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Privileged Difference and the Possibility of Emancipation: The Words to Say It and A l’autre bout de moi

Miranda: But how is it,

That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else

In the dark backward and abysm of time?

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Mais je rêve, j’utopographe, je sais.

Annie Leclerc, Parole de femme

Marie Cardinal and Marie-Thérèse Humbert are contemporary Francophone women writers. They were both born and raised in colonial environments and saw their respective countries go through a process of social and political emancipation which had profound and lasting effects on their private lives. Along with decolonization came the realization that their lives as women had been transformed in ways quite different from those of men. They set out to express this new awareness and to articulate the historical dimensions of their personal conflicts. Cardinal is a pied-noir, or Algerian-born Frenchwoman, who now lives and works mostly in Montreal, Canada, whereas Humbert is a Mauritian who lives in the Berry, a province of central France made famous by the novels of George Sand. Both Humbert and Cardinal present us with new ways of reading the heroine’s text, new ways they clearly perceive as emancipatory. Claiming a cultural background that reaches far beyond the confines of France’s hexagone, both authors return to their colonial roots to find sources of creativity and to denounce the grounds of colonial exploitation. Finding themselves at the confluence of different cultures, they sort out their loyalties and affiliations on a personal as well as social and political level and their predicament is analogous to that of any woman writer who tries to come to terms with her own sexual difference in a male-dominated society. They draw heavily on their personal colonial experience but publish their works as romans, first-person narratives of young women who are determined to make sense of their past and to inscribe themselves within and against the cultures that subtend that experience. They take us, their readers, on a journey of personal discovery where the silent other of sex, language, and culture is allowed to emerge and is given a voice. This process of discovery thus becomes the source of rebirth and reconciliation, the mode of healing of the narrating self.

Both Cardinal’s and Humbert’s tales center on the debilitating sexual and racial stereotypes of their colonial past and the degree to which their narrators have internalized them. Indoctrinated into a blind acceptance of these values (which at the time seem the only possible course for survival), the protagonists become progressively unable to cope with “reality” as presented and depicted in the master narratives of colonization.1 They are thus alienated from something at once internal and external to the self. It is at that precise moment of disjunction between inner and outer or past and present reality that the narrative text articulates a dialogue between two instances of the self, the “I” and the “she,” the “I” of the here and now, who reconstructs the absent, past “she,” the emancipation of the “I” being triggered and actualized by the voice of the “she” taking shape on the page. These two instances of the self figuratively alternate roles as narrator and narratee in the context of different narrative segments.2 The interaction between the narrator’s self-image and her interlocutors—the reconstructed “she” as well as the various other protagonists of the story in their role as virtual narratees—gives dynamism to the unfolding of the narrative and elicits a particular response from the reader. What the narrator focuses on and what she omits to represent simultaneously set her narrative in motion and create certain expectations. As Wolfgang Iser puts it: “Effect and response arise from a dialectical relationship between showing and concealing—in other words, from the difference between what is said and what is meant.”3 The topos created by this interaction is the privileged textual space where initially unquestioned assumptions about self and other, sex and language, belief and culture can be examined in a dramatic mode: this is where autobiography acquires a meaning and a function not unlike those of fiction with its mythmaking and myth-deflating power. The truth value of a discourse about a hypothetical self is no longer at issue; what matters is the empowering potentiality of this discourse when it aspires to emancipate its subject from the forces that constrain her. Self-writing is thus a strategic move that opens up a space of possibility where the subject of history and the agent of discourse can engage in dialogue with each other. New modes of interaction between the personal and the political are created, and metaphors of abortion and rebirth are given narrative significance within the larger social and historical spheres in which these women’s lives unfold.

The Words to Say It and A l’autre bout de moi have many formal and thematic similarities and offer a critique of colonialism from two different class perspectives.4 Cardinal’s narrator belongs to the French landowning bourgeoisie whose stance toward the Algerian Arabs was benevolent paternalism laced with Catholic missionary zeal; in Humbert’s novel, the narrator’s family lives on the margins of the rich white settlers’ world, which scorns them because their imperfect pedigree (“some Hindu great-grandmother who was all but forgotten since we carefully avoided talking about her” [28]) is not offset by any redeeming financial success. Despite this important class distinction, the childhoods of the protagonists benefit from a similar cultural diversity (a mothering of sorts by the natural environment and the nonwhites who are part of their daily life, in the absence of a truly nurturing biological mother, in the presence of a flamboyant and indifferent father). Both protagonists come to identify with the non-European, Third World elements of their “alien” cultures, learning to accept the privileged difference of métissage and to recognize the value of cultural hybridizations. For Humbert’s heroine, this acceptance also becomes a telling trajectory back to her “sang-mêlé” origins, after a murderous confrontation with subjectivity in the guise of her twin sister, the mirror image, the “monstre” who steals her illusory individuality.

Motherland, (M)other Tongue

The structure of The Words to Say It parallels Cardinal’s experience of Freudian psychoanalysis. Having reached a point of dislocation and dis-ease after resettling in Paris with her family, she decides to enter analysis. The combined influence of her church and class, along with the traumas of a difficult relationship with her rejecting mother have made her completely “aliénée,” “folle” (insane or alienated—mad). After years of analysis, she succeeds in unlocking the source of the pain, and the process of writing becomes the process of rebirth : “I must think back to find again the forgotten woman, more than forgotten, disintegrated. . . . She and I. I am she. . . . I protect her; she lavishes freedom and invention on me. ... I have . . . to split myself in two” (8). This is the most complete and radical sort of rebirth: “self-engendering as a verbal body,”5 the discovery of language and its infinite possibilities, the realization, the surfacing of an enormous creative potential: “I and the words were both on the surface and clearly visible” (239); “words were sheaths, they all contained living matter” (239; trans. mod.). Not so much the story of an analysis as an investigation of the analogies between the dialogical analytic process and the healing, self-directed exchange that allows the unmasking of the woman, the novel belies all attempts at labeling it as a social document about psychoanalysis.6 It enacts a coherent staging of that practice, but, in so doing, subverts it.

