Torpor and Rage

From Haute-Frêne to Hautefaye

in French Politics, Culture & Society
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Alain Corbin is a historian of astonishing range.1 Two of his works, The Life of an Unknown and The Village of Cannibals, exemplify the breadth of his historical vision. The latter reconstructs a murder that takes place in the village of Hautefaye in 1870, while the former recovers the lost world of a forgotten man who, as it happens, died within a few years of that event. The Village is thus a study of what Corbin calls, in the preface to The Life, “a fortuitous event” that casts “a brief and lurid light on the myriads of the disappeared.” But such events were, as Corbin reminds us, “exceptional, products of a paroxysm offering momentary access to an underlying reality without telling us much about the torpor of ordinary existences.” The torpor of ordinary existences: the phrase is striking, and it is not only an apt description of the life of Louis-François Pinagot but also an important clue to what Corbin believed was missing from the reigning schools of French historiography.

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