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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 59-83

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Albert Memmi's Tricultural Tikkun
Renewal and Transformation through Writing

Lawrence R. Schehr
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In his classic study of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem defines tikkun as "striving for the perfection of the world."1 Tikkun is part of Kabbalistic tradition, especially as articulated by Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century. Lurianic thought also values writing—that of the Hebrew alphabet—as the inscription of the divine: the letters of the Hebrew alphabet will be the building blocks of the universe. The word tikkun is a Hebrew word used to mean a renewal, a restoration, a repairing, and a transformation of the world: "tikkun olam" or "tikkun ha-olam"—repairing the world. Tikkun is what the world needs to become whole again, fulfilled in a godly sense as the scars and wounds of the world disappear as the world and its dwellers become whole.2

In a secular sense, Albert Memmi will use writing as tikkun, as a way of trying to change the world, and in specific, his world, even if he does not use it in a way that will provide restoration, which for him, as we shall see, is always impossible. He will not write in a Hebrew sacralized by Kabbalistic thought, but in secular, cosmopolitan French (NI 108-19).3 Nor does the Kabbalah, outside of scattered references (s 62 and 160-65, for example) seem to be of great importance to this very pragmatic and unmystical writer. Rather, throughout the half-century of his career to date, that hope for fulfillment and transformation is present regardless of his actual subject. Memmi constructs himself through his writing. In one of his most recent books, the retrospective, autobiographical volume, Le Nomade immobile, published in 2000, Memmi brings all the elements of his writing-based tikkun to the fore. For there to be tikkun, there must be something in need of repair, and so I shall start with the questions of alienation, absence, and otherness as he inscribes them in his work.4

In Le Nomade immobile, Memmi makes two brief citations of his [End Page 59] own writing. These quotes help orient the reader, pointing him or her to a place in and between cultures, insisting on the differences and contradictions of cultures. We are never fully lost in the desert; we are never fully mobile or immobile; we are somewhere between and vaguely evolving as those cultures that mark us change us. In the first relevant autocitation, Memmi refers to his first publication, La Statue de sel, published in 1953. But he is not only quoting himself, he is also quoting others quoting him: "Lors de la parution de mon premier livre, qui déjà fut un inventaire, on en a quelquefois cité cette phrase : 'Indigène dans un pays de colonisation, juif dans un univers antisémite, Africain dans un monde où triomphe l'Europe...'" (NI 55). How one defines oneself in a first book becomes the way in which one continues to define oneself for a half century to come. Some thirty years later, Memmi has made a subtle shift and now can see himself as exotic other: "... je ne puis renoncer à ma singularité, qui consiste en cette triple et exotique diversité" (cq 43). That shift to the side, for now, the point is that, even from the beginning, Memmi is defining himself against an other, and specifically, against a generalized other. The individual is not initially defined as a member of his or her group, as a local among locals, a Jew among Jews, or an African among Africans. Rather he (or she) is defined relative to the other group, the one that dominates, and the one that is perceived as cohesive because of a kind of violence, whether it is the invasive, forced act of colonization, the hatred of antisemitism, or the triumph (again, a kind of power or force) of the European model. If these three violences are different—and differently troped, for the triumph of Europe in some...


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