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator is emotionally comatose, chemically tranquilized, silent, obedient, and submissive; her body, however, is hysterically alive, constantly generating more blood, more fibroid tissue, anarchically feminine. She is her fibromatous uterus, and when her surgeon decides to cure her physical symptoms—the constant hemorrhaging—by the “aggressive” method of hysterectomy, she knows that this would be a mutilation, an amputation of the madwoman who is a part of her and with whom she must learn to live: “I began to accept [the insane one], to love her even” (10). She escapes into the dark office of the analyst, where, for the next seven years, she will come at regular intervals to lie on the couch “curled up like a fetus in the womb”; she feels herself to be a “huge embryo pregnant with myself” (12, 13; trans. mod.). The imagery she uses to describe the location of that office is particularly suited to the birthing metaphor: it is an island of surprising calm and tranquility in the midst of Paris, at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac,” une ruelle en impasse” (7), just as her life is lived in an impasse, in limbo, while she undergoes analysis. She is only enduring until she can be strong enough to survive without the protection of the womblike room with its mirroring presence of the “little dark-skinned man” (2) who never judges and will remain impersonal and masked till the end of the book. In this he is the opposite of the tall, dynamic surgeon who wears white and examines his patient in a glaringly lit room with a ceiling “white as a lie” (7).

How are we to understand this contrast between the surgeon and the analyst? Clearly, the surgeon stands for a patriarchal society intent on annihilating the disturbing signs of a feminine difference flowing out of control. But in the textual context of the narrative situation, he is also an antimodel for the critic, whereas the analyst figures as ideal other. The analyst’s silent, invisible (she cannot see him from the couch), but very attentive presence casts him in the role of a midwife who helps the narrator pregnant with her effaced self. The text constructs him as an ideal listener-reader, one without preconceived and Procrustean notions of literary or autobiographical canon. It is in this implicit contrast between the two doctors that the narrative signals itself as a communicative act and provides us with the model of reading most appropriate to the “point” it is trying to make.7 This is a model, needless to say, that would neither amputate the meaning of the text nor fit it into a preexisting theoretical framework: here, the text figures as the female body of the writer and the critic, as the midwife of its meaning. What is being advocated is a female reappropriation of the best form of ancient Socratic maieusis, not surprising for a feminist author who was trained as professor of philosophy. The metaphor “physician of the soul” is, of course, well known to readers of Augustine’s Confessions (“medice meus intime” [10:3]),8 where God, the transcendental addressee, is the model of Augustine’s ideal reader, the one who can help the narrator transcend his own corporeality so that his soul may be reborn. In a reversal of this mind/body dichotomy and of the traditional quest of spiritual autobiographers for a transcendent self, Cardinal aims (in a Nietzschean manner) at rediscovering the body in its female specificity as the source of her own discursive practice.

The specular relationship created between writer and reader (or critic) in the analytical situation suggests that for the writer as well there is an antimodel of creativity; her inability to write without constant reference to a rigid code and pious reverence for the great masters stifles her completely:

That’s what writing was for me: to put correctly into words, in accordance with the strict rules of grammar, references and information that had been given to me. In this area improvement consisted in expanding vocabulary in so far as it was possible, and learning Grevisse almost by heart. I was attached to this book, whose old-fashioned title, Good Usage, seemed to me to guarantee the seriousness and suitability of my passion for it. In the same way I loved saying that I read Les Petites Filles modèles when I was little. In Grevisse, there are many doors open to freedom and fantasy, many good-natured winks, like little signs of collusion, meant for those who do not wish to be confirmed in the orthodoxy of a dead language and a tightly corseted grammar. I felt that these evasions were, nevertheless, not for me, but were reserved for writers. I had too much respect, even veneration, for books to imagine that I could write one. . . . Writing itself seemed to be an important act of which I was unworthy. [215–16; trans. mod.]

Such a thorough internalization of the repressive rules of the symbolic order puts the writer in the role of a surgeon operating a ruthless censorship on her own text, asphyxiating any free play of subjectivity.9 It is not surprising that when she does start finding her own “mots pour le dire,” she hides herself to write and then hides her notebooks under her mattress, as though this transgression of the symbolic order can only be effective if it is not subjected to the judging eye of the literary law—a law to which the very title of the book refers ironically, since it connotes Boileau’s seventeenth-century Art poétique: “Ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement / Et les mots pour le dire viennent aisément [What one truly understands clearly articulates itself, and the words to say it come easily].”

This eye is also the one that she sees in her hallucination (chap. 8) and which terrorizes her: it is the eye behind the camera of her father, who had attempted to photograph her as a toddler while she was urinating on the ground. This experience, lived by the child as a violation of her secret desires, unleashed a formidable anger against this peeping father: “I strike him with all my strength. . . . I want to kill him !” (152). Her hatred is then promptly repressed by the shame she is made to feel for her violent impulses: “You mustn’t hit mama, you mustn’t hit papa! It’s very wicked, it’s shameful! Punished, crazy! Very ugly, very naughty, crazy!” (152, trans. mod.). Once the “eye” of the hallucination is exorcised, she can begin to deal with her fear of being “a genuine monster” (165). This is the combined fear, as Barbara Johnson puts it, of “effecting the death of [her] own parents” and of being creatively different, free and successful.10 To overcome this fear, which paralyses her writing, she has to learn to let the words flow freely, without regard for grammatical rules or objective reality: the flow of words must mimic the anarchic flow of blood and eventually replace it. Describing her apprenticeship at self-portrayal, she explains: “With pencil and paper, I let my mind wander. Not like on the couch in the cul-de-sac. The divagations in the notebooks were made up of the elements of my life which were arranged according to my fancy: going where I pleased, living out moments I had only imagined. I was not in the yoke of truth, as in analysis. I was conscious of being more free than I had ever been” (215; my italics).

