- That Obscure Subject of Desire:France, Algeria, and the Circumscription of the Feminine in Kateb Yacine's Nedjma
In her provocative study of feminine desire, What does a woman want? Reading and Sexual Difference, Shoshana Felman responds to Freud's infamous question "what does a woman want?" by exposing the elusiveness of feminine desire in literary works by Freud and Balzac. Juxtaposing analyses of Balzac's Adieu and La fille aux yeux d'or with Freud's discussion of his dream about his patient Irma, Felman argues that, although these works attempt to master, control, and understand the desire of their female protagonists, at the same time they enact a form of resistance to such efforts. Her own readings, then, consist in tracing within each of her chosen texts "its inadvertent textual transgression of its male assumptions and prescriptions."1 She attends to details that signal the woman's refusal to adhere to patriarchal codifications of desire, and shows how the works disrupt the male urge to cure, to make sense of, female madness, sexuality, or, in the case of Irma, pain. The fetishization of women's desire and the silencing of female characters ultimately serve to reveal a male anxiety towards feminine desire, and a parallel desire to possess the feminine by normalizing and then fulfilling the woman's needs.
This essay will explore a similar urge to master inscrutable feminine desire, and a potentially comparable form of textual resistance, in Nedjma, a novel written in French by the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine. Published in 1956, the text revolves around the enigmatic central character of Nedjma, a putative symbol for Algeria and a fictionalized version of Kateb's own cousin with whom he fell passionately but hopelessly in love, and narrates her (fruitless) pursuit by four male protagonists (Mourad, Lakhdar, Rachid, and Mustapha). First, Nedjma can be seen, like Irma, as at once silenced and constrained, and at the same time the object of male fantasy. Secondly, however, this article will suggest that Nedjma's own desire on closer inspection [End Page 133] may be not merely inscrutable, exotically mysterious, and ultimately an object of male fantasy, but a powerful, active, potentially violent force. This reading of Nedjma's agency will take the figure of Antigone as a potentially comparable signifier of active desire that cannot be read according to social and political expectation. Yet again, however, the danger with this portrait is perhaps that it too still remains the product of a fantasy produced by a male author, and the waywardness of her desire could itself be seen as a subject of fascination for the male gaze. Finally, the desire to master Nedjma can be understood also as bound up with the search for an independent Algeria, as critics have more than once read her precisely as a symbol for a new nation born out of the union of France and Algeria. Nevertheless, close reading of the work actually unsettles any straightforward association between Nedjma and Algeria, and she turns out also not to fulfill the characters', or the author's, putative dream of a hybridized but liberated new community. She remains, however, a site for a complex interweaving of a nexus of frustrated sexual and cultural desires.
Nedjma is the axis around which Kateb's novel revolves, yet, like Irma, she herself rarely speaks, and never participates in dialogue with the other protagonists. She is figured as the object of desire of the male protagonists, but her own voice is largely excluded from the narrative, and in this sense, she could be seen to comply with Lacanian conceptions of femininity as lack, as excluded from the symbolic order. As critic Charles Bonn writes, "elle est dite, elle ne dit pas. Elle peut être lue dès lors au centre du roman comme une sorte de noyau vide."2 She is also constrained, married off to Kamel against her will, and in many of the male narrators' evocations of her she lacks agency. The early images of her at the villa reinforce this atmosphere of claustration, and the reader's first glimpse of Nedjma herself also conveys this sense of constraint:
Étoffe et chair fraîchement...