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Dominique Kalifa Was a Joyful Historian

by Thomas Dodman

Dominique Kalifa is no longer with us. For the profession and for modern French history, for his students, colleagues, and friends, the loss is immense, unbearable. Historian of the “social imaginary”—a notion he did much to theorize—of the Belle Epoque and its mass culture, of crime and passion, of the murky, seedy, thugee “underworlds” of the long nineteenth-century, he leaves us with dozens of books and articles to ponder, intellectual friendships drawn across the world to cherish, and much more work left unfinished to imagine. 

Kalifa was born in Vichy on September 12, 1957. After the Ecole Normale and Agrégation, he obtained his PhD in 1994 at Paris VII under Michelle Perrot, a mentor whom he always spoke warmly about and whose intellectual filiation he was particularly proud of. In 2002 he succeeded Alain Corbin at Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, where among other things he directed the Centre d’histoire du XIXe siècle. Kalifa’s first book, a revised version of his PhD, was published by Fayard in 1995 as L’Encre et le Sang. Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Epoque. There followed a series of publications on crime, police, and mass culture, including the beautiful Vidal, Le tueur de femme. Une biographie sociale, an experimental case-study co-written with Philippe Artières (Perrin, 2001; Verdier, 2017). He subsequently extended his purview to the violence of military penal colonies in Biribi. Les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française (Perrin, 2009) and to the “beggars, outcasts, urchins, waifs, prostitutes, criminals, convicts, madmen, fallen women, lunatics, degenerates,” part real, part fantasy, that haunt the underworlds of Paris, London, New York, and Buenos Aires (in Les Bas-Fonds. Histoire d’un Imaginaire (Seuil, 2013); eng. trans. Vice, Crime, and Poverty. How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld (Columbia, 2019)). In recent years, Kalifa cemented a long-standing love affair with Paris in Paris. Une histoire érotique, d’Offenbach aux sixties (Payot, 2018), and a fascination for the Belle Epoque and other “chrononyms” (terms used to designate specific epochs), with La véritable histoire de la "Belle Époque" (Fayard, 2017) and a collective work published just this past January, Les noms d'époque. De 'Restauration' à 'Années de plomb' (Gallimard, 2020). 

Erudite, often brilliant, always elegant, Kalifa’s publications bring sociological scope and conceptual depth to l’histoire des sensibilités, synthesizing French and anglophone approaches to cultural history in a way few, on either side of the Channel/Atlantic, can claim to do. He explored the darker recesses of society and of individual human beings, but he always did so with excitement, a riotous touch, and the sheer joy of a detective piecing together his case (or sometimes of a thief eluding the law).

Dominique was a joyful man, full of life. I remember his generous smile behind the square glasses, atop the thin suited silhouette when we met at conferences, his contagious laughter late at night in a noisy Parisian restaurant after a seminar. I remember another evening spent looking for a bar in Cambridge MA, the burger he neatly cut up with knife and fork in New Brunswick, NJ, the dissertation he smuggled out of the Sorbonne and passed secretively to me under the café table, like in a spy movie. 

There is more to life than History, even for a workaholic historian such as he was. I first met Dominique as a very lost graduate student stranded in Paris, needing a sponsor for a fellowship. He agreed, but warned me he was also recommending another student. I didn’t get the fellowship (not sure about the other student), but found much better in Dominique’s grad seminar at the Sorbonne. From the salles Picards 1 & 2 on the third floor, or over at the Center Malher annex in the Marais, he trained a generation of French dix-neuvièmistes and welcomed a generation of foreign graduate students such as myself, at a time when the Ecole was no longer quite the Ecole anymore. Dominique was what the French call a “passeur,” someone who built bridges and generously promoted the work of colleagues (as he did for three decades in the pages of Libération). He stepped out of a Franco-French historiographical comfort zone to chance encounters with British, American, Brazilian, and Japanese traditions, and conversely helped broadcast what Francophone historiography (still) has to say after the glory days of the Annales and of the cultural turn. His greatest legacy is arguably to be found here, in the discussions he led and the exchanges he facilitated not only in Paris, but in Mexico City, Sao Paolo, New York, Tokyo, St Andrews, and the many other places where he taught and gave conferences. Tomorrow, these classrooms will feel even more silent than they already are these days.

Dominique Kalifa died on September 12, 2020, aged 63. He was a joyful historian. 

Thomas Dodman is a historian of Modern France and an Assistant Professor in the Department of French at Columbia University. He is the author of What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and a coeditor of Sensibilités: Histoire, critique & sciences sociales (Anamosa), a journal where Dominique Kalifa's voice will be sorely missed.