The distinction between the analysis and the book we are reading is clearly established. Later on, allowing her husband to read her manuscript, she confesses with some trepidation: “I should have stopped to consider that I was writing, that I was telling a story if only to the paper [que je racontais une histoire à du papier (266)]; I should have spoken about it to the doctor” (226). The freedom to write, and to write secretly, is yet another transgression, a transgression of the rules of psychoanalytic practice. But the risk she takes of being judged by Jean-Pierre, her husband, the agrégé de grammaire, is not a gratuitous one: the book exists in a homologous relationship to her analytic discourse, and just as analysis has changed her perception of herself, so reading her text will change Jean-Pierre’s perception of his wife : “How you’ve changed. You intimidate me. Who are you?” (228). The invitation to read/know her anew is thus an invitation to love again after the long estrangement caused by her “illness.” Sharing in the power of language to redefine reality, to name the woman who had become effaced under her social role as wife and mother, “model young wife and mother, worthy of my own mother” (219), Jean-Pierre now sees the new/old face of the narrator, the one that conveys a harmonious relationship to Mediterranean nature, where the sea, the sand, the sun, the sky are one continuous whole, interacting in their difference to allow the free play of meaning. The female is again the equal partner of the male, who needs her to assume her difference so he can become capable of a genuine act of love, an act of loving/reading. The staging of Jean-Pierre as the receptive reader par excellence can be interpreted as mise en abyme of the reading process and of its effect as it is encoded in the narrative structure.11 The power to be read on her own terms is thus inseparable, for the female writer, from a genuine “suspension of disbelief” on the part of her audience, whereas her right to be a narrator is acquired through an arduous effort at selfemancipation from the laws of preexisting and distorting master discourses (such as the literary tradition and psychoanalytic practice).

Not surprisingly, this newfound freedom results from her understanding and acceptance of the specificity of her female experience, a specificity that stretches her beyond the personal to the political and historical context of Algeria. Along with the discovery of what it means to be a woman and a victim, comes the realization that her victimization as daughter coexisted with her mother’s inability to assume and legitimize her own lack of sexual and maternal love and to face her fear of sexual difference. Hence the mother’s complicity with the repressive, paternalistic colonial order despite her qualities of intelligence, sensuality, and integrity (cf. chap. 16). Although the narrator rejects her as mother, she can see the woman and relate to her as victim. Like Algeria during the war of independence, the mother’s agony is the scene of a civil war between conflicting ideologies. Rather than reexamine all the values she lives by, the mother prefers to let herself go completely, to give in to the profound distress that had inhabited her psyche all along. She loses all self-respect, is drunk and incontinent, and subsequently dies. Her daughter finds her “on the floor. She had been dead for ten or twelve hours already. She was curled up in a ball. Rigor mortis had fixed horror on her face and body. . . . She grimaced terribly in pain and in fear . . . her features tortured by all the amputations to which she had submitted” (289). It is the mother who is now the monster, the fetuslike creature whose posture mirrors her unsuccessful attempts at abortion of the fetus-daughter; that daughter, now safely beyond her nefarious influence, can at last say “I love you” (292) and make her peace with the past.

It is during a visit to her mother’s grave that the narrator is able to recall with poetic tenderness the moments of genuine joy that she had experienced when walking on the beach or gazing at the stars with her mother. Looking for the shells washed ashore by the waves, looking at the stars in the warmth of the Mediterranean night, together, they had been “in contact with the cosmos” (202). Her mother knew the names of all the shells—“the mother-of-pearl shells, cowries, pointed sea snails, ear shells and the pink razor clam shells” (291)—and of all the stars—“the shepherd’s star . . . the Big Dipper . . . the Charioteer . . . the Little Dipper . . . Vega . . . the Milky Way” (202; trans. mod.). This naming of the universe is her most precious maternal legacy and the daughter is able to insert herself, her book, her words into that universe. The daughter thereby erases the narrative of hatred and unsuccessful abortion which her mother had divulged to her when she was twelve. They were standing on a sidewalk of Algiers, “the same sidewalk on which later would run the blood of enmity” (132). The recounting of these secrets had been the mother’s saloperie (131), her villainy (105) to her daughter. This information about the girl’s gestation (that prehistoric time of her life) thwarts her feminine development. She does not start menstruating before the age of twenty. The doubly archaic revelation (reproduction as a “female problem” and excavation of her prediscursive past), is lived by the narrator as the murder of her femininity.

Indeed, language can kill (as we saw in Angelou’s narrative), and a story can be what Peter Brooks calls “un acte degression.”12 To counter this mortal effect, another story, more powerful in its enabling, nurturing, or life-affirming characteristics, is needed. Such are the tales and legends that the old Algerian woman, Daïba, tells to the children on the farm while feeding them “pastry dripping with honey” (98) and unleavened bread. Hers are mythic tales with a powerful, positive, imaginary content, “sudden flights on winged horses prancing all the way to Allah’s Paradise . . . adventures of black giants who shook mountains, fountains springing up in the desert, and genies inside bottles” (98). These days on the farm were magic: contact with an archaic civilization, games with the Arab children, freedom from French reason and religion. The richness and diversity of these early experiences give the girl a strength to draw from when she is forced to leave Algeria and to cope with the psychic wounds that her mother and the war inflicted upon her.

Talking to her dead mother in the cemetery, she recalls trips to another cemetery in Algeria, where her dead sister lies and where her mother used to take her. Inconsolable over the loss of that “exceptional” child, the absent daughter who can never be replaced, the mother remained indifferent to the living child: that loss is the original cause of the mother’s profound and murderous contempt for the second daughter. The death of the mother then frees this daughter who can simultaneously terminate her analysis and end her narrative. Writing is symbolic matricide. But unlike Augustine, whose embodied self metaphorically dies with his mother at the end of his narrative, only to be reborn as pure spirit, Cardinal’s narrator experiences a physical liberation, a healing of the body. For her, writing is the act of self-emancipation which allows the daughter to reach autonomy, despite her painful bleeding, much as Algeria won independence through its own bloodbath.

