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French Forum 30.2 (2005) 121-135
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Aggressivity in Self Writing
Colette's Etoile Vesper and Michel Leiris' Fourbis
Self writing marks a turn in the development of autobiographical writing in which the focus shifts from a complete, encapsulated version of the writer's life story to a searching discourse that attempts to redefine the writer's relationship to the present.1 One of the consequences of the move to self writing is the undermining of the discourse of mastery that previously characterized the autobiographical subject. In self writing, the image of the self that autobiography had posited as "triumphant, unshakeable, fixed for eternity,"2 breaks up under the effects of conflicting unconscious drives. Far from being in control of their destiny, the self writer submits to the vicissitudes of a subject that has now become the site of the "return of the repressed,"3 where it is exposed to phenomena such as the eruption of affect, the appearance of the symptom, and the manifestations of aggressivity.
The aim of this paper is to examine two twentieth-century French pieces of self writing, Colette's Etoile Vesper and Michel Leiris' Fourbis,4 focussing particularly on the signs of aggressivity that appear in the texts. The assumption is that aggressivity is not an incidental effect of self writing but an important part of its operation as a process of reconstitution of the subject. More precisely, aggressivity informs self writing in so far as the latter consists of multiple identifications that the self writer only partially understands and almost never controls. The mandatory detour via psychoanalysis will be brief. Identification, Freud tells us, is "the original form of emotional tie with an object,"5 and as such provides the earliest form of contact that the subject establishes with the world and others. Of central importance is the assertion made by Freud and Lacan, and supported by other writers such as Girard and Borch-Jacobsen,6 that to the extent that identification lays [End Page 121] the foundation for the subject's relations with others, it is based on primordial forms of violence. Whether one considers, with Freud, that the process of identification derives from libidinous object-ties, as exemplified by the infant who assimilates through ingestion the objects to which it is attracted, or whether one follows Lacan in privileging the "mirror stage" in which the infant discovers with jubilation, then attacks with fury, the image of a fully formed being that it recognizes as its own, identification is accompanied by a release of affect that translates in behavioral terms into a hostile, aggressive attitude.
Colette's and Leiris' texts are constructed around such identifications. These include the objects, the people or the situations that the self writer selects because of a perceived analogy with aspects of their life story. It will become apparent that each of these identifications is associated with some form of aggressivity, suggesting that it is precisely through aggressivity that the identifications are authenticated. It is through aggressivity, in other words, that the identifications mark themselves as compelling moments in the playing out of the self writer's life and destiny. Such is the case in both Colette's and Leiris' texts. Here, the subject of self writing is characterized by a chronic sense of vulnerability that is explicitly related to their physical and psychological state. Colette is a victim of an incapacitating arthritic condition, while Leiris suffers from a morbid disposition and a pathological fear of sexual relationships. It is not surprising, then, that the identifications on which they base their self writing involve narrative patterns that convey outwardly or inwardly directed forms of aggressivity.
Colette's Identifications of Pain
To begin with the aging and incapacitated Colette, self writing is a way of marking out the boundaries of her world and ensuring its protection. Her world, consisting of her small apartment and the Place du Palais Royal that she constantly surveys from her window, is a world in which she is at peace, as she puts it, to write and suffer. It...