Marie Cardinal

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Elaine Martin (essay date spring 1981)

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SOURCE: Martin, Elaine. “Mothers, Madness, and the Middle Class in The Bell Jar and Les Mots pour le dire.French-American Review 5, no. 1 (spring 1981): 24-47.

[In the following essay, Martin explores the mental instabilities of the protagonists in Les Mots pour le dire and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, noting the similarities between the two women's mental states and the extreme pressures that influenced their illness.]

Human madness and the representation of that madness in literature have existed in Western civilization for centuries, beginning as early as Classical Greece. Not only does madness have a long literary history, but it has also engendered a complex system of motifs that identify and attempt to define and confine this social aberration. Lillian Feder, in the conclusion to her historical survey, Madness in Literature, summarizes some of these motifs: “the identification of the mad with animals by society and by the mad themselves, the hunt as symbol of their persecution, the concept of reason or insight in madness, the incorporation of an accusing or sustaining deity.”1 Feder's list of motifs, based upon numerous literary works from Euripides and Aeschylus through Shakespeare, Mann, and Nerval to Brown, Soyinka, and Ginsberg, is seminal to research on madness and literature, and her choice of works—primarily by men about madmen—is significant for the purposes of the present study of women's madness because it raises questions of gender-related madness. Also, as we will see, not all of the motifs she identifies seem to apply equally to the experience of madwomen.

Aside from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination and Barbara Rigney's Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel: Studies in Bronte, Woolf, Lessing, and Atwood, little research has been done on the combined subject of women, madness, and literature. Beginning with Plato, the topic of madness and madness and literature has perennially drawn thinkers and their pens, but the literature as a whole rarely talks intelligently about women. Also there are many studies on women and madness (often more generally women and psychology) by researchers such as Phyllis Chesler, Juliet Mitchell, Judith Bardwick, and Mary Jane Sherfey, but they neither place the experience in its literary context nor analyze literary expressions of madness. Thus much exploration remains to be done, particularly on twentieth-century writers. One problem in dealing with contemporary literature is the increasing tendency on the part of writers to fuse art and life, particularly in the form of autobiographical works. This fuzzy separation of the experiential and the fictional is revealed in the very nature of the questions that critics are currently posing: Is a heroine mad in the same way as a hero? Are the causes of madness similar? And what of the outcomes; can mental stability be regained or does self-destruction seem inevitable? Does society react differently to mad-women than to madmen? Is there anything about women's position in society that would contribute to or exacerbate mental illness? And finally, now that women are “telling their own stories,” do women writers have new perceptions to offer on madwomen and their experience? Taken together, these questions indicate two interests that a study of madness in specific literary works can pursue: the source and development of the madness and the nature of the return journey from madness to health.

The insights that result from a close analysis of madness in literature can be both shocking and profoundly moving, for women's stories about madness are often very intense. Such is the case in the two novels I have chosen...

(This entire section contains 10820 words.)

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to examine in this study. The first work is Sylvia Plath's well-knownThe Bell Jar; the second is a lesser-known French novel (at least in the United States), Les Mots pour le dire, by Marie Cardinal. The similarities between the two works are striking and lead to questions concerning the possible universality of women's experience. But there are also crucial differences, which upon close examination reveal the importance of the social context within which an individual life is lived.

The Bell Jar and Les Mots pour le dire are eminently comparable, initially because of their subject matter: a young woman attempts to cope with madness as her personal world falls apart. In addition, both novels are highly autobiographical, which is particularly significant because the two authors are of the same social class and, having been born only three years apart (Cardinal in 1929, Plath in 1932), they are also of the same generation. Furthermore, the initial psychic disintegrations that they describe begin when their protagonists are very young—Esther is nineteen, and the heroine of Les Mots pour le dire is in her early twenties. As a result, and by virtue of the autobiographical character of the works, the two authors are also describing the same society and the same historical period: the middle class in the 1950s. Thus, the social context in which the heroine's struggle for sanity and viability takes place is curiously similar in the two novels despite innate differences between French and American culture.

Madness is a social phenomenon; it exists within a context. Thus, a writer portrays not an individual per se in the work of art, but rather that individual's reaction to external stimuli. “Madness as a theme of myth and literature,” Lillian Feder points out, “has always dealt with personal responses to environmental influences, which include political, social, and cultural pressures, or perhaps it would be more correct to say which exclude nothing.”2 In Western civilization, “the environmental influences” have always provided for a context that was patriarchal. But is this important? Is the patriarchal nature of the context significant for the health and well-being of women? Gilbert and Gubar are adamant in their answer: “patriarchal socialization literally makes women sick, both physically and mentally.”3 Their explanations for female “dis-ease” in nineteenth-century society are equally valid for the twentieth-century context:

Such diseases are caused by patriarchal socialization in several ways. Most obviously, of course, any young girl, but especially a lively or imaginative one, is likely to experience her education in docility, submissiveness, selflessness as in some sense sickening. To be trained in renunciation is almost necessarily to be trained to ill health, since the human animal's first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, pleasure, assertion.4

In both Les Mots pour le dire and The Bell Jar, it is the repressive patriarchal society's norms, and specifically its socialization process that early on give the impetus to the “dis-ease” that will later develop into madness serious enough to require incarceration.

In Les Mots pour le dire, the narrator/progatonist undergoes a lengthy psychoanalysis, “for seven years, three times a week.” Due to this probing experience, she comes to realize the “lavage de cervelle” which took place while she was growing up. The beginnings of her socialization which was long and harsh seemed innocuous enough, the kind of attitudes with which most readers can identify: “J'aimais les maths mais, dans ma famille, on disait que ce n'était pas féminin. Une fille qui fait des maths c'était, paraît-il, ‘incasable’ ou alors avec un prof de maths. Je me réservais des jours difficiles.”5 But later experiences assume a more ominous character. She describes being repeatedly held under an icy shower by her mother's iron grip to teach her not to express anger. On one occasion she vomits into her soup from fright at her mother's convincing impersonation of the rag collector, whereupon the enraged mother compels her to eat her own vomit. Later, during psychoanalysis, the protagonist is able to reassemble the diverse fragments of her experience and shape a recognizable whole. With recognition also comes understanding:

J'avais été entièrement façonnée pour ressembler le plus possible à un modèle humain que je n'avais pas choisi et que ne me convenait pas. Jour après jour, depuis ma naissance, on avait fabriqué: mes gestes, mes attitudes, mon vocabulaire. On avait reprimé mes besoins, mes envies, mes élans, on les avait endigués, maquillés, déguisés, emprisonnés. Après m'avoir décervelée, après avoir vidé mon crâne de moi, on l'avait bourré de la pensée adéquate qui m'allait comme un tablier à une vache. Et quand il s'est avéré que la greffe avait bien pris, que je n'avais plus besoin de personne pour refouler les vagues qui venaient du tréfonds de ma personne, on m'a laissée vivre, librement.

(p. 195)

This statement, which ends with the ironic “librement,” is only the first of a number of stinging indictments made against society and its socializing agents, here, the mother.

In The Bell Jar the role of socialization is less well apprehended and articulated by the protagonist. At the opening of the book, Esther Greenwood is about eighteen, so the reader sees only the results of the socializing process. Esther's slowly festering internal wound rises to the surface during the summer she spends in New York as the guest student editor of a fashion magazine. She and the other eleven young women invited to participate are wined and dined in a glamorous but superficial way for several weeks. But somehow Esther feels different from the others. “I knew something was wrong with me that summer,” she writes, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life … I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. … I couldn't get myself to react, I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel.”6 Esther's uneasiness mounts during the weeks in New York and climaxes when she returns home. The prison imagery that began forming in New York (when she looked into the mirror, “the face that peered back … seemed to be peering from the grating of a prison cell”) is repeated in the car ride home: “the gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage” (p. 94). Esther rejects the glittering but empty world offered her in New York; however, she can find no alternative to it. After nineteen years of “running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another,” she stops to ask herself why and is profoundly shaken when she can find no answer.

Socialization is carried out by adults, usually adults of the child's family, and specifically, it is the mother upon whom this task devolves. This fact has strange results for the mother/daughter relationship, for as Elaine Showalter has observed in another context (namely in discussing Grace Pool's role in Jane Eyre as Bertha Mason's jailor), “the feminine heroine grows up in a world without female solidarity, where women in fact police each other on behalf of patriarchal tyranny.”7 The mother becomes the socializing agent for the patriarchal society. Thus, when the daughter rebels against the social strictures, she also rebels against her mother. “It is the mother through whom patriarchy early teaches the small female her proper expectations,” Adrienne Rich writes:

The anxious pressure of one female on another to conform to a degrading and dispiriting role can hardly be termed ‘mothering,’ even if she does this believing it will help her daughter to survive. Many daughters live in rage at their mothers for having accepted, too readily and passively, ‘whatever comes.’ A mother's victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman. … The mother's self-hatred and low expectations are the binding-rags for the psyche of the daughter.8

In this important passage from Of Woman Born, Rich puts her finger on several crucial characteristics of the mother/daughter relationship in both Plath's and Cardinal's novels: the “anxious pressure” to conform, the “rage at their mothers,” the “mother's self-hatred and low expectations,” the “binding-rags” of the daughter's psyche. In both novels, the protagonists' fathers are absent, in The Bell Jar due to death, in Les Mots pour le dire because of divorce. The result is twofold: a claustrophobic intensifying of the mother/daughter bond, and a sense of loss and anguish at the father's absence, which is construed as desertion. In The Bell Jar, this loss is mixed with bitterness. “I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect, and start tending his grave,” Esther claims, and one day sets off to find the cemetery where her father was buried. Her cry, “I couldn't find my father anywhere,” has a double meaning: both concrete and cosmic. It is as much the alternative possibility of the male which she misses as the person, whom she barely knew.

The protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire is similarly confused about what her father represents. Thus, she is involved for several years in an uneasy and very ambivalent relationship with her divorced father. Only upon his premature death does she realize what he has represented in her life: “je ne l'avais que très peu vu. Mais il était pourtant mon seul allié, sans que je le veuille. Je n'avais jamais compté avec lui et maintenant je devais compter sans lui, cela faisait un grand vide inexplicable. Quelque chose de subtil avait disparu pour toujours” (p. 75). Later in life she understands what was lacking in her life following her father's death: “Je n'avais plus la certitude de plaire à quelqu'un en toute circonstance et j'étais privée de tendresse” (p. 76). The extent of the loss that the father's death constitutes for the daughter is, of course, directly related to the mother. If the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire is deprived of “tendresse” at her father's death, it signifies a need which the mother does not fulfill. In The Bell Jar, Esther “howls [her] loss into the cold salt rain” at his grave in part because her mother never cried at his death. It is the mother who determines the daughter's relationship with the father—even after his death.

In both works the mother is represented as very strong, cold, unemotional and unreachable—in the French novel even as untouchable. The protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire describes her mother as a beautiful peacock in a cage at the zoo; one wants to stroke it, but it pecks. As a young child she is desperate with the desire to embrace her mother: “si seulement elle m'avait laissée m'approcher d'elle, si j'avais pu la consoler, l'embrasser, la caresser. Mais elle ne le voulait pas. Seulement les baisers du bout des lèvres, des bonjours et des au revoir, rien de plus” (p. 144). Both mothers are martyrs, both rigidly attempt to fit their daughters into preconceived female molds, and both instill guilt in their daughters for unacceptable behavior. They also encourage selflessness in their daughters. The mother in Les Mots pour le dire admonishes her daughter: “Quand on a la chance d'avoir ce que tu as on n'a qu'une ligne à suivre: louer le Seigneur, aider les autres et ne pas s'occuper de soi” (p. 113). Similarly, Esther reports in The Bell Jar, “my mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you” (p. 132). Both mothers manifest little understanding for their daughters' psychic sufferings and demonstrate no comprehension of their daughters' creative needs. “My mother kept telling me,” Esther explains, “nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter” (p. 61). But the mother's attempt to teach her daughter shorthand is a disaster. “The trouble was,” Esther analyzes her failure, “I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.” (p. 62). Esther's vision for her life lies beyond the boundaries of her mother's imagination. Both daughters grow away and apart from, but also beyond their mothers in the same kind of psychic and intellectual transcendence that Simone de Beauvoir details as a mother/daughter barrier in Une mort très douce.

Significantly, the mother also represents repressed sexuality to the daughter. Esther's mother sends her an article from the Reader's Digest entitled, “In Defense of Chastity.” After reading the article Esther notes perplexedly, “Now the one thing this article didn't seem to me to consider was how a girl felt” (p. 66). Esther finds a double standard of virginity galling and rejects it: “I couldn't stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.” Obsessed by “pure” Buddy Willard's impurities with a waitress the previous summer, Esther concludes: “if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn't pure either” (p. 66). Her humorous tone belies a profound concern with sexuality, which her self-conscious mother treats distantly in terms of rules and restrictions. In Les Mots pour le dire the mother's aversion to sexuality is even more pronounced; she appears to be almost asexual herself. But in evenings alone in the living room, the mother dances, and her overt sensuality shocks the voyeur-daughter. The protagonist cannot understand what connection there possibly could be between her mother and the strange jazz rhythms emanating from the record player: “C'était de la musique qui venait du ventre, des reins, des cuisses, toute une région du corps que ma mère ne pouvait pas connaître, ne devait pas connaître” (p. 302). Referring to the numerous nineteenth-century English legends of imprisoned madwomen, Elaine Showalter points out that, “the legends themselves express a cultural attitude toward female passion as a potentially dangerous force that must be punished and confined.”9 In both of the twentieth-century novels, this observation is also applicable; sexuality is a force that supplies contention between mother and daughter and with which ultimately the daughters must deal in facing their madness.

Moreover, both daughters actively seek their first sexual encounters and view their “loss of virginity” as an act against the mother. Esther claims that her virginity “had weighed like a millstone” around her neck ever since she learned of Buddy Willard's corruption. “It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long,” she continues, “that my habit was to defend it at all costs, I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it” (p. 186). Essentially she seeks revenge on an ersatz mother-figure, Mrs. Willard, in plotting to seduce the United Nations interpreter, Constantin. “And there would be pleasant irony,” she thinks, “in sleeping with a man Mrs. Willard had introduced me to, as if she were, in a roundabout way to blame for it.” She later blames her entire situation (read: psychosis) on the same surrogate mother, and claims that the “lady in the brown suit,” whether she knew it or not, was responsible for the wrong turns and wrong paths and “for everything bad that happened after that” (p. 110). In Les Mots pour le dire the first sexual experience is plotted with equal deliberation. “Ce garçon, je l'avais choisi pour son habileté, il avait la réputation d'être un tombeur, un amant. … Il avait accepté gravement de jouer son rôle d'initiateur” (p. 58). Again there is the feeling of an encounter that has ramifications beyond the boundaries of the purely personal experience. In making love with a man whom she does not love and who does not love her, the protagonist protests against the “principles of her class, the prejudices of her family, and certainly against the laws of her mother.” Later, in admitting that the most important thing for her was to do everything that had been forbidden, she realizes the extent of her rebellion against her mother.

Patriarchy, non-individualized socialization, and the mother are all implicated in the daughter's madness, but they alone are not the culprit, rather it is the value system which they represent and particularly the female role which they uphold. Psychologist Jean Baker Miller has clearly identified in studies of psychoanalytic treatment gender-specific causes of women's madness, “the belief that women could or should accept and adjust to the stereotyped role has been a cause, not the cure, of their problems.”10 The female role referred to also has a class assignation: bourgeois. There is something peculiarly rigid and inflexible about middle class values which has devastating results for both protagonists and for their already strained relationships with their mothers. Vivian Gornick reports on a poignant real-life case in her essay, “On Trial for Acting Like a Man.” Gabrielle Russier, a talented, progressive-thinking, “different” young schoolteacher from Marseille, fell in love with one of her high school students, was imprisoned, persecuted and viciously pursued by the authorities who were determined to make an example of her. Verging on madness at the end of her ordeal, she committed suicide in September, 1969. Gornick writes:

She was an educated woman of the most unbending middle class in the Western World, a middle class of the most vicious self-importance, a middle class that operates with extraordinary skill and talent inside a rigid set of behavioral rules and plays the Queen of Hearts without mercy when those rules are challenged, especially if they be challenged by a woman.11

Marie Cardinal echoes Gornick's evaluation of French society's values throughout her novel. Her narrator says that the entire universe is definitively labeled, ordered, and classified: “Surtout ne pas raisonner, ne pas réfléchir, ne pas remettre en cause, ce serait du temps perdu puisqu'il était impossible d'aboutir à une autre classification.” The rigidity of the value system is paralleled only by its comprehensiveness:

Les valeurs bourgeoises étaient les seules qui étaient bonnes, belles, intelligentes, elles étaient les meilleures. A tel point que je ne savais même pas qu'elles s'appelaient valeurs bourgeoises. Pour moi elles étaient les valeurs, tout court.

(p. 286)

Esther in The Bell Jar has a similar problem in identification; she does not name the values which she rejects as bourgeois. The middle class values are represented principally by the mother whom Esther “[makes] a point of never living with for more than a week.” Practical, unemotional, and conformist to an extreme, the mother particularly reveals her middle-class attitudes in response to Esther's mental disintegration. After Esther returns from her first shock treatment and announces she is through with Doctor Gordon, her mother smiles: “I knew my baby wasn't like that. … Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital. … I knew you'd decide to be all right again” (p. 119). When Esther misbehaves at the asylum, her mother's mouth “tightens” in disapproval, and she constantly admonishes her daughter to be grateful. The mother is martyred for having a mad daughter. Madness is also scandalous in the French bourgeoisie. Cardinal emphasizes the class factor:

[la famille] avait secrété de nouveau son cocon autour de moi, de plus en plus serré … Non pas seulement pour me protéger mais aussi pour se protéger elle-même. La folie se porte mal dans une certaine classe, il faut la cacher à tout prix. La folie des aristocrates ou du peuple est considérée comme une excentricité ou une tare, elle s'explique. Mais, dans la nouvelle classe des puissants, elle ne s'admet pas.

(p. 21)

As Cardinal makes clear in this passage, it is not only the patriarchal system as a whole but also the family unit that demands the sacrifice of the individual to ensure collective survival. Madness poses a threat, not least of all to the family. Laing, for example, “sees psychosis at least partly as a revolt against the claustrophobic element of the traditional nuclear family.”12 The mother feels doubly threatened by madness because the daughter is an integral part of her self-identity. Thus the mother/daughter conflict comes full circle.

Throughout the novels we see that both protagonists have, at best, problematic relationships with their mothers. The conflict becomes, in fact, so acute that the mother must be, as Judith Gardiner expresses it, “killed,” so that the daughter can develop. “The death of the mother thus becomes a death of childhood repression,” Gardiner writes. “Yet more centrally, the mothers in these novels are what the daughters fear and must kill in themselves in order to achieve a positive female identity.”13 The feelings of hostility in The Bell Jar are projected onto the mother whose “pincurls on her head glitter[ed] like a row of little bayonets.” Unable to sleep, Esther scrutinizes her mother asleep in the next bed:

The room blued into view, and I wondered where the night had gone. My mother turned from a foggy log into a slumbering middle-age woman, her mouth slightly open and a snore raveling from her throat. The piggish noise irritated me, and for a while it seemed to me that the only way to stop it would be to take the column of skin and sinew from which it rose and twist it to silence between my hands.

(p. 101)

But, unable to kill her mother—either symbolically or in actuality—she eventually attempts to kill herself. The two female principles are mutually exclusive.

In Les Mots pour le dire, the “killing” of the mother is symbolized initially by physical repulsion and rejection. Horrified by the mother's account of her various unsuccessful attempts to abort the unwanted foetus (the protagonist), the daughter senses an overwhelming physical revulsion for her mother's body. She recounts avoiding her mother's kiss, and above all her stomach. Her sentiments for her mother are confused: “Dans le fond, j'ai toujours su que ma mère était une malade et, au centre de la grosse boule de mon amour pour elle, il y avait un dur coeur fait de peur d'elle et de mépris trempé d'orgueil” (p. 236). Like Esther Greenwood, the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire considers killing her mother during a violent nocturnal confrontation: “Si je ne l'ai pas tuée à cet instant c'est que je ne tuerai jamais personne” (p. 330). The result in both novels is an alienation from the mother and from society. Both protagonists withdraw so completely that they find themselves in a veritable state of paralysis. In a modernized image of Buridan's ass who starved to death because he was unable to decide which of two equally large hay stacks to begin eating, Esther envisions herself in a fig tree in full fruit:

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor. … I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

(p. 63)

This indecision and sense of ineptitude (“I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.”) culminates in absolute and stifling enclosure: “The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn't stir (p. 152). It is in similar terms that the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire describes her shrinking environment: “L'itinéraire de ses sorties était devenu de plus en plus court. Et puis, un jour, elle n'était plus allée dans la ville. Ensuite elle avait du restreindre son espace à l'intérieur de la maison. Les pièges se multipliaient” (p. 16). She refers to herself here in the third person to express the alienation from self. In the advanced state of her mental illness, which parallels the descent of Esther's bell jar, she lies all day long in a fetal position, “recroquevillée, les talons contre les fesses, les bras serrant fort les genoux contre la poitrine” (p. 16). She explains the source of her anxiety in these terms: “la lenteur, la viscosité, et l'absurdité du fait d'exister se précisaient jour après jour dans mon esprit, jusqu'à devenir la chose” (p. 61). “La chose” to which the protagonist refers here is a symbolic representation of her illness in the same way that the bell jar is a symbol for Esther. Both women are at this point utterly paralyzed and at the peak of their derangements.

The experiences of madness in The Bell Jar and Les Mots pour le dire are closely parallel, beginning with schizophrenia. “The term schizoid,” according to R. D. Laing, “refers to an individual the totality of whose experience is split in two main ways: in the first place, there is a disruption of his relation with his world and, in the second, there is a disruption of his relation with himself.” Laing continues, “he does not experience himself as a complete person but rather as ‘split’ in various ways, perhaps as a mind more or less tenuously linked to a body, as two or more selves, and so on.”14 Because of hostile socialization practices and the necessity of conforming to an unsuitable role, both Esther and the French protagonist are estranged from society or are “disrupted” in their relations to the world. By internalizing responsibility for their “otherness” and accepting guilt for their deviance, they also experience self-alienation or “disruption of the relation with [oneself].” Barbara Rigney describes madwomen as “losers in the war of sexual politics,” and states clearly that for the novelist she studied, “women in particular suffer from more or less obvious forms of schizophrenia, being constantly torn between male society's prescriptions for female behavior, their own tendencies toward the internalization of these roles, and a nostalgia for some lost, more authentic self.”15

Rigney's observations are also quite accurate descriptions of the phenomena at work in the two novels. Both protagonists, for example, internalize consuming guilt. Esther closes the terrifying description of her first shock treatment with the question: “I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done” (p. 118). Later, thinking about her mother, she envisions her face, “a pale, reproachful moon … A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her” (p. 193). When Esther finally admits to Doctor Nolan that she hates her mother, she “waits for the blow to fall” and is surprised when the doctor only smiles and responds, “I suppose you do” (p. 166). In the French novel, guilt is even more devastating. She sees herself sinking further into “the bad and imperfect, the incorrect and improper, into the indecent.” She will never again be able to approve of herself: “Je me considérais comme un déchet, un rebut, une anomalie, une honte et, ce qui était pire: je croyais que je m'étais laissé envahir par l'erreur à cause de ma mauvaise nature” (p. 47). Not only does she feel responsible, like Esther, for her deviance, but she also feels that the propensity to evil is in her case inevitable, an inherent characteristic.

The “two or more selves” of the schizophrenic to which Laing refers represent in the case of these two novels—and in all novels about madwomen?—the opposition of good and evil. According to Lillian Feder's analysis, this dichotomy dates to the sixteenth century when madness was first associated with sin. Exorcism of the embodied evil enabled the survival of the good, so good women were saved by sacrificing witches who were their evil doubles. This confusion of good and evil, fused so uncomfortably in the protagonists' beings, is deep-seated. Confronted in New York with a choice between innocent, naive Betsy and worldly Doreen, Esther is torn by a double identification. “I wondered why,” she ponders, “I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I shouldn't, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired” (pp. 24-25). For the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire the choice between good and bad sides of herself is inextricably linked to the desire to please her mother. The gulf between prescribed behavior and reality seems unbridgeable: “pour plaire à ma mère je ne devais pas être une pécheresse. Or j'en étais une et une grande même” (p. 104). Like Esther who identifies with “evil” Doreen about whom she recalls, “Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my bones,” so too the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire identifies with the dark, secret side of her life which she sees as an uncontrollable force: “je voulais plaire à ma mère, je voulais vivre comme elle le désirait, et je sentais pourtant en moi une force épouvantable qui me poussait hors du chemin que je devais suivre” (p. 163). Feder identifies these metaphors of “driving forces” as an important element in autobiographical accounts of the experience of insanity.16 The emotions of hate, love, lust and destruction seem magnified in intensity in madwomen because they were so long and so thoroughly repressed.

In his introduction to the double as a literary motif, David Burrows points out that historically, treatment of the double has swung back and forth pendulum-like between objectification and incorporation of the schizophrenic good/evil duality.

During the medieval period, component aspects of a single human being might be objectified as separate people, as the body and the soul were in medieval debate. Later, the contending forces of good and evil within the individual were objectified as figures such as the good and bad angels. … Still later, authors were to create characters who were representative parts or aspects of but a single individual.17

The most modern treatment—or is it specifically related to women's experience?—appears to be an amalgam of literary history. Both Cardinal and Plath emphasize the psychic split of identity that occurs in their heroines, but at the same time they project literary constructs in the forms of doubles outside the self. Plath in particular seems fascinated with the double as a literary device.18 Esther begins her confrontation with various doubles in the initial encounter with virtuous Betsy and seductive Doreen in New York. She then construes herself as “Elly Higginbottom” in a desire to dissociate herself from that which she experiences. Elly comes from Chicago because “it seemed the sort of place where unconventional, mixed-up people would come from,” and Elly represents a simplification of life. “In Chicago people would take me for what I was,” Esther thinks. “I would be simply Elly Higginbottom the orphan. People would love me for my sweet, quiet nature. They wouldn't be after me to read books and write long papers” (p. 108). Elly represents for Esther the first escape into another world, into another self. But Elly as an escape is limited and never assumes the proportions of the fictive worlds dealt with by mad heroines such as Deborah in Hannah Green's (Joanne Greenberg) I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Connie in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.

The mother figure that also represents a part of the daughter's identity is also multiplied in other figures in The Bell Jar: the successful magazine editor, the wealthy benefactress, and most disturbingly in Buddy Willard's mother. Esther sees all of the “mothers” as coercive and stifling. “My head ached,” she writes. “Why did I attract these weird old women? There was the famous poet, and Philmena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady and lord knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them” (p. 180, my emphasis). For Esther all of the options have strings attached. Then at the sanatorium she once again meets Joan Gilling who, in contrast to all the preceding positive doubles which force Esther to face the intolerable negative side of herself, represents someone upon whom the evil can be projected. Joan Gilling must die in the symbolic “slaying of the double”—in this case the mad double—in order for Esther to live and regain sanity.

In Les Mots pour le dire there are fewer doubles, but they are therefore more intensely experienced. The first is an older sister who died as a baby. The mother, who has a lugubrious “goût de la mort,” has kept the child alive in her mind for years: “son bébé mort avait de nouveau germé en elle et y vivait pour toujours. Elle en serait enceinte jusqu'à sa mort” (p. 233). Thus the protagonist is forced into hopeless competition with a spirit who is the symbol of perfection. Her mother fondles and embraces the dead child's gravestone, thereby awakening the protagonist's death wish:

Dans ces instants j'aurais aimé être la pierre et, par extension, être morte. Ainsi m'aimerait-elle peut-être autant que cette petite fille que je n'avais jamais connue et à laquelle je ressemblais, paraît-il, si peu.

(p. 234)

The dead sister as unattainable double may be haunting, but the overbearing mother as flesh-and-blood double is terrifying. She simultaneously represents all possible good and evil, a phenomenon that virtually ensures a schizophrenic development in the daughter. There are also clear intimations that on numerous occasions the mother herself borders on insanity. The killing of the double in Les Mots pour le dire thus overlaps with the killing of the mother and also provides a contemporary example of exorcizing the mad double.

The precedent of the mad double in women's literature has been established for over a century. Elaine Showalter points out that the heroine in Jane Eyre identifies both with saintly Helen Burns and with mad Bertha Mason, both of whom must be killed to give literal viability to the heroine. In Gilbert and Gubar's more detailed analysis, it becomes clear that women writing in the repressive conditions of Victorian England used the mad double as an authorial mouthpiece, a true expression of their repressed and forbidden ideas and emotions. But in nineteenth-century literature, it is the double who is mad. In the twentieth-century works in this study, it is the protagonist, not the double, who is mad. Rather, the double represents society's mores and symbolizes society's definition of sanity. In the nineteenth century, it was necessary to kill off the mad double because she expressed dangerous, seditious ideas, unacceptable to society. In the twentieth-century works, neither the doubles nor the protagonist are killed off (with the exception of Joan Gilling in The Bell Jar); instead, the solution to the dilemma is to declare society mad and the “mad” protagonist sane. This phenomenon is not entirely unprecedented in earlier literature. Elaine Showalter cites an interesting example, a novel published in 1862 entitled Lady Audley's Secret. The heroine in Mary Braddon's novel is declared mad because she deviates wildly from the feminine role. “But is she mad?” Showalter asks. The doctor who is consulted in the novel appears to ask himself the same question:

There is no evidence of madness in anything she has done. She ran away from home, because her home was not a pleasant one, and she left in the hope of finding a better. There is no madness in that. She committed the crime of bigamy because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness there. When she found herself in a desperate position, she did not grow desperate. She employed intelligent means and she carried out a conspiracy which required coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that.19

In Lady Audley's Secret, the heroine, like Gabrielle Russier one-hundred years later, is apparently “on trial for acting like a man.”

If sane society is secretly mad, and the mad protagonist sanely knows it, then the latter is in some sense “saner.” Lillian Feder argues, however, that madness viewed as a higher form of reason—what R. D. Laing calls a “superior sanity”—is, contrary to belief, not a uniquely twentieth-century interpretation: “the conception of madness as a revelation of mind or an expansion of consciousness, sometimes regarded as peculiarly modern, actually has a long history. … The history of the literature of madness makes it abundantly clear that the idea that madness can produce extraordinary insight is not a revolutionary one.” Feder continues her argument, “Furthermore, scientific investigations long before Laing recognized in delusions and other forms of mental aberration distorted yet significant communications of deeply suppressed human impulses.”20 It is evident that both protagonists gain new insights, and it is equally evident that these insights represent acute social criticism.

In both works the protagonists sense that those around them are just as sick as they themselves. Playing cards in the asylum, Esther asks, “What was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort” (p. 194). Insight into illness vs. sanity leads inevitably to reversals. Esther's mother suggests that they start all over as if nothing had happened: “she had said, with her sweet martyr's smile, ‘We'll act as if this all were a bad dream.’ A bad dream. To the person in the bell jar … the world itself is the bad dream” (p. 193). The protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire uses other imagery, but her comprehension of her situation is equally lucid: “J'ai compris que les gens autour de moi vivaient dans leur châteaux de cartes et que la plupart en étaient inconscients. Tous des frères! Moi qui me croyais seule, anormale, monstreuse” (p. 292). At one point, the vision that she experiences through dissociative insanity approaches textbook accounts of the “transcendent insight” phenomenon:

Pendant que j'étais folle j'ai decouvert des chemins de mon esprit que je n'aurais jamais découverts sans la folie. J'étais capable d'une incroyable agilité intellectuelle. J'avais, par périodes, des pensées aigues, subtiles, claires qui me conduisaient à une plus grande connaissance, une plus profonde compréhension de ce qui m'entourait.

(p. 28)

Decades before R. D. Laing re-evaluated schizophrenia in terms of “a split between the true but hidden self and the false outer being whose chief functioning processes are determined by the need to adjust to the demands of society and family,”21 Virginia Woolf expressed a similar reversal of illness and health. In an essay published in 1930, “On Being Ill,” she wrote: “in health the genial pretence must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilize, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases.”22 Galling illness “the great confessional,” she claims a “childish outspokenness” in illness, and “things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.” Madness breeds recklessness. And both Plath's and Cardinal's heroines are reckless. They reach a breaking point where self-destruction is imminent. But this apogee of recklessness can also be seen as the final effort to save oneself, as the ultimate “cry of help” as Elizabeth Hardwick calls suicide attempts.

There is also an aspect of “madness as sanity” that views insanity as a goal, as the only means of achieving personal, and particularly, artistic fulfillment. Feder identifies this quest for fulfillment through psychic dissolution “the ironic reversal that confronts contemporary Western civilization.” In both novels, the protagonist succumbs to madness not only because she is female but also because of her artistic and creative personality. As Gubar and Gilbert pointed out above, the socialization process for females is experienced particularly harshly by girls who are “lively or imaginative,” which both of the protagonists in these novels certainly are. Esther's and the French heroine's shared creativity exacerbates their initial estrangement from society at the same time that it represents the only hope from insanity.

For both protagonists, as for the doomed heroine in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, creativity—in this case writing—is the potential source of spiritual and mental salvation; it is the lifeblood. Deprived of pen and paper by a well-intentioned doctor-husband, Gilman's heroine succumbs slowly, perniciously to insanity. Plath's and Cardinal's protagonists are only metaphorically deprived of pen and paper by a disapproving society. But, going a step further in psychological complexity than nineteenth-century women writers who had to overcome social barriers to female creativity, the twentieth-century writers must primarily overcome their own inhibitions in the form of internalized barriers. The battle takes place within rather than without.