The novel contains two parallel chapters (6 and 16), which describe the Algerian tragedy and the mother’s demise in much the same terms: “French Algeria lived out its agony” (87) and “During this last year of my analysis, my mother was living through her final agony” (270); “While lacerated Algeria showed her infected wounds in the full light of day, I revived a country of love and tenderness where the earth smelled of jasmine and fried food” (88) and “On the contrary, she [the mother] didn’t give a damn, she exhibited herself as if she took pleasure in exposing her wounds” (280). Colonialism, like sexism, is degrading and abject. It is their combined forces that kill “the mother and the motherland”13 and give the narrator the opportunity to discover what femininity really means in that context. The role of women is to be mothers of future soldiers, who will fight wars and perpetuate inequality and injustice. The way out of that impasse is a heightened political awareness of the complicated structures of domination that amputate freedom and self-determination from people and countries:

It is only now that I understand that I had never really read a newspaper or listened to the news. I’d looked upon the Algerian war as a sentimental matter, a sad story of a family worthy of the Greeks. And why was that? Because I had no role to play in the society where I was born and had gone crazy. No role, that is, other than to produce sons to carry on wars and found governments, and daughters who, in their turn, would produce sons. Thirty-seven years of absolute submission. Thirty-seven years of accepting the inequality and the injustice, without flinching, without even being aware of it! [264]

Even something as private as childbearing takes on enormous social and political significance when understood against the larger framework of a country engaged in war and needing soldiers who are willing to die for its colonialist ideology. The narrator thus realizes that her so-called illness is none other than her progressive inability to cope with this oppressive “reality,” constructed by the dominant ideology and imposed on its victims, whose voices are silenced by violence. This violence may be obvious, as in war, or it may be surreptitiously performed by various modes of linguistic and cultural oppression which deploy an image of the female body as instrument of reproduction under the control of the producers of culture.

For Cardinal, the only way to break out of that cycle of war and exploitation is to start sharing in the power of man to make decisions that affect all of our lives, in other words, to become an active participant in society, to produce culture instead of remaining a passive term within a given system of exchange. In fact, as Cardinal asserts, it is precisely because of her feelings of impotence in affairs of the state that she is overwhelmed by her first major attack of anxiety, by the “Thing” that is going to drive her crazy: “It seems to me that the Thing took root in me permanently when I understood that we were about to assassinate Algeria. For Algeria was my real mother” (88). The Algerian war was engineered by politicians whose personal involvement in it was minimal. By contrast, the narrator, her mother, and the people of Algeria have everything at stake, are caught in the political storms of history, in events over which they have no control. Only political self-awareness can bring about change. Cardinal views psychoanalysis as a means to a “prise de conscience,” or higher awareness of the existing links between psychological repression and political oppression. When her narrative is viewed from that angle, Algeria becomes the central character of the novel, the alter ego of the narrator, whose main physical symptom of hysteria is the constant menstrual bleeding, the hemorrhaging, which cannot be stopped until she succeeds in emancipating herself from the cultural straightjackets that prevent her from living freely and imaginatively as a writer.

Indeed, as the title of the novel implies, the narrator is struggling to find her own words to say it, to verbalize the contradictions of her historical situation, not just to say those words to the analyst who mediates her attempts here but to tell a story that will reach an audience and carry larger social implications. The process of psychoanalytic dialogue thus has a double function in the text : (1) to show the woman’s access to language, to the repressed (m)other tongue buried under the cultural and patriarchal myths of selfhood, to liberate the power of words when they are appropriated by a female subject who assumes her difference triumphantly; and (2) by comparing the analyst/analysand dyad to the writer/critic dyad, to implicitly formulate a feminist aesthetics of reading which would allow the text to speak to the reader without risk of being amputated by the imposition of a preexisting theoretical framework, a preconceived notion of feminine discourse. There is a constant interplay between the “story” and the psychoanalytic “discourse,” each shedding light on, while subverting, the other. Similarly, the colonial history of Algeria and the private life of the narrator are shown to be so closely intertwined that any attempt to understand her “madness” outside of the sociopolitical structures that generated and amplified the illness is indeed bound to be a reductionist exercise.

For example, the “sick” woman is “cured” thanks to her progressive awareness of the past. She succeeds in unearthing her childhood experiences and emotions, focusing more and more on the patriarchal system that is at the source of the repressive mechanism of her unconscious. In other words, she understands repression to be a consequence of oppression: oppression of children by parents, of the body by culture, of the colony by the métropole. It is this oppression that causes the hysteria of war, the conflicts of colonialism and schizophrenia. In the narrator as individual this conflict causes the hemorrhaging (of the body), which her surgeon wants to cure with the “aggressive” method of hysterectomy (i.e., culture), much as France tries to cure the ills of colonialism by imposing a political order that results in war and torture, in the escalating violence of archaic conflicts:

“The blood of civil war”—Algeria’s body is bleeding from the conflicts created by “civilization,” which imposes this “geometrical” path or framework on its destiny. This is exactly the point where the question of motherhood and motherland are raised in all their complexity and ambiguity. For it is the daughter, the narrator as daughter who bleeds. Yet the cause of this bleeding, as we saw, is inextricably tied to the traumas of the unsavory revelation which the biological mother inflicted upon the girl. The mother was about to get divorced and did not want to have to carry to term a pregnancy that could only make it more difficult for her to cope with the after-math of divorce. The “saloperie” (131), this scandalous act of the mother, takes place outside, on the sidewalk, like the wartime murders to which it is metaphorically linked: “We were on a downtown street, a street full of noise and passersby. What I saw, for my head was lowered while she spoke, were the cement squares of the sidewalk, and, on the surface of the squares, the residue of the city: dust, spittle, cigarette butts and excrement. The same sidewalk on which later would run the blood of enmity. And, twenty years later, the same sidewalk on which I would be afraid of falling, driven into a corner with death, by the Thing” (132). The narrator conflates this tale telling with an experience of mutilation and amputation carried out by the mother on the daughter: “If I could have known the harm she’d do me, if instead of having no more than a premonition, I’d been able to imagine the incurable and ghastly wound she was going to inflict on me, I’d have sent forth a howling. . . . I’d have shrieked even to death, thus never having to hear the words she was about to inflict on me like so many mutilating swords” (135, trans. mod.).

