Charting the "transitional period": The emergence of modern time in the nineteenth century

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This paper seeks to chart a concept of historical experience that French Romantic writers first developed to describe their own relationship to historical time: the notion of the "transitional period." At first, the term related strictly to the evolving periodic conception of history, one that required breaks, spaces, or zones of indeterminacy to bracket off periods imagined as organic wholes. These transitions, necessary devices in the new grammar of history, also began to attract interest on their own, conceived either as chaotic but creative times of transformation, or, more often, as slack periods of decadence that possessed no proper style but exhibited hybrid traits. Their real interest, however, lies in their reflexive application to the nineteenth century itself, by writers and historians such as Alfred de Musset, Chateaubriand, Michelet, and Renan, who in their effort to define their own period envisioned the "transitional period" as a passage between more coherent and stable historical formations. This prospective self-definition of the "age of history" from a future standpoint is very revealing; it shows not just the tension between its organic way of apprehending the past and its own self-perception, but it also opens a window on a new and paradoxical experience of time, one in which change is ceaseless and an end in itself. The paper also presents a critique of the way the term "modernity" has functioned, from Baudelaire's initial use to the present, to occlude the experience of transition that the Romantics highlighted. By imposing on the nineteenth-century sense of the transitory a heroic period designation, the term "modernity" denies precisely the reality it describes, and sublimates a widespread temporal malaise into its contrary. The paper concludes that the peculiarly "modern" mania for naming one's period is a function of transitional time, and that the concept coined by the Romantics still governs our contemporary experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-71
Number of pages21
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Philosophy


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