The Memory Mavens, Part 13: The Purpose of Halbwachs’s La Topographie

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by Tim Widowfield

Maurice Halbwachs
Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

After the previous post (The Memory Mavens, Part 12: The Collective Memory of a Halbwachs Quotation), I uploaded my translation of the Introduction to La Topographie Légendaire des Évangiles en Terre Sainte to Vridar. You can find it embedded on this page. I will be adding chapters as time permits. The top-level page will be found here: MAURICE HALBWACHS — Works Translated into English  (which is visible in the Vridar side panel under Pages).

Reading the works of the Memory Mavens (specifically, those self-professed experts in the English-speaking world), you might have the impression that Halbwachs had missed the mark with this book. As I mentioned in other posts, Anthony Le Donne and Barry Schwartz had little good to say about it. Le Donne insisted it was “seriously deficient in many ways” (Le Donne 2009, pp. 43-44). Schwartz wrote:

Halbwachs’s greatest failure is his inability to see commemoration as anything more than an elaborate delusion.

It is not just that localizations distort history; the more they distort the better they work. Halbwachs advances a pejorative conception of collective memory, one that distrusts and works to undermine established beliefs. He assumes that memory, as opposed to history, is inauthentic, manipulative, shady, something to be overcome rather than accepted in its own right. That commemoration is a selective celebration rather than an inferior version of history escapes Halbwachs. He cannot fully grasp what sacred sites accomplish, how they transmute reality to mobilize and sustain religious sentiment and, above all, elevate Jesus and sustain faith in what he did and represented.

(Schwartz 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

After several paragraphs of scolding Halbwachs, he proclaimed:

From the social memory standpoint, then, our object of study is not the authenticity of the Gospels; it is rather the Gospels as sources of information about the popular beliefs of early Christianity.

(Schwartz 2005, p. 50)

Are we to infer that Halbwachs didn’t know that? After reading Halbwachs’s introduction (which today’s scholars will not do), we might come away with a different interpretation. In his essay, Schwartz was focused on gleaning information about what happened in first-century Palestine. He chastised both Bultmann and Halbwachs for their skepticism under this section header: The Cynical Discipline (p. 45). He suggested that both men smugly swept aside all gospel evidence, happy to declare any and all traditions as inauthentic.

“Just wait a bit. Soon there will come a new species of men – narrow, hard, and systematic – who will go further in the direction of ruthless criticism and denial. Then you will miss Mr. Renan.”

But what did Halbwachs actually say? First, he listed the various reasons one might wish to take a trip to the so-called Holy Land, and then he said:

For our part, we have taken a completely different point of view. There is a whole series of issues on which we need not take sides. Was Jesus a god, a supernatural being, or simply a man who believed he was God or the son of God? Did Jesus exist? Do the gospels have any historical basis? Sainte-Beuve1, in an article on The Life of Jesus2, was astonished at the acrimony of the criticisms which had been directed against this book, and he said something like: “Just wait a bit. Soon there will come a new species of men – narrow, hard, and systematic – who will go further in the direction of ruthless criticism and denial. Then you will miss Mr. Renan.

1 [translator’s note] Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, French literary critic, 1808-1869.

2 [tr. note] Vie de Jésus, 1863, by Ernest Renan.

(Halbwachs 2023, p. 2, emphasis added)

Clearly, Halbwachs understood that arguing over authenticity of the gospels was futile and unproductive. Moreover, it had nothing to do with his study. Read and understand the subtitle: Étude de mémoire collective. He wanted to examine how people learned and repeated elements of collective memory, concentrating on how they reacted to visiting the sites, while he learned how such memories arose and evolved over the centuries.

We repeat: we are staying away from these discussions. We come upon the locations of the events in the gospels only at a rather late stage, at the beginning of the fourth century. These traditions about the so-called holy places, how were they formed? What is their origin? On this subject, it is possible to form hypotheses that can lead us quite a long way, going back quite far, and which, moreover, are not altogether implausible. The essential point is that these traditions already exist at the moment we encounter them. We are not searching for what lies behind them, or whether they are authentic. Rather, we study them for their own sake, as collective beliefs. We are trying to determine their potency and scope. But above all, we follow them over time, starting from that period, to the extent that the monuments, and especially the descriptions of the pilgrims, allow us to do so.

(Halbwachs 2023, p. 2, emphasis added)

Here we see evidence of a phenomenon that is far too common in modern scholarship. We read about founders or early practitioners of certain disciplines, and we are dismayed to find out that they were too dogmatic, too extreme, unable to understand nuances. Earlier scholars, they tell us, were too skeptical, too cynical — or perhaps too gullible, too trusting of authority — too distracted by confirmation bias, too caught up in their own agendas to provide a fair assessment.

Scholars like Schwartz come riding to the rescue. “Here is the sensible middle! Here is the brilliant nuance I have just uncovered!” they announce. They count on the fact that their readers will not “waste time” consulting the original works. They also know that, sadly, their fellow scholars will assume they are correct. As long as this behavior doesn’t change, the current regime of complacent ignorance about Bultmann and Halbwachs will persist.

Halbwachs, Maurice, La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Étude de memoire collective, Presses Universitaires de France (Quadrige/PUF), 2008 (1st ed., 1941, 2nd ed., 1971)

Halbwachs, Maurice, (tr. Widowfield, Timothy) The Legendary Topography of the Holy Land: A Study in Collective Memory, 2023

Le Donne, AnthonyThe Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009

Renan, ErnestThe Life of Jesus, Trübner, 1864 (orig. French ver., 1863)

Schwartz, Barry, “Christian Origins: Historical Truth and Social Memory” in Kirk & Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, SBL, 2005

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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2 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 13: The Purpose of Halbwachs’s La Topographie

  1. Hi Tim, can you give the original French of the Sainte-Beuve’s prophecy ?
    Not because I don’t trust your translation, but at contrary simply because I would like to read it in the original: it is one of these quotes that deserve to become a meme in the Internet.
    Thanks in advance,

    1. Yes.
      « Attendez, seulement, un peu. Bientôt viendra une nouvelle espèce d’hommes, étroits durs, systématiques, qui iront plus loin dans le sens de la critique impitoyable et de la négation. Vous regretterez alors M. Renan. »

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