Read allegorically, this episode prefigures the violence of war and its attendant mutilations and monstrosities. France wants to abort its colonial progeny, the pieds-noirs being a burden and an embarrassment. The mother, like the métropole, kills and mutilates with language that tortures. The mother’s situation is not unproblematic, though, for as we have seen, she dies of an agony as abject as the war was. And she dies in France, having left her motherland, the farm in Algeria. The displacement among Algeria, the mother, and the narrator points to a suicidal gesture on the part of the mother when she discloses her secrets to her daughter: for to hurt the child is to hurt herself in her child. To be sure, the imagery used to describe her dead body is that of fetal pain, as I indicated. The agony of the mother, the bleeding of the daughter, the torturing of Algeria—all collapse into one and the same image: that of pain inflicted on the female body of woman and the geographical body of Algeria by the discourses of patriarchy and colonialism. And it is worth noting briefly that in the familial configuration, the biological father is French, not pied-noir like the mother: he represents the arbitrary fatherland, the patrie to which the narrator will be exiled for a time, banished to an inhospitable place where her feelings of disease and dis-location culminate in madness. The conflation of maternal body and country of origin is brilliantly accomplished in this novel, and all the ambivalence of the daughter toward her painful historical heritage is played out in subtle and illuminating ways. By showing the inescapable links between agency and historicity, Cardinal broadens our understanding of the processes that leave their mark on human subjectivity. By denouncing war and torture as part of the same social machines that inscribe their despotic laws on the body, the author suggests that the internalization of these laws is a subtle form of torture that guarantees inequality. The mother’s murderous language, written on the body, is an unforgettable kind of memory, a bleeding wound.

I would like to return briefly to the textual level of the narrative to underline how such a feminist aesthetic of reading would work in practice. As a critic, I can decide to focus on specific aspects of a textual corpus and thus bracket—eliminate or negate—those elements that cannot be integrated into my own theoretical framework. I would then be acting like the surgeon who blithely “cures” feminine hysteria by doing hysterectomies. Cardinal’s strongly allegorical context implies that this is exactly the problem when “theory” ignores history and geography, that it tends to privilege certain factors at the expense of others, thus perhaps reducing a complex work to the dimensions of an “autobiographical testimony” on psychoanalysis. Indeed, in the Preface and Afterword to the English translation, Bruno Bettelheim, talks about the Freudian aspects of the novel without once mentioning Algeria, let alone noticing that it is a central character of the story. Thus the political dimension of the story is lost, obscured, and obfuscated in a strangely ironic way by a psychoanalyst who is deaf to the discourse of the (m)other tongue, which cries to be heard under the apparent simplicity of the “autobiographical” text. But perhaps the translator too is at fault here: for the last chapter of the French version is severed from the English version. It is a very short chapter consisting in one single line: “Quelques jours plus tard, c’était Mai 68 [A few days later it was May 68].” This historical marker concludes the novel on a distinctly optimistic and utopian note, pointing to the revolutionary potential of psychoanalysis when it favors political emancipation.14

The status and function of psychoanalysis in Cardinal’s novel are thus highly political: they trace the path to social consciousness. That path is a nomadic or “crooked” one, unlike the geometrically ordered patterns of civilization, which impose meaning by repressing what they cannot accommodate. The path of madness and controlled hysteria (Nietzsche’s “die schiefe Bahn”)15 is the “crooked” way: it transgresses the dominant social codes through which we become self-aware as a body politic. This transgression favors a new dawn of awareness for the individual and the collectivity, addressing the collective delusions of a community and giving voice to its “political unconscious.” By unmasking the genealogies of social power and the inscriptions of political law on the body, psychoanalysis provides the tools needed to dismantle those structures of domination, and that is what the representation of the “talking cure” really aims at here.16

Métissage, Emancipation, and Female Textuality

The year 1968 was also an important one in the history of Mauritius. It marked the island’s independence from Britain, its access to the rank of country. Independence was achieved with little bloodshed, because none of the diverse ethnic groups of the island could really claim original ownership of the place. The island was known to Arab sailors since the Middle Ages, but it had no native population. The first Europeans to discover it were the Portuguese, in 1510, and they named it Ilha do Cirne (Island of the Swan: they thought the indigeneous dodo birds were a kind of swan). They left and were followed by the Dutch, who remained on the island from 1598 till 1710. The Dutch named the island Mauritius in honor of Prince Mauritius of Nassau, but their settlement was never prosperous and they abandoned it after having ruthlessly exploited the forests of ebony trees and exterminated the dodo bird. They also brought in slaves from Africa and Madagascar, a number of whom became Maroons. Between 1710 and 1715, these free men and women were the virtual masters of the island. But the French took over in 1715, renaming the island Isle de France, and it became a prosperous colony. A century of French rule has left an indelible mark and, to this day, the lingua franca of the island is a French creole dialect. In 1814, the Treaty of Paris ceded the island to the British, who renamed it Mauritius. The conditions of this cession stipulated that the language, religion, and customs of the Francophone population be safeguarded, and they were. The island is now peopled with the descendants of the French settlers and the black slaves, the Indian indentured laborers who came to work the sugarcane fields after slavery was abolished in 1835, the Chinese and Muslim shopkeepers, and a sizable population of métis, whose status varies greatly depending on the relative darkness of their skin and the size of their fortune.

Located in the Indian Ocean, far from any continent, Mauritius was nonetheless visited, and written about, by famous men: Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Darwin, Baudelaire, Conrad, Mark Twain, and Gandhi, to name but a few. V. S. Naipaul called it “the overcrowded barracoon” in an essay of that name: Mauritius has a population of over a million in a geographical area of 720 square miles.17 Although quite isolated, it has become a paradise retreat and an ideal vacation spot for the international jet set. The luxury hotels they frequent provide employment to some, but most of all, they help perpetuate the myths and fantasies the people of the island entertain about themselves and about the rest of the world—that the island is a privileged place attractive to the rich and the famous, that the rest of the world is somehow well represented in the foreigners who do come there.