For the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire, the reification in words of her experience is at once exhilarating and frightening: “Je me prenais pour un écrivain? Mais non, voyons, ce n'était pas possible, pas moi. Un écrivain, moi? Même mauvais? J'écrivais, moi? Quelle idée! … J'allais tellement mieux que je me croyais tout permis” (p. 265). In this passage she expresses the role of writing both as means of self-expression and as self-identification. Writing is for her spontaneous, natural, and above all, liberating: “Cela se faisait simplement, facilement. Je ne pensais même pas que j'écrivais. … Je me sentais libre comme je ne l'avais jamais été” (p. 254). For Esther too, creativity is an undeniable part of herself, which patterns her perception of the world and repeatedly causes conflicts: when she begins writing a novel, her mother insists she learn shorthand; when Mrs. Willard braids a beautiful rug, Esther wants to hang it on the wall, but Mrs. Willard put it on the kitchen floor. “The last thing I wanted,” she writes in near-desperation, “was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” (p. 68). Writing assumes special significance, first as an externalizing of madness, but also as counteraction to socialized female “silence.” The title of the French novel, Les Mots pour le dire, represents a focus on the protagonist's search for a means of expressing herself, whereas the title of the American novel, The Bell Jar, emphasizes the oppressive forces that hinder that expression. Esther, in the hotel in New York, is depressed by the silence, but “It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” Later, when she tries to explain her illness to a doctor, words fail her: “‘I can't sleep. I can't read.’ I tried to speak in a cool, calm way, but the zombie rose up in my throat and choked me off” (p. 103). Esther's “zombie” parallels “la chose” with which the protagonist in Les Mots pour le dire continuously struggles. “La chose” is born in the traumatic experiences of childhood and is expressed, like Esther's zombie, in terms of being choked:

Du fond de moi monte une puissance colossale qui contraint ma rage. … Toutes mes forces sont mobilisées pour saisir ma violence, l'enfermer, l'enterrer le plus loin possible. Pour y parvenir je dois me concentrer à un point tel que cela me fait souffrir. J'ai mal partout, à la gorge surtout par où plus rien ne doit sortir.

(p. 248)

The idea of silence not only prevents self-expression, but it also prevents communication, thereby increasingly isolating the protagonist. Due to her own inability to express her feelings and the others' desire not to face the truth, understanding breaks down entirely, forcing the protagonist back in upon herself. Doctor Gordon tells Esther, “Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong.” Her reaction is one of stupefaction: “What did I think was wrong? That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong. I only thought it was wrong” (p. 106). Virginia Woolf attributes the difficulty of expression to insufficiencies in the language itself: “to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language.” Although her comments here are restricted to the English language, Woolf is interesting for the modernity of her perception:

English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other … so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.23

Cardinal writes that even silence has a meaning. “Me taire ne signifiait pas que je n'avais rien à dire” (p. 202). The thought and the will to communicate are present, only the means are needed. Lacking words and “ready made” phrases, the authors must rely heavily upon symbols to communicate.

Silence, “la chose,” the “zombie,” the killing of the mother, and metaphors of uncontrollable forces which “rise up” are all symbolic representations of madness. Lillian Feder differentiates between psychosis and its literary expression, but emphasizes the close ties between the two: “The varieties of madness created in literature are in most respects no different from those to be discovered throughout human society.” Feder even sees the writer as a kind of guide, “Since the literary artist employs structures—myth, metaphor, symbol—which continually mediate between unconscious and conscious processes, he is often a gifted explorer of what have been called the ‘unlabeled metaphors’ of the schizophrenic, an interpreter of the madman's apparently indecipherable ‘messages.’”24 But in Plath's and Cardinal's novels, less deciphering is necessary because both authors describe their own experience. Their closeness to the topic gives them sensitivity. Neither author, for example, would have entitled her work “Reality Lost and Regained,” the (sub)title given by someone other than the author to the Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, written by a French woman under the pseudonym of Renée. In their works rather, they question the very vocabulary used to determine and represent both “reality” and “madness.”

The most important symbolic structure in both novels is madness viewed in terms of a psychic journey. Madness can be seen as an initiation into a state of higher creative consciousness. “As Jungian myth criticism has revealed, all heroes must pass through a phase of withdrawal and deep introspection before they can return as lawgivers,” Barbara Rigney points out. “One can never be truly well, it might be argued, unless illness is identified and rejected, never whole unless divisions are seen and mended.”25 In the psychic journey then it is the return and not the insanity itself which is of interest. Based upon the supposition that society, in its false dichotomization of fantasy and reality, is as “mad” as any of its individual members, which is one of Michel Foucault's major points,26 then the psychic trajectory of the protagonists is what John Vernon calls “from an insane sanity to a sane insanity.”27

Both Plath and Cardinal express the stages of their protagonists' psychic journey with specific imagery, of which the most important is the metaphor of ritual death and rebirth. As in a number of recent works by women, this process may be expressed as one of shedding. Esther symbolically throws her clothing, piece by piece, off the top of the hotel her last night in New York, and Cardinal's heroine sees herself psychically shedding layers of her self in the search for a new identity. Both protagonists also experience a ritual death—Esther when she crawls into the dark, womb-like corner of the basement and swallows quantities of sleeping tablets, and Cardinal's protagonist when she withdraws into a semi-vegetative state and lies for days at a time on the bed or floor in a fetal position. Remarkable in both cases is the literal attempt to crawl back into the womb. The association of madness, self-destruction, and the womb is intensified by the fact of both protagonists' difficult relationships with their mothers.

Rebirth occurs in Les Mots pour le dire and The Bell Jar both on a psychic and a physical level. Cardinal's novel is dedicated “Au docteur qui m'a aidée à naître,” and her protagonist/narrator claims after discovering the source of her hallucination with the doctor's help, “Il venait de m'aider à accoucher de moi-même. Je venais de naître. J'étais neuve” (p. 185)! The new psychic life also manifests itself immediately in her feelings toward her previously detested body: “Quand je me suis levée, j'ai senti la perfection de mon corps pour la première fois. … Quelle harmonie” (p. 185)! In The Bell Jar, it is more appropriate to speak of multiple rebirths, or of a series of renaissances and purging. After leaving Doreen and Lenny in what she perceives to be a sordid situation, Esther takes a bath and tells herself:

‘they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don't know them, I have never known them and I am very pure. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin on the way back is turning into something pure.’ The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft white hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby.

(p. 17)

Whereas for the French protagonist, rebirth means a new sense of identity, for Esther it assumes the moral cast of purity. “When I was nineteen,” she remarks, “pureness was the great issue” (p. 66). After nearly dying from ptomaine poisoning she similarly comments, “I felt purged and holy and ready for a new life” (p. 39). A part of Esther symbolically dies when Joan Gilling commits suicide, and at the funeral, Esther asks herself, “I wondered what I thought I was burying.” The funeral passage ends significantly with the following indication of self-renewal: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am” (p. 199). And finally, ready to appear for her final interview to be released from the asylum, Esther is equally conscious of beginning life anew: “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice—patched, retreaded and approved for the road” (p. 199). Plath's hard, polished humor toward her experience, here and in other passages, is very different from Cardinal's tone which is much more emotional and psychologically gripping. The overwhelming thematic parallels between the two works are tempered by several important stylistic differences.

Although both stories are told from a first-person point of view, Plath names her heroine, thereby increasing the distance from author to narrator and heroine. Cardinal's protagonist remains unnamed, which contributes both to the universalization of her experience and to the immediacy and personalization of the account. A distancing of the heroine from both the author and the reader is also achieved in The Bell Jar by the tone of the narrative. Together with the question of perspective and interpretation of the endings, tone is the most important single difference between The Bell Jar and Les Mots pour le dire. Caroline King Barnard has also remarked the acid humor in Plath's novel and comments upon its effect:

Esther's tone, especially up to the time of her recovery under Dr. Nolan's guidance, is similar to the tone of such late poems as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘The Applicant’: carefully postured, mocking, caustic, defensively nonchalant. … Esther's wit is brilliant, and her humorous observations are incisive. Such a voice can protect, but it can also protect too well, building an impregnable barrier between its speaker and the world, between the self and other people.28

Like Deborah, the extremely youthful but precocious, “mad” heroine of Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Esther uses her biting wit as a defense. Most significant is that the narrator, retelling the experience in retrospect, still frames her emotional responses in such a flippant, basically alienating tone. The need thus to emphasize the distance between persona and narrator implies the fear that there is, in fact, little or no distance. This suggests the possibility that the narrator has not learned anything from her bout with madness, has drawn no strength and insight from it, and in fact has not been “reborn.” This interpretation is supported by the narrator's own comment, “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again (p. 197)? This indecision and insecurity parallel her self-description as “patched” and “retreaded” which is not the same as new. Plath leaves her narrator/heroine vulnerable. Cardinal is much more positive, much more sure of herself. Her text is interspersed with phrases of celebration such as: “J'existais,” “J'avais fait la connaissance d'une personne qui était moi,” and “C'étais moi. Je vivais.” While the experience is the same, the treatment of it is not: Esther is institutionalized and subjected to shock treatment; the heroine of Les Mots pour le dire escapes from an asylum and undergoes a lengthy psychoanalysis. Esther suspends madness (“the bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head”), whereas in the French novel, the heroine dissects and conquers it. The difference seems to be one of understanding profoundly both the forces of madness and its context. Jean Baker stresses the importance of the therapist's role:

all so-called symptoms … [are] no longer [seen] merely as defenses, maneuvers, or other such tactics, but as struggles to preserve or express some deeply needed aspects of personal integrity in a milieu that will not allow for their direct expression. The task of a therapist then becomes the cooperative search for an understanding of those needs and an understanding of how they have been diverted or distorted.29

For the magnitude of Esther's problems, six months of Doctor Nolan's guidance seems insufficient; one suspects that, like the protagonist in the French novel, she needs closer to six years of therapy to ensure survival.

Whereas The Bell Jar stops on the limited, personal note of leaving the asylum, Les Mots pour le dire expands the personal experience outward. The narrator evaluates the effect of her analysis: “Ma vie était entièrement transformée. Non seulement j'avais découvert le moyen de m'exprimer mais j'avais trouvé toute seule le chemin qui m'éloignait de ma famille, de mon milieu, me permettant ainsi de construire un univers qui m'était propre” (p. 271). This outward expansion of the personal experience culminates in the political. The last chapter in the novel consists of one sentence: “Quelques jours plus tard c'était Mai 68.” The heroine identifies her personal liberation with a larger social struggle for rebirth. The French protagonist also differs in that she is “mad” in both senses of the word. She comments that the most important moment of her psychoanalysis was when she recovered her rage or anger. By turning crazy-mad into angry-mad, she exchanges passivity for a healthy aggressivity. Esther in The Bell Jar never ceases identifying with the persecuted Rosenbergs, but Cardinal's heroine refuses to be a victim.

One explanation for the differences in the endings of the two novels is the difference in perspective implied by the twelve-year separation between the publication dates. Plath, writing prior to 1963, was much closer to the experience of madness itself and also did not have the advantage of feminism to give her the objectivity and self-confidence that Cardinal, writing in the early 1970s, manifests. Cardinal is also in a better position to externalize her guilt and project blame for her madness onto society, a society that finds itself in a state of flux in the seventies. Plath's heroine, however, returns from the new freedom and insights afforded by therapy into an unchanged world. She is forced to resurface where there are no air pockets. The French author also uses the act of writing to come to terms with her experience. She gains power over her madness by successively reliving her traumas, first on the psychoanalyst's couch and again on the written page. In a curious circular movement that has also been used by other women writers, like Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, at the end of the book, Cardinal's narrator begins writing the manuscript for the book which the reader is holding. The process of writing is infinite; the story is never completed. By turning herself inside-out, she continuously externalizes every potential source of madness.

It is difficult to discuss questions of perspective in these two novels without approaching the problem of fiction vs. life. The works are autobiographical; one author did commit suicide. Elizabeth Hardwick makes an argument for not separating “the work from the fascination and horror of death” in The Bell Jar. She continues, “What is more teasing to the mind and the imagination is how the poems of a dramatic suicide would read to us if the poet had held on to life, given interviews, public readings, finished a second novel, more poems.”30 Hardwick certainly raises an important issue, but one can view the question the other way around, putting fiction first: by analyzing what The Bell Jar does not do and does not say, one can foretell the life pattern. The comprehension, expansion, objectivity, positiveness, and vitality of Les Mots pour le dire reveal clearly what is missing in The Bell Jar. Conversely, reading The Bell Jar expands the meaning of the protagonist's recovery in Les Mots pour le dire because it underlines the fragility of mental viability. In these two novels, which are so similar, we are ultimately offered two sides of a single madness, a madness that has its roots in external elements but can only be uprooted through internal strengths.


  1. Lillian Feder, Madness in Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), p. 279.

  2. Feder, p. xi.

  3. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 53.

  4. Gilbert and Gubar, p. 54.

  5. Marie Cardinal, Les Mots pour le dire (Paris: Grasset, 1975), pp. 51-52. All further references are to this edition.

  6. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 1-2. All further references are to this edition.

  7. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), p. 117.

  8. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (N.Y.: Bantam, 1977), pp. 246-47.

  9. Showalter, p. 119.

  10. Jean Baker Miller, ed. Psychoanalysis and Women (Baltimore: Penguin, 1974), p. 381.

  11. Vivian Gornick, Essays in Feminism (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 79-80.

  12. Barbara Rigney, Madness and Sexual Politics (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978), p. 9.

  13. Judith Kegan Gardiner, “The Heroine as Her Author's Daughter,” in Feminist Criticism, eds. Cheryl Brown and Karen Olson (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1978), p. 248.

  14. R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (London: Tavistock, 1960), p. 15. Along with Michel Foucault, Laing is the theorist most often quoted by critics writing on madness and literature. Rigney cites his theories as being particularly relevant for feminist critics, although Laing himself is not a feminist.

  15. Rigney, p. 119.

  16. Feder, p. 25. Feder seems to have read psychoanalytic rather than literary autobiographies, for example, Renee's Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl.

  17. David J. Burrows, F. R. Lapides, and J. T. Shawcross, eds. Myths and Motifs in Literature (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1973), p. 382.

  18. See Gordon Lameyer, “The Double in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar,” in Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work, ed. Edward Butscher (N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1977). Lameyer emphasizes the link between Plath's honors thesis at Smith on the double in two of Dostoevsky's novels and her use of the double in The Bell Jar.

  19. Showalter, p. 167.

  20. Feder, p. 279 ff.

  21. Feder, p. 196.

  22. Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill,” Collected Essays, (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1935), IV, p. 196.

  23. Woolf, p. 194. Although Woolf originally meant “a pain in his head” in a literal sense, given her long personal experience with madness, I think it justified to give a double reading to her comments.

  24. Feder, p. 7.

  25. Rigney, p. 8.

  26. See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), tr. by R. Howard (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1965).

  27. John Vernon, The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia and Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1973).

  28. Caroline King Barnard, Sylvia Plath (Boston: Twayne, 1978), p. 28.

  29. Miller, p. 381.

  30. Elizabeth Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal (N.Y.: Random House, 1970), p. 119.

Patricia Elliot (essay date fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Elliot, Patricia. “In the Eye of Abjection: Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say It.Mosaic 20, no. 4 (fall 1987): 71-81.

[In the following essay, Elliot expounds on the autobiographical elements in The Words to Say It, focusing on Cardinal's tumultuous relationship with her mother and the impact of that relationship on Cardinal's mental state.]

While contemplating words, the tools of our trade so often taken for granted, I am reminded of an obscure poem which ends with the phrase, “words: charms unknown to animals.” Perhaps the delight I took in the idea that words could charm followed from the contrary knowledge that words can wound. In any case, the emphasis Freud places on the spoken word and that Lacan places on the speaking being reminds us of the centrality of language in the constitution of human subjectivity. Words articulated in the course of analytic treatment are not merely the servants of confession or catharsis; they are signifiers in a chain which constitutes our social being. The ties that bind us to the reality which pre-exists us and to the reality we create can, however, also be broken, as demonstrated in Marie Cardinal's autobiographical text.

In The Words to Say It Cardinal offers a powerful account of her seven-year analysis, an account which Bruno Bettelheim's Preface claims to be the best we have (xi). What Cardinal inscribes here is the story (or history) of her psychic experience which, like the process of analysis itself, moves in and out of the past, erratically. With other autobiographies by women, Cardinal's shares that “reaching towards the possibility of saying ‘I’” described by Linda Anderson. In Anderson's view, women's autobiography involves “a continual fracturing of its own surface, a breaking into disorder and uncertainty, as a way of searching behind the formal structure, the accepted patterns of order and significance” (64-65). Accordingly, the “I” in Cardinal's first-person narrative has a problematic status; it is a point of identification which shifts with the author's gaze and which comes into being only at the point of inscription. The power of this particular instance of life-writing lies in Cardinal's difficult relationship to language, a relationship which reveals her problematic position as a subject in language.

The Words to Say It exemplifies the intricate connection between language and the unconscious, and between written (or spoken) articulation and subjectivity. These are connections that psychoanalysis describes but rarely succeeds in illustrating so effectively. My reading will focus on the second connection, specifically on an analysis of the mother-daughter bond and of the psychic structure of “abjection” as defined by Julia Kristeva. Before embarking on this analysis, however, something must be said of the first connection between language and the unconscious. It was only by transforming her relationship to language (through her analysis and through writing) that Cardinal was able to reposition herself as subject within it.

Prior to analysis, Cardinal had consulted a gynecologist to solve the enigma of her hysterical symptom, and when he named her symptomatic bleeding the result of a “fibroid uterus” Cardinal was consumed by fear. In analyzing retrospectively her reactions to this word “fibroid,” she discovers the power of words to “inhabit” and to torture:

Fibroid uterus. What words! Caverns coated with algae flowing through the blood. Monstrously swollen artery. Pustular toad. Octopus.

For the mentally ill, words, like objects, are as much alive as people or animals.


Instead of using language to mediate being, or to signify her existence, she is cornered, stalked and imprisoned by words which become “monsters … the SS of the unconscious, driving back the thought of the living into the prisons of oblivion” (240).

There is, however, reason in this madness, for the recollection of certain words entails re-experiencing the pain they initially caused. As we shall see, Cardinal is tormented by her inability to please her mother, and by her failure to understand or to articulate her rejection. Ironically, the words which finally clarify this inability to please become the sadistic weapons of psychic mutilation. In what is possibly the most violent passage in the book, Cardinal describes her reaction to hearing of her mother's concerted attempts to abort her:

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, never having heard the words she was about to inflict on me like so many mutilating swords.

There on the street, in a few sentences, she put out my eyes, cut off my hands, shattered my kneecaps, tortured my stomach, and mutilated my genitals.


It is little wonder Cardinal did not consider words as charms! Rather, they were the uniquely human instruments of torture, of what separates or maintains the alienation of self and other. Another interesting way of indicating her alienation is represented in the text itself. Cardinal's bewildered and speechless response to her mother is represented in the text by three dots surrounded by quotation marks (“…”). This unusual treatment of silence in what is a dialogue produces an unsettling effect on the reader and conveys the presence of a powerful affect.

For Cardinal analysis is a last resort to save herself from the madness that drug therapy pacified but did not cure. When her analyst (about whom we learn little) addresses her as a normal person, she is granted a human status and the possibility of creating a bridge word by word between herself and an other. And when her analyst reverses the mistaken view that her symptomatic bleeding causes her madness (with its equally mistaken corollary that if one stops the bleeding the anxiety will vanish), she is forced to face her madness for the first time. It is by articulating her sense of rejection, and naming the events which contributed to her madness that Cardinal creates a position for herself as subject. In analysis the torrent of anxiety is countered by an equally powerful, if defensive, storm of words: “Perhaps it was my weapon against the Thing: that flood of words, that maelstrom, that mass of words, that hurricane! Words swept away distrust, fear, lack of understanding, severity, will, order, law, discipline as well as tenderness, sweetness, love, warmth and freedom” (65).

Gaining the trust of her analyst, Cardinal is able to re-experience her past, to unravel the knots of repression which entangled her in madness. This process of confiding cannot be underestimated, nor confused with confession. One confesses what one knows, with or without the trust of another, but one must have a confidante in order to find out what one knows. Thus, when Cardinal asks herself why she can't work through her problems and arrive at clarifications on her own, she discovers an important analytic truth: “It was because until then I had never spoken to anyone about them. Each terror had been experienced in isolation and immediately repressed as much as possible without ever having been understood” (144). Perhaps for Cardinal it was important to re-articulate those terrors in writing in order better to understand her own process of transformation.

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection Kristeva describes abjection as a “mechanism of subjectivity,” a mechanism she believes to be universal (208). Abjection is not so much a state of being as a “revolt of being,” an ejection of whatever threatens one with non-being, of whatever forces upon one the experience of lack or loss. According to her, abjection is caused by “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). The early relationship of the child to its mother, prior to the subject/object distinction, is the locus of abjection. It is a mechanism of separating from the mother: “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of the pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (10).

Kristeva's development of this concept is important to my analysis of Cardinal for two reasons. First, it provides a means of understanding Cardinal's madness (her relation to her mother and her own psychic structure). Second, it elaborates a theory of the logic of exclusion upon which social orders are constructed. In order to understand this application, the relation between abjection and phobia must be clarified.

Kristeva's theory of the mother-child bond differs significantly from Freud's rather idealistic view. While for Freud the incest taboo is required definitively to break the bond between mother and child (a bond which appears to him ideal), for Kristeva this bond carries an ambivalence within itself, and a risk of death which the incest taboo guards against. From her perspective, phobia, as “abortive metaphor of want” (Powers 35), is the fear of a return to that state of fusion, to a stifling duality prior to identity, objects and boundaries: “[Incest prohibition] cuts short the temptation to return, with abjection and jouissance, to that passivity status within the symbolic function, where the subject, fluctuating between inside and outside, pleasure and pain, word and deed, would find death, along with nirvana. Phobia alone, crossroad of neurosis and psychosis … testif[ies] to the appeal of such a risk; as if … the taboo barring contact with the mother and/or primary narcissism suddenly disintegrated” (Powers 63-64).

The projection of one's fear of non-being, or fear of incorporation by the (m)other, onto a phobic object is an attempt to cover up that fear of non-being with a metaphor. Thus the phobic object would be an object which stands in the place of one's ability to signify oneself (due to the failure of repression). The attempt, however, remains abortive or unsuccessful insofar as the incest prohibition has not made itself felt or has not been strong enough. As I understand it, the presence of a phobic object would indicate the failure to repress the fantasy of fusion with the mother. Such fusion is understood by Kristeva to be a contamination of the boundaries and identity proper to the subject; it is the state of abjection from which one flees by constructing rituals of purification or an ideal ego with which to identify. Like Hegel's depiction of the beautiful soul, whose purity is based on a relation of paranoid exclusion of the other (the acting, defiling self), the subject of abjection is connected to, and perpetually threatened by its own rejected aspects which are signified by the phobic object.

In the case of Cardinal the process of abjection is at work both between herself and her mother, and within her own psyche. The theme of abjection is also useful in understanding Cardinal's presentation of the context, of the political and religious conditions in which her childhood takes place. As the process of excluding or ejecting whatever signifies impurity in order to establish and to identify with an ideal self-image or social order, abjection is in play in the colonization of Algeria by the French (Cardinal is French-Algerian) and in the denigration of femininity in religious doctrine. One might say, following Kristeva, that the structure of abjection is a “typology of catastrophe,” which operates at both a personal and political level (Powers 9). Although my analysis will focus on the personal level, reference to external factors will be made at those points where they interpenetrate. Perhaps part of the power of Cardinal's text derives from her ability to reveal the correspondences between these two levels.

Between Cardinal and her mother lies some deadly, unnameable, abject thing. The “Thing,” as she calls it, is variously referred to as Cardinal's anxiety, her phobic object, and the madness she shares with her mother. It is a strange kind of bond to find between mother and child, unless the mother's only love-object is a corpse (a dead baby sister), and her living child a humiliation and torment. Cardinal recalls in her analysis several scenes of her mother's morbid obsession with death in general, and with the death of her sister in particular: “it was the dead who were always the object of her affectionate interest. There was a complicity between my mother and decay, a taste for death which she did not try to hide” (195). Cardinal's desire to replace her dead sister in the affection of her mother, to become the exclusive object of her mother's desire, entailed wishing she were dead. However, her unshakable belief that her mother's love would be assured only if she were dead had another, more sinister provenance.

The other corpse which lay between mother and daughter (so poorly repressed by the former) was the passionately desired, aborted fetus of Cardinal herself. In the midst of a serious, if uninformative discussion of the “facts of life” (which takes place significantly in the bustle of the street instead of in the home), Cardinal's mother tells her how she tried to induce a miscarriage during the first six months of her pregnancy with Cardinal. What is traumatic in this encounter is not only the knowledge imparted (although if there are secrets not meant to be shared, this must be one), but the violence with which the mother relates it over a decade after the event. This violence is inscribed in Cardinal's memory of her mother's words: “To find myself pregnant in the middle of the divorce! Do you know what that means? I wanted to leave a man whose child I was going to bear! You can not understand. … But I have to speak to you. You have to know, if only a few seconds, what has to be endured for a mistake!” (135). Also traumatic is the recognition that her mother's martyrdom is based on the attempted but failed sacrifice of Cardinal herself, a sacrifice which was being re-enacted in the explanation: “She was discharging her madness onto me; I was the sacrifice” (135). No wonder Cardinal could never please her: she was the embodiment of what her mother would reject and disown, the defilement of her purity.

Cardinal's hysterical and incessant bleeding, which begins with the birth of her third child, indicates (as Bettelheim points out in his Afterword) an identity with her mother and a symbolic repetition of the desire to abort (304). Although Cardinal does not appear to be fully aware of this tenacious identification (even when she recounts the last stages of her analysis), it clearly remains until her mother dies. In an attempt to make sense of a “slip of the pen” Cardinal informs us that she wrote, “‘my mother was living through her final analysis’ instead of ‘my mother was living through her final agony’” (270). The explanation offered for this slip is that analysis is a kind of agony, which is certainly true. What does not occur to her, however, is that the slip also reveals an identification with her mother (a continual slipping between mother and daughter) which was also a part of her analysis. When Cardinal relates her reactions to her mother's death, she writes, “The world split apart” (289). Thus, like so many people, neurotic or not, who are released from parental influence only upon the parent's death, Cardinal's expression signifies a definitive separation between mother and daughter which was unachieved until that moment.

Given what Cardinal tells us of her mother's inability to mourn her dead baby sister, and of her violent resentment of the birth of Cardinal (a resentment unaltered over time), it appears as though there is a complicity between the mother and abjection. This, however, does not explain Cardinal's madness; blaming the mother is no solution. The interesting question is rather how this affinity with the abject is transmitted to Cardinal, or perhaps how her conflicted implication in it leads to madness. It seems to me one must resist the temptation to read mother as villain and child as passive victim if one is to understand the nature of their relationship, as well as the active participation of each within it. In order to investigate the unstable psychic structure of Cardinal (as she presents it), I shall pursue Kristeva's idea of abjection as a “typology of catastrophe.”

The structure of abjection is based, like the Oedipal structure, on three terms. In this case, however, the third term is not the symbolic other (historically, the paternal figure) whose presence signifies the incompleteness and individuality of the mother (a mother, therefore, whose life is not predicated on the imaginative fantasy of the child). Rather, the third term of an abject constellation is the (mother's?) idealized other, a perfect and imaginary being which is the object of desire. As unattainable ideal, it becomes an introjected other against whom the subject is judged and found wanting, and who is abjected. Not unlike the relationship of the judging and the evil consciousness in Hegel's discussion of conscience,1 the intrapsychic relationship of abjection involves an internal struggle between an impossible judgmental ideal and a loathsome, rejected other. Moreover, the latter exists only insofar as it aspires to the purity the other represents, thus participating in its own abjection. According to Kristeva, such a subject “finds in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence. Hence, a jouissance in which the subject is swallowed up but in which the Other, in return, keeps the subject from foundering by making it repugnant” (9). One must beware, however, of reifying the split between idealized other and rejected subject, because the latter's alienated existence depends upon seeing itself through the eyes of the other. The failure to live through the judgmental eye of the other threatens to undermine this precarious structure, and with it, the basis of one's own existence.

Cardinal's entrapment in such a structure of abjection has as much to do with her own desire to be the object of maternal desire as with her mother's belief that this could be achieved. (The death of Cardinal's father when she is still a child makes the mother-daughter relation even more intense, although having been rejected and despised by the mother, he was never a good ally.) In the early part of her analysis, Cardinal remembers how desperately she wanted to please her mother, to the extent of wanting to be the sister's tombstone her mother lovingly embraced, or to be the wine her mother drank. Her inability to succeed in this goal appears to have created an internal split between the child who wanted to be the perfect being her mother would love and the child who resisted and resented the trials and tribulations such an ideal demanded. Although she eventually comes to recognize this split, she fails to see the connection between its two poles (it is perhaps this disconnected link which is being worked through in analysis). Since this deadly split is central to Cardinal's analysis, and to comprehending her madness, it deserves closer examination.

Cardinal's description of the split between the good child and the bad child corresponds to the split we discover in the structure of abjection between the judging consciousness and the evil (or rejected) consciousness: the one necessitates the other. Despite Cardinal's earlier acknowledgment of her desire to be the ideal child for her mother, when she writes about these two aspects of herself the ideal child becomes the ideal only of her mother while the flawed child is identified with herself. Thus, what was really a shared ideal is depicted as the mother's alone: “Then at least let her make something exceptional of this daughter she had brought into the world, this daughter who was so different from the other, the first, the marvelous one, the one who had died. This child … must—since she had not known how to die in order to please her mother—become what the mother had been unable to become: a saint, a heroine, someone different from the others” (201).

Although Cardinal believes it was her failure to become this saintly creature that caused her self-rejection, it is equally possible that her desire to become it (a desire she couldn't abandon since it supported her very existence) required the repression of anything that didn't fit the ideal. It is in this other subject, the playful, dissembling, pleasure-seeking child, that Cardinal sees herself: “How moved I was to meet a child full of the juices of life, who wanted to play with herself, who did play with herself, and who found pleasure doing it. … That child reassured me: I existed, therefore, and not only at the mercy of others” (103). Unfortunately, the affirmation of this formerly repressed part of herself does threaten her existence, for the consequence of indulging in bodily pleasures is the revival of an acute sense of shame and guilt.

It is curious that the female children in this family received their mother's affection only when dead or saint-like as opposed to the strangely neglected brother who apparently was loved. Or perhaps the love he received was only imagined by a jealous sister? In any case, it is obvious that Cardinal's repressed or rejected self is also the actively auto-erotic self who, moreover, wanted to be male. A combination of religious, cultural and class factors (upheld by the mother) stipulated a cruel repression of feminine sexuality, whereas the male children could take pleasure in their bodies with impunity: “The matter of girls ‘touching themselves’ never came up. And besides, what could they have touched? They had NOTHING to touch. … I had felt a deep disgust for masturbation, a kind of nausea which made me dangerously ill” (102-03).

The obsessive religious devotion of Cardinal's mother, coupled with her class status as French colonial, signify an entire social structure based on abjection. That is to say that the purity of the Catholic and of the colonial social structure are both maintained by means of sacrificing anything which threatens to defile them. Kristeva describes this process as follows: “It is as if dividing lines were built up between society and a certain nature, as well as within the social aggregate, on the basis of the simple logic of excluding filth which, promoted to the ritual level of defilement, founded the ‘self and clean’ of each social group if not of each subject” (65). Since Cardinal “was persuaded that Paradise and God's forgiveness were to be obtained only through sacrifice, suffering, difficulty and misery” (79), it is clear that her religious education reinforced an abject psychic structure.

The other factor at work here, as in many cultures, is the religious belief in the “abject or demoniacal potential of the feminine” (Kristeva, Powers 65). The cultural association of abjection with femininity is, according to Kristeva, a corollary of its original function as a mechanism of separation from the mother. Hence, “abject can be understood in the sense of the horrible and fascinating abomination which is connoted in all cultures by the feminine or, more indirectly, by every partial object which is related to the state of abjection (in the sense of the nonseparation subject/object). It becomes what culture, the sacred, must purge, separate, and banish so that it may establish itself as such in the universal logic of catharsis” (“Psychoanalysis” 96-97). From what Cardinal's mother tells her of menstruation, it is obvious that female bodily fluids were considered filthy (at least among the upper classes). The fact that Cardinal's mother wonders which is worse, men going to war or women having periods (113) gives us some indication of the oppressive connection which was made between femininity and defilement.

In my view, it is upon the nausea Cardinal experiences from taking pleasure in her body that her madness (the “Thing”) feeds, like a parasite. In fact, Cardinal is swallowed up into what Kristeva calls the “inter-space” of abjection shortly after the birth of her third child. Although this moment is clearly overdetermined by the traumatic memory of her mother's account of the attempted abortion (and the occurrence of that attempt when her mother was the same age as Cardinal), it also follows an intense feeling of bodily pleasure. Cardinal's descriptions of pregnancy alert us to this connection between the experience of pleasure and abjection. For example, of her pregnancy she writes, “There is so much time to get to know the little one who lives inside you. Is there any greater intimacy or promiscuity?” (139). Since sexual pleasure signifies impurity, and since her madness begins after this particular childbirth, it seems quite likely that pleasure in childbearing served as a catalyst. Moreover, if what causes abjection is ambiguity, and effacement of borders between self and other, what other experience could possibly compare with pregnancy in eliminating the space between two living beings?

