentennial in 1938 (the year of a number of other important anniversaries) (ADR 8M11; Le peuple and Le progrès for October 1938). For the occasion, Ary Leblond devoted an exposition to Léon Dierx at the Musée de la France d’Outre-Mer (Le Palais des Colonies 225). While the national government refused to issue a commemorative stamp for 1938, the events of 1965 were so honored (Le progrès, 3 October 1965, 4–5; also Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries 170–72).

(38.) Kichenapanaïdou. The tricentennial also rebaptised the nearby cave used by twelve exiles from Madagascar in 1646 as the “Grotte des premiers Français” [Cave of the first Frenchmen], aligning it with the settlement of 1665 (Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries 171). The site, also called now “Cave of the first Réunionnais,” remains contested (e.g., “Polémique”).

(39.) Témoignages (28 September 1965, 30 September 1965); Le progrès (3 October 1965): 4–5 (description of the event).

(40.) Témoignages (24 September 1965, 3 October 1965).

(41.) “La Nation est une âme, un principe spirituel” (Le journal de l’île de la Réunion, 5 October 1965).

(42.) “La France est sans doute le seul pays où les problèmes de races et de couleurs ne se posent jamais” (Le journal de l’île de la Réunion, 12 October 1965). These affirmations took place in the context of France’s rejection and then de facto acceptance of “Euro-Algerians” after Algeria’s independence (Shepard).

(43.) ADR 249W18.

(44.) Ibid.; ADR 13Fi 44–47 (see chapter 3 for discussion of Bédier’s speech); cf. Cornu on Réunion’s “fidélité” (Paris et Bourbon 43). I recognized this citation (p.301) as Bédier’s in Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries 171, and was able to document its history with the assistance of Emmanuelle Vidal at the ADR.

(45.) Témoignages (27 October 2005, 19–20 Dec 2005).

(46.) Le journal de l’île de la Réunion (9 Dec 2005); interview with Gilles Gauvain in Témoignages (3–4 Dec 2005): 8–10; Témoignages (9 Dec 2005): 1, 7. On 29 Nov 2005, a majority of national deputies had refused to repeal the “procolonial” provision (it was finally repealed in February 2006). The whole episode reverberates with memories of the 1960s: the legislation was promulgated under the assembly presidency of Jean-Louis Debré (son of Michel) and supported by Michel Diefenbacher (son of Alfred, graduate of the Lycée Leconte de Lisle, former prefect of Guadeloupe, and established functionary of overseas politics). Further details in “Abrogation”; Bertrand; Bancel and Blancard, “Mémoire coloniale.”

(47.) Le journal de l’île de la Réunion (17 March 2007, 3 November 2007).

(48.) Premier Bulletin de Souscription (MLD, Album Léon Dierx, copy provided by Maryse Duchesne), published in La patrie créole (17 December 1910); overview of the museum’s history in Fournier 340–47; Ah-Koon and Duchêne (with transcriptions of relevant press articles).

(49.) “On attire à y revenir, par le prestige et la fascination de l’histoire, plusieurs des enfants qui allèrent chercher fortune au loin et qui, déracinés, y épuisent la sève de leur souche … La splendeur de la nature ne suffit àretenir dans un pays les fils des hommes … Par cet te solidarité harmonieuse, que les jeunes Réunionnais, admirant les œuvres de leur race, s’élèvent à la volonté de créer autant de beauté!” (Leblond, “La Réunion et son Musée”).

(50.) “Plus gracieux et plus actifs”; “flexibles à l’émulation”; “se raffineront … se fortifieront”; “la qualité de l’amour des grands artistes français, la pureté de leurs ardeurs, la noblesse des conceptions” (Leblond, “La Réunion et son Musée”).

(51.) Premier Bulletin de Souscription (MLD, Album Léon Dierx); Le nouveau journal de l’île de la Réunion (14 December 1910): 1; letter from Bédier to Paul Boyer (14 April 1912) (MS NAF 18856, f. 185); Dictionnaire biographique 2:103–4. Celebrating the opening of the museum in 1911, the Leblonds classed Guist’hau among the most prestigious living creoles (La Réunion et Paris 6). Guist’hau and Bédier are both listed as founding honorary members of the Académie de l’Île de la Réunion (Bulletin de l’Académie de l’Île de la Réunion 1 [1913–14]): 20. The Leblonds dedicated their essay collection La France devant l’Europe to Guist’hau, with a statement of creole patriotism (v-vi).

