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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 201-228
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Fantasies of Self Identity
Khatibi's The Book of Blood
In his never-completed "Voyage pittoresque en Algérie" (Picturesque Journey to Algeria), Théophile Gautier comments upon the rites of the Aïssaoua, a sect of North African mystics. He describes the sect as "a type of convulsionists of whom one hears marvels" [un espèce de convulsionnaires, dont on raconte des merveilles] (80). 1 Gautier immediately appends a remark calling attention to his own skepticism, a remark that leads him to a brief characterization of nineteenth-century travelers:
[the Aïssaoua] had for a long time sharply excited my curiosity at the same time that they aroused my doubts; the nineteenth-century traveler is naturally skeptical and likes very much, before he believes anything, to see for himself. [depuis longtemps piquaient vivement ma curiosité en même temps qu'elles excitaient mes doutes; le voyageur au XIXème siècle est naturellement sceptique et il aime fort, avant de croire, à fourrer son doigt dans la plaie] (80). [End Page 201]
Following the general trend of travelers during this century in which colonization and orientalism are on the upswing, the tourist Gautier seeks out a direct contact with the fantastically "other" that permits him to establish his text's credentials of realism and reaffirm his own rationality. 2 Naturally, the emphasis the French writer places on his own skepticism also constitutes a literary device that intensifies the fantastic power of his account by accentuating just how far its writer has traveled. Indeed, by the end of the chapter, the Aïssaoua have more than lived up to their fantastic reputation, for their rites have left Gautier, the curious but skeptical traveler, in quite a state:
My head spun; I had vertigo and attacks of nausea, and it was not without a profound sense of pleasure that I once again found myself on the road to Blidah, where the fresh morning air soon swept aside those terrible nocturnal visions, visions that are nonetheless realities. [La tête me tournait, j'avais des vertiges et des nausées, et ce ne fut pas sans un vif sentiment de plaisir que je me retrouvai sur la route de Blidah, où l'air frais du matin eut bientôt balayé ces terribles visions nocturnes—qui sont pourtant des réalités.] (106)
Powerful though it may be, this manifestation of oriental excess remains pure spectacle for Gautier; it is a vision from which he rides away, a fantastic moment to be exploited literarily and which has little impact on his perceptions. The Aïssaoua's rites furnish Gautier with a contained dose of exoticism separate from the traveler's day-to-day existence and sense of self, though certainly reinforcing this latter. Despite his adoption of native garb and his penchant for such "North African practices" as smoking hashish, Gautier distinguishes himself from the culture he purports to infiltrate, never losing sight of himself.
Although Gautier elsewhere describes the people of North Africa as "living statues who move without pedestals" [des statues vivantes qui se promènent sans socle]—a remark that clearly recalls Delacroix's exclamation that he had rediscovered Greek and Roman antiquity in nineteenth-century Morocco—the Aïssaoua and their rites are tacitly excluded from this common (European) origin (86). 3 The French writer ridicules the Aïssaoua's [End Page 202] history as a kind of implausible fabrication credible only to the gullible members of the sect, one that betrays that oriental excess always lurking beneath the surface of North African culture, and which sets it off from European culture and history. Though he denigrates their credulity, Gautier watches with fascination as the Aïssaoua enter into a trance and indulge in numerous forms of self-mutilation, consuming all manner of venomous reptiles, dismembering a live sheep, and ingesting its raw entrails. As the rite progresses, the writer marks his distance from the spectacle that so fascinates him by...