Quick to grasp the basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory, Cardinal develops an intellectual understanding of the connection between forbidden pleasures and her madness: “the pleasures forbidden to me by my mother were the generators of the Thing” (144). Yet what remains repressed here is not only the ability to experience pleasure, but also the knowledge of her own implication in the process of repression. Cardinal continues to locate the conflict between her mother and herself, between her mother's ideal of a daughter and the actual, humanly flawed daughter. The following passage indicates how Cardinal's externalization of this conflict serves to distance herself from it, to exonerate her from any charge of complicity: “It was between the woman she had wanted to bring into the world and myself that the Thing had lodged itself. My mother had led me astray to such a point that I was no longer conscious of what she had done so profoundly and so well …” (67). Where are the two children here? What Cardinal is “no longer conscious of” is her own desire to be “led astray,” to become that perfect being who could satisfy her mother, who could attain the saintly status of her mother. (And for Kristeva, “The one by whom the abject exists … strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing” [Powers 8]). Her conflict, then, is not only between her mother and herself, but also between the internalized judging consciousness, her idealized other, and the humanly flawed, therefore ab-ject self. It is this conflict which is repressed.2

Although the two poles of the abject structure are mutually dependent (neither can dispense with the other), they wage a continual internal battle. The assumption of guilt and self-loathing is, as Cardinal notes, a response to the harsh judgments of her mother, but it is also a means of protecting the much cherished image of her mother as perfect—an image to which Cardinal also aspires. Thus, in the act of translating “forbidden by my mother,” and “abandoned by my mother,” into “guilty” and “crazy” (145) Cardinal both condemns herself and preserves the ideal image or agency of judgment intact. Brought on by excessive moments of pleasure, followed by self-condemnation, the Thing is the imaginary internal embodiment of a self-loathing, abject subject: “The Thing … was made of a monstrous crawling of images, sounds, and odors, projected in every way by a devastating pulse making all reasoning incoherent, all explanation absurd, all efforts to order tentative and useless” (10).

Described as a feminine being, the Thing is said to absorb, to imprison, to inhabit. It inspires fear, despair, disgust, but also fascination. While drug treatment only fed the Thing, analysis required Cardinal to observe it, which it apparently didn't like (38). Part of the resistance encountered in placing a critical distance between herself and the Thing was the creation of a hallucination, the essence of which was an all-seeing eye. Insofar as Cardinal's attack on the Thing is simultaneously an attack on the very condition of her existence, it is not surprising that resistance should adopt this paranoid form.3 The cold eye of the judging consciousness reappears in her hallucination as her mother's eye the moment she attempts to scrutinize it, to see for herself: “My mother's eye, which I confused with the eye of God … was always there, looking at me, assessing the way I moved, the way I thought even, never letting anything slip by unnoticed” (160).4

In analyzing the hallucination and eventually discovering its meaning Cardinal is temporarily released from the Thing. Yet having lived her life in a state of abjection, by the grace of the implacable other, eliminating that other also undermined the basis of her own existence: “by putting out the eye … I had aborted myself. That eye was not only my mother's eye, and the eye of God, and of society, it was my own eye as well. Everything I was, was destroyed, and in its place was zero, this beginning and end, this point from which everything vacillates between the more or the less, the zone of living death and of dead life” (165). The removal of identification with the maternal image exposes Cardinal to the failed or skewed construction of her own subjectivity. Her former dependence on the other is then experienced as manipulation: “I was nothing but a puppet, a marionette, a robot, a doll!” (161). Cardinal likens her world to a castle of cards, reminiscent of Kristeva's description of the borderline patient:

Constructed on the one hand by the incestuous desire of (for) his mother and on the other by an overly brutal separation from her, the borderline patient, even though he may be a fortified castle, is nevertheless an empty castle. … (the want of an other, qua object, produces nullity in the place of the subject). The ego then plunges into … identifications that the subject will experience as in-significant, “empty,” “null,” “devitalized,” “puppet-like.” An empty castle, haunted by unappealing ghosts—“powerless” outside, “impossible” inside.

(Powers 48-49)

Although this “empty fortress” comes under heavy attack in analysis, it puts up a good fight, enlisting on its side the threat of annihilation and the promise of a return to familiar ground: “I was a disheveled nebula revolving around an undefinable center. Until then, the center of my life had consciously or unconsciously been my mother. … But I didn't know how to do anything but revolve around my mother and her principles, fantasies, passions, and her sorrows” (166-67).

It is only when Cardinal distinguishes her own eye/I from that of her mother that she can begin to reconstitute herself as subject. Much of this process involves re-naming her experience, discovering the possibility of self-representation through language (which I discussed above). It also involves re-experiencing the violence and rage she had repressed as a child and which had provided the affective force of her madness: “The sudden revelation of my violence is, I think, the most important single moment in my psychoanalysis. … I was sure that this force, rumbling constantly inside me like a storm which had been suppressed, muzzled and chained up, was the greatest source of nourishment for the Thing” (211).

In the latter part of her analysis, Cardinal undoes, one by one, the various components of her own idealized image, sustained until then by rage and by fear. This entails coming to terms with the formerly accepted devaluations of the sexuality, pleasure and bodily functions attached to a feminine identity. Shrouded in secrecy and stitched together with the threads of class, religious and cultural values, femininity is the last card to fall from the empty castle of Cardinal's life: “Consciousness of my specific femininity led me to discover a thing or two!” No longer caught in the space between the saint and the sinner, Cardinal is free to redefine her femininity and to create for herself new significations. Moreover, she comes to appreciate the impact her physical and psychical enslavement to madness had vis-à-vis other aspects of her life: “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 accepting the inequality and the injustice, without flinching, without even being aware of it!” (264).

Cardinal's analysis demonstrates that one cannot refuse who one is until one understands who one is, until every link in the chain which binds the individual to her specific identity is examined. Since for Cardinal words were like keys which had the power to release entire chains of thought, her psychical transformation involved the transformation of her relationship to language as well: “I understood that words could be allies or enemies but that, either way, they were strangers to me. They were tools fashioned long ago and at my disposal in order to communicate with others. … I had never … understood that any exchange of words was a precious event. It represented a choice” (239).

The ability to assume various positions as a speaking subject, and to choose her words rather than having them choose her, was achieved only after the definitive separation between mother and daughter. This occurs at the end of her analysis, just after the death of her mother, that final break which, ironically, permits their attachment to reveal itself. In the three little words Cardinal pronounces at her mother's grave (“I love you”) the link between mother and daughter, which had been “repressed a thousand times over throughout [Cardinal's] life” (292), is reestablished. Cardinal's previous inability either to love or hate her mother was related to her inability to distinguish self and other. It was this unachieved separation which lay at the root of abjection, that psychic structure in which the ideal and the abject wage a life and death struggle neither can win. Through the development of analytic speech which “breaks away from identification by means of interpretation” Cardinal acquires the means to come to terms with her past and to envision a future. Perhaps the emancipatory power of words discovered through analysis is, as Kristeva suggests, the result “not of purification but of rebirth with and against abjection” (Powers 31).


  1. According to Hegel, the judging consciousness refuses to recognize itself in the evil (or acting) consciousness. Thus, the judging consciousness is the beautiful soul, untarnished by human activity or by the possibility of error. This oppositional stance (which is analogous to the structure of abjection) is overcome only when evil consciousness recognizes the hypocrisy of the judging consciousness which fails to see its own dependence on what it calls the evil consciousness (383-409). Since Kristeva reads and often cites Hegel, it is not surprising to find evidence of his ideas here.

  2. Although Kristeva distinguishes between abjection and hysteria, I see no reason to consider them mutually exclusive categories, and I believe they work together here. Since the abject self, the playful, active, pleasure-seeking self signifies failed femininity or even masculinity, and the idealized other signifies the purity of an idealized femininity, one's identification with both could produce a hysterical desire.

  3. Perhaps there is another connection to be drawn here between abjection and hysteria. According to Kristeva, “feminine paranoia … lies dormant in so many cases of hysteria” (“Freud” 267).

  4. The hallucinated eye originally appears as the father's eye. This is partially because of a traumatic childhood incident where the father films the daughter urinating—an incident Cardinal painfully recalls in analysis. It is perhaps because paternal prohibition of the mother/child relation is so weak that his eye is soon replaced by the mother's.

Works Cited

Anderson, Linda. “At the Threshold of the Self: Women and Autobiography.” Women's Writing: A Challenge to Theory. Ed. Moira Monteith. London: Harvester, 1986. 54-71.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Preface and Afterword. The Words to Say It.

Cardinal, Marie. The Words to Say It. Trans. Pat Goodheart. Cambridge, Mass.: Van Vactor and Goodheart, 1983.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.

Kristeva, Julia. “Freud and Love: Treatment and Its Discontents.” The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 238-71.

———. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

———. “Psychoanalysis and the Polis.” The Politics of Interpretation. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 83-98.

Carolyn A. Durham (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Durham, Carolyn A. “The Subversive Stitch: Female Craft, Culture, and Ecriture.” Women's Studies 17, nos. 3-4 (1990): 341-59.

[In the following essay, Durham evaluates Cardinal's comparison between the art of embroidery and traditional feminine roles in male-dominated society, commenting that the protagonist's efforts in Le Passé empiété “ultimately justif[y] a theory of female realism in art.”]

By making an embroiderer her central narrative voice and embroidery both the structural and the thematic focus of her most recent novel (Le Passé empiété [The Back Stitch]), Marie Cardinal complements Rozsika Parker's efforts (The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine) to trace the parallel histories of embroidery and femininity through the novel. For both Parker and Cardinal, embroidery figures the creative tension between conformity and subversion that Cardinal posits as common to all women and that results in Le Passé empiété in a complex reevaluation not only of the female artist herself but of both the traditional and the feminist critical context within which she currently creates. In particular, Cardinal explores the relationship between women's traditional domestic tasks and their artistic production, and she uses the specific qualities of embroidery to rethink common assumptions about literary influence and authority, the writing process, and the mythic tradition.

Marie Cardinal's determination to “write the discourse of knitting” (“Entretien avec Marie Cardinal” 18) responds in part to one of her own recurrent literary motifs, her recollection of her maternal grandmother's favorite saying, “If only knitting could talk … !” ([Autrement dit 162, hereafter abbreviated as AD], [Une Vie pour deux 25, hereafter abbreviated as VD]). But in Cardinal's most recent novel, Le Passé empiété (The Back Stitch), she extends her personal literary and cultural history to include that of women artists in general. By making an embroiderer her central narrative voice and embroidery both the structural and the thematic focus of her novel, Cardinal simultaneously complements Rozsika Parker's efforts to trace the parallel histories of embroidery and femininity through the novel, “women's other major art form” (118), and overcomes Parker's residual concern that “embroiderers employed the needle, not the pen—they left no records of their attitudes toward their subject matter” (102).

Cardinal inherits from her maternal ancestor the secret knowledge that women are never less bound by the constraints of traditional female life, never more distant from home and family, than when they appear most fully engaged in daily household tasks. This creative tension between conformity and subversion that Cardinal posits as common to all women (AD 22), this female ability to unite apparently conflictual activities, also structures Parker's analysis. Women artists, limited to an aesthetic practice equated with a feminine ideal of submissiveness and selflessness, “have nevertheless sewn a subversive stitch—managed to make meanings of their own in the very medium intended to inculcate self-effacement” (215). Cardinal's contemporary use of the novel to alter related cultural notions of embroidery and of femaleness encompasses a complex reevaluation not only of the female artist herself but of both the traditional and the feminist critical context within which she currently creates.

Since the publication of Le Passé empiété in 1983, critics have been puzzled by the heterogeneity of both its content and its structure: they read Cardinal's novel as three disparate and disconnected stories. At the risk of seeing those unfamiliar with the novel initially side with the reviewers, let me provide a brief and schematic outline. Le Passé empiété opens with the self-analysis of a guilty mother, tormented by her potential responsibility for the near death of her son and daughter in a motorcycle accident two years earlier. Blaming herself for the purchase of the motorcycle, bought with the income she earned as a successful embroiderer, the unnamed first-person narrator remains unable to work, despite the full recovery of both children. Turning her attention in part two of the novel from her own offspring to the father she has never known, the narrator seeks to recover both her past and her art by simultaneously creating her father's life in narrative and in embroidery. In a final shift of perspective from her paternal to her maternal heritage, the narrator lives the third section of the novel in the actualized presence of Clytemnestra as the two women attempt to collaborate on an embroidered reconstruction of the mythic past.

However abrupt, even incoherent, the novel's transitions may seem in summary, from the very beginning the narrator of Le Passé empiété positions both personal and artistic unity within art itself. Patterning her search for identity on the linguistic mode of psychoanalysis, she discovers in the term “embroidery” the primary sign of her personal history: “For a long time now I've been circling around this word and rejecting it. I consider it more responsible to juggle with ‘serious’ terms: God, the Essential, Death, Time … I didn't want to take my embroidery as a starting point, and yet that's the origin and the cause of everything. EMBROIDERY” (31). Moreover, the associative process immediately identifies the narrator's individual life as gender specific: “The word ‘woman’ surfaces, just as the word ‘embroidery’ did a moment ago, and the two combine naturally to form a couple” (36). Cardinal thus begins by embracing the traditional definition of embroidery as a female art form, recalling its valuable ability to establish the continuity of women's lives on both the individual and the cultural level and to connect women beyond the sociocultural barriers of class, age, or race (Parker). Yet, as her original introduction of embroidery into the category of metaphysics suggests, she simultaneously challenges other conventional associations.

Embroidery's customary reduction to the sampler has informed its conception as a disciplined craft whose value depends on the skillful execution of the designs of others (Parker). Even as a child, Cardinal's narrator openly revolts against a standard of excellence based on the perfect regularity of both the imitation and the stitch. She races through her required figures, producing “a red scribble bearing a vague resemblance to letters and numbers” (32) (surely a metaphor for women's subversive writing) to arrive at the border, where she is free to create whatever shapes her imagination dictates and to alter the required stitches until she invents “a technique of my own that I constantly improved” (34). Although even as a child the embroiderer refuses to complete the seams and hems that would turn her artistic creations into usable household goods, only her later career fully reveals the profound irony in her proud family's view of her embroidery as “the proof that I would be a housewife” (34). Not simply content to explode this longstanding notion of embroidery as a domestic service, Cardinal redefines it as an activity openly and deliberately destructive of the traditional family. Even the initial triumph of a conventional female life potentially supports the dissociation of embroidery and domesticity, for Cardinal's narrator totally abandons her art during her years as a wife and mother; similarly, she initially blames the breakup of her marriage on her midlife return to embroidery. But gradually she learns to identify and accept her actual situation: forced into an unfair and unnecessary choice between her marriage and her art, she has consciously chosen the later. In a simultaneous inversion and repetition of the cultural model of Penelope (reminding us that the male absence for which her needlework offers compensation also provides creative freedom), Cardinal's embroiderer actively chases her husband and all that his denigration of her “ladies' fancy-work” (42) represents:

And I sent the men in my life packing!

Guilty of getting along without Jacques, of depriving my children of him! That's what I'm guilty of, not of buying a motorcycle, not of embroidering! No, guilty of not needing male protection. I didn't stay in my place, I broke out, I created disaster.


A pastime whose original merit lies in its ability to produce a product for others while still attending to their needs becomes in Cardinal's novel a demanding career whose success depends precisely upon the rejection of others. A female art that the child artist defines as marginal (freedom lies at the border) has become for the adult artist the equivalent of life itself: “I need to embroider, I only exist if I'm embroidering” (293). Moreover, the submissive embroiderer has evolved into a female destroyer who threatens the very “order of nature” (20), specifically denounced as a male construct. By elevating embroidery from craft to art and from an amateur to a professional activity, Cardinal transforms it from an endeavour long synonymous with femininity itself into one totally incompatible with traditional definitions of women. This process serves to expose the socio-aesthetic assumptions and prohibitions that continue to imprison the female artist and not, of course, to denigrate female culture.

Indeed, the contrary is true, since Cardinal's discourse of needlework situates the origin of female art in the material base of women's experience: female life and art become coextensive as Cardinal simultaneously turns aesthetic activity into a metaphor for women's traditional tasks and redefines artistic production as a traditional female task in and of itself. Such craftswomanship similarly informs Jane Marcus' recent attempt to define a feminist aesthetic. In direct opposition to Lawrence Lipking's “poetics of abandonment” (a critical act of considerable importance and perhaps even courage in the face of the curious eagerness with which many feminists have embraced a theory that not only celebrates female victimization but ignores fifteen years of feminist scholarship in the process), Marcus imagines “another aesthetic, call it Penelope's, which grew out of a female culture.” Based on her own weaving, Penelope's poetics, like that of Cardinal's embroiderer, celebrates the intimate connections between art and daily life and between art and the labor that produces it: “This model of art, with repetition and daliness at the heart of it, with the teaching of other women the patient craft of one's cultural heritage as the object of it, is a female poetic which women live and accept” (84).

One of the aspects of a male-defined “natural” order that has made it most difficult for women to create has been the existence of a specifically and uniquely male artistic tradition. Much recent feminist criticism has focused on the strategies developed by women artists to challenge and undermine the equating of literary authority with biological manhood, of textual generation with actual paternity (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman). In this context, Cardinal's focus on embroidery has particularly clear subversive potential. In opposition to the traditional dichotomy of the needle and the pen, relegating women and men to separate creative domains and defining the boundary between craft and art, Cardinal not only reestablishes embroidery as a valid artistic medium but restores its semantic unity. Far from being distinct from and subordinate to verbal artistry, Cardinal reminds us that embroidery rightfully functions as a metaphor for literature itself. To embroider, The American Heritage Dictionary tells us, is not only “to ornament (fabric) with needlework” but also “to embellish (a narrative, for example) with fictitious details or exaggerations.”

Of course, the implicit association of women and imaginative flights of fantasy may initially seem of ambiguous value. Recalling Freud's hypothesis that hysteria originates in the daydreams “to which needlework and similar occupations render women especially prone,” Dianne Hunter draws the logical conclusion: “That is, people left to embroidery are bound to embroider fantasies” (94), a conviction the reviewers of Le Passé empiété would no doubt warmly embrace. On the other hand, after noting the obvious fact that “how women have lived influences how they write,” producing in particular the frequent domestic metaphors (e.g. embroidery, weaving, kneading, nourishing) they use to describe the writing process, Irma Garcia makes an important point that is valid both for feminist criticism in general and Cardinal's work in particular: “It's not a question of returning to out-of-date values, … but rather of showing how the woman manages to transport her values into the domain of writing and how she succeeds in redefining and transforming them” (II:23). In Cardinal's case, as we will see, the introduction of female values into the context of writing questions and alters the conventions of the latter at least as much as those of the former. Moreover, her insistence on the link between literary activity and women's traditional domestic tasks also intersects interestingly with modern narrative theory. Walter Benjamin uses the image of the woman embroiderer to figure the profoundly artisanal nature of early storytelling (107-8); and, at the opposite end of the narrative spectrum, Alain Robbe-Grillet finally makes sense of Flaubert's odd claim to identity with Emma Bovary by reading the description of embroidery he attributes to her as “the metaphor of the work of a modern novelist” (213).1

Following her practice of “opening women's so-called secondary activities” (AD 162), Cardinal too discovers that embroidery contains the theory of the novel; she specifically devotes her first series of “embroideries” to the question of literary ancestry. Several feminist critics have recently described reparenting as a strategy common to the twentieth-century woman who seeks rebirth as an artist (DuPlessis 94). In contrast to the customary search for the mother, Cardinal's heroine initially focusses on the father she has scarcely known and of whom she knows almost nothing beyond the defining context of her mother's all-consuming hatred. The embroiderer's desire to reconstitute herself “whole,” in the specific hope that it will revitalize her art, once again both duplicates and questions common assumptions about literary influence and authority.

For example, Cardinal's transposition of the man who engendered her into her own original creation both imitates the male practice of authoring female lives that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Madwoman) place at the core of the Western literary tradition and simultaneously exposes by its own genetic reversal the curious distortions that the confusion of biological reproduction and textual production can lead to. In an explicit rejection of both “History” and the actual facts of her father's own story, Cardinal's narrator asserts that her “real father” is “the one I invent” (120). Moreover, in another key inversion of conventional patterns, she transforms her own female life into the controlling model for the male's. Not only does she turn events she alone has lived into episodes of her father's biography, but she alters the meaning of the standard male life by enclosing it within the context of traditional female values. Thus, her narrative of work, sports, and military action changes the feats of daring, courage, and individual prowess we expect into a sustained thematic elaboration on male friendship and solidarity. Similarly, the narrator's actual childhood memories of her father consistently situate him within the time and space of everyday, domestic life. Cardinal's narrator also transforms her father into her own artistic muse and her own literary precursor: he is a storyteller, a diary keeper, a collector of realistic art objects, a connoisseur of exotic wood; most importantly, he is a constructor, a skilled manual laborer, an artisan.

This final transformation of paternity from a metaphor of authority and legitimacy (Brooks 63) into one of creative parity leads to the embroiderer's unsuccessful attempt to cooperate with her father in a feminist “poetics of affiliation” (DuPlessis 225), marked by the temporary fusion of their narrative voices: “I must be my father in order to express him. I must be him. ‘I’ is him and me. … I'm a twelve-year-old boy …” (80-81). Her eventual admission of defeat may be a playful salute to the critical tradition that denies women writers the ability to create convincing male characters, an irony curiously reinforced by the reviewers' insistent preference for this section of the novel over those that focus on women. The daughter's effort to speak as a man who turns out to be the rapist of her mother and the murderer of her sister no doubt constitutes an important attempt to understand a male world view from within, but it also leads directly to the authentication of her mother's original narrative. Thus, the daughter consecrates her mother as her true literary ancestor, the first creator of the father, and reduces his stature to that of a conventional character in a female-authored text.

Cardinal's metaphoric representation of the female artist's relationship to the cultural and artistic past she inherits is closely tied to the particular qualities of embroidery as art form and to the specific stitch Cardinal's embroiderer prefers. Dictionaries and encyclopedias consistently define embroidery by the characteristic that distinguishes it from lacemaking: its superimposition on a preexisting background. As such, embroidery offers a particularly apt metaphor of the situation of the female artist who creates against the backdrop of the dominant culture. In contrast to the embroiderer's own aesthetic that focuses on the stitch itself, the muted culture of the female artist, Cardinal insists that women see beyond their own situation to the full complexity of their cultural context.2

Although knitting books describe the “passé empiété” as a highly decorative stitch whose beauty depends on its “perfect regularity,” Cardinal singles it out for exclusive use because of the liberty and variety it allows (249). Notably, only the consistency of the background material potentially limits the embroiderer's freedom, even though her particular talent lies precisely in “her feel for the material” (249). If Cardinal first defines the back stitch straightforwardly in terms clearly analogous to the novel's structure as a whole—“you encroach on the past in order to propel yourself into the future” (249)—her depiction of the difficult struggle engaged with a fabric of irregular and treacherous weave—“I don't see how to appropriate it, I don't see how to prevent it from controlling my rhythms” (311)—reveals her parallel dependence on the figurative meaning of “empiéter” (to appropriate a share of the position occupied by another, to assume rights one doesn't have) that identifies women's challenge to dominant culture. Thus embroidery embodies the palimpsestic nature of female artistic and cultural forms, the superimposition of the muted on the dominant, the female on the male, the subversive on the conformist: “I organize my volumes as I please my embroidering over my first work, sometimes repeatedly. In this way I obtain forms and values in which the memory remains—a kind of echo, barely perceptible, but indispensable in my view—of the first conquest, of the first encounter with the material” (250).

This image of the material density of female art, which figures the constant dialogue women maintain among their own past, present, and future selves and with the dominant literary and cultural tradition, also functions more specifically as a metaphor for intertexuality. In opposition to a current tendency, particularly prevalent in France among male theoreticians (e.g. Derrida and Deleuze) to view intertexuality as a quilting process in which one work is composed of fragments of others, Roger Fowler joins Cardinal in its conceptualization as “metaphorically like a palimpsest, a re-used parchment with the half-erased traces of the previous text showing through the lines of new writing” (124; cf. Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman XX). I am well aware that some feminist critics also find writing, and especially that of women, formally analogous to the female arts of quilting and patchwork. Elaine Showalter, for example, speculates that “piecing” is a “kind of female bricolage” that women writers of the nineteenth-century carried over into their “assemblage of literary materials” (NEH). Moreover, certain contemporary novels, notably the work of Black and working class women writers—Pat Barker's Union Street, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Sheba—juxtapose the lives of different women on the pattern of the quilt. I certainly do not wish to set up a hierarchy of female art as textual metaphor, particularly since Cardinal's own structures often recall the process of quilting as well. Still, the doubly palimpsestic nature of her embroidery metaphor—multiple repetitions upon an already existent background—does serve usefully to connect female texts and female lives, on the one hand, and literary and cultural traditions, both muted and dominant, on the other, by emphasizing the individual writer's dependence on the multiple influences that inform the life and work of all human beings within a given culture.

Twentieth-century women artists, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, inherit not only a male cultural past but descend for the first time from an established female tradition as well (“Tradition”). As the narrator of Le Passé empiété emerges from her fusion with her father to find herself once again unable to create, she becomes increasingly obsessed with four women of the past: her mother and sister, and their mythic counterparts, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia: “In essence, they are mirrors in which I see my reflection. What a bore it is! Always the same old story! What a tedious spectacle! Me as mother, me as daughter, me as wife, me as woman, as woman, as woman, as woman!” (258). This quadruple replication of selfhood and womanhood, this repeated insistence that the embroiderer is above all woman-identified and identified as a woman, takes a more concentrated form in the single figure of Clytemnestra who literally reappears to share the narrator's life and apartment on the day she fully embraces her newly embroidered fantasies.

From the beginning the narrator openly seeks to engage Clytemnestra in a renewed effort at artistic collaboration. She readily agrees with her that the embroideries of her father are superficial: “I wasn't capable of entering his life … I couldn't live in his body” (273). But against Clytemnestra's conviction that “the body is the body” (173), she argues for the specificity of the female body that will allow her through an other who is woman to experience the identification and separation necessary to artistic creation. Notably, her inability to imagine a small boy's relationship to his body constitutes the first obstacle to her creation of her father (70); and the onesidedness of the physical metamorphosis that inaugurates their narrative fusion foreshadows its subsequent failure: “Let my breasts disappear, let my vagina close, let my clitoris lengthen, swell, rise up, become the phallus of the man who created me” (80).

Yet, should we be tempted to read this focus on the gender specificity of the body as either a celebration of biological difference à la Cixous or of the woman transvestite posing her pen as “a metaphorical penis” (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman 7), it is important to note the crucial cultural reversal that establishes its context.3 Whereas Cardinal carefully imposes personal and particular biographical limits on the male narrative, deliberately rejecting “History” for “story,” she selects as hero of her female narrative the very embodiment of History and Literature, of the artistic and cultural heritage of the West. Not only does she thus invert the usual references of the female artist's double inheritance, whereby male predecessors embody the dominant tradition within which female predecessors are lost, absent, or relegated to the margins; but Cardinal's strategy links her closely to a double female tradition, embodied in the history of both embroidery and the female Kunstlerroman. In embroiderers' efforts to give their own interpretation and emphasis to the dominant cultural interests of their times, Parker notes the historic popularity of the representation of heroic acts by women with, in addition, a decided preference for those who committed planned acts of violence. Grace Stewart centers her study of the female Kunstlerroman on the innovations women writers bring to the generically central relationship between the artist and the mythic tradition; and much recent feminist scholarship, notably that of Rachel DuPlessis and Alicia Ostriker, focusses on the “revisionary mythopoesis” of twentieth-century women writers.

Both DuPlessis and Ostriker identify two primary strategies used by women artists to rethink myth. DuPlessis, for example, distinguishes between “narrative displacement,” which gives voice to the silenced woman of the past without challenging either the overall structure or the specific events of the inherited story, and “narrative delegitimation,” which substitutes a new and different story for the old (Ch. X). Like most women writers, Cardinal combines the two strategies and, indeed, supports Ostriker's hypothesis that they always operate simultaneously. More specifically, and in keeping with the metaphorical structure of Le Passé empiété, Cardinal's revision of myth constitutes a “reprise”—in French, the term not only combines the repetition and the retaliation for injury of the English words “reprise” and “reprisal” (of common etymology) but further identifies the traditional female task of darning (thus duplicating the linguistic complexity of “empiêter”). Cardinal's embroiderer must now fill in the holes, the missing gaps of her-story, that have appeared in the dominant cultural background of his-story.

Cardinal uses a double tactic to respond to the traditional artistic dichotomy that reserves “great” literature, including most genres and certainly tragedy and epic, for the male artist and leaves the domestic novel to the woman writer. Her comments during the composition of Le Passé empiété point to both the dilemma and its resolution: “I am neither a poet nor a philosopher unfortunately—or fortunately, I don't know which; my book will therefore not pass by the summits of these arts. Like all my other books, it will pass by the daily, the banal, the material; there lies the source of my strength” [Au Pays de mes racines 95, hereafter abbreviated as PR]. In fact, Cardinal simultaneously authors a complex metaphysical work and rewrites epic and tragedy as domestic drama by relocating broad philosophical and political meaning within the private sphere. The passage in which Clytemnestra uses a dinner conversation to characterize Agamemnon and their relationship offers a succinct example. Clearly one innovation Cardinal claims in her rewriting of myth is the right to laugh; indeed it seems probable that her recently expressed desire to write a comic novel (“Entretien” 18) began to take shape during the composition of Le Passé empiété. Her disrespect for the seriousness of our mythic and tragic past often takes the form of a rigorous modernization that serves both to trivialize the supposedly sacred and to historicize the supposedly intemporal.

Although Clytemnestra herself outlines Agamemnon's “main preoccupations” with all due respect—“He has his worries, his problems. … He has to reflect on the subtlety of his diplomacy and the dialectic of his affairs … He must remain a master and either stand up to the other masters or negotiate with them, outside” (290), his own words expose him as a petty domestic tyrant:

The hell with it, Clytemnestra, can't you manage any better? Can't you change butchers? Yours cheats you every time. Granted, the other one's further and won't deliver, but so what? You don't do a damn thing with your time! You spend all day in the garden. Do you really think that flowers and weeds and lettuce are what maintain a house, a family, a country?


But the counterpart to the devalorization of the male within the domestic world is the valorization of this world itself. Clytemnestra uses the frequent image of the garden to try to show Agamemnon that his dichotomous and hierarchical view of separate private and public, natural and cultural spheres distorts his understanding of the world, including, in particular, the domains of philosophy and politics he considers uniquely his:

I think he really doesn't know what a garden is. In my eyes this refusal to see what goes on there weakens him; it limits his understanding. I'm not talking about the beauty of the plants. … I'm talking about how they are born, live, and die. I'm talking about this are or that peace. … Of strength or weakness. Of glory and decline. Of the will or the refusal to live, because of what he calls a trifle: because of a stone, a ray of sunshine, a shadow. A trifle that isn't a trifle for me. A trifle that is exactly the same thing as what he calls Politics. This comparison makes him laugh so hard he cries.


Importantly, Clytemnestra's version of the political and metaphysical order of the world is the only one articulated in Cardinal's rewriting of the myth. Although Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia functions significantly in Clytemnestra's revenge, there are no references to the Trojan War or to Agamemnon as conquering hero. Stripped of the context that provides its legendary necessity, justification, and retribution, the father's murder of his daughter stands bare in its stark and inexplicable horror. Moreover, Cardinal exposes the myth that war and heroism excuse violence against women as the specifically male myth it is by displacing it to the story of the narrator's father. The doctors who must finally reveal to the embroiderer's mother that her infant daughter has died of tuberculosis, contaminated by a man who preferred infecting his own child to admitting he contracted during the war a disease that he now finds incompatible with his manhood, fall back on the justification that lies at the origin of Western culture: “apparently he's a courageous man. … Ah, the war did us a lot of harm … We're not through paying for it … and the heroism of our soldiers … On which front was M. Saintjean gassed? I was the sawbones for the 25th …” (241) The mother's spontaneous rejection of this male-gendered and engendered fable as foreign to female reality foreshadows its erasure from Clytemnestra's memory of the past: “She couldn't care less what the ‘sawbones’ has to say about his war and these endless male stories” (242). At the same time, the refusal to acknowledge any consequence of war other than the avoidable death of an innocent child fuses heroism with cowardice and denounces war as a justification of murder in the name of male virility. In addition, the parallel substitution of the narrator's past for that of her culture transforms the personal life of an individual woman, often limited and controlled by the defining stories of our literary canon, into the very model for their reconceputalization.

In the presence of a female collaborator, Cardinal no longer limits artistic creation to the act of appropriation figured by “le passé empiété.” By literally restoring Clytemnestra to life, she allows her the chance to author her own story and to collaborate in is reproduction in visual form. In this sense, Clytemnestra offers both a duplicate and an alternative image of the woman artist. Her name, which first attracts the embroiderer (258), links her to the female art of needlework. In one French etymological tradition. “Clytemnestra” derives from the verb “tramer” (Suffret 73), whose double meaning of “to weave” and “to plot” supports the image of needlework as subversive, indeed destructive of men—Clytemnestra both plots Agamemnon's death and weaves the net that immobilizes him—and again establishes needlework and literary creativity as synonymous activities.