That is the geopolitical reality of Mauritius, the background to keep in mind when reading A l’autre bout de moi. Marie-Thérèse Humbert’s novel is the story of Mauritian mētis, these “apatrides de la race [racially homeless people]” (22), the coloreds or mixed-bloods, whose marginality is partly the result of their own inability to assume their nonwhite heritage because they have internalized the ideals of the racist colonial society. Twin sisters, Anne and Nadège, live in a house on the outskirts of the vast colonial domains of the white bourgeoisie and a short distance away from the Hindu quarter. This “house on the margins, on the limits, without ties and without parentage” (17) is a metaphor for their racial and cultural contexts. Coming of age in the 1950s, the decade preceding independence, the sisters are set on a collision course, for they choose to be loyal to different traditions. Nadège gleefully accepts her métissage. She is chameleonlike, adventurous, imaginative, interested in Hindu culture and religion as well as popular superstitions; she is a free spirit, at once the Ariel and the Caliban of this “enchant’d isle,” full of humor, impossible to define, and constantly changing. She is the favored daughter of the family and she has an affair with a young Indian politician. For both reasons, she incurs the wrath of Anne, the controlled, reasonable, calculating one, whose rigid need for respectability includes the romantic hope of a bourgeois marriage, like those of the heroines of the romances she reads. These hopes are thwarted by Nadège’s pregnancy, for in Anne’s world of almost-white-but-not-quite, any wrong step can be the first on the road back to complete ostracism by the whites. When Nadège proudly announces her condition, Anne’s murderous hatred is unleashed. She tells Nadège why she had always resented her, she shouts her contempt and her fury, disclosing her own profound distress. In an act of love for Anne, Nadège decides to obtain an (illegal) abortion, and dies hemorrhaging. Her death and the police investigations that follow rob Anne of her pretensions to a purely Western style of life, revealing the “air d’étrangeté” (398), the uncanniness, the Ünheimlichkeit„ of her very own home and country. At the end, the impossible fusion with her twin is realized in Anne’s appropriation of Nadège’s place as the lover of the Indian, Aunauth Gopaul.

Anne’s autobiographical narrative is an attempt to return Nadège’s love, Nadège’s loving offer to “immolate” her (pro)creation. It engages Anne, the narrator, in a dialogue with Nadège and with the repressed (sister) in herself. She can begin to tell her/their story after she has allowed Nadège’s voice to emerge: “But the voice which used to be Nadège’s is mine now; I know it, I am certain of it” (12). The narrative is framed by a Prologue, which situates Anne and Aunauth as exiles in Paris, where they are studying at the Sorbonne. This seemingly self-imposed exile creates sufficient distance from the recent past to reveal Anne’s narrative impulse, the Archimedean fulcrum18 she needed to lift the veil of silence on that past and on her country. The present reality of Paris now silences her too: it is lived as a jarring hiatus from the past, and her impulse to write is a defensive one, spurred on by the desire to re-create that past and reintegrate it into a new present, to shout “Mauritius (Nadège) exists!” to people who have never paid any attention to it, been indifferent to its fate. Like her island, she feels “abolie [negated]” (12) by the ignorance of others, especially since France is a spiritual motherland for the Francophones of Mauritius. Her situation as Mauritian in Paris thus triggers the memory—enacts the repetition—of an earlier trauma: her parents’ inability to see her as different from Nadège. She still resents their mother’s legacy of shame, hatred, bitterness, and silence: “Mother-Silence, Mother-Gloom, our marine silence” (43). And now in France, she also resents the sea of ignorance in which Mauritius floats. Like her parents’ indifference, the ignorance of the métropole makes her feel painfully nonexistent.

Anne the protagonist can become Anne the narrator only after she has decided to return to her privileged “place of origin” and let the island tell itself through the voices of its inhabitants—all of whom have their own different stories, “life/lines,” to tell her, in direct or indirect discourses of which, as we shall see later, she is both the narratee and relayer. In this return to the “origins,” Anne is like Augustine’s narrator in the Confessions, who is finally whole after he has reached his resting place in God, who can then speak through him and whose words are translated textually by the weaving of scriptural verses into the narrative. Anne’s autobiographical gesture implicitly resembles the Augustinian project but covertly aims at subverting it: the narrative is divided into thirteen parts (like the Confessions), and as it unfolds, Anne confesses her “sins” to her sister. These are the sins of Western metaphysics: to wish desperately to be a unique individual, “être à tout prix [to be at any cost]” (419), and to capture one essential truth about oneself—whereas life is flux, theater, dream. Striving to occult in her the elements of a different race, her Hindu ancestry, and the qualities embodied by Nadège, she is a victim of the Western obsession with being, an obsession that shows nothing but contempt for its unassimilable opposites. Nadège, who is remarkably free of this totalizing goal, is self-assured in her difference. She has no distance, no duality: inner and outer are the same for her. Her life is lived in harmony with the passing of time, the mysteries of life. “Strangely intimate with the earth’s profane mysteries and long seasonal gestations, with the winds’ and the clouds’ infinite wanderings “(312), she projects a persona that needs no mirror to reassure itself of its own existence:

Nadège never cared about being. . . . Never, but never, did she try to see herself elsewhere than in the eyes of others. She would amuse herself with these fortuitous mirrors as a child would with the changing colors of a prism, perpetually enjoying her ability to create new shades, becoming by turns intrigued, charmed, shocked, or seduced by these external reflections, and thus deviating constantly from herself. There is nothing less imaginative and less true than a mirror! she used to declare contemptuously. But while she played, I would contemplate with despair my own dull shadow, lusterless compared to the shimmer of her multiple reflections; my wretched face, never quite mine because it was always too similar or too different from hers. [419; my italics]

Nadège is interested in Christian mysticism as well as Hindu rites. She participates every year in the Hindu festival of lights, the Divali, adorning their house with a small brass lantern, and the Hindu gods with colorful flowers. She is like a joyful Zarathustra, she does not need origins. Her very name also connotes nirvana, emptiness, nothingness: nada, Nadège. Anne, on the other hand, cannot surrender to polysemy and experiences it as a threat to her ego. She is always narcissistically searching for approval in the form of a reflection that would give her substance, ground her firmly somewhere “Where is the place where I should live?” (122) she asks. But the reflection she finds always turns out to be illusory and elusive: “When I look in the mirror, it is you I see, you who need no mirror, you who are without a mirror. The image of myself that I try to capture deceives me, escapes me; it’s you who are there in the mirror, only the expression of the eyes differs and the reflection that I see, my own image, looks like a bad photograph” (121).

