February 1, 2024

Biography of Silhouettes

Thomas Dodman
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“Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile never went to war. He presumably knew that he might have to, in the spirit of civic virtue and sacrifice that his mentor cherished. But Rousseau died in 1778, leaving us to wonder what his model pupil would have done at the outbreak of the French revolutionary wars only fourteen years later. As it turns out, there was a young Emile, or at least an avid reader of L’Emile, who volunteered to defend the Patrie in 1792. His name was Gabriel Noël and he lived through the tumultuous Age of Revolution together with his adoptive mother, Elisabeth Durival – a provincial noblewoman, estranged wife, occasional cross-dresser, and pedagogue steeped in Enlightenment thought – and stepsister, Charlotte de Vismes, also adopted, a feminist avant l’heure, who would eventually become his wife… Their story is the stuff of novels; but it comes to us as the dust of history – that is, as crumbling papers in attics and archives. These speak to us in a muffled voice, dissonant and discontinuous – just like life tends to be, if only we look beneath the surface of a name and a string of dates. Like all microhistories, Gabriel, Elisabeth and Charlotte’s is a history in a minor key, the story of anonymous people whom revolution turned into historical protagonists, into volontaires. Theirs is a biography of silhouettes – a contemporary, cost-cutting-cum-democratizing invention – whose outline is faint, imaginative, tantalizingly real.” Thomas Dodman

Thomas Dodman is a Franco-British historian and an assistant professor of French at Columbia University. His research and teaching focus on forms and experiences of social transformation in the modern era, particularly in times of war and revolution, and as seen from the standpoint of affects and medicine. He is the author of What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (Chicago, 2018) and a co-editor of Une histoire de la guerre, du XIXe siècle à nos jours (Seuil, 2018). He also co-edits the journal Sensibilités: histoirecritique & sciences sociales (Anamosa) and directs the History and Literature MA at Columbia’s Global Center in Paris.

The Rendez-Vous de l’Institut Series is generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. You will find a full calendar of the Fellows’ Talk here.

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