But Cardinal uses Clytemnestra primarily to explore the female artist as actress, an image as traditional and as ambivalent as that of the embroiderer. In keeping with the frequent association in female writing of women and the oral tradition (see Didier 17), the actress represents for Cardinal the potential power of the female voice, authorized to speak aloud and be heard. But the ambiguous status of the actress as creator also requires her transformation from the translator of another's text into the author and narrator of her own. Clytemnestra's initial rejection of the narrator's plan to “interpret” her story in embroidery—“I've had enough of interpretations” (273)—linguistically encodes the parallel rejection of imposed meaning and of her own passive execution of it.

Cardinal characterizes the birth of the female artist as hurtful and difficult. The single story Clytemnestra succeeds in telling on her own, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, recalls by both its content and its narrative process Susan Gubar's perceptive analysis of the ties between female anatomy and creativity: “one of the primary and most resonant metaphors provided by the female body is blood, and cultural forms of creativity are often experienced as a painful wounding … the woman artist who experiences herself as killed into art may also experience herself as bleeding into print” (“Blank” 296). Clytemnestra's neck bears the indelible imprint of her historical silencing—“A wound that cut across her throat. … Couldn't she talk any more? Did she no longer have a voice?” (260)—and the scar reddens and reopens as she struggles to speak. Still, her inability to continue alone has important, if temporary, implications for female creativity in and of itself. As the actress and the embroiderer begin to relay each other in the composition of the narrative, the fluidity and often indistinguishable interpenetration of their voices suggest a new model for artistic collaboration, reminiscent of Suzanne Lamy's description of female conversation as “an embroidery on a background that disappears under the movements and the colors” (30).

But Clytemnestra cannot finally overcome her fear of creative choice and responsibility, and she reclaims an existence in which her masks provide her identity, legend dictates her actions, and she mouths only the words of others “like a parrot” (333). She rejects the self-expression the embroiderer offers, equated with life itself, to repeat Iphigenia's sacrifice of her right to speak, equated with death itself: “My daughter still upsets me deeply. What happened in what she never said? Because only others made her speak. She never expressed any opinion. … Millenary silence of obedient women! Where do their words go?” (267-68). Ultimately, Clytemnestra prefers the alternate etymology of her name: “Klutos: that of which one hears, famous because talked about” (Auffret 72). In opting to be “killed into art”—“For she much preferred remaining the horrible queen of the legend to no longer figuring in the legend at all” (284)—she reminds us that one of the major obstacles to women's ability to see themselves as artists has been their established role as characters in male—authored creations.

Although the embroiderer's identification with Clytemnestra as both rebellious woman and artistic collaborator makes her personally vulnerable to the appealing refuge of cultural conformity, she frees herself from the female ancestor as she has from the male. This time she explicitly rejects the quest for models as such: if this is a striking break from general feminist practice, it is also fully in keeping with the sense of her title image: “Once and for all I must refuse to be trapped by the sorcery of models. They should remain in my memory but they must not represent my future.” Importantly, the narrator's gradual liberation from Clytemnestra takes the form of her progressive assumption of artistic authority: “I gave up trying to identify with her. I interpreted her stories in my own way and I didn't care whether she approved or not” (335). Clytemnestra's final performance, the reenactment of her own silencing, respects the cathartic function of Greek tragedy: “I exorcized myself by justifying her murder, … in order to stop behaving with others as a guilty woman and to start acting like any ordinary human being who has a natural right to selfhood, to self-expression” (347). The narrator's decision to embroider a motorcycle in one corner of her representation of Clytemnestra's death marks her final understanding of the importance of modernity, and, although she expects to be accused of surrealism (358), justifies after the fact both the false note the story of the accident initially strikes and its troubling juxtaposition with Greek myth. The narrator has mistakenly attempted to transform herself into a tragic heroine, to give the dimensions of tragedy and myth to an event that was, in fact, only an “accident.” Similarly, she has credited the erroneous belief that female creative autonomy constitutes a “tragic flaw.”

If the embroiderer's understanding that the common events of women's lives need not lead to a single, endlessly repetitive employment seems clearly liberating, her conception of the woman artist has become more problematic. From the point at which she stops listening to Clytemnestra and begins to substitute her own narrative for that of the queen, she bears a disturbing resemblance to the model of the artist as authoritarian, interpretative, and appropriate against which Clytemnestra attempts to rebel. Moreover, despite the embroiderer's repeated insistence that Clytemnestra must tell her own story, the art object necessitates a double alienation. The narrator successively transposes Clytemnestra's spoken words into coherent written narrative and into embroidered art. As Toril Moi points out in a discussion of feminist literary criticism, “it is not an unproblematic project to try to speak for the other woman, since this is precisely what the ventriloquism of patriarchy has always done” (67-68).

In this context, the embroiderer's determination to let Clytemnestra tell in its entirety the story of her own choosing, even though the end is predetermined and the embroiderer no longer believes the story valuable, plays a highly important role. Even provoked by Clytemnestra's exasperating silence in the instant before her death, the narrator resists “the desire to pass her my words” (362), the temptation to speak in her place. In allowing the opposing woman artist the same creative autonomy she claims for herself, she discovers that her own rebirth as artist depends upon it. Indeed, since myth poses an obstacle and a threat to the woman artist precisely to the extent that it has become a reified and deterministic plot structure, one could argue that Clytemnestra's assumption of narrative authority has considerable aesthetic importance in and of itself, regardless of the particular story she tells.

Moreover, even though Clytemnestra herself fails to achieve creative autonomy, she initiates a significant shift in the embroiderer's theory of art. She is originally committed to abstraction: though specifically designed to foster the self-expression that embroidery otherwise thwarts—“I felt like playing with colors and using my needle to project the forms of my most incomprehensible drives” (34)—abstract art does not readily allow the representation of gender. Indeed, Cardinal's embroiderer specifically rejects any such possibility: “I have a taste for the hidden, the mysterious, the foreign. That's what I embroider, and that has nothing to do with my gender” (257). The use of this technique to portray her father's life no doubt metaphorically reflects the degree to which male reality is and will remain an abstraction for her. Clytemnestra, in contrast, begins immediately to push the narrator toward greater realism: “I'm not in the habit of figuring my desires but gradually, encouraged by her, I began to” (286). Cardinal's realistic portrayal of Clytemnestra herself acknowledges the strongly influential role that the figures of our literary and cultural past continue to play in the daily lives of many women; Cardinal may refuse models but she does not for a moment regard them as abstractions.

Once again Cardinal challenges traditional conceptions of female art. Because of the use of patterns, embroidery has usually been seen as devoid of significant content and its subject matter has been ignored in favor of its technical execution (Parker). Cardinal's own project of myth revision respects the terms of this aesthetic; she readily grants Clytemnestra the indelibility of legend, susceptible only to formal changes in tone or narrative technique: “I can't change your legend but I can change its spirit and the way people look at it” (301). But Cardinal now reverses this hierarchy by making representation accessible and central. Moreover, her shift to realism defines a specifically feminist theory of art. Cardinal's first realistic work represents Clytemnestra's nude body, a venture that initially seems “indecent” and that will prove so disturbing that the embroiderer can only progress by returning in places to what she calls “the modesty of abstraction, the convenience of a theoretical expression” (319-20). In a reversal of positions too often dichotomized as French and Anglo-American, Cardinal reminds us that women's realistic depiction of their own bodies and their own lives is a daring and potentially revolutionary art practice that can revalorize the culturally devalued and represent the previously unacceptable. Even more importantly, realism transforms embroidery from a decorative into a political art form and substitutes a representative world view for individual self expression. Thus, the embroiderer's initial attempt to represent the priority of the specific over the general (of the individual over the gender specific) is necessarily unsuccessful: “My goal was … to embroider her in such a way that someone looking at the embroidery could say: ‘It's Clytemnestra,’ even before thinking: ‘It's a woman’ … I failed” (321-22). Cardinal's inability to personalize Clytemnestra other than by the expression of her eyes reinforces the commonality of women and the continuity of female lives that Clytemnestra and the embroiderer jointly represent and that ultimately justifies a theory of female realism in art.

Although Le Passé empiété reveals most of the traits Stewart identifies as characteristic of the female Kunstlerroman—notably, the linking of artistic creation and the mythic tradition, the refusal of the traditional literary image of women antithetical to that of the artist, the conflict between the self as artist and the self as woman, the rejection of men, the awareness of the societal denigration of women artists, and the knowledge of how existing myths pattern our lives—the novel is most remarkable for what it refuses to share: the polarization of female reality and the realm of art, the failure of the artist as either artist or woman or both, artistic rebirth resulting in either abortion or the creation of a monster. Stewart herself may provide the explanation for Cardinal's success: “one of the most difficult things for a woman is to assume the role of destroyer. But without destroying—conventions or overused word patterns, for instance—one cannot create” (141-42). Cardinal does not embrace the role of destroyer uncritically—indeed, Clytemnestra's decision to reintegrate her literary image as destroyer determines her destruction as both artist and autonomous woman—but she subverts the false dichotomy between destruction and creation. By embroidering over the cultural and artistic background hostile to the woman artist, she outlines a new future based on continuing respect for the past and the traditional activities of women that form an important part of it.


  1. Using the same imagery as Benjamin, Garcia equates writing in general with female craft: “Writing [‘l'Ecriture’] is also this artisanal activity that is patiently learned, the page representing a loom where little by little [“de fil en aiguille,” literally, stitch by stitch] words are knit together” (1:110). Cardinal's “knitting discourse” also designates textual production as a whole: “le long tricot, rang par rang, est devenu un vrai chandail qui tient chaud” (AD 75). Cardinal thus restores the female text to its original definition as an artisanal activity: text, from Latin “woven thing,” from texere, to weave, fabricate (hence the same double meaning as that contained within the concept “embroidery”).

  2. See Showalter, “Feminist Criticism,” for further discussion of female culture and the interplay of the muted and the dominant.

  3. In general, Cardinal attaches considerable importance to the female body, particularly as a source of imagery, but “the expression of the body is always mediated by social, literary, and linguistic structures” (Showalter 89) in her work.

I am indebted to Parker's discussion of embroidery throughout this essay, and I have borrowed its title from her.

All translations from French are my own.

Works Cited

Auffret, Séverine. Nous, Clytemnestra. Paris: des femmes, 1984.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Cardinal, Marie. Autrement dit. Paris: Le Livre de poche. 1977. (AD)

———. Une Vie pour deux. Paris: Le Livre de poche, 1978. (VD)

———. Au Pays de mes racines. Paris: Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1980).

———. Le Passé empiété. Paris: Editions Grasset & Fasquelle. 1983.

———. “Entretien avec Marie Cardinal.” La Vie en rose 17 (mai 1984); 18ff.

Didier, Béatrice. L'Ecriture-femme. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1981.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Fowler, Roger. Linguistics and the Novel. London: Methuen. 1977.

Garcia, Irma. Promenades femmelières. Paris: des femmes. 1981.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

———. “Tradition and the Female Talent,” Unpublished Essay, 1984.

Gubar, Susan. “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter, pp. 219-313. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Hunter, Dianne. “Hysteria, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism: The Case of Anna O.,” in The Mother Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, eds. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengtheler, pp. 169-93. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Lamy, Suzanne, d'elles. Montréal: l'hexagone, 1979.

Marcus, Jane. “Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3 (Spring/Fall 1984): 79-97.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Texual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.

Ostriker, Alicia. “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking,” Signs 8 (Autumn 1982): 68-92.

Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: The Women's Press, 1984.

Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Le Miroir qui revient. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1984.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry 8 (Winter 1981): 179-205.

———. Description of “Women's Writing and Women's Culture,” 1984 NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers.

Stewart, Grace. A New Mythos: The Novel of the Artist as Heroine, 1877-1977. Montréal: Eden Press Women's Publications, 1981.

Phil Powrie (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Powrie, Phil. “Reading for Pleasure: Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire and the Text as (Re)Play of Œdipal Configurations.” In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 163-76. Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Powrie argues that several critics have suggested erroneous correlations between the main character in Les Mots pour le dire and Cardinal herself. Powrie concludes that the novel is a purely fictional work, which can be utilized by readers to examine parent-child relationships.]

The question this essay will try to answer is simple enough: why does Les Mots pour le dire make such compelling reading? Marie Cardinal published it in 1975, and it remains the novel for which she is best known, despite four novels written before, and three written since. Indeed, it is the only novel by her to have been both translated and turned into a film (in 1983). On the face of it, Les Mots pour le dire does not look very promising. It is an autobiographical novel of a psychoanalysis which helped the narrator come to terms with severe traumas located in her bodily functions. The first two chapters are a harrowing account of uterine haemorrhaging (‘the blood had flowed in such large clots that it might have been said I was producing slices of liver’).1 The narrator discovers that these are but symptoms of her aggression which has been schooled out of her by her mother, and the novel in fact focuses almost exclusively on the ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter, and the difficulties the daughter has in detaching herself from her mother. Why is the novel so compelling?

My very tentative suggestion is that it works as a map of/for the unconscious. It maps out the principal operations of the Oedipal scenario whose replaying is cathartic and pleasurable. The second of these two terms is important, since it seems to me that not enough attention has been given to the pleasure of the reader in feminist literary theory. An account of Les Mots pour le dire which relies on psychoanalysis is not new, but all accounts so far analyse the narrator's position from a psychoanalytical perspective. The reader, apparently, merely reads.

By the same token that they admire the strength of the protagonist in her struggle for independence, readers are also quick to blame the mother in this novel for the pain she causes her daughter. The narrator feels very close to her mother, indeed overly dependent, and this no doubt motivates her rejection of her mother. This rejection is, however, unfair to the mother. For example, the principal focus for the narrator's feeling of being rejected by her mother is her mother's revelation that she had tried to abort her. Cardinal has made clear that in actual fact (the novel is overtly autobiographical), this had very little impact on her in the course of her psychoanalysis. If Cardinal stresses it in her novel, it is obviously for dramatic effect; but one should not lose sight of its impact on the reader, and the inferences the reader may draw from such a brutal example of rejection. The mother is criminalised at the expense of any justification of her action within the context of a disastrously unhappy marriage. Moreover, the attempted abortion is used emblematically as the most extreme example of rejection of the daughter's personality, which has to be sacrificed on the altar of patriarchally determined ‘feminine’ values. The mother is thus presented as being in active collusion with the patriarchal system.

Paradoxically, the mother is also heavily criticised for her silence in the face of oppressive patriarchal values. Although the narrator makes it clear that in the circumstances she could not do anything else, since in the words of the novel's title, she did not have the words to say it, the text dwells in a peculiarly sadistic manner on the mother's descent into alcoholism and degradation, which are explicitly presented as a revolt against the culture.

The mother is therefore rejected on two counts: she collaborates with patriarchal culture in the moulding of her daughter, and she remains silent despite an embryonic, if belated revolt against it. My reading of the novel as a psychoanalytic map for the reader will help to emphasise the positive side of the mother—daughter relationship.


Bruno Bettelheim, in his very perceptive comments in the English translation of the novel, makes it quite clear that he considers the novel to be a document: it ‘is the best account of psychoanalysis as seen and experienced by the patient’.2 Several of the major essays written by women on the novel adopt an apparently different perspective: the text ‘records (…) crucial aspects of the female condition’3 despite indications that the psychoanalysis undergone was the classic Freudian analysis ‘replete with such notions currently contested among feminists, such as penis envy, castration complex, rivalry with the Mother, and desire for the Father’;4 it is ‘a poetic representation’ of the mother—daughter relationship illustrating the matrix described by Irigaray;5 it is an account of the repositioning of the protagonist as a subject within language, as well as an exploration of the mother—daughter bond which can be illuminated by the psychoanalytical grid of abjection as defined by Kristeva.6 What all of these interpretations have in common, apart from their reference to psychoanalysis, is the assumption that Cardinal and her protagonist are one and the same, despite disclaimers: ‘I do not mean to imply that author and protagonist are exactly one and the same (…). We (…) will approach literary personae as if they were living people, attending to what is said and what is not said, and gleaning from the experiences of author, narrator, and protagonist, truths that have meaning for real women’.7 By implication then the text is a compelling read because it is true to either a psychological reality (it is a truthful account of a psychoanalysis) or a socio-political reality (it illustrates the problems women have in relating to their mothers in a patriarchal society).

Why should this be problematic? The first point is that the novel is not a transcription of therapy sessions; selection and transformation are involved, as several of the commentators mentioned above recognise. Cardinal herself points out that the mother's revelation that she had tried to abort her daughter, an important event in the development of the novel's protagonist, was unimportant for Cardinal at the time she was writing the novel. Conversely, much time was spent in therapy analysing the implications of Cardinal's chastisement by her mother, not a word of which is mentioned in the novel.8 But this simply tells us that the work is a novel, not a document.

More problematic, however, is the fact that the novel is here used as a repository of lived experience, on the assumption that the protagonists are/are as if real people. As readers, we experience the protagonist's experience, vicariously; the novel mirrors the experience of (some/all) women. A mimetic approach of this type is no doubt a necessary stage in a feminist textual strategy: an exceptional protagonist, such as the one in Les Mots pour le dire, who struggles to find herself, acts as a corrective to the image of female passivity in patriarchal culture. As Moi argues of the ‘images of women’ criticism, prevalent in the early 1970s, ‘the feminist reader of this period not only wants to see her own experiences mirrored in fiction, but strives to identify with strong, impressive female characters’.9 The problem is that the text's reality as text is being denied, as well as the reader's experience of the text. The critics mentioned above are working on the basis of recognition: a woman reader will recognise aspects of her experience as a woman in a patriarchal society when she reads this novel. This is particularly true of Le Clézio and Yalom, less so of Bettelheim and Elliot, who developed the most clearly psychoanalytic readings of the text.

Both Bettelheim and Elliot, however, speak for the protagonist, assuming a questionable authority. Bettelheim, for example, says that ‘the author seems at the end not to be consciously aware of all that was once involved’,10 and proceeds to speculate on the reasons why the protagonist becomes mad only when in her twenties; his answer is that she has totally identified with her mother:

She felt herself disgusting, as her mother had felt herself disgusting when pregnant with her; she nearly destroyed herself as her mother had wanted to see the foetus destroyed; her female organs did not act as she wished them to, as her mother's had not; and these organs simultaneously did what her mother had desired her own to do: they produced menstrual fluid.11

Similarly, Elliot comments the mother's repressive socialisation of the protagonist by quoting the statement: ‘My mother had led me astray to such a point that I was no longer conscious of what she had done so profoundly and so well’, and saying ‘what Cardinal (sic) is “no longer conscious of” is her own desire to be “led astray”, to become that perfect being who could satisfy her mother’.12 Bettelheim and Elliot's comments are illuminating on one level, but dissatisfying on others: they assume that the protagonist is the author; they judge her according to ethical norms extraneous to the text (a ‘real’ consciousness, as opposed to a ‘false’ or ‘partial’ consciousness); and finally they arrogate authority over the text at the same time as they deny their own experience of it.

What I would like to do is to follow in the footsteps of those writers who have started working on the psychoanalytical perspective, but try to avoid the fallacy of ‘recognition’ and the difficulties of ‘authority’. It seems reasonable to me that we should try to take the criterion of recognition one step further, particularly when we are dealing with a novel articulated around therapy. I am suggesting that we change the preposition ‘around’ to ‘as’ (and not ‘as if’). The pleasure of the text derives from its nature as a mise en scène of Oedipal configurations. In this sense its function is similar to that of fairy-tales which, as Bettelheim has explained in The Uses of Enchantment, ‘speak about (the child's) severe inner pressures in a way that the child unconsciously understands, and (…) offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties’.13 It is curious, in fact, that Bettelheim does not seem aware of Les Mots pour le dire's potential as a replaying of the Oedipus complex.

I should stress that the map I am proposing is not developmental. It is true that part of the attraction of Les Mots pour le dire is that it reads, as one critic puts it, like a detective novel, in the sense that it records a crime (the mother's rejection of her daughter) which is the key to repressed experiences.14 The protagonist literally has to uncover clues one by one, each one hiding the next (haemorrhaging hides a death-wish, which hides shame, which hides violence) in a sort of archaeology of the unconscious. But this thematic development is properly literary: it is structured as a series of obstacles against which the protagonist has to measure herself, as would the protagonist of any Bildungsroman. Only the dramatic high points are chronicled, not the low points, the months where nothing happened (a point made by the narrator),15 or other key stages in an analysis which would not have served the dramatic purpose (e.g. transference: we know nothing of the analyst, or of the protagonist's feelings towards him). I am not suggesting that the text ‘takes us through’ the different stages of the Oedipal process in the same way that the narrative ‘takes us through’ a series of dramatic obstacles. Rather, I am proposing that the text has points of contact with the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal processes, and that these are likely to act as focuses of pleasure in the reactivation and reworking of the Oedipal configuration.

The psychoanalytical map I shall be using is based on part of Chodorow's revaluation of mothering, which I shall be supplementing with work done by Melanie Klein, in whom feminists have recently manifested interest.16 My argument will be that the text structures the pre-Oedipal situation when the infant splits the mother into a good/bad mother, as well as the normal (female) infant's turn to the father during the Oedipal process. One of the virtues of Chodorow's work is to point out how the attraction to the father in fact hides a continuing search for the mother's love, which I believe to be the key problem of this text for female readers, given that the mother is extremely harshly treated.


The novel is focused on the relationship between mother and daughter, almost in an abstract way given that the narrator and her mother have no names. The mother's name is mentioned twice (when she is about to die, and when her daughter makes up with her once she is dead),17 and the narrator is merely a ‘je’, an I/eye whose characteristic behaviour is to observe her mother, whether this be the ‘real’ mother of the narrative, or the mother within uncovered by her psychoanalysis. Men are conspicuously absent from the text: the analyst is implicitly rather than explicitly omnipresent; the narrator's father has one chapter devoted to him; her husband pops up briefly to read her first book; her brother is merely mentioned a few times. That these men are critically important for her development is clear: the psychoanalyst helps her to rebirth; the father is at the root of one of the most severe symptoms of her madness, the hallucination of the eye; the husband ratifies the new woman who can express herself; the brother is a comparator for gender-differentiated behaviour. And yet the reader is not given to understand that these men play an important part in the narrator's development. Apart from the fact that the narrator tells us that men did not figure in her life,18 it is the mother who figures most prominently, shadowed by two of her avatars, the nurse and the story-teller. The latter are avatars in the very specific sense that they are ideal (and non-persecuting) versions of the mother. For the mother is split in this text; she is not in the title because the title itself is a therapy: the words to say ‘me’ depend on the protagonist's ability to say both ‘I love you’ and ‘I hate you’ to one's mother. The mother must become other for the eye to become an I. It is this struggle which the text patterns, and (partially) resolves.

Splitting is one of the key mechanisms described by Melanie Klein. To save time (and obscurity) I shall simply quote Juliet Mitchell's account of this mechanism:

[The baby] fears that the object on which it vents its rage (e.g. the breast that goes away and frustrates it) will retaliate. In self-protection it splits itself and the object into a good part and a bad part and projects all its badness into the outside world so that the hated breast becomes the hateful and hating breast. Klein describes this as the paranoid—schizoid position (…). As developmentally the ego becomes able to take in the whole person, to see that good and bad can exist together in the same person, it continues to rage against the mother for the frustrations she causes, but now, instead of fearing retaliation, it feels guilt and anxiety for the damage it itself has done in phantasy. In overcoming this position the baby wishes to undo or repair the earlier phantasized destruction of the actual and internalized mother. As it does so it also takes in the damaged and then restored mother.19

The breast is not differentiated from the remainder of the mother's body by the infant, and Klein's work makes constant reference to the splitting between good/bad mother as well as good/bad breast. The splitting is important for an understanding of Les Mots pour le dire's function as a replay of early fantasies.

The narrator is split into good and bad parts: the good part tries to conform to the mother's ideal of her daughter; the bad part is aware that it does not/cannot do so. Similarly, the mother is split into the good, caring mother on the one hand, and persecuting mother on the other. This split is at its most evident in the chapter which deals with the narrator's recognition of her mother's madness, as for example when the ‘bad’ mother forces her daughter to eat the soup she has vomited,20 an event immediately followed by the evocation of the ‘good’ mother as carer when the narrator is ill.21

Significantly, also, the mother is associated with the home. True, she goes outside to tend to the poor in her capacity as a nurse, and to visit the cemetery to tend to her dead daughter's grave; but this is precisely what the ‘outside’ represents in this text: disease and death. Outside the home is bad, inside is good. It is for this reason that the narrator feels guilty that she prefers the outside, and the ‘other’ mother associated with it: Daïba, the old story-teller, whom I shall discuss below. The text as I have tried to characterise it so far has been constructing the Kleinian paranoid—schizoid position: the mother is split into good/bad, and badness generally is associated with the outside. This applies also to the status of the psychoanalyst's couch; its security is contrasted with the threatening nature of the outside world; it is a home which protects the infant (‘I felt good there, like a satiated child in her cradle’),22 the foetal woman who is to be reborn (at the beginning of the novel, her characteristic posture is that of the foetus),23 as well as the woman who cannot yet find the words to say it, and is thus truly ‘in-fans’, without speech.

The text sketches a reversal, however. The daughter's madness is transferred to the mother, and she loses her dignified status in the narrator's eyes, as she sinks into alcoholism. The description of this degradation parallels the description of the daughter's self-disgust at her uterine haemorrhaging, as well as the mother's criticisms of the little girl (‘a slattern’).24 The role reversal, coupled with the literal ‘taking in’, and subsequent rejection of the mother, corresponds to the Kleinian depressive position, the moment of guilt. The narrator continues to rage against her mother, but takes her into her home, and into herself by identification once she has died. She also recalls the ‘good’ mother, the carer, when she evokes a moment of tenderness and harmony between them, significantly occurring outside the home by the sea.25

The text thus sketches out the principal positions within the splitting mechanism of the pre-Oedipal phase: the paranoid—schizoid position where the (male or female) subject hates the mother and accommodates this hate by splitting the mother figure into good and bad, followed by the depressive position where the mother is made whole and taken in, in spite of the hate she may provoke. These positions are not restricted to the earliest months; as Mitchell points out ‘they always remain as part of our personality (…). We all use these mechanisms unconsciously as part of our daily lives’.26 In the Oedipal process, the female subject turns towards the father, a paradigm also structured by our text.


One of Chodorow's accomplishments is to have thoroughly reviewed the psychoanalytical literature dealing with the Oedipus complex and thereby to have revaluated the traditional Freudian view of the female subject's turn to her father. In the Freudian view, the little girl rejects her mother when she realises that the mother does not have, and therefore cannot give her a penis. This would seem to concord with a major feature of this novel, the theme of penis envy. The narrator masturbates (unwittingly) using a paper cone as a pretend penis, because she wants to be like a boy: ‘Kader's son amuses himself by flipping his spigot until it becomes as stiff as a finger. Then he struts about, hips pushed forward, proudly preceded by his periscope. The others make fun of him. But I am envious’.27 The boys climb trees, tussle, and once again we are told

I was envious (…). I'd (…) find the paper tube hidden under my blouse, and piss standing up like the boys, or try to, aiming through the cone. (…) I had lost all control, I was peeing hot urine over my fingers. My body was seized by a rocking, a pitching, (…) bringing me an extraordinary joy that frightened me.28

Chodorow argues that the turn to the father is not as simple as this illustration of penis envy might suggest. One strand of psychoanalytical thinking, which includes Klein, suggests that ‘a girl originally wants a penis (man) libidinally—for sexual gratification—and not narcissistically—for her own sexual organ’.29 This is certainly implied in the association of masturbation and penis envy in the novel; it is further illustrated by the clear association of the father with sexuality and danger. The little girl is fascinated by his bed, ‘in which I knew he must have carried on with his “tarts”, as my mother called them’.30 The fascination is made of attraction to sexual danger, as the collocation of the bed and her father's treatment of her as a mature woman suggests in the following passage: ‘I was afraid of him. (…) His huge bachelor's bed covered in panther skins made me stop and think. He called me his “little minx”. He treated me like a little woman, not like a girl, which made me uncomfortable’.31 Thinking about her father retrospectively, the narrator suggests that she would have found him sexually attractive: ‘Looking at his fine hands, his dazzling smile, his slender, muscular body, I think he would have pleased me (il m'aurait plu)’.32

As Chodorow points out, there are problems with the classic account of penis envy: ‘What we need to understand is why a girl, but not a boy, seems to be looking for an excuse to “drop” her mother’.33 A first answer is that the father represents an escape from the claustrophobic mother—daughter relationship. He becomes, as Chodorow puts it, ‘a symbol of freedom from (…) dependence and merging’.34 This can be seen in our novel by the narrator's affectionate nostalgia for her father, who is contrasted favourably with the mother by his association with energy, sporting activities, i.e. the ‘bad’ but attractive outside. The world of boys/men is exciting, and it is the sense of adventure which attracts the narrator to the stories old Daïba spins. Her stories are contrasted with those of the Comtesse de Ségur and her ‘proper little girls’,35 the sort of girl her mother would like her to be. Daïba's stories are food for the adventurous narrator: ‘Old Daïba, with an eye on her simmering stew, told us, in the sort of plaintive monotone used for reciting litanies, of sudden flights on winged horses’.36 The narrator's mother complains that her daughter always returns with lice in her hair from Daïba, and she ‘would do anything to stuff (her)self with that old woman's swill’,37 but the narrator comments: ‘The attraction was not Daïba's cake so much as Allah's white horse galloping across the sky’.38 The mythemes sketched out here are important: Daïba and the narrator's father belong to the bad, diseased outside, to colonised Algeria and its working class, its male religion, which promises a world of adventure; whereas the mother belong to the pure inside, the home; she associates herself with metropolitan France, and operates a system of bourgeois values and a strict, almost puritan Catholicism. Small wonder that the narrator turns to the father and tries to reconstitute him: ‘I wanted to make my father live again. I wanted to find him at last’.39 The turn to the father represents an escape from the powerful and claustrophobic mother—daughter relationship.

But the turn to the father is also the search for what the mother lacks in a patriarchal society: the power represented by the penis, not the penis itself. ‘A girl wants (the penis) for the powers which it symbolises and the freedom it promises from her previous sense of dependence, and not because it is inherently and obviously better to be masculine. (…) A girl's wish to liberate herself from her mother engenders penis envy.’40 Again, this aspect of the turn to the father is explored in some detail by the narrator when she recounts two dreams in which she is attacked, first by a man who cuts her throat, second by a snake which she and her husband eventually rip apart. She comments: ‘This fear which paralysed me (…) was not fear of the phallus, the cock, the prick, it was the fear of male power. All you had to do was share that power and the fear would vanish’.41

Another point will return us to splitting mechanisms:

Because she experiences her mother as overwhelming, [a girl] then projects all the good-object qualities of her internalized mother-image and the inner relationship to her onto her father as an external object and onto her relationship with him. She retains all the bad-object characteristics for her mother, both as internal object and external. Secondarily, she also splits her image of her father, transferring all its bad aspects onto her mother as well.42

The most prevalent good-object quality of the mother in the novel is her function as a carer, which is precisely what she projects onto her father (whom, remember, she hardly knew): ‘This man I didn't know, of whom I had seen so little. He was (…) my only ally’.43 His death means that ‘I no longer had the certainty of pleasing someone no matter what I did (…). From that time on and even now, a sudden urge to run, impelled by joy, by the desire to be loved and protected, to take refuge in my father's arms would come over me. He would cradle me, rock me from side to side’.44 As the narrator later tells us, she conveniently forgets the moments of tenderness between her mother and herself, those moments she would spend outside the house looking at the stars,45 or the flowers,46 or outside the home beachcombing,47 and learning from her mother. It is the father who remains associated with the outside, the world of men and adventure. Moreover, the bad aspects of her father, his disease (tuberculosis) are not only magnified out of all proportion by her mother's phobia of disease, but symbolically transferred to the mother by her cult of death, the veneration for the narrator's dead sister.


Chodorow's revaluation of the female Oedipal configuration lays great emphasis on the continuing attachment to the mother, and the complexity of the Oedipal configuration for female subjects. The principal problem with the psychoanalytical accounts reviewed by Chodorow is that ‘Oedipal daughters (…) are not even ambivalent about their mothers, but simply hate and fear them. There is no place here for a little girl's love for her mother, a love which Freud and most analysts probably take for granted, even while talking of hostility’.48 Chodorow points out that an alternative psychoanalytic view exists, and it is a view which is illustrated by the relationship of the narrator to her father in our novel:

A girl turns to her father in defense, feeling angry, like a rejected lover. She wants from him both the special love which she cannot get from her mother and a penis which will allow her to get this love—she both wants her father and wants her mother too. These accounts still stress that the intensity and ambivalence of her feelings cause a girl's turning from her mother, but they emphasize the positive side of her ambivalence—her feelings of love—rather than its negative aspects.49

Chodorow is thus able to maintain that the female Oedipal configuration is intimately bound up with the mother, as much as, perhaps more than with the father:

The turn to the father (…) expresses hostility to her mother; it results from an attempt to win her mother's love; it is a reaction to powerlessness vis-à-vis maternal omnipotence and to primary identification. Every step of the way (…) a girl develops her relationship to her father while looking back at her mother—to see if her mother is envious, to make sure she is in fact separate, to see if she can in this way win her mother back, to see if she is really independent. Her turn to her father is both an attack on her mother and an expression of love for her.50

We only have to remember the narrator's passionate cry to God (the Father): ‘Fill me with grace! So that she'd love me!’51 Or the words pronounced on her grave: ‘I love you’,52 accompanied by a poem to her mother's beauty, and a direct appeal to her as another woman (she uses her mother's nickname, only the second naming in the novel of the otherwise monolithic Mother), a woman who accepted repression, who ‘was afraid to rebel through the words and the gestures of rebellion, she didn't even know them’.53

Her daughter will act for her, will find the words to say I love you—I hate you—I am not you—I am you—I will speak for/with you—I will find the words to say it. And readers, I would suggest, replay, work through, and through the reworking experience the joy and the suffering of their relationship with their mother (and if Chodorow is correct in her analysis, then it would seem likely that this replaying is all the more compelling for female readers), not necessarily or just because they ‘identify’ with the narrator, but because the text functions as a powerful matrix which, like a fairy-tale, structures the Oedipal struggle for independence.