(52.) Premier Bulletin de Souscription (MLD, Album Léon Dierx); “Le Musée de La Réunion,” La patrie créole (16–17 January 1911): 2; discussion of the committee’s work in Ah-koon and Duchêne 1:72–76; Cheval, “Souvenirs” 22–23.

(53.) Le nouveau journal de l’île de la Réunion (4 March 1911): 2.

(54.) Le nouveau journal de l’île de la Réunion (11 April 1913): 1–2; Le peuple (20 (p.302) October 1913); Ary Leblond to Hippolyte Foucque (16 August 1955), cited in Cheval, “Souvenirs” 35.

(55.) WLD, don fondateur no. 53. “Le musée s’enrichit,” La dépêche de la Réunion (26 October 1911): 2; La patrie créole (26 October 1911): 2; the essays are now held in the ADR (see chapter 3).

(56.) “C’est la littérature, tous le savent, qui nous a donné nos douces gloires—les Leconte de Lisle, les Léon Dierx, les Joseph Bédier, les Jean Ricquebourg—toutes célébrées et accrues par les Leblond”: Le nouveau journal de l’île de la Réunion (14 July 1911): 1; also La dépêche de la Réunion (19 July 1911): 2.

(57.) “On tient à présenter presque exclusivement à la Réunion des moulages gothiques qui accentuent, avec l’élégance et l’élancement de la foi, notre sentiment de la grâce, de la bonhomie et l’espièglerie jusqu’à travers la résignation et le mysticisme, l’intelligence et l’aménité” (Leblond, “La Réunion et son musée”).

(58.) Government pledge: Le nouveau journal de l’île de la Réunion (14 December 1910): 1. Figures: Greffet-Kendig 30–32.

(59.) Hugues Capet, 987–1987.

(60.) “Je m’oppose formellement à ce que vous y conduisiez ma fille qui pourrait être effrayée à la vue des énormes pièces montées qui représentent sous la vérandah, les saints des cathédrales de France. Que la vue des petites horreurs qui garnissent le Musée et en sont le plus bel ornement, soit épargnée à ma fillette, à moins que l’aumônier voulant donner une idée aux élèves de la laideur du péché mortel ne le compare aux tableaux” (La dépêche de la Réunion, 19 December 1913, 1); Ah-Koon and Duchêne on other criticisms (1:125–31).

(61.) Letter from Eugène Massinot (museum director) to Ary Leblond (December 1953), letter from Ary Leblond to Hippolyte Foucque (16 August 1955) (cited in Cheval, “Souvenirs” 33, 34–35); description of Paul et Virginie exhibit in Leblond, “Paul et Virginie aux colonies,” La vie (22 March 1913).

(62.) MLD, “Historique.” Ambroise Vollard had participated on the museum’s organizing committee (MLD, Album Léon Dierx).

(63.) Letter from Ary Leblond to Hippolyte Foucque (16 August 1955) (cited in Cheval, “Souvenirs” 35). A decade later, the museum building underwent a major restoration as part of the controversial “tricentennial” of 1965 (Le mémorial 7:65).

(64.) Cheval, “L’Art contemporain,” Les sept trésors de guerre 16; Maxim.

(65.) Cheval, Les sept trésors de guerre 17–18; one color photo in Warren, “How the Indian Ocean” and on http://www.cg974.fr/culture (accessed 8 July 2010).

(66.) “Les sept trésors de guerre de la Réunion,” Le journal de l’île de la Réunion (26 June 1994): 5; MLD, Dossier Sarkis.

(67.) Maxim; Ségelstein.

(68.) Africus 146.

(69.) “Objets orphelins, ils deviennent, grâce aux ailes en néon et à la structure métallique sur roulettes, des métaphores de la réconciliation du blanc et du noir, du grand et du petit, du profane et du sacré, (p.303) du totémisme et du monothéisme, etc.” (letter from Cheval to Isabelle Mayet, Association française d’action artistique, Ministère des affaires étrangères, 13 February 1995) (MLD, Dossier Sarkis); also Cheval, Les sept trésors de guerre 31.