The place where she can and should live, of course, is on the page, in the book that embodies these tensions in its own narrative structure, combining the self-portraits of all the characters, these others who are Nadège’s mirrors, her infinite dispersion. The words “my own image looks like a bad photograph” connote the scriptural phrase “per speculum in aenigmate” (I Cor. 13:12), which Augustine repeatedly uses to signify his state of imperfection, to be reversed when he reaches the “intellectual heaven.” In book 12, chapter 13 of the Confessions, Augustine articulates his project of self-knowledge as the search for completeness and perfection. Augustine the sinner is now converted and the book is a reflection of the man as a creature in the image of God, ready to enter “the intellectual heaven, where the intellect is privileged to know all at once, not in part only, not as if it were looking at a confused reflection in a mirror [non in aenigmate, non per speculum], but as a whole, clearly, face to face [facie ad faciem].”19

Humbert’s text never makes explicit reference to Augustine’s Confessions, as it does to Shakespeare’s Tempest, for example, but it embodies in its structure an undeniable reflection of that architexte of Western autobiographical discourse, while reversing its messages: it points to a negative view of mirroring, in the Western sense, as usurpation, occultation of difference. As Roland Barthes has said: “In the West, the mirror is an essentially narcissistic object: man conceives a mirror only in order to look at himself in it; but in the Orient, apparently, the mirror is empty; it is the symbol of the very emptiness of symbols . . . : the mirror intercepts only other mirrors, and this infinite reflection is emptiness itself.”20

It is in chapter 12 of A l’autre bout de moi, during the police interrogation, that Anne recalls (privately, not publicly) her confrontation with Nadège: “I had slapped her face with all my strength and rage. She took another step with her arms spread out. Then she slowly lowered them, as if in a daze. And before me, there was only her strangely distorted face, like a mask. No, I felt no pity, but once again this hideous joy, so keen that it seemed closer to pain than to pleasure; before this unexpressive mask, at last, I had a face! (427; my italics). Anne’s insults literally deface Nadège, steal her face, effecting her death as surely as the botched abortion will on the following day. It is not just the abortionist who is on trial; Anne too must account—on the page, by writing—for her inability to tolerate Nadège’s polysemic difference and for her secret desire to assimilate it. She recalls how, during their altercation, Nadège had fallen down in the sand and had lain there, curled in a fetal position; she, Anne, had shouted “Fetus! Hideous fetus! Die!” (428), aiming the insult at her sister but thereby amputating herself, deprivileging otherness as radically other in order to co-opt it, to abort it.

I would like to suggest that what is implied (and at stake) here is the immolation of the métis, the créole, as symbol, product and (pro)creation of Western colonialism, on the altars of Western belief in the One and the Same, in a humanism that subsumes all heterogeneity. Anne the narrator sees herself as the product of this indoctrination, which damaged her self-image. In that, her predicament is analogous to that of all individuals who have internalized their society’s negative view or ignorance of their specificity. This includes women in any patriarchal system, and women writers in particular, as they face the dilemmas inherent in recapturing what has been effaced or diminished. Anne’s journey back to the past aims at deconstructing that indoctrination, peeling off the layers of a damaging belief in the importance of origins and rootedness.

Her journey, then, is that of her island itself at the time of its political independence from Britain. Its multiracial society was faced with the burdens of two centuries of colonization first by the French, then by the English, whereas its survival had been ensured by the labor of the Indian and black populations who were not natives either. All these diverse ethnic groups had to devise a mode of pacific coexistence that would allow the free play of influences and exchanges among different cultures. The issue, therefore, was not to define the national identity of the island (since it did not have any) but to use this geographical space, this topos, this “house without ties and without parentage” (17) as the place where a mosaic of forms, styles, and languages could interact and survive.

Viewed from that angle, the political problematic of the island becomes the personal problematic of the woman writer. She has no specifically female tradition to build on; to survive, she must quilt together from the pieces of her legacy a viable whole—viable in that it calls for the use of a multiplicity of elements that can allow the writer to assume the past (the literary tradition) as past and therefore to reintegrate it into a radically different present,21 making it the implicit or explicit intertext of her text, adding that past to the texture of her voice so she may begin to transform and reinterpret history—as Hurston, Angelou, and Cardinal all do in their own intensely personal ways. This method would point to a notion of the female text as métissage, that is, the weaving of different strands of raw material and threads of various colors into one piece of fabric; female textuality as métissage. It would emancipate the writer from any internal or external coercion to use any one literary style or form, freeing her to enlarge, redefine, or explode the canons of our discursive practices.

Humbert’s text encodes heterogeneity through this use of inter-textual references to various generic and ideological models or antimodels—to Augustine and Shakespeare, but also to Corneille, Racine, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Conrad, Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Michel Tournier, and others. Intratextually, she encodes it by giving her text over to a polyphonic chorus of voices who relate their own stories to us by means of her narrative. The purpose of these stories is twofold: to give a voice to the silenced ones of history and to allow Anne to become the heroine of her own tale by choosing a script for the way she will live her life from the various life stories that are recounted to her. Her situation as listener and interpreter of these stories is homologous to ours before her text, suggesting that she encodes certain models of reading appropriate to her own discourse. Without going into a detailed analysis of the many instances of situational self-reflexivity that would illustrate my point here, I would like to focus on two embedded stories (“narrational embedding”) of abandonment, which Anne retells in order to deal with and break away from that age-old script of female passivity.22 They are the stories of Sassita, the young Indian maid, and of her own mother. Both are quiet, submissive, “dead to desire as well as to revolt” (352), as Nadège will become when she too is all but abandoned by her lover, who wants to protect his political image.

Sassita was married at the age of fourteen to a fifty-six-year-old man who promptly repudiated her on their wedding night because the bedsheets had failed to become stained with blood. Dumbfounded at her ill luck and at the man’s obstinate attempts to draw blood, she had rejoined her family and resigned herself to their daylong beatings as punishment for tarnishing the family’s honor. She fatalistically accepted the guilt imposed on her by external circumstances. Listening to her story, Anne is filled with shame at the troubling unfairness of life and at the fatalism of the Indian woman.