  1. Les Mots pour le dire (Paris: Grasset, 1975; Paris: Livre de Poche no. 4887, 1979). I shall be using the translation by Pat Goodheart with a preface and afterword by Bruno Bettelheim (London: Picador, 1984), occasionally amended; p. 30.

  2. Cardinal, Words, p. 8.

  3. Marilyn Yalom, Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985), p. 69.

  4. Ibid., p. 52.

  5. Marguerite Le Clézio, ‘Mother and Motherland: The Daughter's Quest for Origins’, Stanford French Review, V, 3 (Winter 1981), p. 382.

  6. Patricia Elliot, ‘In the Eye of Abjection: Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say It’, Mosaic, XX, 4 (1987), p. 72.

  7. Yalom, Maternity, pp. 10-11; author's italics.

  8. Cf. Marie Cardinal, Autrement dit (Paris: Livre de Poche no. 5072, 1980), pp. 27-8.

  9. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, ‘New Accents’, 1985), p. 47.

  10. Cardinal, Words, p. 213.

  11. Ibid., p. 218.

  12. Elliot, ‘In the Eye of Abjection’, pp. 78-9.

  13. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 6.

  14. Beret Wicklund, ‘Frigjøringens språk’, Vinduet, XXXIV, 3 (1980), pp. 44.

  15. Cf. Cardinal, Words, p. 180.

  16. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1978); Melanie Klein, The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986). Virago Press are currently republishing Klein's complete works.

  17. Cf. Cardinal, Words, pp. 207, 210.

  18. Ibid., p. 41.

  19. Klein, Selected, pp. 20-1.

  20. Cardinal, Words, p. 133.

  21. Ibid., pp. 134-5.

  22. Passage missing from p. 30 of Cardinal, Words; my translation.

  23. Ibid., pp. 30, 35.

  24. Ibid., p. 61.

  25. Ibid., p. 210.

  26. Klein, Selected, p. 21.

  27. Cardinal, Words, p. 75.

  28. Ibid., p. 78.

  29. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, pp. 115-6.

  30. Cardinal, Words, p. 47.

  31. Ibid., p. 41.

  32. Ibid., p. 52.

  33. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, p. 120.

  34. Ibid., p. 121.

  35. Cardinal, Words, p. 76.

  36. Ibid., p. 76.

  37. Ibid., p. 76.

  38. Ibid., p. 76.

  39. Ibid., p. 50; my translation.

  40. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, p. 123.

  41. Cardinal, Words, p. 194; amended translation.

  42. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, p. 123.

  43. Cardinal, Words, p. 49.

  44. Ibid., p. 49.

  45. Ibid., pp. 148-9; ‘we got on so well in these moments. Why had I forgotten them?’ (ibid., p. 149).

  46. Ibid., pp. 67-8.

  47. Ibid., p. 210.

  48. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, p. 124.

  49. Ibid., p. 125.

  50. Ibid., p. 126.

  51. Cardinal, Words, p. 60.

  52. Ibid., p. 210.

  53. Ibid., p. 211.

Mildred Mortimer (review date autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of Comme si de rien n'était, by Marie Cardinal. World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (autumn 1991): 663-64.

[In the following review, Mortimer characterizes Comme si de rien n'était as a novel that explores the power of language in gender relationships.]

Born into a French family in colonial Algeria, Marie Cardinal now lives in France and Québec. Her numerous works include Les Mots pour le dire (1975), an autobiographical account of her own cure through Freudian psychoanalysis. The title of that earlier book, The Words to Say It, conveys the writer's quest for words to record events, revive past memories, and forge links of communication.

First articulating the process of healing and rebirth through writing, Cardinal's latest work, Comme si de rien n'était, centers on the spoken word, specifically on women speaking. The novel is one that the critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. would call a “speakerly text,” expressing empowerment through orality. Cardinal calls upon her reader to participate actively in the text by sorting out the dozen or more fragmented narratives that omit signposts; the reader must decide who is speaking to whom and why. However, two women whose telephone conversations punctuate the text dominate the narrative. Conversing frequently, Mimi and Simone, who are cousins, discuss a variety of events and issues. Some are international, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall; others are national, such as the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Carpentras; and then others are personal, such as Mimi's dispute with Mare, her former student, a man with whom she shares her intellectual life.

According to Simone's husband, the cousins are as opposite as night and day. Simone participates in the cycle of nurturing and female bonding; we find her, for example, watching over her infant granddaughter. Mimi, a retired university professor, divorced and living far from her only son, hides behind a wall of abstract ideas. Mimi experiences loneliness alleviated only by Simone's telephone calls and Marc's visits. Attempting to destroy the walls Mimi has carefully constructed, Marc challenges his mentor. She has refused to let passion enter into their relationship; he tells her that she is afraid of happiness. Does the fear that Marc recognizes originate in Mimi's French colonial past? Is Mimi, with her memories of colonial Algeria, a reflection of Cardinal's mother (Les Mots pour le dire), who died still unable to come to terms with colonial patriarchy and whose rejection of her daughter resulted in the latter's breakdown?

Both Mimi and Simone have attached themselves to men who are receptive listeners. Mimi holds Marc in her spell through language; for years they have spent one evening a week conversing. Simone's husband acknowledges the power her voice has upon him: “Une voix basse qui gonfle les paroles comme des beignets, qui les égrène comme les grosses gouttes tièdes d'une averse d'été, une voix qui émane de Simone comme de l'ombre moite.” Simone and Mimi affirm the power of the female voice and the power of words. For Simone, words express sensuality, the pleasure of loving and being loved; for Mimi, they express philosophical ideas and social theories.

Cardinal offers her readers a fascinating study of women who have faced different problems, chosen different paths, respect each other, and are both forced to struggle with basic issues of human existence: what causes our fears? what brings us happiness?

Françoise Lionnet (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Lionnet, Françoise. “Métissage, Emancipation, and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers.” In Displacements: Women, Tradition, Literatures in French, edited by Joan DeJean and Nancy K. Miller, pp. 254-74. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Lionnet suggests parallels between the struggles of Cardinal's female protagonists to achieve autonomy within patriarchal society and the striving of Algeria to achieve self-rule after years of colonization.]

But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?

—William Shakespeare, The Tempest

… Mais je rêve, j'utopographe, je sais.

—Annie Leclerc, Parole de femme

To read a narrative that depicts the journey of a female self striving to become the subject of her own discourse, the narrator of her own story, is to witness the unfolding of an autobiographical project. To raise the question of referentiality and ask whether the text points to an individual existence beyond the pages of the book is to distort the picture. As Picasso once said about his portrait of Gertrude Stein, although she was not exactly like it, she would eventually become so. The ability to “defamiliarize” ordinary experience, forcing us to notice what we live with but ignore, has long been considered an important characteristic of art. Such is the Russian formalists' notion of ostraneniye, or “making strange,” the Surrealists' dream of a heightened level of awareness, Nathalie Sarraute's “era of suspicion.” New ways of seeing can indeed emancipate us. Literature, like all art, can show us new means of constructing the world, for it is by changing the images and structures through which we encode meaning that we can begin to develop new scripts and assign new roles to the heroines of the stories we recount in order to explain and understand our lives.

The female writer who struggles to articulate a personal vision and to verbalize the vast areas of feminine experience that have remained unexpressed, if not repressed, is engaged in an attempt to excavate those elements of the female self which have been buried under the cultural and patriarchal myths of selfhood. She perceives these myths as alienating and radically other, and her aim is often the retrieval of a more authentic image, one that may not be ostensibly “true” or “familiar” at first, since our ways of perceiving are so subtly conditioned by our social and historical circumstance and since our collective imagination is so overwhelmingly nonfemale. Having no literary tradition that empowers her to speak, she seeks to elaborate discursive patterns that will both reveal the “hidden face of Eve”1 and displace the traditional distinctions of rigidly defined literary genres. Formulating a problematics of female authorship is thus an urgent task for feminist writers and one that they approach with much ambivalence.

Theorists of autobiography have traditionally assumed with Roy Pascal that we read autobiographies “not as factual truth, but as a wrestling with truth.”2 In their attempt at a selective grouping of first-person narratives, however, theorists have largely failed to “take hold of autobiography's protean forms,” as Avrom Fleishman puts it.3 And feminist critics in particular have been quick to suggest that, in the words of Nancy K. Miller, “any theoretical model indifferent to a problematics of genre as inflected by gender” must be regarded as suspect.4 Since it is notoriously difficult for us as women to recognize ourselves in the images that literature and society (sometimes including our own mothers) traditionally project or uphold as models, it should not be surprising for an autobiographical narrative to proclaim itself as fiction: for the narrator's process of reflection, narration, and self-integration within language is bound to unveil patterns of self-definition (and self-dissimulation) which may seem new and strange and with which we are not always consciously familiar. The self engendered on the page allows a writer to subject ordinary experience to new scrutiny and to show that the polarity fact/fiction does not establish and constitute absolute categories of feeling and perceiving reality. The narrative text epitomizes this duality in its splitting of the subject of discourse into a narrating self and an experiencing self, which can never coincide exactly. Addressing the problematics of authorship,5 the female narrator gets caught in a duplicitous process: she exists in the text under circumstances of alienated communication because the text is the locus of her dialogue with a tradition she tacitly aims at subverting. Describing the events that have helped her assume a given heritage, she communicates with a narratee who figures in a particular kind of relationship both with her as narrator and with their shared cultural environment. By examining the narrative structure through these constitutive relational patterns, we can elicit from the text a model of reading which does not betray its complicated and duplicitous messages. For example, Marie Cardinal dedicates her novel to the “doctor who helped [her] be born,” and he is the explicit listener of her life story.6 As such, his role is clear. But as I will discuss later, the text encodes his presence as a catalyst whose function is not only to facilitate access to the narrator's effaced, forgotten, joyful “Algerian” self but also to mediate the reader's understanding of the story being told in the book, the “histoire racontée à du papier.”7

Marie Cardinal and Marie-Thérèse Humbert are contemporary women writers who have lived and worked in France. They present us with new ways of reading the heroine's text, new ways that they perceive as emancipatory. Their cultural backgrounds and creative roots reach far beyond the confines of France's hexagone; they were both born and brought up in former colonies of France (Cardinal in Algeria; Humbert in Mauritius). Finding themselves at the confluence of different cultures, they must 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 outside of the cultures that subtend that experience. They take 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 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.8 They are thus alienated from something at once internal and external to the self. It is at that precise moment of disjunction 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.9 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)—what she focuses on and what she omits—gives dynamism to the unfolding of the narrative and elicits a particular response arise from a dialectical relationship between showing and concealing—in other words, from the difference between what is said and what is meant.”10 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 novels have numerous formal and thematic similarities and offer a critique of colonialism from two different class perspectives. In Les Mots pour le dire the narrator belongs to the French landowning bourgeoisie, whose stance toward the Algerian Arabs is one of benevolent paternalism laced with Catholic missionary zeal; in A l'autre bout de moi 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”11) is not offset by any redeeming form of 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 lives, in the absence of a truly nurturing biological mother, in the presence of a flamboyant and indifferent father). They both come to identify with the non-European, Third World elements of their “alien” cultures. For Cardinal's narrator, it is the acceptance of a privileged difference that is a métissage of the heart and mind; for Humbert's, it is a more telling trajectory back to her “mixed-blood” origins after a murderous confrontation with subjectivity in the guise of her twin sister, the mirror image, the “monster” who steals her illusory individuality.

J'appartiens à un pays que j'ai quitté. … il faut qu'une fois encore j'arrache, de mon pays, toutes mes racines qui saignent.

—Colette, “Jour gris,” Les Vrilles de la vigne

The structure of Les Mots pour le dire parallels Cardinal's experience of Freudian psychoanalysis. Having reached a point of dislocation and madness 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,”12 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 boxes, they all contained living matter” (239, tr. m.). 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 to label it as a social document about psychoanalysis.13 It enacts a coherent staging of that process 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 fibro-matous uterus, and when her surgeon decides to cure her physical symptoms—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, tr. m.). The imagery she uses to describe the location of the office is particularly suited to the birthing metaphor; it is in an island of surprising calm and tranquility in the midst of Paris, at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac (2), a “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 more important, in the textual context of the narrative situation he is an antimodel for the critic, whereas the analyst figures as an 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 “communicational act,” as Ross Chambers formulates it, and provides us with the model of reading most appropriate to the “point” it is trying to make.14

This is a model, needless to say, that would neither amputate the text of meaning 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 of “physician of the soul” is, of course, well known to readers of Augustine's Confessions (10:3: “medice meus intime”), in which 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 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 goodnatured 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, 216, tr. m.)

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.15 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 be effective only if it is not subjected to the judging eye of the literary law.

This eye is also the one she sees in her hallucination (chap. 8), 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 musn't hit mama, you mustn't hit papa! It's very wicked, it's shameful! Punished, crazy! Very ugly, very naughty, crazy!” (152, tr. m.). 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.16 To overcome this fear, which paralyzes 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 emphasis).

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 thought of it before; 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 a mise en abyme of the reading process and of its effect as it is encoded in the narrative structure.17 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 self-emancipation 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 own fear of sexual difference. This fear caused the mother's complicity with the repressive, paternalistic colonial order, despite her qualities of intelligence, sensuality, and integrity (see 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” (289). It is the mother now who is the monster, the fetuslike creature whose posture mirrors that of the fetus-daughter she had unsuccessfully tried to abort; 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 daughter is able to recall with poetic tenderness the moments of genuine joy she had experienced when walking on the beach or gazing at the stars with her mother. Looking for 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, tr. m.). 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 both 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, and the words fell on the young daughter “like so many mutilating swords” (135). 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, a story can kill, it can be what Peter Brooks calls “un acte d'agression,”18 and to counter it, 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). Such was the magic of those days on the farm: contact with an archaic civilization, games with the Arab children, freedom from French reason and religion. The richness and diversity of her 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 both 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, inconsolable over the loss of that “exceptional” child, the absent daughter who can never be replaced, used to take her. This 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. Writing is the act of self-emancipation which allows the narrator 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 thus degrading and abject: it is their combined forces that kill “the mother and the motherland”19 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 only way to break the cycle is to start sharing in the power of men to make decisions that affect all of our lives, to become an active participant in society. In fact, it is her feeling of impotence in affairs of the state that provokes the narrator's major attacks of anxiety: “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 way out of the impasse is a heightened political awareness of the complicated structures of domination that amputate freedom and self-determination from people and countries.

In a direct confession of the apolitical nature of her life before she started to write, the narrator admits that she never even used to read the newspapers. She had first seen the Algerian was as a sentimental family affair of fraternal enmity. Her life had been “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). But with self-integration comes a raised consciousness. The book ends on the historical marker: “Quelques jours plus tard, c'était mai 68.20 We have come full circle; the personal and the political are inseparable.


  1. I borrow the phrase from the book by Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (London: Zed Press, 1980).

  2. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), 75. But see also Elizabeth W. Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972); Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris: Seuil, 1975); and Lejeune, Je est un autre (Paris: Seuil, 1980).

  3. Avrom Fleishman, Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing in Victorian and Modern England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), 37.

  4. Nancy K. Miller, “Writing Fictions: Women's Autobiography in France,” in Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, ed. by Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), 45-61.

  5. And its anxieties, as brilliantly analyzed by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 45-92.

  6. “Au docteur qui m'a aidée à naître,” in Marie Cardinal, Les Mots pour le dire (Paris: Grasset et Fasquelle, 1975). English translation by Pat Goodheart, The Words to Say It (Cambridge, Mass.: VanVactor and Goodheart, 1983), is cited hereafter in the text. Occasionally, I will modify the translation and indicate “tr.m.” When I do so. When necessary, reference to the French edition will be given in the text or in the corresponding notes. Permission to cite from the French and English editions was granted by Editions Grasset, Paris, and VanVactor and Goodheart, Cambridge, Mass. I gratefully acknowledge this here.

  7. Les Mots pour le dire, 266 (“the story as told to some paper”). The phrase recalls Montaigne's “mémoire de papier” and his well-known need to “parler au papier.” See Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 3:1, in Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade, 1962), 767.

  8. I use this term in the sense of Jean-François Lyotard's “grand récits” in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979). It is translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

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

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

  11. Marie-Thérèse Humbert, A l'autre bout de moi (Paris: Stock, 1979), 28. Hereafter all references will appear in the text, as will references to any work cited more than once. All translations will be mine. Permission to quote the work of Humbert, granted by Editions Stock, Paris, is gratefully acknowledged here.

  12. Rodolphe Gasché, “Self-Engendering as a Verbal Body,” MLN 93 (May 1978): 677-94. This study of Antonin Artaud is relevant here 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.

  13. See in particular Bruno Bettelheim's Preface and Afterword to the English translation; Marilyn Yalom, Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985), chap. 5; 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, 1 Jan. 1984, 15; and Fernande Schulmann, “Marie Cardinal: Les Mots pour le dire,Esprit 452 (Dec. 1975): 942-43.

  14. Cf. Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 3-15. My own critical method in this paper owes much to Ross Chambers's seminar on narrative at the University of Michigan.

  15. The rules are the règles, 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 work by Cardinal: “Feminism and Formalism: Dialectical Structures in Marie Cardinal's Une Vie pour deux,Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 4 (Spring 1985): 84.

  16. See 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).

  17. See Lucien Dällenbach, Le Récit spéculaire (Paris: Seuil, 1977): Chambers, 18-49.

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

  19. See 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.

  20. The last chapter of the book, which consists of this single line, “A few days later it was May 68,” is inexplicably missing from the English version. I take this textual “mutilation” as an ironic and unfortunate instance of the kinds of distortion that reductionist theories—psychoanalytic or otherwise—can perform on historical context. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the narrator of Les Mots pour le dire sees herself as narrowly escaping a similar amputation at the hands of her surgeon, but it is also clear that just as the narrator's mother tries to abort her, certain Western theoretical traditions would rather deny (abort?) the historical realities that subtend the experiences of marginal (women) writers. Thus Bruno Bettelheim in his Preface and Afterword does not once mention the word Algeria and effectively succeeds in silencing that geopolitical dimension of the text.

I thank Ronnie Scharfman and Celeste Schenck for encouraging this project. I am also indebted to Michal Peled Ginsburg, Keala Jewell, John McCumber, and Sylvie Romanowski for their incisive comments on an earlier version of this essay. Parts of the essay were read at the Third Colloquium on Twentieth-Century Literature in French, 6-8 March 1986, at Louisiana State University.

Lucille Cairns (essay date July 1992)

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SOURCE: Cairns, Lucille. “Passion and Paranoia: Power Structures and the Representation of Men in the Writings of Marie Cardinal.” French Studies 46, no. 3 (July 1992): 280-95.

[In the following essay, Cairns investigates Cardinal's experimentation with nontraditional gender roles in her novels and traces her treatment of men and male-female relationships throughout her works.]

The novels of Marie Cardinal, highly successful within francophone countries, are surprisingly neglected outside them. The first, published in 1962, was followed by a whole series of novels which have been published at frequent intervals from then to the present day, coinciding with the upsurge of women's writing from the 1960s onwards.1 Although interest in her work is now growing, particularly in the United States,2 she has previously been overlooked in most Anglo-American studies of French women's writing, largely because of critical fixation upon the narrowly defined phenomenon of écriture féminine. My own interest lies in Cardinal's treatment of gender-based problems, and, in the presentation of her work which follows, I hope to begin to redress the critical imbalance by orienting consideration of the novels towards content rather than form.

Cardinal's relative lack of standing amongst French feminist writers themselves derives, it seems to me, from her adherence to broadly traditional forms. There is considerable irony in this apparent cold-shouldering, for her recurring preoccupations are of critical importance to feminism as a political reality rather than as stylized discourse: preoccupations with the perceived antinomy between motherhood and women's quest for individuality, with heterosexual relationships and the power balance therein. It is Cardinal's original treatment of such themes—relatively uncharted territory—rather than stylistic affinity with a putatively female poetics which endows her writing with an obvious relevance to feminism. All these preoccupations offer fertile analytical ground, but one central feature is Cardinal's portrayal of men and her tracing of sexual power structures. I will here explore in her work the tension between the sexes originating in her own life while indicating the caveats to be entered in adopting an autobiographical approach.

Cardinal's representation of men is characterized above all by ambivalence. It oscillates between positive and negative poles, between passion and paranoia, following a trajectory of increasing suspicion. The increase is in direct proportion to the development of her own identity as writer, and generates an ‘anxiety of authorship’, to follow Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's female twist to Harold Bloom's diagnosis of ‘anxiety of influence’.3 Bloom was referring almost exclusively to male worries about male precedents in literature. The female ‘anxiety of authorship’ is constituted by particularly conflicting elements: aspiration towards creative autonomy, set against apprehension of traditional oppositions between male creativity and female procreativity.

This paper posits parallels between, though not identity of, author and narrator/protagonist. While her female characters cannot be equated directly with Cardinal herself, since contingent details and emphases vary from text to text, she does write principally of her own experience and would seem to be incarnating herself, or certain facets of herself, under diverse guises in each new protagonist. Although inflections occur, constants prevail. For what it is worth—and anti-intentionalists would of course claim it is worth precisely nothing—the author has endorsed the supposition that her books are at least partly autobiographical (Autrement dit, p. 85).

Recent French conceptions of autobiography have been reshaped by the work of Philippe Lejeune. His initial definition of the genre was highly particularized: ‘[…]nous appelons autobiographie le récit rétrospectif en prose que quelqu'un fait de sa propre existence, quand il met l'accent principal sur sa vie individuelle, en particulier sur l'histoire de sa personnalité’.4 Now it is evident that most of Cardinal's texts do trace the evolution of her own personality, and do place emphasis on its development through time. However, the majority are cast in fictional form, so that author is not the same person as narrator/protagonist, and this lack of correspondence disqualifies them from Lejeune's early model. In elaborating this model, he had stipulated that there must be ‘identité de l'auteur, du narrateur et du personnage’ and that the author must make a ‘pacte’ with the reader, in which the former promises truthfully to tell the story of his/her life.

Only in Autrement dit,Cet été-là and Au Pays de mes racines is there non-equivocal correspondence between the narrator and Cardinal the author, and even these texts contain no explicit ‘pacte autobiographique’; further, they do not attempt to tell the whole ‘histoire’ of her personality, covering as they do only selected periods of her life—a summer here, a spring-time journey there. The other nine texts not only contain no autobiographical pact, they also blur the contours of her ‘personnalité’ so that the female narrator/protagonist, though similar to, is not identical with author; she is often given a different name, such as Maria, Madeleine, Camille, Simone, Elsa, or Mimi, or else left as a nameless ‘je’, as in La Clé sur la porte,Les Mots pour le dire and Le Passé empiété.

Although strong parallels exist between the narrator and Cardinal, there are also dissonances, both between the narrator and Cardinal, and between narrators and narrators. Each novel has a slightly altered narrator/protagonist, quite distinct from her predecessors and her successors. It is as if Cardinal has used the same raw materials—herself and her life—for each novel, but has transposed them into new forms, in order to explore through fiction certain unactualized possibilities or potential developments in her personal life. Specific sequences from previous texts are sometimes integrated into new ones, such as the fire episode in both La Clé sur la porte and Une Vie pour deux. Like Duras, she thereby stitches together the various patches of her œuvre in a ludic vein which stresses littérarité and self-reflexivity.

Georges May contends that the problem of truth in autobiography is a ‘faux problème’, since no exponents of the genre will ever be completely reliable as a historical record, even when the work in question is composed in good faith.5 Distortion of events is always liable to be caused by imperfect memory, and what matters to the writer is not so much the actual experience, by the time of writing irredeemably lost in the past, as the content of the memory, whether deformed or not. Even when there is no distortion of the particular experience lived by the autobiographer—a hypothetical possibility alone, since we lack the means of establishing the absolute correspondence of mediated rendition with actual experience—the very fact of narrating it incurs distortion, for this instantly inflates it in proportion to the other, non-narrated events of one's life at that time. Only in retrospect is the writer aware of a given episode's real significance; as Kierkegaard once observed, life must be lived forwards but can only be explained backwards.

Although he did not renegue on it entirely, Lejeune later commented of his definition that, ‘isolée de son contexte, citée comme une “autorité”, elle pouvait apparaître sectaire et dogmatique, lit de Procuste dérisoire’.6 Disinclined to impose upon myself such Procrustean restrictions, yet appreciative of Lejeune's subtlety in generic differentiation, I choose simply to appropriate the adjective ‘autobiographical’ as opposed to the noun ‘autobiography’ in characterization of Cardinal's œuvre.

Returning to Lejeune's initial study, it might be said that Les Mots pour le dire, Cardinal's most obviously autobiographical novel, belongs to what Lejeune describes as ‘un genre fondé sur la confiance, un genre “fiduciaire”, si l'on peut dire’.7 In calling the text autobiographical, we assume that the author does not abuse such faith when she ascribes to her narrator the resolve to write down the story of her psychoanalysis, and to make of it a novel whose protagonist would resemble her like a sister: ‘je me promettais d'écrire un jour l'histoire de mon analyse, d'en faire un roman où je raconterais la guérison d'une femme qui me ressemblerait comme une sœur’ (p. 293). Through a curious multiple-mirror effect, we see that author Cardinal is not identical with her narrator, who in turn is disclaiming identity with the future narrator of her own projected novel … The one stable notion is that of sorority, of close similarity and empathy between Marie Cardinal, her narrator, and her narrator's narrator, whatever the lines ultimately separating them into discrete entities. The ambiguities of these potential refractions increase considerably the subtleties of a text constructed along broadly naturalistic lines.

Mistrust of the male is not directly designated in Cardinal's texts; indeed, she is often at pains to emphasize the positive nature of her relationships with men, particularly in their sexual ramifications. There are in her fictional husband-figures traces of the real husband, Jean-Pierre Ronfard, who left her and their three children (ostensibly for reasons of career enhancement in North America); but overt criticism of them is absent, obloquy being instead displaced onto other male figures.

In Les Mots pour le dire, the narrator/protagonist's husband, plainly named Jean-Pierre, and closest to a calque of the real Jean-Pierre Ronfard in all Cardinal's writings, is conspicuous in his virtual absence. He is almost written out of the book, apart from a few brief references towards the beginning (such as pp. 36 and 48) and intermittently towards the end (from p. 256 onwards). However, the pages (262-68) depicting the protagonist giving her literary effort to him to read and being rewarded by respect and renewed love are fundamental to the economy of Les Mots pour le dire. They confirm the protagonist's success in sweeping away the quasi-psychotic she had become (p. 273: ‘Ceux qui avaient connu la folle l'avaient oubliée, Jean-Pierre lui-même l'avait oubliée. Le livre avait balayé la pauvre femme […]’) and in engendering a new self capable of igniting fresh desire in the estranged husband (he says to her (p. 268) ‘Comme tu es changée. Tu m'intimides, qui es-tu?’). He states quite explicitly that he is in love not with the woman she became during their marriage, but with the woman who has written the script he has just read (p. 268: ‘[…]je suis amoureux de la femme qui a écrit ces pages’). The writing of this script would not have been possible without the fecundatory process of psychoanalysis (Les Mots pour le dire bears the dedication ‘Au docteur qui m'a aidée à naître’), and pp. 262-68 confirm the seminality of that process: Jean-Pierre, in a sense which is politically somewhat retrograde, becomes supreme arbiter of its success. Without the psychoanalysis, ‘les mots pour le dire’ would not have been formulated, her script would not have been written, and she would not have won Jean-Pierre back. In deferring thus to Jean-Pierre's judgement, the female narrator displays the respect for and thraldom to the husband-figure which is common in most of Cardinal's texts. Jean-Pierre in Les Mots pour le dire could easily have been depicted as callous in the scene during which he hurls at her ‘J'en ai marre de te voir toujours malade, tu n'arrêtes pas de te plaindre’ (p. 260), but it seems that for her he is unassailable, for not a word of reproach is uttered.

Quite apart from the fact that Jean-Pierre is qualitatively if not quantitatively important in Les Mots pour le dire, the exiguous physical proportions of his appearances should not seem surprising: the book is basically about the protagonist's psychoanalysis, and although the end result of that analysis concerns him very much, its content naturally does not, for her problems emanate from childhood relationships. Moreover, it is a central feature of classical psychoanalysis—and hers is very much of the classical Freudian type—that attention devolves upon early, usually familial relationships, rather than upon those of adulthood.

Returning to the suggestion that overt criticism of the fictional husband-figures is absent, obloquy being instead displaced onto other male figures, one notices that each of Cardinal's first three novels focuses on the wounding of a female protagonist through the desertion, whether affective or physical, of her male partner. The temptation to infer that this schema is based on the author's conjugal vicissitudes is inevitable. The desertion and wounding would help to validate the vague sense of paranoia emitted, however obliquely, in the later writings. Although she does not vituperate against the exploitative husband, the narrator's/protagonist's rather strained magnanimity tends to be offset by the hypertrophy of vice seen in other male characters.

In Cardinal's second novel, La Mule de corbillard, protagonist Madeleine's capacity for artistic creation (she builds an extraordinary cathedral of reeds) provides emotional sustenance and is contrasted with the finite and unreliable quality of male love:

L'amour d'un homme était une matière périssable sur laquelle je ne pouvais rien construire. Il me fallait un élément solide qui accompagnerait toute ma vie.

(pp. 112-13)

This notion recurs in four of Cardinal's later books. In Les Mots pour le dire,Autrement dit, and Une Vie pour deux the precise form of artistic creativity is writing, while in Le Passé empiété it is embroidery. The benefits accrued by each form are, however, the same: the woman discovers a new creative dimension to herself which promotes a positive sense of fulfilment, of independence from men, and of self-sufficiency. The love of a man being viewed as perishable, fleeting, and therefore unsuitable as the basis for any long-term affective building, the female protagonist turns to creativity as an ersatz, or a higher vocation, depending on one's view of heterosexual relationships.

Does this privileging of art over men reflect Cardinal's priorities in real life? References are certainly made by Simone in Une Vie pour deux to writing, and by the protagonist of Le Passé empiété to embroidery, as activities tending to distance family. Answers remain conjectural; but it is interesting to conflate this turning from men to art with another form of turning discernible in Cardinal's later texts: that from the biological to the literary child.

A prominent motif in Cardinal's univers imaginaire is the dream-figure of the cavalier who allures and ensnares the female protagonist. In Les Mots pour le dire the narrator interprets her oneiric knight as a symbol of excitement, risk, and allure: the opposite of her mother's world, which was ‘sans danger, agréable, un peu ennuyeux, un peu triste, sage, convenable, harmonieux, plat’ (p. 207). The mounted knight represents a world characterized by ‘de l'aventure, de l'homme, du sexe […]’. In La Mule de corbillard, the dream is of less interest, because so unequivocal in presentation: the knight is simplistically identified with Madeleine's lover, Pierre, and she achieves a blissful, if ephemeral, union with him. In Les Mots pour le dire (pp. 205-07), one's curiosity is stimulated by the dream's very lack of clear-cut meaning:

Jamais il ne me regardait. Je le trouvais extrêmement séduisant et je savais qu'il connaissait ma présence.

(p. 206)

In addition, in the later text, there is the conflict of seduction and threat:

Je détestais ce rêve qui tournait au cauchemar et me faisait battre le cœur à tout rompre. J'étais incapable d'identifier le cavalier qui n'avait pas de visage pour moi puisqu'il n'avait pas de regard.


The ambiguous cavalier represents an instance of condensation: that process by which images characterized by a common affect are grouped so as to form a single composite or a new image. The original images are those of Pierre and Garcia, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ significant male figures in Madeleine's life; the common affect is that of power exerted by the two men, be it affective (Pierre's inspiring love and dependency) or socio-economic (Garcia's appropriation of her land); the single composite or new image is the cavalier figure. This figure merges positive and negative features.

The ambiguity of the knight motif emblematizes the moral duality of men generally in Cardinal's œuvre. He is perceived by the narrator as at once enticing and unapproachable, a dichotomization applicable to Cardinal's ‘real’ male characters. On a crude level the two polarities might be termed as the idealized male and exploitative male: Pierre as against Garcia (La Mule de corbillard), Alain as against François (La Souricière), Jean-François as against ‘l'homme’ (Une Vie pour deux), the ghostwriter as against Greffier (Les Grands Désordres). (The exception to this binary pattern is the psychoanalyst in Les Mots pour le dire, with whom she has no affective relationship beyond the confines of their analytic sessions.)

The idealized men are not portrayed as utterly unblemished, nor the exploitative as unalloyedly reprobate; but most of them do fall quite distinctly into one of the two categories, being more or less hurtful, more or less inclined to take, without return, from women on both sexual and professional levels. Cardinal's schizoid characterization is rarely self-reflexive. Her female narrators reveal without judging, nor even appearing to recognize as such, the negative traits of her male figures. What allows their exposure is narrative irony.

