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  • Marcel Bénabou’s Paradoxical Autobiography
  • Claude Burgelin (bio)
    Translated by Roxanne Lapidus

It’s understood. Essentially, Marcel Bénabou’s oeuvre belongs to the galaxy of autobiography. Even if we exclude Jette ce livre avant qu’il soit trop tard before transforming it into an ego-graphy (a questionable position), the two other books surely belong in this tradition.

Nonetheless, neither Narcissus nor Job is taking up the pen here. Most autobiographers write from the position of an original rupture. The founding ties have been broken, and through writing, a torn and sundered consciousness attempts to reweave a few threads of the ravelled link. Thanks to exile, Marcel Bénabou has indeed ended up becoming this unhappy consciousness. But this autobiographical enterprise is, at least in the usual sense, the least Rousseauist imaginable—which is what gives it its value. It is not guided by the search for self-knowledge, nor by the problematic of guilt and fault, nor by narcissistic passion, nor by any other form of self-torment. The most powerful and active motives of the autobiographical quest are absent here.

On the one hand, this stems from the fact that the question that obsesses Marcel Bénabou and informs his work is that of the book, more than that of writing. Where Rousseau, Stendhal or Leiris are in search of writing, continually reinterrogating the power of their instrument, returning to the comment dire, the question that holds our author is more that of the object. If he has delayed in writing certain of his books, it’s probably less from intimidation before the blank page than from a hesitation to assemble the underpinnings of a book and to construct it—in other words to create it and legitimize it. And whereas classical autobiographies must perforce be “unfinished,” Marcel Bénabou’s books present themselves as objects that have (finally!) found the framing and the principle of closure that have allowed them to come into being.

For if an autobiographer aims to express himself, in Bénabou’s case this is not exactly what’s at stake. In Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres as well as in Jacob, Ménahem et Mimoun, the aim is less to express himself as to express everything. Whereas an autobiographer is caught up in the problematic of the contingent and the partial, here (because of the very story of [End Page 41] Marcel Bénabou) there is a fantasy of totality—and therefore of the book as total summation. If autobiographical accounts are oriented toward challenging the inexpressible, in this case the inexpressible was not on the order of the unavowable or the ineffable. It sprang from this necessity to produce a book that would be everything, that would say everything, that would put everything in relation to everything: Marcel and his family, his family in its history and its culture, this culture in the Jewish tradition, this tradition in its ties to the Almighty... One cannot evoke the destiny of Marcel-Ménahem without passing through this linkage and without encountering Time, History, and God. A heavy task. And each time the recited story narrates the way in which the author accomplished his mission while getting rid of it, unless the opposite is true.

Thus the difficulty is not in speaking of an “I” that is too separate and fragmented, but in being able to animate an “I” that is too connected. In other words, to put in place in a precise manner the relations between the use of “I” and “one” or “we”—which the author’s Judeo-Moroccan origins have made very particular—by showing the subtle economy of the relations between these. Every time the author says “I,” one must understand in this modest and fragile enunciation not only the very person of Marcel Bénabou, but the resonance of the ancestral voice, of the strong family link, of the authority of the Book and of the people who revere it. One begins to see how this constraint for a long time dampened the author’s writing zeal.

A large part of the success of Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes...

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pp. 41-46
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