- Trauma and Healing:Global Mental Health in J. M. G. Le Clézio's Desert
If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans, the epistle, and the Renaissance, the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.- Elie Wiesel
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) claims in Critique et Clinique that the ultimate aim of literature is to create health.1 This seemingly simple statement provokes a host of questions about the fundamental relationship between literature and health. For instance, what kind of literature is Deleuze referring to? Do stories, fables, fairy tales, prose, and poetry create health in the same way? What kind of "health" is Deleuze referring to: mental, physical, or both? And what does "create health" exactly mean—what kind of treatments, therapies and cures should we envision? Does literature perhaps come closer to a prophylactic process, such as nourishment, exercise, and inoculations? Finally, is it not foolhardy to establish a link between literature and health, given that the two fields are fundamentally different? Literature is an imaginative and subjective experience of the mind, whereas the contemporary concept of health seems to be dominated by the objective science of biology.
The literature of J. M. G. Le Clézio (b. 1940) serves as a kind of laboratory where some of these questions can be examined, since much of his prose seems to be an enterprise of health. By the expression "enterprise of health," I am referring to the anecdotal testimonies of trauma and of healing that Le Clézio presents in his writing. It is as if the author were the doctor and the reader a medical student. Yet, given the universality (in some respects) of his stories, readers also [End Page 199] become patients. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008, Le Clézio was praised for being an "explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization."2 Even though he is French and Mauritian, he could be called a citizen of the world, having lived and traveled extensively in France, Korea, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Thailand, and the United States.
By studying Le Clézio's novel Desert (1980), I attempt to understand the fundamental relationship between literature and health. Desert resembles a triptych, a painting with three separate, albeit attached, panels. The three stories trace the footsteps of three orphaned adolescents who are on the move, forced to flee their homes by factors beyond their control. In the center panel appears Lalla, the novel's main character, who is an orphan living in the projects on the coast of Morocco. On the right panel, we meet Nour. He belongs to the tribe of Lalla's ancestors, the desert nomadic warriors of North Africa who were chased out of their native lands and massacred by the colonizing French. On the left side of this compound portrait, we encounter Radicz, an enslaved gypsy whom Lalla meets in Marseille. Like so many other immigrants living in Europe, Lalla and Radicz both struggle to survive in an era of globalization. These characters appear as icons of a historical reality. Just as the "convulsions" of history (such as the deracination and alienation felt by many post-colonial people living among former colonizers in Europe) manifest themselves at the individual level, individual issues become global in nature.
My critical suggestion is that Lalla, Nour, and Radicz appear as the very symptoms of a geopolitical crisis associated with colonization and globalization. I also join the current conversation about healing from the trauma of colonization and globalization. However, I first define trauma in theoretical terms and analyze how literature can create health in general terms. From there, I describe how Lalla heals herself from trauma. Her palliative and curative treatment consists of listening to stories and fairy tales, recalling memories, listening to music, and soothing the body through physical contact with nature. In this respect, she is not only the patient, but also the doctor in her own treatment. Finally, I suggest that Lalla employs what I call "benevolent retaliation" to heal herself from the trauma of colonization and globalization and that this move should be added to a catalog of strategies for healing...