The retrospective preface of Cet été-là points overtly to the book's exploration of a certain tension between the sexes. It also describes the seminal influence exerted on Cardinal's own evolution as a writer by the iconoclastic, individualist approach to literature of the writer Lucien Bodard. When they first met, Lucien Bodard was a well-known journalist, but was later to achieve renown as a novelist, receiving the Prix Goncourt for his Anne Marie.8 She was employed by him to carry out the less glamorous tasks involved in writing his first book, such as research on background material, the detailed structuring of its content, and typing it: tasks which, however menial, were indubitably necessary (‘J'étais son garde-fou, responsable de la structure même du livre qu'il entreprenait’, Cet été-là, p. 9).9

It seems to me at least plausible that Bodard was the real-life prototype for two of Cardinal's later male characters: the man, unnamed, for whom Simone works in Une Vie pour deux, and ‘le professeur Greffier’ in Les Grands Désordres. I am not alone in holding this opinion. The critic Pierre Démeron has compared the relations existing between Simone and ‘l'homme dont elle fut “le stylo à pattes, le classeur avec cervelle”, la documentaliste’ to those obtaining between Cardinal and Bodard during the latter's writing of Monsieur le Consul and Le Fils du Consul.10 Démeron's analogy emphasizes the amount and the high quality of Cardinal's help, and Bodard himself is reported by Colette Gouvion as having paid similar, if reluctant, homage to her contributions: ‘“Elle veut tout bouffer, grogne Lucien Bodard, dont elle est la collaboratrice. Elle a une puissance de travail fantastique”’.11 Bodard's comment reveals something of his debt to Cardinal, though he himself makes no declaration of gratitude. And Gouvion's description of how he expressed it—grogne (my italics) Bodard—seems to indicate that any recognition he might give Cardinal would be grudging.

In a later review, this time of Les Grands Désordres, Démeron, clearly something of a literary sleuth, again posits a parallel between Bodard and Greffier:

L'aspect autobiographique du roman lui ajoute un sous-entendu piquant. Amusant de découvrir les rapports professionnels et les jeux sexuels d'Elsa et du professeur Greffier quand on sait que Marie Cardinal pendant des années a été la femme de ménage littéraire de Lucien Bodard, coupant, rapetassant, ravaudant les manuscrits du romancier, et qu'on s'aperçoit que le professeur Greffier avec ‘sa grande figure faite de boursouflures et de fissures’ ressemble, au physique comme au moral, à s'y méprendre à l'auteur d' ‘Anne Marie’.12

Démeron suggests that this less than flattering portrait of Bodard is Cardinal's retort to Bodard's less than flattering portrait of her in one of his texts:

A cet égard, ‘Les Grands Désordres’ est une réponse codée à ‘La Chasse à l'ours’, où Lucien Bodard faisait un portrait peu flatteur de Marie Cardinal. La réponse de la bergère au berger.13

In the preface to Cet été-là Cardinal professes her respect and fascination for Bodard's work, in which she became passionately involved, although fully aware that, being ‘un écrivain nécessiteux qui accepterait de travailler dans son ombre’ (p. 8), she would receive no public credit for her efforts and only a fixed financial remuneration. Both Simone (Une Vie pour deux) and Elsa (Les Grands Désordres), like Cardinal, do much of the necessary ground work for their male employer, and both, despite their creative and knowledgeable contributions to his work, operate in a position of subservience to him. Is there an undercurrent of subliminal resentment in Cardinal's depiction of ‘l'homme’ and Greffier, a resentment absent from her references in the preface of Cet été-là to Bodard, but perhaps latent for several years, and emergent in the dynamic between her fictional protagonists: Simone and ‘l'homme’, Elsa and Greffier? These two fictional relationships appear to reflect the structure of that between Cardinal and Bodard in actuality, although it should be noted that Les Grands Désordres effects an ironic inversion of the male master/female slave model, investing ultimate power with Elsa.

Whether or not there is resentment, the male characters in these two novels are certainly rather less admirable than Bodard as he is presented in the Préface. ‘L'homme’ in Une Vie pour deux is prolifically exploitative of women: ‘Je savais qu'il aimait les femmes et qu'il en consommait beaucoup’ (p. 83), and makes no nice differentiations between his private and professional life as far as they are concerned: ‘L'homme me donnait du travail à faire et quand je livrais le travail terminé je passais à la casserole’ (p. 82). In Les Grands Désordres, Greffier too consumes women at a prodigious rate and likewise demands a pliable versatility of his female assistant.

Why has the male character-paradigm modelled on Bodard become so corrupt? Apart from the straightforward possibility that such lubricity was in fact present in the prototype, it might be conjectured that Cardinal's derogation of the model was motivated by pique, albeit unconscious, not at any possible sexual humiliation, but rather at having been professionally exploited. Without her diligent work and shaping force, Bodard's first book would never have been written (according, of course, to Cardinal's partial rendering of events). Both Simone and Elsa emphasize their indispensability to their male master, although the latter alone receives credit for what actually becomes a joint enterprise:

Au bout de deux ans, je connaissais son travail aussi bien que lui-même, […]. Un jour j'ai compris que je lui étais indispensable mais lui ne l'avait pas compris.

(Une Vie pour deux, p. 84)

Il avait une confiance absolute dans mon jugement. Il ne pouvait plus rien faire sans m'en parler.

(Les Grands Désordres, p. 227)

Both Simone and Elsa do seem to harbour an unstated grievance at their considerable creativity and industry having remained unacknowledged by the outside world. Via an intertextual consideration of the Bodard figure, the reader perceives between him and his female assistant a clear relationship of master and servant, a power structure only fully deconstructed at the end of Les Grands Désordres.

Here Cardinal is reflecting a pattern easily discernible in ‘real’ male—female relationships. Simone's and Elsa's unrewarded labour has many parallels in actuality, as is demonstrated by the lamentably under-researched genre of the author's acknowledgement: steeped in sexual politics, this preliminary textual material is, curiously, ignored by otherwise eagle-eyed critics. How many well-meaning and/or patronizing expressions of thanks have been made by a male author to the wife ‘without whom this [text] would never have been written’? How many women, through tireless discussion, contextualizing, counterpoint and editing (to say nothing of secretarial aid) have played a valuable but largely unrecognized role in the development of male-authored creations, be they philosophical systems, literature, music or paintings? Think only of Dorothea and Casaubon in Eliot's Middlemarch,14 or Beauvoir and Sartre in real life. But perhaps the reason why the grievance is latent rather than manifest in Cardinal's writings is that the women characters are ultimately avenged by the very logic of the narratives. By inscribing her humiliation, the female servant is actually appropriating for herself the essence of phallogocentric power: the power of the Logos.

By writing down her experiences, she claims for herself the power of the Word, usurping man's traditional stranglehold over the creation and circulation of discourse. Significantly, Cardinal's slight first novel, for all its apparent naïvety, sets a precedent for this revenge-pattern: female appropriation of the Logos from the male. Karl is writing a book in the diegetic world of Écoutez la mer, but it is the female narrator, Maria, who is in reality writing a book, about her relationship with him, inter alia; namely, the book we are reading. Similarly, Simone and Elsa are, in the final analysis, the true forgers of discourse, whatever the degree of their subservience to ‘l'homme’ and Greffier respectively within the diegetic universe (and in any case, it is a past-tense universe by the time they come to render it in words). Simone writes down and thus fixes the labile story in whose elaboration her husband had wished to participate; Elsa dictates to a ghostwriter and thus at least shares in the writing of her personal story. Cardinal's need for revenge, albeit of a nebulous, textual type, emanates from a subconscious but rapidly generalized fear: fear of others, of their exploitative or judgemental impingement on her.

Une Vie pour deux (1979) gives centre-place to le couple. Having theorized the concept in Autrement dit (pp. 157-67), she now explores it in the practical context of the relationship between narrator Simone and her husband Jean-François. This relationship is patently based on the real-life one between Cardinal (whose full official name, significantly, is ‘Simone Odette Marie’) and her husband Jean-Pierre Ronfard. Une Vie pour deux traces the desultory trajectory of the fictional partners' reconciliation after years of estrangement.

The whole thrust of Simone's narrative, which initially appears innocent, conformist, and acquiescent in the cultural myth of the happy-ever-after marriage, is to deconstruct myths, notably that of the serene couple. However, her aim is ultimately to reconstruct from the ensuing ruins a more honest, bare and durable model of the couple. Far from cravenly abandoning the suspicion of male exploitativeness latent in her previous texts, Cardinal is actually beginning to confront it in Une Vie pour deux. She scrutinizes and criticizes the husband-figure, and epitomizes the exploitative potential in extreme form in ‘l'homme’ for whom Simone used to work. At least that latent suspicion becomes manifest, and receives representation in the official as opposed merely to the sub-text. (The increased lucidity about resentment and conflicts in her marriage which Simone displays in comparison to earlier Cardinal protagonists is evinced most transparently and most viscerally on pp. 182-84 of Une Vie pour deux).

The classical opposition between male creativity and female procreativity, alluded to in my opening remarks on Cardinal's ‘anxiety of authorship’, is finally broken down by the use of an agricultural metaphor to represent the process of narration/creation which is to prove so fecund for Simone. As she generates ‘L'Histoire de Mary MacLaughlin’, she draws from it the seeds of her own existence, seeds which Jean-François unwittingly helps her to sow. The notion subtending this trope is that of parthenogenesis: the engenderment of life without intercourse—in Simone's case, the conferring upon herself of new life by dint of her own imaginative or mental activities, begetting fresh life from the process of fictionalizing:

En fait, ils ne savent ni l'un ni l'autre où cela les mène. Simone ignore qu'elle puisera les semences de sa propre existence et Jean-François ne soupçonne pas qu'il l'aidera à les mettre en terre.

(p. 130)

Jean-François's power here is not that of the phallus but, more humbly, that of the farmer. A sower alongside Simone, he assists her by planting seeds in fertile land, but does not himself produce the life-giving seeds; these come from Simone, via her creative activity. Significantly, she will directly refute the old binary opposition: ‘Elle ne voulait à aucun prix du partage: lui et la création, elle et la gestation’ (p. 243).

It is through writing that Simone achieves selfhood. At once procreator and creator, she conflates the traditionally separate capacities, hitherto regarded respectively as female and male:

Mary MacLaughlin naît du papier. Son fantôme obsédant sort de l'encre. Elle existe.

Jamais Simone n'a eu tant de pouvoir.

The one-time epitome of phallocracy, Jean-François, eventually comes to laud her creation and to accept her literary child as more authentic than his own conception of Mary's life. Even though they collaborate in creating the story, it is Simone alone who encodes it in writing; and it is this inscription, this appropriation of the power of the Logos, traditionally associated with the Father, which inspires in him a new respect for Simone as an individual, rather than as merely his wife. Thus the novel ends with a fragile but tangible optimism about the elsewhere benighted couple.

Le Passé empiété marks a more antagonistic trend. The female narrator's desire for independence is posited symbolically as murder of the husband/father figure, and is played out in her idiosyncratic version of the Greek legend in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon. Going beyond her personal experience, the narrator also construes from detailed memories the violation her mother, Mimi, suffered at the hands of a husband who genuinely adored her. Salient is the hiatus between male and female attitudes to and expression of love, both sexual and spiritual.

Le Passé empiété also depicts, by means of the bi-gendered narrative, the consumeristic attitude towards women common amongst men. The male narrator Jean-Maurice is at once individual and typical of his gender. Indeed, the ubiquitous male is presented as potentially a sinister danger for all women involved in the female narrator's mythe personnel—herself (la brodeuse), Clytemnestra, Mimi, and Iphigenia:

Toutes sur la même terre, toutes engagées dans cette formidable aventure qu'est une vie de femme, toutes à tourner autour du cratère de l'homme-père. Bouche d'ombre.

(p. 255)

After the optimistic apex of Une Vie pour deux, Cardinal's stance vis-à-vis men reverts to its former suspicion and fear of exploitation or other injury.

In Les Grands Désordres, the protagonist Elsa's most sustained heterosexual relationship has been with le professeur Greffier.Prima facie, and deceptively, it seems to conform to tradition. Although Elsa is not portrayed as his victim, Greffier's attitude towards her and all other women does tend to epitomize the primitive, archetypal male drive for appropriation of the female. Symbolic here is the sado-erotic interaction with his ‘chattes’ (Elsa states significantly of these pets: ‘Des chattes, jamais de chats’). Greffier consumes countless women, viewing them with the same careless detachment as his work, and, indeed, keeping notes on them in his carnets just as he keeps notes on his experiments (p. 255). His indifference is flagrant when juxtaposed with the tempestuous feelings with which he merely plays, feelings of ‘des femmes déchaînées, lubriques, jalouses, salaces’ (p. 225).

But Elsa's sub-text charts a subtle inversion of the apparent power-balance. Her affectionate tone springs from a form of maternal indulgence which is hardly flattering for its somewhat aged recipient:

C'était un homme répugnant et, en même temps, c'était un homme attendrissant. Il y avait de l'enfance en lui, il était un gros tas de désirs et d'espoirs que les échecs ou les contretemps n'entamaient pas.

(p. 226)

Elsa explicitly likens him to a child, so endowing her supposedly affectionate portrait with a cutting edge. Her nonchalant remarks subvert the primary image of him as distinguished professor by highlighting his professional dependency on her, despite the inferior category in which he has placed her of ‘la petite secrétaire’:

Il avait une confiance absolue dans mon jugement. Il ne pouvait plus rien faire sans m'en parler. J'avais souvent l'impression d'avoir deux enfants: Laure et un bébé, tout petit, qui aurait pu être mon père.

(p. 227)

These comments reveal not only Elsa's motherly fondness, but also the professor's actual subservience to his little secretary, did he but know it. In assuming this symbolic position as mother, is Elsa appropriating the mother's symbolic power and ability to hurt—a microcosm of the real power and arsenal of the patriarch? Has Cardinal had enough of her women being emotionally in thrall to men who abuse their authority, and chosen to thrust this epitome of male exploitativeness, Greffier, back into the position of absolute vulnerability to the mother which most people, regardless of gender, occupied as infants? Is this a symbolic turning of tables, a stratagem of self-defence and even of revenge?

Further on in her ‘Portrait du professeur Greffier’, Elsa evokes the metaphor of puppetry in illustration of Greffier's manipulatory approach to women. His lovers are viewed as ‘des machines humaines, des marionnettes dont le fonctionnement lui paraissait plus simple que celui des autres machines’ (p. 230). His malignant play ends in eruption and disintegration: ‘Invariablement, les poupées lui éclataient dans les mains […] et finalement se désintégraient’. Like a merciless child, he nevertheless repeats this destructive process in each new liaison; for him all women are essentially the same inside, simply because of exterior consimilitude: ‘Pour lui, ces créatures de rêve étaient identiques puisqu'elles avaient toutes des seins et un sexe de femme …’ (p. 230).

In the rendering of intercourse with him, Elsa uses ‘la marionnette’ (p. 231) as metaphor for herself; but, once more, sharp paradox is at work in the sub-text. She could easily be cast in the role of dumb victim, given his degrading scrutiny (he is interested in her phantasms ‘comme un entomologiste s'intéresse à une fourmi ou à un cafard’), and given, too, his blithely confusing her with other lovers; but there is nevertheless a definite reciprocity in her exploitation. Usually it is the woman who is depicted as passive, surrendering her body for the use of male lovers; but here the man, keeping his eyes closed, surrenders his penis for her to do with as she wishes (p. 231):

Il possedait un sexe magnifique qui était toujours en état de fonctionner et auquel il était indifférent. Pendant l'amour il fermait les yeux, tournait la tête sur le côté: souvent même, il cachait son visage dans un coussin, il laissait faire. Il livrait à ma fantaisie ce phallus superbe avec lequel je pouvais faire ce qui me plaisait.

Moreover, it is always she rather than he whose appetite initiates love-making. The syntax places stress on the fact that he never once coerced her into it, which immediately differentiates him from the predatory male of cliché: ‘Jamais il n'a exigé que je fasse l'amour, c'est toujours moi qui l'ai voulu’. Despite the official text's explanation of his aberrant langour as deriving from self-confidence in his own sexual prowess, the sub-text shows power as oscillating between him and Elsa, possibly in the latter's favour. Certainly Greffier seems to have adopted features and positions conventionally associated with the powerless female: submissiveness, hidden face, surrender to the partner's desires, pliability, inertia. A strange reversal has taken place from the situation of rapacious behaviour with his chattes: then he conformed to the standard model of the male, whereas with Elsa he acquires characteristics of the standard female.

The inversion, or dissolution, of normative sexual roles reaches a climax when, having realized that Elsa's interest in him emanated from a stronger interest in his work, he solicits some consolatory sign of desire in her by placing her hand on his genitals, hoping she will caress them. The bathetic pathos of this is marked by an incisive ‘C'était très triste’; and Elsa's subsequent statements bring the irony of the role-reversal to a consummate point:

Je n'avais plus envie de ce sexe dont je m'étais tant servie, avec lequel j'ai pris tant de plaisir. […] Il voulait être aimé pour autre chose que pour ça, ce pénis qui se gonflait sous la flanelle de son pantalon, chaud, soyeux, docile, infiniment aimable, et … inutile.

(pp. 250-51)

Contrary to custom, it is the woman who has used and enjoyed a man's sexual organ as an object to be detached from his soul, or personality, and who now rejects it, once physical desire has been sated. Pathetically, Greffier, like so many victimized women vis-à-vis men, wants to be loved for more than his body. That this plaintive cry should be ascribed to such an egregious exploiter as Greffier represents a piquant irony. A psychoanalytic reading might interpret it as the narratrice's revenge against this supreme repository of phallic power, this detractor of her intellect, this reducer of women to dolls.

Cardinal's most recent novel, Comme si de rien n'était, sustains the ambivalent, vacillating view of men. It lacks the prolonged imbrication of female and male consciousness seen in Le Passé empiété and Les Grands Désordres, tending instead to give windows onto the thoughts of multiple characters. However, it does renew Cardinal's earlier efforts to transcend gender parameters by projecting herself into a male psyche: Georges Legrand's. Legrand is the newest exponent of the Jean-Pierre paradigm: an ‘agrégé de grammaire’, he teaches at university level, as Jean-Pierre Ronfard did in real life. The reader is given access to his thoughts via a passage evoking his response to the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. Cardinal uses the metaphor of rape to evince his distaste for this event:

Hier soir, en apprenant la nouvelle, quelque chose s'est passé en lui, une révolte, une colère, un refus. Pour la première fois, dans son corps d'homme, il éprouvait le viol. On était entré là où il n'avait jamais voulu entrer.

(pp. 155-56)

The text prompts the reader to wonder if this is the only way in which men can empathize with a violated woman: through the filter of history, of material events which graphically simulate rape, such as the profanation of the Jewish cemetery.

Continuity with La Passé empiété is also apparent in the family's anathematizing of the female protagonist's husband. Just as Jean-Maurice had been vilified as a satanic philanderer by Mimi's relatives, so the husband of Mimi in Comme si de rien n'était is vilified as ‘un salaud’, ‘un aventurier’, ‘un jean-foutre’, ‘un sale con’, ‘un vicieux’, ‘un couillon’, ‘un coquin’. In the later novel, hyperbole is obvious, and is ascribed only to the family, not to Mimi herself. The falsity of their judgement is revealed by the use of a legal jargon, suggesting that the family sees itself as obliged to condemn, just as prosecuting counsel has no choice about its role, which is always to incriminate:

Mimi A. est une divorcée. Dans son milieu, à l'époque, le divorce ce n'était pas rien. […]

Sa famille se coalisa pour justifier le scandale. Ils décidèrent de plaider tous la même cause, une cause qui, d'après eux, serait nécessaire et suffisante. Mimi avait épousé un salaud.

(p. 13)

Cardinal's disowning of such hyperbole is indisputable: the self-conscious use of terms such as ‘se coalisa’, ‘scandale’, ‘plaider’, ‘nécessaire et suffisante’ caricatures the object, and unmistakably distances the narrator. Her representation of men finally moves towards the balance and absence of prejudice which had been her constant but not consistently successful aim in previous works. Penetration beyond the masculine façade observable in, for instance, her portrayal of the ghostwriter in Les Grands Désordres operates here too. Simone's lover in Comme si de rien n'était is portrayed as weeping when they part, thereby transgressing received ideas of masculine invincibility and unemotional reason: ‘Il pleure. Il pleure à petits sanglots étouffés de garçon’ (p. 16). The adjective ‘étouffés’ implies his effort to preserve intact the mask of the real man who eschews tears (like Jean-Maurice in Le Passé empiété), but the context reveals his actual non-gendered vulnerability. Georges Legrand, too, is shown as taking comfort in tears (p. 161), and, significantly, as not trying to suppress them. However, balance involves showing the dark as well as the light shades, and the representation of men in Comme si de rien n'était also encompasses some unmitigatedly dire elements. Allusion is made to wife-beating (p. 39: ‘C'est son mari qui lui fout des baffes de temps à autre’), and to a gynocidal incident based on recent history, in which a young man calculatedly shoots numerous female students, prefacing his act with the loaded statement ‘Vous êtes toutes une bande de féministes’ (p. 63).

But despite this deference to grim contemporary reality, the narrative ends on a note of contentment and affection between the principal male and one of the two principal female characters (Georges and Simone Legrand). It is a fragile unity, susceptible to the same fracture as other male-female unions in Cardinal's œuvre, as is shown by the clash only minutes before their embrace (pp. 181-83); but it is as strong and durable as seems possible for the volatile and heteroclitic couple which has been a constant of Cardinal's fiction. The male still has worrying features, such as the tendency to be patronizing; but at the very least there is sufficient will to pursue their dialectic of tension and interchange.

Does this final upbeat portrayal of the marital relationship represent Cardinal's unfettered, autonomous choice, motivated by authentic passion for Jean-Pierre? Or does it instead indicate her unacknowledged fear of loneliness and of social marginality outside heterosexual coupledom—a capitulation to paranoia?


  1. Works and editions: References to La Mule de corbillard are to the Presses Pocket edition; those to Cet été-là,Les Mots pour le dire,Autrement dit,Une Vie pour deux and Le Passé empiété are to the Livre de Poche editions. Écoutez la mer (Paris, Julliard, 1962); La Mule de corbillard (Paris, Julliard, 1964); La Souricière (Paris, Julliard, 1966); Cet été-là (Paris, Julliard, 1967); La Clé sur la porte (Paris, Grasset, 1972); Les Mots pour le dire (Paris, Grasset, 1975); Autrement dit (Paris, Grasset, 1977); Une Vie pour deux (Paris, Grasset, 1979); Au Pays de mes racines (Paris, Grasset, 1980); Le Passé empiété (Paris, Grasset, 1983); La Médée d'Euripide (Paris, Grasset, 1986); Les Grands Désordres (Paris, Grasset, 1987); Comme si de rien n'était (Paris, Grasset, 1990).

  2. I have read ninety-five Parisian reviews of those works published by Grasset from 1972 to 1987, and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index coverage of the period 1975-89 reveals at least thirty-five references to articles on various of her texts. These articles have appeared in such publications as Le Nouvel Observateur,Les Temps modernes,The French Review,Stanford French Review, and Yale Studies, to mention only a selection. In addition, four critical texts have considered her work in conjunction with that of one or more other author(s):

    (i) M. Atack and P. Powrie, Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives (Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 163-76.

    (ii) Christina Angelfors, La Double Conscience: La prise de conscience féminine chez Colette, Simone de Beauvoir et Marie Cardinal, Etudes Romanes de Lund, 44 (Lund University Press, 1989).

    (iii) Colin Roberts, Gilbert Cesbron ‘Chiens perdus sans collier’. Marie Cardinal ‘La Clé sur la porte’, Glasgow Introductory Guides to French Literature, 5 (University of Glasgow French and German Publications, 1988).

    (iv) Marilyn Yalom, Maternity, Mortality and the Literature of Madness (University Park—London, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985).

  3. S. Gilbert and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1979).

  4. P. Lejeune, L'Autobiographie en France (Paris, Seuil, 1971); Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris, Seuil, 1975); ‘Le Pacte autobiographique (bis)’, Poétique, 56 (November 1983), 416-34. For this quotation and that to follow see L'Autobiographie en France, p. 14.

  5. G. May, L'Autobiographie (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1979), p. 21.

  6. Lejeune, ‘Le Pacte autobiographique (bis)’, p. 417.

  7. Lejeune, L'Autobiographie en France, p. 24.

  8. L. Bodard, Anne Marie (Paris, Grasset, 1981).

  9. In her review of Les Mots pour le dire, Françoise de Comberousse commented upon the work which Cardinal undertook to pay for her psychoanalysis: ‘Ce travail, c'était ses livres et une collaboration avec de nombreux auteurs. Ainsi, elle est devenue une spécialiste de la Chine en réunissant des documents pour Lucien Bodard lorsqu'il écrivait “Monsieur le Consul”, et maintenant pour son autobiographie qui paraîtra en septembre’ (‘“Les Mots pour le dire”: Les maux fous de Marie Cardinal’, France Soir, 6 (June 1975)).

  10. Pierre Démeron, ‘Un couple en son dernier tournant’, Marie Claire, May 1978, p. 270.

  11. C. Gouvion, ‘Histoire de la libération d'une femme’, Marie Claire, August 1975, p. 30.

  12. P. Démeron, ‘Une mère, sa fille et la drogue’, Marie-France, September 1987, p. 283.

  13. Ibid.

  14. In contemplating marriage, Dorothea seeks intellectual guidance by Casaubon, but in the name of a putatively higher good than her own fulfilment—that of being able eventually to assist her husband's scholarly progress: ‘It would be my duty to study that I might help him the better in his great works’ (Middlemarch (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Riverside Press, 1956), p. 21).

Lucille Cairns (essay date October 1993)

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SOURCE: Cairns, Lucille. “Roots and Alienation in Marie Cardinal's Au Pays de mes racines.Forum for Modern Language Studies 29, no. 4 (October 1993): 346-58.

[In the following essay, Cairns appraises Cardinal's conflicting nationalistic views of France and Algeria in Au Pays de mes racines, commenting that the novel “inscribes the psychological conflict created by aspirations to biculturalism (particularly when the two cultures in question are so antithetical).”]

In the writings of Marie Cardinal, a pied noir born in Algeria in 1929, national identity is a source of psychological unease and powerfully ambivalent feelings. Of a privileged colonist class, Cardinal was brought up in accordance with the traditional values of the French Catholic bourgeoisie. Her family identified firmly with the French patrie of the original settlers, taking it as the centre of civilization, in relation to which Algeria was viewed as the uncivilized and inferior Other. Her own sense of national identity was far less unified. Though classifiable in objective terms as European and above all as French, she had deep allegiances to the indigenous Arab culture of Algeria. Her sense of searing psychic conflict over the French-Algerian war which was later to divide the colonized land of her birth is evinced in her agonized apostrophe to Algeria: “Ma belle terre, ma mère, ma génitrice, de quelle manière ignoble et basse je t'ai perdue!”1

In focusing on the maternal as opposed to the paternal (she refers not to her French patrie but to her Algerian génitrice), is Cardinal distancing herself from conventions of patriotism concerned with the father[land]? She certainly seems, at least in early life, to have rejected her French patrimony, instead assimilating the sensuous patterns and rhythms of Algeria to such a degree that she is able in later life to posit it as her mother. Did she perceive France as the Father, the legislating nom du Père, and Algeria as the mother, source of inner wisdom rather than of external authority?

Taken from Au Pays de mes racines, Cardinal's account of her emotional visit to post-Independence Algeria, this citation indicates that, far from having absorbed her ancestors' form of French nationalism—patronizing Algeria as the conquered and culturally inferior territory—she viewed the land enslaved by her forefathers as her spiritual mother. The designation of Algeria as her genitrix in some respects inverts the ideological premises of these forefathers, who, impelled by the logic of a nefarious nationalism as well as an in itself innocuous patriotism (simple love of one's country), posited Algeria as a legitimate target for French expansionism: a terrain which would enhance the economic power of France while remaining dependent upon and subjugated to it. She, conversely, metaphorizes the economically and politically vanquished land as her own source: anterior to and creator of her, and so implicitly grander than her in a nebulous spiritual sense. It produced her rather than she it; it nurtured her, inculcated in her its indigenous value-system, its non-European rhythms. She is the child, the vulnerable dependent.

The antitheses Cardinal establishes throughout her entire œuvre between Algeria and France, sensuality and repression, heat and cold, voluptuousness and frigidity, form a series of binary oppositions in which the correlatives of Algeria are overwhelmingly positive, those of France overwhelmingly negative. Algeria connotes fecund vitality, France sterile order. In Au Pays de mes racines specifically, Algeria is associated with heat, light, and harmony with the natural world, France and the West generally with chill, dreary logic, and artificially imposed structure:

Vivre ailleurs que là [l'Algérie] a changé pour moi le sens du mot vivre. Vivre ailleurs est devenu synonyme de besogner ma vie, organiser ma vie, structurer ma vie, prévoir ma vie. Là-bas, vivre c'était vivre, c'était se livrer aux mouvements coutumiers de l'humanité sans en souffrir […].

Depuis que je ne vis plus en Algérie, il n'y a plus pour moi que labeur, vacances, luttes. Il n'y a plus d'instants où, sans restrictions, je suis en parfaite harmonie avec le monde.

(p. 8)

So much, some might say, for the feminisation of Algeria and its valorisation over the “masculine” fatherland, France. What of the actual, that is to say socio-economico-political condition of real Algerian females, as opposed to the glorified femaleness characterizing Cardinal's personal encoding of the country? Could Cardinal be accused of apolitical and naïve poeticism in her celebration of Algeria as the mother, given the oppression of women in an Islamic nation?

I will attempt to show that Cardinal's Au Pays de mes racines, a travel journal distinct from her novels, does in fact have a strong political dimension. This dimension emerges clearly in her critical evocation of nationalism, be it of the French, the pied noir, or the Arab Algerian variety, and in her vigorous (if tendentious) engagement with Western feminism's critique of Islam. However, I will in addition argue that parallel (and, like parallel lines, never converging?) with this political dimension is a deeply personal dimension. The personal dimension testifies both to her persistent love for Algeria and to the psychological conflict caused by her biculturalism. Algeria is dichotomously inscribed: on the one hand it is the archetypal oppressed woman in relation to the oppressing fatherland France; on the other, a life-giving force, a vital, rich source of psychic strength and nurturance. The text does not deny the political realities of colonialist exploitation and the debilitation this incurs on the “host” land; far from it. However, it does valorise the cultural Other, and aligns Cardinal not with Eurocentrism, but rather with the non-European, the southern Mediterranean, often explicitly with the Arab.


Cardinal testifies early on to the psychological conflict produced by efforts to reconcile the two conflicting components of her national and cultural identity: “je voudrais pouvoir être tranquillement bi-culturée sans que la névrose s'empare de ma personne bicéphale” (p. 20). The risk she runs of neurosis is reiterated shortly afterwards: “Mais quand la culture est double et doubles aussi les géographies et les histoires, l'équilibre est constamment en péril, il y a peu de repos.” (p. 27) Having to reply “Française” to the question “De quelle nationalité êtes-vous?” (p. 31) is an uncomfortable, even painful experience: “Il y a un creux en moi, un manque, un trou, une plaie, au moment où je dis ça”. The absence suggested by “creux”, “manque” and “trou” is obviously that of Algeria: to deny that part of her identity is a spiritual ablation. This metaphor recurs with the reference to a cutting of herself in two, again testifying to the inner conflict and division wrought by her outer, social positioning as a pied noir. “La coupure avec moi-même a commencé tôt: Arabe-Française, Française-Arabe?” (p. 56)

Behind the metaphor, however, lies direct experience of this divide at school: “Les livres de classe de mon enfance étaient français, faits pour de petits Français vivant en France.” (p. 113) French cultural imperialism created a preposterous disjunction between the nature and the seasons she experienced in real life and those depicted in schoolbooks: “Des saisons inconnues les rythmaient de feuilles de houx, de brins de muguet, de chaumières enneigées, d'écoliers en sabots … Visions incompréhensibles.” (p. 113).

A sense of differentiation from Arab children began to grow, however, before the age of twelve. During the period of grape harvest, she notes, they rose with the sun to start work, while she was able to stay in bed: “Quand le soleil se lèvera ils seront à pied d'oeuvre. […] Et moi qui ai leur âge, je peux rester au lit.” (p. 106) The adult writer contrives to have her child persona ask the largely rhetorical question “Pourquoi?”, thereby alluding to, without specifically designating, the economic hiatus dividing the colonist and the colonized, even in childhood.

The transition from childhood to adolescence, marked by her first communion, was also one from an Arab to a European identity. A sense of French identity, tenuous in early childhood, became sharper after the Christian rite of communion: “Après ma première communion, je suis devenue plus française” (p. 65). Does the fact that her Algerian/Arab identity was strongest during early life suggest an equation of the non-European phase with innocence and purity? Note that such an equation could be read in a manner pejorative to Arab culture, for childhood may be seen as ignorance and underdevelopment, rather than as a state of innocence and purity. But given Cardinal's recurring binary oppositions, in which the Algerian/sensuousness/disorder component is always valorised over the French/logic/order component, it would be an aberrant reading. Christianity, too, is consistently reviled by Cardinal, and so formal insertion into it (part of her distancing from Arab culture and her moving closer to Frenchness) cannot be interpreted as a positive movement. The statement “Après ma première communion, je suis devenue plus française” does not imply that she truly “became” more French, whatever that might mean, but rather that the role played by religious rites in the construction of subjecthood (subjecthood always being at least partially affected by ideology) and of identity is extremely powerful. Formal insertion into Christianity made her “plus française” because it implanted the notion common in what was a largely Catholic French society of all people being sinners, but of some people—namely, Christians—being closer to salvation than all others. The Arab phase was pre-Lapsarian in psychological terms, for it was free from awareness of guilt and alienation from others.