(70.) Cheval, Les sept trésors de guerre 41n37 (quoting from the Roman de Tristan en prose). Marimoutou notes a similar convergence between discussions of créolité and the roman colonial (in Enwezor 265–66).

(71.) Fleckner, Treasure Chests 13–20, 310n5; Von Drateln; Sarkis, Blackout 125, 127. Many of these projects juxtapose dissonant times and place—high tech lighting in medieval abbeys (Breerette; Sarkis, Le lustre), medieval sculpture in African dress (Sarkis, La sculpture, D’après et après). In 2009, Sarkis opened Litanies: nuit blanche in the Mosquée de Paris. See also http://www.sarkis.fr (accessed 8 July 2010).

(72.) Cousseau 9; also Rossignol.

(73.) “Kriegsschatz … ce que l’on découvre et dont on s’empare avant de s’en parer, en signe de victoire, comme témoignage de puissance” (“Les sept trésors de guerre de la Réunion,” Le journal de l’île de la Réunion, 26 June 1994); also Maxim (with quotes from Sarkis and Cheval).

(74.) “Les œuvres se déplacent avec leurs expériences. Les expériences deviennent la mémoire. Chaque œuvre a sa mémoire—qui s’enrichit perpétuellement d’un lieu à l’autre” (Sarkis, “Lexique” 42–43).

(75.) Fleckner, “Theatrum mundi” 133–34, Treasure Chests 20.

(76.) Sarkis, “Lexique” 42; Fleckner, Treasure Chests 13, 17, 20; J. Martin in Sarkis, Trois mise en scène 11.

(77.) “Quand tu enlèves [des objets] de leur cadre et … tu les amènes quelque part … c’est à ce moment là que la souffrance commence” (Sarkis, “Entretien” 61).

(78.) Rossignol, in Sarkis, Trois mises en scène 69; Fleckner, Treasure Chests 11–13.

(79.) Sarkis installations on this theme: Réserves accessibles (Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 1979); Réserves, sans retour (Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, 1980), Sarkis interprète le Musée Constantin Meunier (Bruxelles, 1989), Danse dans la salle Art Déco (Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1989) (also involving African statues). Discussion in Harding; Fleckner, Treasure Chests 13–14.

(80.) Sarkis and Cheval in Maxim; Cheval, Les sept trésors de guerre 15, 36; Ségelstein.

(81.) Cheval, Les sept trésors de guerre 25.

(82.) Sarkis, Sarkis 26.9.19380 110.

(83.) E.g., D. Picard. In Paris, the 150th anniversary of abolition (1998) celebrated achieved reconciliation, potentially impeding efforts to address ongoing social inequalities (Vergès, “Mémoires visuelles” 392–96). The anniversary has only been officially celebrated on Réunion since 1981 on December 20; since 2006, May 10 has been the official date of national commemoration (established by the (p.304) Comité pour la Mémoire et l’Histoire de l’Esclavage, chaired since 2008 by Françoise Vergès; http://cpmne.fr; accessed 8 July 2010).

(84.) Rousse, “L’année 1956”; Viry; Lélé; Gauvin, “Créolisation” 76, 80; Eve, Le 20 Décembre 1848 165–71, 193–94, 205; Léger 48–55; Vellayoudom. On Perreau-Pradier’s violently neocolonial, anticommunist administration: Gauvin, Michel Debré (2006) 148–67; Rousse, Combats 2:47–72, 76–83, 112; Vergés, Monsters and Revolutionaries 138–39.

(85.) Vergès and Marimoutou 59. Also Marimoutou, “Le texte du maloya”; Fuma, “Aux origines.” Cheval dedicated the exhibition catalogue to Céline and Firmin Viry (Les sept trésors de guerre). In October 2009, UNESCO accepted Réunion’s petition to list maloya as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in need of Urgent Safeguarding (http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich; accessed 8 July 2010). Music remains a catalyst for social critique (e.g., collecif la Fournaise in Témoignages, 5 July 2010).

(86.) Bédier, Légendes épiques 3:269–70.