The mother’s story is disclosed when the sisters discover her diary after her death; they learn how disappointed she had been at their birth because they were “of a golden terracotta color” (130), not pink and blond and safely beyond their nonwhite ancestry. Also, her fear of sex and her disappointment in her husband’s infidelities added to the debilitation of her young daughters. The discovery of their mother’s secrets further accentuates the sisters’ alienation from each other: Anne is progressively absorbed by her hopes to live a nor-mal/respectable life, whereas Nadège gives free rein to her “blaze of vital energy” (120).

These pictures of effaced, obliterated femininity are the only paradigms or frames of reference Anne and Nadège have, their only lifelines to the status of female persons. In a reversal typical of the deployment and resolution of Humbert’s narrative text, it is Nadège who is abandoned when her father threatens her lover with a political scandal (Nadège is still a minor at the time of her affair). She resigns herself to her fate as Sassita had, becoming a “tragic heroine,” whereas Anne learns to dissimulate, to swerve, and to survive, thus gradually distancing herself from her role as “romantic heroine,” deviating from the traditional script and thereby freeing herself to say her own lines on her own stage, the island, to which she decides to return.23

When her father reveals to her his view of married life, Anne writes: “I think that the most embarrassing thing for me was not just the content of these confidences, but the mere fact of listening. The habit of silence is a hard one to give up, and I sensed all too clearly that this kind of thing was never meant to be a one-way street. Wasn’t I too committing myself to speak in turn, to emerge from the opportune shadow where I stood?” (134). Paradoxically, then, these (negative) stories do have a positive effect, for they will contribute to Anne’s impulse to break the code of silence that had been the mother’s legacy to her daughters. Listening to “confidences” (reading autobiographical novels) propels the hearer into a dialogical encounter: one that can only empower her to speak, to write.

But being empowered to write is but the beginning. The female subject must now learn to create new images and to engage in a dialogue with the more familiar ones of literary history. And her new images have to be vivid enough to superimpose themselves on the old myths they mean to transform and sublate. My final chapter will analyze just how Humbert succeeds in accomplishing such a transformation of the topos of utopia.

1I use this term in the sense of Jean-François Lyotard’s grand récits in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979).

2For a comprehensive approach to narratology, or general theory of narrative, see Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).

3Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Esthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 45.

4Marie Cardinal, Les Mots pour le dire (Paris: Grasset et Fasquelle, 1975); The Words to Say It, trans. Pat Goodheart (Cambridge, Mass.: VanVactor and Goodheart, 1984); Marie-Thérèse Humbert, A l’autre bout de moi (Paris: Stock, 1979). All further references will be given in the text. All translations of Humbert’s novel are mine; a possible rendering of the title in English might be “At the other extremity of myself” or “Through the mirror of my self.”

5Rodolphe Gasché, “Self-Engendering as a Verbal Body,” MLN 93 (May 1978), 677–94. This is a study of Antonin Artaud, relevant for two reasons: madness, language, and writing are central to Cardinal’s understanding of her access to the status of subject of discourse; furthermore, the plague, Freud, Marseilles (Artaud’s birthplace), and Algiers would figure as the scenes of dédoublement for both writers: the plague being at once a fléau, like Cardinal’s hemorrhaging, and psychoanalysis, as Freud once put it. Upon arrival in the United States, he said that he was bringing “the plague” to America.

6See in particular Bruno Bettelheim’s Preface and Afterword to the English translation by Pat Goodheart; Marilyn Yalom, Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985); Elaine A. Martin, “Mothers, Madness and the Middle Class in The Bell Jar and Les Mots pour le dire,” French-American Review 5 (Spring 1981), 24–47; and the following reviews: Diane McWhorter, “Recovering from Insanity,” New York Times Book Review, Jan. 1, 1984, p. 15; and Fernande Schulmann, “Marie Cardinal: Les Mots pour le dire,” Esprit 452 (Dec. 1975), 942–43.

7Cf. Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 3–15.

8Augustine, Confessions, Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).

9The rules are the regies, the female menstrual cycle, which “may provide a near perfect metaphor for Cardinal’s dialectic . . . of subversion and conformity,” according to Carolyn A. Durham in her excellent study of another of Cardinal’s works: “Feminism and Formalism: Dialectical Structures in Marie Cardinal’s Une Vie pour deux,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 4 (Spring 1985), 83–99.

10See Barbara Johnson, “My Monster/My Self,” Diacritics 12 (Summer 1982), 9. In this review of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Nancy Friday’s My Mother/My Self, and Dorothy Dinnerstein’s Mermaid and the Minotaur, Johnson suggests that these “three books deploy a theory of autobiography as monstrosity” (10).

11See Lucien Dällenbach, Le Récit spéculaire (Paris: Seuil, 1977); and also Chambers, pp. 18–49.

12Peter Brooks, “Constructions psychanalytiques et narratives,” Poétique 61 (Feb. 1985), 64.

13See Marguerite Le Clézio, “Mother and Motherland: The Daughter’s Quest for Origins,” Stanford French Review 5 (Winter 1981), 381–89. This is a study of Marie Cardinal and Jeanne Hyvrard.

14May 1968 marked a turning point in contemporary French social and cultural history: with the student revolt and the workers’ strike which paralyzed the nation, intellectuals entertained high hopes for a different political future.

15Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in Sämtliche Werke (Stuttgart: A. Kroner, 1964), 8:390.

16As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have forcefully shown in Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). I will be discussing Nietzschean and Deleuzian approaches to history, culture, and politics in my last chapter on Marie-Thérèse Humbert.

17V. S. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).

18I purposely use this image as Myra Jehlen has in “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” reprinted in The Signs Reader: Women Gender and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), in order to propose that exile and marginality are perhaps the necessary preconditions for “our seeing the old world from a genuinely new perspective” (94).

19Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 289. The Latin is from the Loeb Classical Library edition.

20Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Wang and Hill, 1982), pp. 78–79. Architexte is Gérard Genette’s term. See his Introduction à larchitexte (Paris: Seuil, 1979).

21I am paraphrasing Brooks’s discussion of transference (p. 65) in Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert.

22Chambers, pp. 18–49 especially (33).

23This decision to return after having first left for Paris is set in implicit contrast to the move planned by her Uncle Andre: he decides to emigrate to South Africa with his family, thus getting an official seal of approval that he safely “passes” for one of pure European descent, since there is indeed “no whiter white than the South African white man” (cf. p. 449).

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