The link between childhood, purity and openness to Arabs suggests itself again in relation to the car-accident incident (pp. 85-90). Out on a hot, deserted road after this accident, a twenty-year-old, scantily-clad Cardinal had encountered an Arab worker whom she had initially been glad to see, and to whom she had spoken eagerly in Arabic. The initial trust for the Arab was that of a child not yet contaminated by apprehension of his possibly “sinful” motives, not yet alienated by Christianity from people of “Other” races and creeds. But the twenty-year-old woman she actually was had rapidly recognised (“Qui parlait à cet homme? La petite fille. La petite fille que j'avais été […]”) and gone on to suppress the trusting, childlike part of her identity. As the adult, French self regained dominion, ease with the Arab vanished and she started to feel he was staring at her body, might even be about to rape her. The swing between childlike trust and adult paranoia vis-à-vis the Arab is striking: “En quelques secondes la petite fille a disparu et je suis redevenue une jeune Française digne, effarouchée, face à un bicot sauvage et mal dégrossi. J'ai eu peur du viol.” (p. 90) Both “digne” and her racist fear are heavily ironic given the succeeding sentence (“Au lieu de ça il est allé chercher du secours”) and given, too, the glaring contrast between the Arab's commendable behaviour and the boorish sexism of the “colon français” who later came to her supposed aid. Thus Cardinal shows, rather than tells, how irrational the adult European's apprehension of Arabs (here of Arab men) can be, and how the “innocent”, unalienated child's response of trust may in fact have shown greater wisdom.

The conflicts and internal divisions wrought by her biculturalism are amply evinced in Au Pays de mes racines. The adult Cardinal was still placed at the intersection of two national identities, unable to insert herself fully in either the one or the other. While living in France she felt culturally distantiated even from friends: “Leurs références, parfois, à la Bretagne, à l'Auvergne, à l'Alsace ou au Limousin, ne suscitent rien en moi, ne me les font pas mieux comprendre et, à chaque fois, j'ai un recul: ce sont des étrangers” (p. 108) Complete Francization was impossible: “Il y a entre le peuple français et moi l'espace d'une terre qui n'est pas la France: l'Algérie” (p. 145). But, after years in France as an exile, she also feels alienated from Algeria, displaced everywhere: “Aujourd'hui je n'ose pas retourner chez moi, en Algérie, parce que c'est devenu l'étranger aussi. C'est l'étranger partout pour moi.” (p. 108) The text does, however, strike at least one positive note on this question of confused national identity. Cardinal's main impression upon returning to Algeria is of being at home. Whether it is legitimately her home or not in political terms, it is so spiritually: “je suis chez moi, je suis rentrée chez moi et j'y suis bien” (p. 124). However surprising the sudden ability to make that insertion, she can hardly be accused of complacency, for the whole book is shot through with awareness of the illegitimacy of French nationalist claims over Algeria.


Cardinal's pied noir family were profoundly chauvinistic, considering themselves superior to the autochthonic Algerians simply by virtue of their French origins. The adult writer reflects this chauvinism by simply echoing it: “La France créait la différence en nous haussant, puisque tout ce qui venait d'elle était ‘meilleur.’” (p. 17) The pronoun “nous” inevitably suggests her own inclusion in the family; it is not stated whether or not she shared her family's attitude, but what is clear is that the adult writer, while desisting from explicit condemnation, adopts a critical distance from it by placing the adjective meilleur in inverted commas. Her family evidently never conceived of this sense of superiority as being a cultural product, and therefore of relative rather than absolute validity. Instead, they thought of France as conferring upon them an indisputable strength, and of themselves as being fortunate to be of French stock, the beneficiaries of a lottery. While they were not so arrogant as to see their own putative superiority to the Arabs as a logical necessity, their deference to France as necessarily superior bespeaks their French nationalism by proxy:

la France […] nous conférait une force indiscutable—et indiscutée d'ailleurs … La chance d'être de cette “souche”-là! Les autres n'avaient pas cette chance. C'était pas plus compliqué que ça. La loterie quoi!

(p. 17)

Her family's attitude towards Arabs was one of paternalistic condescension rather than hostility: “Ils étaient assimilés à l'univers français qu'ils servaient comme ils pouvaient, plutôt mal que bien, en faisant du “travail arabe”; mais on ne leur en tenait pas rigueur, dans ma famille on aimait les Arabes” (p. 37)

However, even during the colonialist era of superficial affection for Arab servants and retainers, division between them and the French was marked, as Cardinal increasingly came with age to understand: “Les uns d'un côté, les autres de l'autre. Le ghetto français s'est refermé sur moi avec ses quartiers réservés …” (p. 37) Here the use of suspension points may signify tacit reproof: silence, together with the negatively connotated word “ghetto”, suffice to suggest disquietude at least. Further on, she testifies to a subconscious awareness of having violated the Algerian Other when penetrating into the kasbah of Algiers. The use of the verb violer is politically pregnant, connoting rape, a concept common in diatribes against colonialism. Algiers was like a European town encircling a disorientatingly foreign enclave of Arabdom:

La Casbah autour de laquelle la ville européenne s'enroulait était un lieu de dépaysement, l'étranger, dans lequel nous nous enfoncions le coeur un peu battant avec, inconsciemment, l'impression de violer—touristes dans notre propre ville.

(p. 62)

It seems that the young Cardinal increasingly came to doubt her family's claims to moral supremacy, as is evidenced by the uncomfortable “impression de violer” which she experienced even at an early age.

In contrast with her family's paternalistic affection for their Arab servants is the mentality of the settlers bereft of their colony. Indulgent fondness is replaced by grievances against the newly affluent Arabs, regarded now as shamefully ungrateful: “Nous qui leur avons tout donné voyez comme ils nous le rendent, si c'est pas un malheur” (p. 20) Benevolent affection is not so easy when its object is no longer the economic underdog, it seems. The fatuous conviction of French superiority still thrives today: “la hiérarchie culturelle tranche toujours aussi bêtement et aussi aveuglément dans les pensées: En France, c'est mieux.” (p. 20)

Cardinal depicts the West as a settler whose loss of his colonies has not effaced his settler's mentality (pp. 58-9). She defines a settler as a man (and here the gender-specific term is hardly likely to refer to both men and women, given historical evidence of the sex of most settlers, as opposed to the female kin they brought with them) who purposely exiles himself in order to cultivate a foreign land to the profit of both himself and his own country. He works hard and uses the national ideal as he would a cudgel. The cudgel image connotes brutality and lack of subtlety; and while the adult Cardinal appears to describe rather than condemn, her very description of his self-righteousness, his arrogance, when coupled with this image, can hardly be read as a vindication of his rights. Her observation shows insight rather than mere platitudinous rebuke, however, for she exonerates him from the charge of bad faith, thinking that he honestly believes in the legitimacy of his enterprise. It is this sense of moral rectitude which is perhaps the most sinister of his motivations.

Au Pays de mes racines portrays pungently the nationalistic ardour which impelled French army officers into the Algerian War. They and the pieds noirs who supported them adhered to the myth of France as a woman who, “fragile comme toutes les femmes” (p. 73), had been defiled by other, immoral men in their absence. They wished to restore her purity, and were zealously backed in this by most pieds noirs. Civil war was waged so that the old France might be born again: the legendary France of heroic exploits, Christian conquests and supreme sovereignty. The pieds noirs, geographically separated from the real France, adulated this glorified image of “La France belle, jouisseuse, gourmande, forte, pure” (ibid.). Cardinal stresses that she seeks not to excuse the behaviour of the pieds noirs, amongst whom she counts herself, but simply to explain their vehemence, which derived from “un amour passionné” (p. 74) for this mythical France. Her evaluation of their passion is alternately negative and positive: she compares it to that of a dog on heat who wants to take his female, then refers to it as authentic: “Passion aveugle, brutale, bestiale, stupide, mais passion authentique et archaïquement pure.” (ibid.) The pied noir's contempt for native Algerians during the war is starkly etched, without attenuation: “Que sont les indigènes qui vivent sur cette terre et qui ont l'outrecuidance de la revendiquer? Rien. Des fourmis. Il n'y a qu'à leur pisser dessus.” (ibid.)

The trope of courtly love, with France as the aloof lady in the name of whose honour the pieds noirs would stop at nothing, may draw upon gender stereotypes, but it is colourfully and well developed. The personification of France is sustained to polemical purpose: condemnation of chauvinism. France is presented as a seductive woman whose apparent sanctity is but a veneer for coquetry and manipulativeness: she exploited the pied noirs' passion so as to enhance her own glory, accepting sacrifice of these suitors in wars which increased her power. When oil was discovered in Algeria, she tried to impose her wisdom and her laws upon her Algerian citizens—but to no avail, for by that time it was too late: “Ses amants imbéciles avaient tout gâché, ils s'entre-tuaient avec leurs frères-fourmis” (p. 75). The pieds noirs tenaciously persisted in bloodshed so that they might continue to shower their products of wine, fruit and so on upon this quasi-goddess.

The personification of France as the aloof lady whose honour is defended ruthlessly by the pieds noirs illustrates cogently Cardinal's hypothesis that most pieds noirs resisted Algerian independence not primarily through economic interests, but through blind passion for France, or the myth of France, and for the Algerian land itself. Cynics may dismiss Cardinal's conviction as politically naïve, insisting that love of the Algerian land sprang from love of the wealth which could be amassed from exploiting it. She does show some conceptual slippage, too, from the notion of passion for France and land lust for Algeria: “Mais ce ne sont pas ces intérêts qui ont fait l'OAS, c'est l'amour aveugle du pays, l'amour fou de cette terre” (ibid., “cette terre” denoting Algeria). It could be that colonies such as Algeria were viewed simply as extensions of France, and therefore as the same “woman”. (But later on the two are referred to as separate entities: “Ils [les pieds noirs] savaient que c'était à la France qu'ils devaient cette terre et ils lui en étaient reconnaissants […]” (p. 77).)

Cardinal, it can be seen, uses variants of the woman metaphor to depict France and Algeria, and of the love/lust metaphor to portray nationalistic ardour. She at one point metaphorizes Algeria as her mother/genitrix (p. 61), and, at another (pp. 73-5), France as a seductive woman to whom both the mainland French and the pieds noirs were in thrall. The latter would seem to be at variance with the traditional view of France as fatherland for the pieds noirs. But the poetic imagination does not necessarily function in accordance with received ideas, and in some ways Au Pays de mes racines may be regarded as a poem to the two now discrete nations between whose conflicting cultures Cardinal was inserted. Most of the positive emphasis, it has to be said, is on Algeria rather than France.

The two female metaphors are later yoked in the same sentence, where “pays” refers to Algeria: “pays qui n'est, après tout, qu'une mère adoptive, une étrangère à laquelle on peut donc faire l'amour” (p. 77) Here the mother is an adoptive one, whereas the image of page 61 had been of a real one. Making love to one's mother, albeit an adoptive one, obviously indicates incest, and the relationship between the pieds noirs and Algeria is certainly presented by Cardinal as one of half-crazed eroticism.

The pieds noirs seem to have regarded Algeria as their own land, to be guarded jealously and fecundated to the glory of their original “nation”, France. They were hyper-nationalistic with respect to France, if one accepts the Larousse definition of nationalism.2 While their love for France is presented as chivalrous reverence, that for Algeria is more libidinally charged, more carnally possessive. They were inordinately proud of their French ancestry, however, and though they coveted the Algerian land, they disdained its native people's culture: “c'était plus valorisant d'être français qu'algérien” (p. 78). The remark following this formulation of the pieds noirs' French chauvinism fully evinces Cardinal's contempt for her people's hierarchical view of nationality: “Colossal orgueil frisant la crétinerie” (ibid.). That contempt is reinforced further on in the book (pp. 135-6) by an implication of moral grime on the part of the French colonists: Cardinal asserts that she finds present-day Algiers far less dirty than at the time of the French, and the assertion works on a metaphorical as well as a literal level.


Cardinal is no less critical of post-Independence nationalism amongst Algerians than she is of French/pied noir nationalism. She views the idealism of Algerian nationalists sceptically, presenting them as caught in the same absolutist traps as were the French revolutionaries of 1789. This ensnarement image is made explicit in her rhetorical question regarding the Algerian people's institutionalisation of their original revolution: “Va-t-il se laisser piéger lui aussi comme le peuple de 1789 ou celui de la Commune ou celui des “beaux soirs d'Octobre”?” (p. 183) Her overriding anxiety is that such institutionalisation eradicates the possibility of the people being able to make its own choices. In comparison with Algeria, France seems old (p. 181). Cardinal's vision is a weary one, disillusioned by history; but it may also conceal a subconscious nostalgia for such logical positivism transferred to the domain of ideology: the ardent conviction that the “right” political principles can resolve all problems.

Arab self-affirmation, which she approves in itself, has not in Cardinal's view been unproblematic, and Au Pays de mes racines documents her varying responses to it, some positive, others negative. One of her main misgivings has already been addressed: the deterioration of revolutionary idealism into sterile intransigence. This is particularly a risk given the infelicitous blend of socialism and Islam in which in Algeria this idealism consists.

Thus far one might accept and even share her jaundiced attitude towards the West: though hardly original, it reiterates the destructiveness of the West's religious hegemony, and stresses the point that putatively religious antagonisms often concealed deeper and at root economic power struggles. Christianity has frequently provided conditions congenial to the spread of Western influence. Another major misgiving, and one which will be examined at some length here, is about the position of women in Islamic nations.3 But what Cardinal says about Islamic women may prove unpalatable to many feminists and even non-feminists.

She declares that she had not wanted to join those Western women who had gone to Teheran in order to help Iranian women defend their rights. These Western women are presented as well-meaning but ignorant Christian crusaders who could never understand the values of Moslems, and who made a vulgar mess of the situation:

Elles y sont allées avec les meilleures intentions du monde chrétien, sans savoir que les meilleures intentions du monde musulman n'ont rien de chrétien. Elles ont parlé au nom de leurs soeurs opprimées et elles se sont plantées comme on dit vulgairement.

(p. 58)

Is this rather acerbate criticism fair? It would seem erroneous to equate Western feminism with a fundamentally Christian ethic, to insinuate that Western feminists have essentially Christian intentions. Cardinal avers that the image of the Moorish woman laden down with bundles, trudging alongside a man dozing on his donkey, is “odieuse, absolument odieuse” (ibid.). But her conviction is that, because we do not comprehend this woman, this man and the culture which has produced them, and because this image has a meaning beyond our reach, the desire to destroy it is a clumsy abuse of our power. Again, Cardinal's reasoning seems less than unassailable. Is she paralysed by her in itself understandable distaste for Western cultural imperialism? It is one thing to wish to avoid the abuses of our ancestors, quite another to condone those of present-day Eastern oppressors, however much these oppressors find justification in their own theocratic world-view.

Cardinal's stance avoids the arrogance of the West's self-righteousness, but could be denigrated as a pusillanimous wish to avoid being called racist. It opens up a by now familiar but surprisingly little-discussed problematic. Can Western nations, with all their past crimes, legitimately continue to impose their own conception of justice upon [Middle] Eastern nations? And if the answer is no, are they prepared to tolerate what they perceive as grotesque inequities contravening European notions of human rights? Can we, who codify these rights and erect a court to protect them, really permit the perpetuation of inequity simply to atone for Europe's own past iniquities?

The dilemma for feminists is even more acute, for they have often been anxious to dissociate themselves from male-conceived imperialism, be it geographical, religious, moral or ideological (and it has generally been a blend of the four). But since they are concerned with the erosion of female subjugation, and since, too, they commonly repudiate notions of nationhood seen as patriarchally based, it is difficult to argue that their first priority should be to respect national and therefore cultural boundaries. Cardinal's assertion that Arab women must be left to make their own stand against male oppressors is superficially appealing, within a Western liberal ethic; but is it not at root merely acquiescence to an impotent religion of cultural relativism? It seems highly ingenuous to imagine that Arab women will suddenly revolt against their oppression, for it is precisely the weight of their nation's religious and cultural imperatives which cause them to accept their condition today. Why should Western feminists refrain from trying to help such women simply because their own belief in sexual equality may unsettle Moslems more than Christians? The fact that they may receive less opposition from Christian Europe than from Islamic [Middle] Eastern nations does not mean that they are essentially Christian crusaders. They may, in pitting themselves against Islam, be engaged in their own “just war”; but it is not for all that a[n essentially] Christian one.

Despite these criticisms of what could be dubbed Cardinal's pacifistic feminism, I would not wish to insinuate that her view of Arab mores is at all eulogistic, nor that she is blind to the problems inherent in the sexual treatment of Arab women. Two facets of this treatment provoke particular distaste on her part: the Arab man's view of women and female children as his property, and the oppressive power of the unfettered male gaze.

She dwells at length on the custom of publicly proving a girl's virginity on her wedding night by having the new husband penetrate her and the family display their blood-stained sheets. Witnessing this as a child made Cardinal physically ill; from that point she felt herself to be different from Arabs, in whom she suddenly perceived “un côté bestial” (p. 68). But the censure is double-edged: from the French viewpoint with which she begins to align herself, she opines that the French were no better than the Arabs regarding the sexual treatment of women. They simply hid their savagery better. Instead of physically traumatising a young girl as did the Moslem Arabs, the Catholic French would psychologically traumatise her by persistently instilling phobia about the loss of virginity and the disastrous effects this would have upon her future.

Bouleversement: je découvris que chez les Français aussi le mariage pouvait être une sauvagerie.

(p. 67)

However, while she condemns the French and the Arabs equally for their ruthless torture of a young girl's mind and body respectively, she is by the use of the pronoun “nous” to denote the French showing her ineluctable separation from Arab culture. One of the main reasons why it is ineluctable is the onerous influence Catholic dogma had upon her. Race and religion intersect, and while she was able during childhood to ignore racial differences, she is unable to ignore the cultural dissonance which different religious practices create.

Further on, Cardinal reflects without explicit condemnation the materialistic and proprietorial attitude in Algeria towards women. The nubile young woman is viewed as a highly marketable commodity, providing her virginity is intact: “Dans la campagne une femme vaut couramment vingt mille dinars (vingt mille francs). Une femme se garde précieusement, plus elle est intacte plus elle vaut cher.” (p. 149) The absence of overt criticism is amenable to two possible explanations. Either Cardinal aims to “show” rather than “tell”—to reveal ignominy and leave the reader to pass judgement, rather than didactically impose it from authorial high; or else she is, again, indulging in cultural relativism—presenting a culture-specific phenomenon which Europeans would find abhorrent as a legitimate practice given the non-European mentality from which it emanates. The first explanation seems by far the more plausible, because her distaste for male proprietorial claims over women has already been amply evinced.

She finds that in Algeria women are always being visually appraised by “les regards des hommes” as if they were “de la marchandise ambulante” (p. 187). She refers to these male gazes as flies sticking to her skin, a particularly derogatory metaphor. The male “regard” oppresses women in that it constrains their freedom to circulate without provoking unwelcome attention. She is not referring to rape, but to male encroachment on a woman's liberty to go unnoticed. This is a criticism often made of non-European men in particular, but Cardinal could hardly be accused of racism: she is simply reporting her and her daughter's experience with Arab men in present-day Algeria. She states that “L'espace vital se réduit considérablement pour une femme ici” (ibid.), and describes the few Algerian women she does glimpse on the beach as being excessively covered up, obliged to remain so under the most leaden sun and to cater for their men and children. Again, no overt criticism, for her description speaks volumes: the logical contradiction between “surchargées de couffins, le haïk en bataille, le hadjar de travers […] Elles restent tout habillées” and “sous le soleil de plomb” suffices to indicate the preposterousness of their situation.

Of course, many non-European readers will object that this tacit indictment is but one more instance of the Eurocentric gaze, as offensive in its own way as is the Arab man's visual scrutiny of women. Eurocentrism may offend because it involves seeing all cultural phenomena through an exclusively European optic, and judging it according to Western values alone, instead of respecting cultural differences. They will aver that Moslem women accept their situation and would not wish to change it. The problem for feminists, and indeed all those who oppose injustice, is that they may be right. Many Moslem women do resist the imposition of a Western feminist's concept of sexual equality. But is this resistance not explicable in terms of religious indoctrination which teaches the two genders their respective “places”? And, once again, should we allow our horror of being deemed racist to stymie endeavour to show Moslem women (and men) an alternative vision of gender relations (always with the awareness, though, that the West can hardly be held up as a perfect model)?

Notions of nationalism and national identity are integral to Cardinal's Au Pays de mes racines. It discourses pungently upon French, pied noir, and Algerian Arab nationalism, and inscribes the psychological conflict created by aspirations to biculturalism (particularly when the two cultures in question are so antithetical). Is the text flawed by internal contradictions? It exposes and implicitly condemns certain aspects of Arab culture, notably its attitude towards and treatment of women. Yet, simultaneously, it is highly wary of Eurocentrism, instead aligning its author with the non-European, the southern Mediterranean, often explicitly with the Arab. Could this alignment be called Algerian patriotism/nationalism? Not patriotism, etymologically speaking, since Algeria is not her “fatherland”; perhaps nationalism, in the sense of the Larousse definition (see footnote 2) but without the jingoistic, aggressive, “gung-ho” connotations which usually attach to the word; and even then, it might be doubted that one can really be nationalistic about a nation which is not one's own. I would argue that Cardinal, while examining the variants on nationalism which have governed Algeria's history since at least 1830, and while respecting the right of the indigenous people to self-determination and to freedom from European hegemony, ultimately distances herself from an ethos which reinforces division and mistrust.

The fraught questions of nationalism, national identity and Europe's relation to the rest of the world are so ideologically polyvalent that contradiction in discussion of them is perhaps unavoidable. Cardinal's contribution to such discussion problematises rather than offers solutions, and, while far from being flawless, it at least seems sincere and self-vigilant.


  1. Marie Cardinal, Au Pays de mes racines (Paris: Grasset, 1980), p. 61.

  2. “doctrine qui revendique, pour la nation, le droit de pratiquer une politique dictée par la seule considération de sa grandeur, de sa puissance, et se fonde sur l'exaltation de l'idée de patrie ou de nation”.

  3. Cardinal foresaw that, after the advent of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian women would relapse into a state of oppression, and the taking of Western hostages seemed to her logical within the retributive context of Islam (“l'histoire des otages est logique: œil pour œil, dent pour dent” p. 57). What she condemns is the efforts of the Shah to castrate Islam, to tame and subdue it in the manner of Western religions which serve Western states so well.

David J. Bond (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Bond, David J. “Marie Cardinal's Comme si de rien n'était: Language and Violence.” International Fiction Review 21, nos. 1-2 (1994): 68-75.

[In the following essay, Bond addresses Cardinal's emphasis on the power of words and language in Comme si de rien n'était and throughout her career, purporting that Cardinal links women's cultural and social liberation with their gender's need to claim their own language and history.]

Marie Cardinal's most recent novel, Comme si de rien n'était (“As if nothing had happened”; 1990) continues the exploration of violence that she began in earlier works.1 Once again, she shows particular interest in language as a vehicle of violence. This time, however, she departs from the relatively straightforward narration of her previous works, and tries to create a form that itself conveys how language may be used in a violent manner, and that also suggests how it may be used to avoid this process.

Comme si de rien n'était consists of a series of passages, often quite short, each recounting conversations or events in the lives of a wide variety of often unconnected characters. Mimi and Simone, two cousins in their sixties who telephone each other to discuss personal concerns and world events, appear more frequently than the others. Several paragraphs describe the dismay and disorientation of a character who has just received bad news. These passages are repeated at the end of the novel, and we realize that they are Simone's reactions on learning that Mimi is very ill and possibly dead. Some of these passages (perhaps all of them) are part of a manuscript that Simone is writing. She is also writing about a Madame de la Porte, and we assume that certain passages earlier in the text concerning a character of this name are also by Simone. After the novel proper, there are brief biographies of characters who enter peripherally into the novel, or who have had some influence on the lives of the characters in the main section.

Cardinal's depiction of violence against individuals, and particularly against women, is often quite explicit: the murder of several women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal; the case of the male character who regularly beats up the woman with whom he lives; stories of oppression emanating from Eastern Europe. It is language, however, that plays the main role in the imposition of violence. We are alerted to the importance of language in human relationships by the fact that one character, Solange Dumont, is an avid solver of crossword puzzles who often thinks about words and who draws our attention to the fact that they are not a static or neutral medium. “Words are like flowers, they're living, they're on the move,” she says (93). Language structures our experience of reality, and, as language changes, so does our relationship to the world around us. Georges, who is a teacher of linguistics, frequently explains the derivation of words, and how their meaning has changed with time. These changes reflect and help form the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live. A language spoken by a particular national group is also closely linked to the attitudes of that group. Georges says: “Words tell the desires of peoples, their thoughts and their obsessions. No words are gratuitous” (70). Mimi regrets never having learned German because she knows that the language of the great German philosophers conveys the essence of their thought, some of which is lost in translation.

On an individual level, different people use language in their own way to express their particular experience and attitudes. Georges sees language in historical terms, and, for him, words are “laden with their history” (69). For Simone, they are the substance of poetry and dreams, while Mimi feels language is the expression of philosophy and ideas. Solange is able to solve the crossword puzzles in her newspaper because she shares certain attitudes with their author. She knows what words to expect from him because she knows that he is “a leftist too, and an anticlerical. A man who isn't young, certain slang words that recur are dated” (65).

Language is a particularly powerful instrument in conveying and imposing a system of values. Hence, when Mimi's husband leaves her, he is dismissed by her family as “an adventurer” and “a rogue” (13). Mimi accepts these judgments and the shame they imply for her because she married him. On a political level, too, language is frequently used to impose values and beliefs. This is illustrated when Solange is unable to find a ten-letter word in her crossword, defined as “threatened species.” Mimi, who knows the politics of Solange's newspaper, guesses that the word is “communiste.” This particular word is, as it happens, an excellent example of how politics and language are intertwined. For Mimi, “communism” has always meant “a dream, an ideal” (81) and “a hope” (35). For Georges, who has seen the effects of a communist regime in Poland, the word signifies the loss of his ideals and “my dead youth” (81). For those who have lived under communism, it means the imposition of an authoritarian point of view through a language that will admit only one interpretation. It means acceptance of the Party's views, and the impossibility of thinking or speaking outside these views. Simone says: “No word, because we don't know it, should prevent us from speaking” (134). Yet communist regimes have robbed whole nations of words to express their revolt. Hence, Georges discovers that Polish students, when they use the word “democracy,” “don't know what that word means” (107). They are unable to tell him what they want in place of the crumbling communist system because they lack the word to express it.

Western society suffers from the manipulation of language too. According to Simone, for the French government, “democracy” still means what it meant for the ancient Athenians, “who thought neither women, nor foreigners, nor slaves had a say in this subject” (83). Words are frequently used in such societies to sell—a political viewpoint, a set of values, a commercial product. One character spots a sign in a shop window that makes no sense. She realizes, however, that words like “satisfaction” and “confidence” are used in it to sell. “It's like election speeches,” she concludes (71). Words used this way are intended to lull, and their parameters are stretched to the point that they become empty of precise meaning. This is the case of catchphrases and trendy jargon. Simone points out that the word “sign” and its derivatives have become such empty words, used by people in senseless phrases like “the semiotics of my bicycle,” “the semiology of my orgasms,” and “the signifier of the stew” (43). She says: “Everybody in this country can make words say anything. In the end, words either kill what they tried to say, or they no longer mean anything” (81).

The political situation in Eastern Europe is used in this novel to mirror the way language may be manipulated, and particularly how men use it against women. The communists' imposition of a central, univocal authority is an image of the way men control language to the exclusion of women. Cardinal says that “men have hermetically closed [words] and have imprisoned women in them,” so that women have become a function of male discourse (Autrement dit, 53). Hence, Solange, by accepting her employer's proposal of marriage, accepts his male vision of her, expressed in his words: “Ah, Solange, you're wonderful, everything is frills with you. What freshness and delicacy” (93). The character who spends hours at the hairdresser's, the one who, despite a slight deformity, tries to appear attractive and “sexy,” and the nurse who admires herself in the mirror as she dresses, all conform to an ideal of women and of the feminine that men have created. At the extreme, this acceptance can be seen in the conversation of the two women who decide that their neighbor deserves the beatings she gets from the man with whom she lives.

Control of language by men has even separated women from their bodies by robbing them of the words to talk about such things. These words have become “shameful, ugly, dirty, taboo” (Autrement dit, 81). Mimi feels ashamed of her body and its functions, unable to discuss it with Marc, a former pupil whose sexual advances she has always rejected. Functions like conception and giving birth are surrounded with such mystery that the ten-year-old girl in Comme si de rien n'était has no idea of these things. Menstruation in particular has been turned into a taboo subject by male discourse. Cardinal says that “women are kept apart from their bodies even more than men because of the heavy taboo that weighs on our blood, on our periods” (Autrement dit, 36). The French word commonly used for menstruation is règles (rules), which implies (like the English “period”) some well-ordered, regular process. Cardinal believes that it is men who decreed what a “normal” woman's body should do, and she writes of an apparently “abnormal” character who “does not have periods as she should, with her it's never twenty-eight days, it's twenty-six, or thirty-two, or forty. She's always early or late. In relation to what?” (82). The answer is understood: in relation to what men have decreed as “normal.”

The women in Comme si de rien n'était have difficulty finding a language of their own to break male domination. Solange, for example, is “blocked” (27) when she cannot find a word in her crossword. These puzzles are made up by a man, and the only way she can fill the “grid” that he has constructed is by entering his mind and adopting his view and his language. Vera Lipsky provides another example of these difficulties. An intelligent woman who speaks three languages, she goes to a public debate on capital punishment during which a panel of six men give their views. Five of them are professional, well-educated men with impressive diplomas whom she has difficulty understanding. The other is a former prisoner whose popular images Vera readily appreciates. She learns from him that criminals, like women, do not possess the education necessary to control the language of power: “No money, no instruction, no education, no family, no love, no health. No vocabulary, no language to express themselves, no words to defend themselves. Nothing” (58). When she tries to express her opinion, a man holds out a microphone to her, saying: “Here's a lady with a lovely hat who wants to speak” (58). She is thus reduced to the status of a hat. She tells the audience: “I've learned that words are golden, figuratively and literally, and that these people who are condemned to death have had their tongue cut out before their head is cut off” (59). She is greeted by silence, and the person holding the microphone quickly moves to a man who makes “more intelligent remarks than hers” (59).

Like many women, Vera Lipsky accepts the image imposed on her, and she blames herself for daring to speak. Women have become so used to being a function of male discourse, Cardinal says, that “we don't even know any more that we're submitting.” She adds: “Men too have forgotten we submit, they call it our nature. We think it's our destiny” (Autrement dit, 135). Women become like some colonized people, who gladly accept their status. Such a man is the Senegalese ex-soldier mentioned in Comme si de rien n'était. He lives in Paris, and he is so proud of his service in the French Army that he parades every 14 July with all the other veterans. In some cases, women even become the guardians of male values. Speaking of the heroine of her novel, who is based on a woman belonging to a male-dominated, colonizing society, Mimi says: “Women who have that blood in their veins are generally the guardians of the law, of traditions, they are strong, solid, zealous” (127).

Cardinal argues that history is often used as a justification for male-dominated social and linguistic structures. It is projected as something unchanging and inevitable, and it assigns women a subordinate place. “History is like our democracies, it is misogynous, it is made neither for women nor by women, and yet women are half of it” (Les Pieds-Noirs, 35). History simply excludes women. Two characters in Comme si de rien n'était, who listen to a radio broadcast describing Nelson Mandela's release from prison, speculate on the role of Winnie Mandela in events in South Africa. They realize that nobody will ever know her role, nor that of Raïssa Gorbachev in Russia, or Walesa's wife in Poland. The character named Jeanne tries to question her grandmother about her past, but, although this woman has lived through two world wars and many personal crises, she has nothing to say. She has been robbed of the words to describe her history, and all she can do is smile, go on with her knitting, and say: “Ah, Jeanne, if my knitting could talk” (103).

Some of the women in this novel do try to acquire a language of their own. Solange, for example, makes up a crossword that will reflect her own views and discourse. Although her first attempt is unsuccessful, she remains determined to find “her own definitions, not those of the dictionary” (119). The dictionary, of course, codifies a discourse constructed by men. The character named Monique also seeks to find her own system of happiness, and refuses to allow her friend to impose the usually accepted discourse of happiness on her. She declares: “I have a gift for happiness” (37), and she argues that individuals must find fulfillment in their own way. Consequently, she refuses to condemn those who seek it in what are usually considered sadomasochistic “perversions.”

The political situation in Eastern Europe also serves as a model of how those who have been silenced may acquire a voice. Mimi sees events there as the same attempt to achieve equality and freedom that communism itself once was. She declares: “All progress made by humanity comes from the revolt of slaves” (54). But there is a danger in this process. The young Poles who reject communism have no coherent philosophy with which to replace it. As a result, they risk becoming victims of a new authoritarianism imposed by Solidarity or the Church. Simone fears that Gorbachev will impose an old-style imperialist regime on the nations of Eastern Europe which have no ideology of their own with which to oppose him. She is dismayed by what she sees in these countries because “she had believed History with a capital H was going to be told differently, that everything would be different. … Not even a year, and already the old powers are coming back, with masks, new clothes. … As if nothing had happened” (148).

While rejecting authoritarian systems and the language that embodies them, Marie Cardinal's writings emphasize the need to replace them with one that will not, in its turn, become authoritarian. What is needed is a language that allows for communion, for a two-way passage of words and thoughts, a system that accords freedom to the other. This is why she rejects a specifically feminist discourse, which would create “another ghetto, the one of feminine writing” (Autrement dit, 89). What she wants is “equality, justice, and sharing” (Autrement dit, 96). This is what the people of Eastern Europe seek, and Simone senses this as she watches televised images of people in the Baltic states forming human chains by holding hands. She sees in this “a desire to meet one another, touch one another, see one another, hear one another” (87).

Cardinal often uses the word “culture” to describe the area of free discourse and respect for others that she seeks. Culture is something inherited from the past, but within which the individual may play a role, make a contribution, while also drawing from it. “Culture is not to be undergone, but to be digested, known, understood, and, above all, to be made,” she writes (La Médée d'Euripide, 44). Unlike history, culture is not static, but it may be changed: “History swallows what the powers that be make it swallow, and it takes the direction these powers make it take. Culture is nourished by individuals and is free” (La Médée d'Euripide, 60). What she herself wants to do is move culture towards a recognition of women, to reject the image of woman created by history and “replace it, not with another single image, but by many images” (La Médée d'Euripide, 45).

Mimi attempts to write a novel that will reflect this idea of culture, but she produces a work that tends to impose a single, authoritarian presence. Simone points out that Mimi's novel is really an examination of Mimi's own problems, in which her presence forms the core of the work. What makes Comme si de rien n'était a new departure in Cardinal's oeuvre is that it attempts to create a form that will embody the kind of work that Mimi is seeking. The viewpoint and the voice constantly shift from one passage to another, in an attempt to create a less authoritarian text in which one viewpoint or voice does not dominate. The reader has to shift attention, to readjust to different characters, and to adopt a variety of perspectives. The fragmentary nature of the text, its refusal of a univocal central authority, is emphasized by a scene that acts as a mise en abyme of this aspect of the text: Simone sits in front of her television using the remote control to move rapidly from one channel to another.

The predominance of women characters in Comme si de rien n'était further establishes the text as one that rejects male domination. Only in the section after the main text does female preponderance disappear. Even here, however, the effect is to destroy the idea of male domination, for most of the men listed are peripheral to the main text, and are viewed as playing a role in the lives of female characters. This is particularly evident in the case of Mimi's lovers, who are simply listed, with dates and an indication of their profession. This is an obvious reversal of the usual hierarchy that sees a man's “mistresses” as a function of his life and success.

Comme si de rien n'était tries to create a plurality of female voices in which women may commune with one another. Most of the conversations recorded in it take place between women. At the same time, men are not excluded, for they also converse with women. However, while there is an attempt not to impose an authoritarian, female viewpoint, Cardinal does privilege certain characters in order to express her concerns. Mimi, Simone, Georges, and Solange do acquire more importance in the text than other characters. But the section at the end of the book counterbalances this by conveying the idea that no individual is intrinsically more important than another. It lists a series of characters and historic personalities, giving an “objective” summary of each one's life. Subjects such as a taxi driver, a soldier killed in 1942, and a Canadian engineer are given as much importance as Kant and Hegel.

Of course, no text is totally without a central, organizing tendency, for the writer always exercises some control over what he or she produces. Nor can the writer's personal experiences and attitudes remain completely absent from the text. In Comme si de rien n'était, there are several experiences and characters that we know, from other books by Cardinal, to be borrowed from her own life. The grandmother who is unable to talk about her past, the woman who devotes her life to volunteer work, Mimi's Algerian background are examples of this. In this instance, however, they are depicted as belonging to the lives of several different subjects. The writer disperses herself, as it were, throughout the novel, thus minimizing the centralizing tendency.

As well as avoiding a strong central organizing tendency, this dispersal may be seen as a reflection of women's experience. Carolyn Durham argues that “the multiple tasks of domestic life and the priority that women learn to grant to the needs of others result in a fragmentation of female time and energy.”2 Cardinal herself says that “women are accustomed to dividing themselves—or multiplying themselves.”3 The fragmented nature of female experience is further illustrated by the fact that many characters are shown at various stages of their lives. Simone's narrative about her feelings when she learns of Mimi's illness makes the same point. It is split into short passages that are scattered throughout the novel before being presented a second time towards the end when she reads through her manuscript.

Cardinal is also making another point by taking up a second time the passages written by Simone. A first step towards the point that she wants to make may be found in an earlier novel called Une Vie pour deux, in which a woman writes of her life while imagining the life of another woman. The text shifts between first-person and third-person narrative, between “I” and “she” in such a way that the two personalities seem to merge. Carolyn Durham sees this as an attempt to create an identity that combines the traditional, alienated female identity that is part of another's discourse with that of a free, creative subject. It produces a text that “simultaneously marks the individual's dual nature as subject, as both consciousness and existence in the world.”4 In Comme si de rien n'était, this is also the case when Simone becomes creator of a narrative that she later reads. She is, at that point, creative subject and object being read, producer of discourse and object within it.

The quotation of material used earlier in the text may also be seen as a means of capturing yet another aspect of women's experience of reality. This experience is, in many ways, one of repetition, for, as the object of male discourse, women are the many identities repeatedly imposed on them. They are many stereotypes, and “stereotypes embody generalized repetition and repetitious generalities.”5 At the same time, women as individuals may attempt to create for themselves any number of free identities at any number of times. Repetition thus becomes a way of representing “the multiplicity of both the individual and the collective female self.”6

It is clear, however, that, despite its repetitions and its loose structure, Comme si de rien n'était does not reject all structure. It functions within a fairly obvious framework, and it is controlled to some degree. There are a series of identifiable characters whose experiences are narrated as coherent blocks. The list of subsidiary characters at the end provides further stability and order by giving information that fills gaps left in the body of the text. Cardinal does not want to destroy all framework, but to achieve a certain vagueness; not to refuse all identity, but to reject definitive and fixed identities. “I like to be vague,” she says. “But I would like all human beings to have the freedom to be vague, and also all men to have the freedom to be vague” (Autrement dit, 44). Comme si de rien n'était attempts to create this vagueness, to occupy the space between total freedom and total control. One might compare Cardinal's goal to that of Euripides, of whom she writes: “Euripides is subversive. Yet he respects the rules of dramatic writing” (La Médée d'Euripide, 29, 31).

Comme si de rien n'était appears to depict mainly characters who are victims of imposed, authoritarian language. Even those, like Simone and Mimi, who realize that they have been victims, do so at a time when all they can do is lament a wasted life. It looks as though these women, like the people of Eastern Europe, can do little for themselves, and that things will still go on “as if nothing had happened.” And yet, the title of this novel may be read in a different way. It may be seen as implying that something has happened, and that things cannot, therefore, go on as if this were not the case. Two women in particular show that, indeed, something has happened and that this changes their attitude to their lives. Even if their struggle for self-expression is not entirely successful, they have at least begun that struggle. The first of these two is Solange, whose attempt to create her own crossword puzzle shows, on a modest level, a desire to choose her own words and her own definitions within rules and a system that will enable others to communicate with her and to enter her mind. Other individuals will have to exercise their own freedom to choose words, but within limits established by her. The other example is set by Simone and her desire to dream. For her, words are communication, but they provoke images, dreams, and associations that enable her imagination to take flight. They carry meaning because of the rules of grammar and usage, but they are springboards for the imagination. The texts that she writes are the embodiment of this use of words to find freedom within rules.

Beyond these two women and their efforts is, of course, the text of Comme si de rien n'était itself. By its demonstration of the way language may carry violence, by its depiction of victims who struggle within this language, and by its very form, this novel carries the message that language must be freed. It is itself the best demonstration that things cannot go on as if nothing had happened.


  1. I have used the following editions of Cardinal's works, all of which are published in Paris: Autrement dit (Grasset/Livre de Poche, 1977), Une Vie pour deux (Grasset/Livre de Poche, 1978), La Médée d'Euripide, Avant-propos et texte français de Marie Cardinal (Grasset, 1987), Les Pieds-Noirs (Belfond, 1988), Comme si de rien n'était (Grasset/Livre de Poche, 1990). All translations from these works are my own.

  2. Carolyn A. Durham, The Contextures of Feminism: Marie Cardinal and Multicultural Literacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) 43.

  3. Quoted by Durham, Contexture 43.

  4. Carolyn A, Durham, “Patterns of Influence: Simone de Beauvoir and Marie Cardinal,” French Review 60. 3 (1987): 346.

  5. Durham, Contextures 65.

  6. Durham, “Patterns of Influence” 347.

Marie-Paule Ha (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Ha, Marie-Paule. “Outre-Mer/Autre Mère: Cardinal and Algeria.” Romance Notes 36, no. 3 (spring 1996): 315-23.

[In the following essay, Ha explores the similarities between Cardinal's search for personal identity within mother-daughter relationships and her search for national identity between Algeria and France.]

The critical works that have been devoted to Marie Cardinal tend to focus mainly on either feminist issues such as female textuality, female identity and female discourse or on psychoanalytical discussions that center on her rapport to her mother.1 In these readings, Cardinal's relationship to Algeria is either ignored or broached in an unproblematic way.2 This essay proposes to examine the complexity of Marie Cardinal's relationship to Algeria which she refers to as her Motherland. This complexity arises from the fact that as pied-noir, the writer belongs both to France, the Me(re)tropolis, and Algeria, the Outre-Mer, which are presented in her works as diametrically opposite. I will study the ambiguity of this dual relationship through an analysis of Cardinal's shifting position vis-à-vis these two sites which I show to be highly problematic when one recontextualizes her narrative in the history of French colonialism.

Contrary to the critical tradition which sees Cardinal, her mother and Algeria as equal victims of the colonial patriarchal oppression emanating from the Me(re)tropolis,3 I will argue that there is in fact a parallelism between Cardinal's relationships to her mother and to the Me(re)tropolis. It is her alienation from both of these maternal figures that leads her to seek out substitutes in her “chosen” Motherland which is also the “Other land,” both the land of the colonized others and the locus posited as the Other to the Me(re)tropolis. Of all her writings to date, it is in Les Mots pour le dire that Cardinal explores at greatest length her love-hate relation to her mother in the course of her psychoanalytical cure back in the Me(re)tropole. The mother that is evoked in her souvenirs is alternatively idolized and vilified. In one of the sessions with her psychiatrist, the narrator recalls her deep anguish for failing to live up to the mother's expectations and be worthy of her love: “Je ne cessais jamais d'espérer qu'un jour je trouverais ce qui la rendrait heureuse, encore plus heureuse et plus belle, ce qui effacerait ce malentendu entre nous, cette impossibilité où j'étais, je ne savais pourquoi, de lui plaire complètement” (108). This conviction that she could never please her mother is linked both to her idealization of the latter and to the belief that there was only one true love in the mother's life, namely that all-consuming love for the dead daughter. The idealized mother is later on thrown off her pedestral as the narrator brings out her mother's “saloperie.” In telling the daughter that the latter was the unwanted child that she tried unsuccessfully to abort, the mother was in fact executing a second abortion after her first failure fourteen years ago. Les Mots' narrator evokes with bitterness her reaction to the mother's revelation:

Ce que j'ai appellé la saloperie de ma mère ce n'était pas d'avoir voulu avorter (…), sa saloperie c'était au contraire de n'avoir pas été au bout de son désir profond, de n'avoir pas avorté quand il le fallait; puis d'avoir continué à projeter sa haine sur moi alors que je bougeais en elle, et enfin de m'avoir raconté son crime minable, ses pauvres tentatives de meurtre. Comme si ayant raté son coup elle le reprenait quatorze ans après, en sécurité, sans risque d'y laisser sa peau.


The psychoanalytical cure leads the narrator to realize her highly contradictory attitude towards her dead mother as she admits that: “De ma mère, maintenant, j'ai le souvenir de l'avoir aimée à la folie au cours de mon enfance, puis de l'avoir haïe …” (86).

This love-hate rapport with the mother is reproduced in Cardinal's relation to the Me(re)tropole, for in more than one way, the maternal space overlaps with the me(re)tropolitan space. The mother's world is dominated by bourgeois values imported from France. Early on in life, the mother inculcated the daughter with a set of behavior that was presented as apposite the Me(re)tropole where, we read, “il fallait sans arrêt bien se tenir … un endroit où je n'avais pas le droit d'enlever mes chaussures et de marcher pieds nus, un endroit où il était interdit de prononcer un mot à table …” (179-80). Both the mother's and the me(re)tropolitan worlds are experienced by the narrator as a stifling space regulated by numerable moral, religious and social interdictions. Yet if the Me(re)tropole is often evoked as a land of exile where she never feels totally at ease, on two separate occasions the narrator in Les Mots very unself-consciously re-places herself within the Me(re)tropolitan bosom through re-inscribing her writing and herself in the French linguistic and cultural “patrimoine.” After presenting her manuscript to her husband, Jean-Pierre, the narrator expresses her anxiety about being evaluated by the latter who has, we are told “de notre langue … une connaissance si profonde, presque amoureuse!” (267 emphasis added). A few pages later, in her description of her friend André's modern art work, the narrator remarks how unfamiliar she was with his painting, she who grew up nourished of “la splendeur des chefs-d'oeuvre de notre culture” (278 emphasis added) which she inherited from her mother and teachers.

The parallelism of Cardinal's ambiguous relations to her mother and to the Me(re)tropole comes out most forcefully in her description of the Pieds-Noirs' status vis-à-vis France. In Les Pieds-Noirs, a large format picture book that recounts what its author refers to as “the family saga” of the French Algerians, Cardinal undertakes a detailed analysis of what it means to be Pied-Noir. If to be Pied-Noir is to belong to two places at the same time, to be “d'ici et d'ailleurs,” (Pieds-Noirs 9), a Pied-Noir also sees himself or herself being categorized as a second-class citizen in relation to the “francaoui,” or the “Français de France,” who, Cardinal writes in Autrement dit, “nous faisait sentir que, dans la hiérarchie de la civilisation, nous étions nettement une marche en-dessous de lui et nous ne le contestions pas car tout ce qui venait de France était une promotion” (21). This relegation of the Pieds-Noirs to a status inferior to the “francaoui” in the eyes of the Me(re)tropole echoes Cardinal's own perception of herself as the less than perfect daughter who could never quite compete with, not to say replace, her dead sister in the maternal heart. Yet in spite of this, Les Mots' narrator is not to be discouraged from finding ways to win the mother over. We read how the young girl took great pains in searching a treasure for the mother, scratching with her bare fingers the ground in the hope of discovering diamonds or emeralds. Instead of showing appreciation for the collection of treasures the daughter presented to her, the mother responds angrily by saying: “Ne laisse pas traîner ces saletés dans la maison” (89). A similar kind of relation binds the Pieds-Noirs to the Me(re)tropole who, we read in Au Pays de mes racines, in their childlike passion for the Motherland: “s'obstinaient … à vouloir lui garder cette terre pour pouvoir continuer à lui offrir des branches de jasmin, des couronnes de fleurs d'oranger, du vin à quatorze degrés, du blé noir, des fruits gonflés de jus, des poissons d'or et d'argent” (68). Like Les Mots' narrator, all these efforts failed to touch the heart of the Me(re)tropole in whose eyes the Pieds-Noirs remain second class French citizens.

It is out of despair of ever succeeding in gaining the mother's love and integrating into her world of me(re)tropolitan values that the narrator in Les Mots decides to turn to the Other. Since the mother, we read, “avait atteint un tel niveau de dévouement et de générosité qu'il m'était impossible de la rejoindre,” the daughter had no alternative but to take “le chemin de la cuisine, des écuries, du jardin ou de la cave et, là, j'arrivais à vivre. J'allais rejoindre ceux qui me faisaient la vie belle, ceux que j'aimais et qui m'aimaient en retour” (114). In the indigenous world, the young Cardinal found and founded a new family among the Arab men and women around her. Whatever affection that was denied her by her parents, she sought it in the home outside home: “Le repos, la gaieté, le jeu, la musique, les contes, c'était en dehors de ma famille que je les trouvais. Sur les épaules de Kader, dans le giron couscoussier de la mère de Kader, ma main dans la main de Barded …” (Pays 50). Not only did she consider these men as substitutes for her absent father, she also found other mothers among women such as Carmen and Daïba whose lullabies she preferred to her own mother's (Pays 27). Yet the ultimate primal Mother is Algeria herself as the narrator in Les Mots proclaims: “… l'Algérie, c'était ma vraie mère. Je la portais en moi comme un enfant porte dans ses veines le sang de ses parents” (112). A visceral bonding tied her to this Motherland of hers. Writing twenty-four years after her departure from Algeria, Cardinal admits in Au Pays de mes racines that her relation to the latter has not changed: “je ne peux pas ne pas penser que c'est chez moi là-bas, que c'est là-bas, que je suis née, que c'est là-bas que j'ai commencé à regarder, à comprendre, à entendre, à aimer. M'arracher l'Algérie c'est arracher ma tête, mes tripes, mon coeur et mes âmes” (73).

All through Cardinal's writings, this Motherland is presented as the Other land, that is, the Me(re)tropole's Other. As we have noted earlier, France often appears in the young girl's eyes as “le territoire de l'ennui, le tribunal, l'examen perpétuel” (Pieds-Noirs 48) where all spontaneity is repressed. The ancestral land of the mother is viewed as pure hell: “Je détestais la France, ma famille bien élevée, les rois, les châteaux … Pour moi, c'était l'enfer: toujours faire attention à se tenir correctement, parler correctement, à manger correctement, à être habillée correctement …” (Autrement 15). In complete contrast to the hell-like existence in the Me(re)tropole, life in Algeria is portrayed as paradise on earth, totally free from any restriction or repression. Indeed the most recurring topos in Cardinal's evocation of her Algerian childhood memories is the Edenic garden which, in opposition to the drab, dreary and sordid Parisian streets, is depicted in highly sensuous and colorful tones. Recalling the time spent on the family farm in the Algerian countryside, Les Mots' narrator registers the glorious sights and senses of the gardens in a language whose poetry rivals that of Colette:

Dans les jardins c'était la folie des narines du matin à la nuit: le jasmin, l'oranger, le figuier, le datura, le cyprès et, pour finir, après l'arrosage du soir, juste après que la terre a ouvert son coeur à la fraîcheur, le parfum subtil et joyeux des belles-de-nuit. Pareil pour les couleurs. Sur le fond ocre rouge des terres sérieuses de la culture s'alignaient le vert-noir des vignes et le vert-gris des oliviers, le beige des ceps et des troncs, sagement, sous le bleu uniforme et usé d'un ciel trop éclairé.


It is also significant that the garden should serve as the only locale where the daughter in Les Mots can enter into harmonious accord with the mother. In contrast to the overcivilized France which prides herself of her “culture” and tradition, Algeria is reduced to being mere elemental nature which would enable the narrator in Au Pays de mes racines to recover “une palpitation archaïque, primaire, primordiale” (88) and thereby effect a return to the semiotic, the maternal space par excellence.4

Yet as the Other land, Algeria is not only the Other of the Me(re)tropolis, for Cardinal's M(other)land also happens to be the land of the Other, namely the colonized others. While Cardinal has more than once denounced the colonial power in her work, she never quite links her own history to that of colonialism. In fact, she makes a point to separate the two histories when at the beginning of Les Pieds-Noirs she establishes an opposition between “Histoire” or “History” with a capital “H” and “histoires” or “stories” with a small “h”: “Le temps de l'insouciance. Quand le souci de l'Histoire ne pèse pas et que les histoires de famille prennent le dessus” (9). She further associates History with France and the Metropolitan French as opposed to the Pieds-Noirs' stories: “Si l'histoire de la vie privée des Français de France est indissociable de l'Histoire de la France, pour nous les Pieds-Noirs, l'histoire qui nous est propre s'inscrit d'abord dans nos histoires” (9).

This dissociation of the Pieds-Noirs' stories from France's History, in particular the History of colonial conquest in the course of which Algeria is peripherized into an “Outre-Mer” dominion of France, greatly problematizes Cardinal's dual relation to the Me(re)tropole and to her “Autre Mère.” The complexity and complicity of Cardinal's positioning to the land of her mother and her M(Other)land emerge most clearly in the shifty and slippery use of pronoun shifters such as “chez moi,” “nous,” and “notre” that are scattered throughout her writings. In several of her works, Algeria is repeatedly referred to as “chez moi,” “mon pays,” or “ma terre” which Cardinal purposely contrasts to France as its Other. For example when describing the seasons in Algeria, we read that “Dans mon pays les saisons ne sont pas comme en France” (Au Pays 25). In fact, on more than one occasion, the plural first person pronoun “nous” is used to exclude the Me(re)tropole, as in this remark in Pieds-Noirs: “Pour elles [les Françaises], les Français d'Algérie c'était Pépé le Moko … Les Français se faisaient de nous une idée vraiment folklorique. C'était à mourir de rire” (74-75). Yet we have noted earlier on, this does not prevent Les Mots' narrator from re-inserting herself unproblematically in the “patrimoine” of the Me(re)tropole in her reference to “notre langue” and “la splendeur des chefs-d'oeuvre de notre culture.”

More perplexing still is Cardinal's relation to the Algerians. We have seen her passionate attachment to Algeria and her (I believe) genuine affection for the Arabs. Even if she can proclaim that Youssef, her family's gardener, is “mon prochain, que j'aime comme moi-même” (Pays 15), this declaration of brotherly love never leads her to treat the Algerians as her equals. They remain her subalterns all through her life in Algeria, always portrayed in the role of servants as shown in this evocation in Les Mots: “Alors que l'Algérie déchiquetée montrait au grand jour ses plaies infectées, moi, je faisais revivre un pays d'amour et de tendresse … Je conduisais chez le docteur les ouvriers, les employés, les “domestiques” qui avaient peuplé mon enfance!” (112, emphasis added). Undoubtedly, with those faithful servants such as Barded whose devotion equals that of Uncle Tom,5Les Mots' narrator has developed strong emotional bonds. Yet the rest of the millions of Algerians remain outsiders to her whom she would not include in her “nous” or “mon peuple” while at the same time claiming Algeria as “ma terre” or “mon pays.” In fact, the “mon peuple” or “nous” in Cardinal usually refer to the French Algerians as she makes clear in Au Pays: “Chez nous, dans les familles d'origine française” (37) or in Les Pieds-Noirs where she proclaims her allegiance to her people: “Personnellement je suis fière d'être une Pied-Noir. Je ne renie pas mon peuple, je l'aime” (80). It is perhaps not surprising that as Pied-Noir,Au Pays' narrator would feel at times like a stranger in her “own” land especially when she visits La Casbah, the “native” district of Algiers: “La Casbah autour de laquelle la ville européenne s'enroulait était un lieu de dépaysement, l'étranger, dans lequel nous nous enfonçions le coeur un peu battant avec, inconsciemment, l'impression de violer—touristes dans notre propre ville” (56). Once more, how do the inclusions and exclusions work in this “nous” and “notre”?6

Given Cardinal's ambiguous relationship to the people of her M(Other)land, one wonders on what ground the author of Les Pieds-Noirs could speak of the Algerian War of Liberation as “une guerre fratricide” (80). The irony is here twofold: firstly this war of liberation was waged in a land which Cardinal celebrates as the land of freedom, a paradox that shows not only how unrelated her Algeria is to that of the millions of Algerians, but also that the freedom enjoyed by white settlers like herself is bought at the cost of the enslavement of an entire people. Secondly, calling this war a fratricidal war is to forget that Cardinal's ancestors were once the Other to her M(Other)land who turned the indigenous people of Algeria into others in their own land.


  1. For feminist readings of Cardinal, see Christiana Angelfors's La Double conscience: la prise de conscience féminine chez Colette, Simone de Beauvoir et Marie Cardinal, Caroline Durham's The Contexture of Feminism, Françoise Lionnet's “Métissage, Emancipation, and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers,” Anne Donadey Roch's “Répétition, maternité et transgression dans trois oeuvres de Marie Cardinal” or Colette Hall's “L'Ecriture féminine and the Search of the Mother.” A psychoanalytical interpretation of Cardinal is to be found in Bruno Bettelheim's afterword to the English translation of Les Mots pour le dire, Phil Powrie's “Reading for Pleasure: Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire and the Text as (re)Play of Oedipal Configurations” or Marguerite Le Clézio's “Mother and Motherland.”

  2. The one exception to date is Winifred Woodhull's reading in her Transformations of the Maghreb. In her analysis of Cardinal's Au Pays de mes racines, Woodhull points out how “Algeria” as a trope functions in a politically contradictory way, being at the same time politicized and essentialized.

  3. See Françoise Lionnet's “Métissage, Emancipation, and Female Textuality” and Anne Donadey Roch's “Répétition, maternité et transgression.”

  4. In Transformations of the Maghreb, Winifred Woodhull proposes a Kritevean reading of the archaic pleasures generated by the figure of “Algeria” in Au Pays in terms of the semiotic, that is, the signifying processes associated with the presymbolic “maternal” relations.

  5. In Au Pays de mes racines, we read how the servant, Barded, himself an Arab, would use violence against his own people in order to protect the sanctity of the land of his Pied-Noir masters: “Barded était un employé de ma famille. De cette terre, qu'il défendait jusqu'à frapper cruellement quiconque essayait de la souiller, il ne possédait qu'un tout petit lopin bien loin de l'endroit où les chèvres avaient pissé” (12-13). These Uncle Tom characters are almost permanent fixtures in colonial literature whose function serves to prove the “humaness” of the colonizers' and the colonized's relations. Some of Barded's counterparts are the Corporal in Margurite Duras' Barrage contre le Pacifique and Kamante in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.

  6. For an interesting discussion of the slipperiness of pronoun shifter in identity politics, see Barbara Johnson's comments on Louis Gates Jr.'s paper.

Works Cited

Angelfors, Christiana. La Double conscience: la prise de conscience féminine chez Colette, Simone de Beauvoir et Marie Cardinal. Lund: Lund UP, 1989.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Afterword. The Words to Say it. Trans. Pat Goodheart. Cambridge (Mass): Can Vactor & Goodheart, 1983. 297-308.

Cardinal, Marie. Les Mots pour le dire. Paris: Grasset, 1975.

———. Autrement dit. Paris: Grasset, 1977.

———. Au Pays de mes racines. Paris: Grasset, 1980.

———. Les Pieds-Noirs. Paris: Belfond, 1988.

Dinesen, Isak. Out of Africa. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Donadey Roch, Anne. “Répétition, maternité et transgression dans trois oeuvres de Marie Cardinal.” The French Review 64:4 (1992): 567-77.

Duras, Marguerite. Un Barrage contre le Pacifique. Paris: Gallimard, 1950.

Durham, Caroline. The Contexture of Feminism: Marie Cardinal and Multicultural Literacy. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1992.

Hall, Colette. “L'Ecriture féminine and the Search of the Mother in the Works of Violette Leduc and Marie Cardinal.” In Women in French Literature. Ed. Michel Guggenheim. Stanford: Stanford French & Italian Studies Anma Libri, 1988. 231-38.

Johnson, Barbara. “Responses.” In Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Eds. Houston Baker Jr. & Patricia Redmond. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989. 39-44.

Le Clézio, Marguerite. “Mother and Motherland: The Daughter's Quest for Origins.” Stanford French Review 5 Winter (1981): 381-89.

Lionnet, Françoise. “Métissage, Emancipation, and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers.” In Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Eds. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 260-78.

Powrie, Phil. “Reading for Pleasure: Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire and the Text as (re)Play of Oedipal Configurations.” In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives. Eds. Margaret Atack & Phil Powrie. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990. 163-76.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993.

Marie-Paule Ha (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Ha, Marie-Paule. “The (M)Otherland in Marie Cardinal.” Romance Quarterly 43, no. 4 (fall 1996): 206-16.

[In the following essay, Ha argues that Cardinal's opinions concerning the colonization of Algeria and Pied-Noirs/native relations are both condescending and naïve.]

A common critical move in discussing Marie Cardinal's relation to Algeria, her motherland, is to conflate the latter with the maternal body and to see all three as equal victims of colonialism. For instance, in Françoise Lionnet's reading of Les Mots pour le dire,1 the tragic fates of the narrator and her mother, both Pieds-Noirs, have been unproblematically assimilated to the colony's struggle for independence: “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 women and the geographical body of Algeria by the discourses of patriarchy and colonialism” (205, emphasis mine). Such a conflation rests on Lionnet's eliding two distinct forms of oppression, namely colonialism and sexism,2 both of which are attributed to patriarchal domination. Within the colonial history that frames Cardinal's autobiographical novels, this narrative of the colonized and white women sharing the “same” oppression is, to say the least, highly problematic. For if the daughter and the mother in Les Mots do suffer from patriarchal sexism, their status as not only Pieds-Noirs but upper class landowning Pieds-Noirs puts them at double remove from the colonized. The fact that women and the colonized are oppressed by the same power does not necessarily entail that their oppression is the same.3 In this essay, I propose to explore the highly complex gender/race/class issue through what Edward Said calls a “contrapuntal reading”4 of Cardinal's celebration of her motherland, a reading that will replace her own personal narrative within the larger narrative of France's colonization of Algeria. This analysis aims to delineate the problematic nature of Cardinal's relation to Algeria, for what she calls her motherland is also the “other land,” both the land of the colonized others and the locus posited as the Other to the metropolis.

In many of her writings, especially those presented as auto-biographical, such as Les Mots pour le dire,Autrement dit,Au Pays de mes racines, or Pieds-Noirs, Cardinal accords a central place to Algeria and to what Algeria meant and still means to her. In Les Mots pour le dire, which relates the events of her childhood leading to her mental illness, the narrator proclaims that “l'Algérie, c'était ma vraie mère. Je la portais en moi comme un enfant porte dans ses veines le sang de ses parents” (112). Algeria is repeatedly referred to in her work as “chez moi,” “mon pays,” “ma terre.” More than once, Cardinal reiterates the visceral bonding that existed and still exists between her and her birthplace. Writing twenty-four years after she left Algeria, Cardinal admits that nothing has changed for her as far as her motherland is concerned: “je ne peux pas ne pas penser que c'est chez moi là-bas, que c'est là-bas que je suis née, que c'est là-bas que j'ai commencé à regarder, à comprendre, à entendre, à aimer. M'arracher l'Algérie c'est arracher ma tête, mes tripes, mon coeur et mes âmes. C'est chez moi, il n'y a pas à dire …” (Pays 73).

This “là-bas” is often conjured up in a highly lyrical and idyllic language. In Au Pays de mes racines, which is a narrative of the author's first return to post-independence Algeria, we find a representation of the former homeland as the lost paradise5 where the narrator fancies herself as having once lived in perfect harmony amidst nature and men: “Là-bas, vivre c'était vivre, c'était se livrer aux mouvements coutumiers de l'humanité sans en souffrir, s'en plaindre ou s'en réjouir, mais les acceptant tels qu'ils sont” (Pays 6). Hence her departure from Algeria is understandably perceived as a fall from grace, which is evoked in terms strongly reminiscent of the biblical Fall narrative: “Depuis que je ne vis plus en Algérie, il n'y a pour moi que labeur, vacances, luttes. Il n'y a plus d'instants où, sans restriction, je suis en parfaite harmonie avec le monde” (Pays 7). Indeed, one of the most recurrent topos associated with her childhood memories of Algeria is the garden. For example, in Pieds-Noirs, a large format picture book that recounts what its author refers to as “the family saga” of the French Algerians, the garden is depicted as the Edenic space in which the young narrator came to grips, Adam-like, with the world through the language of nature or nature as language: “Les jardins de ma jeunesse sont ce qu'il y a de meilleur en moi. Ils foisonnent, inoubliables. J'y ai compris tout ce que je suis capable de comprendre. Ils avaient de nombreux langages que j'écoutais avec attention: celui de la couleur, celui de l'odeur, celui des formes; ce sont les langages les plus simples, les plus évidents” (15). It is in this Edenic site where other humans and human elements are conspicuously absent that the narrator experiences total bliss:

j'étais dans le cirque du bonheur. J'étais consciente d'être là. Je n'écris pas cela cinquante ans plus tard, la tête pleine de nostalgie, je n'ai aucune nostalgie. Je savais que le bonheur entrait en moi, j'étais attentive à son poids et à sa qualité. C'est en fonction de ce bonheur-là que, pour le restant de mes jours, j'ai estimé ensuite le bonheur. J'étais heureuse à en pleurer et amoureuse du monde, de ce monde, je n'en désirais pas d'autre.


All through her writings, the (m)otherland is posited as the Other of the metropolis from which Cardinal constantly distances herself. While recognizing her double cultural heritage, the narrator in Au Pays makes it clear that the only place where she really feels at home is her birthplace: “Pour la géographie c'est simple, il n'y a que celle de mon lieu de naissance qui me convienne absolument” (24). France is seen as an alien place in spite of her attractiveness: “Ce n'est pas que je ne trouve pas la France belle, au contraire; mais ce n'est pas chez moi” (Pays 24). In her childhood memories of France to which she was sent back during the summer vacations, the metropolis was recalled as “le territoire de l'ennui, le tribunal, l'examen perpétuel” (Pieds-Noirs 48). There, she had to repress her spontaneity and watch every gesture and movement for “Il fallait montrer que j'étais bien élevée, que je savais me tenir à table, que je faisais la révérence aux moments opportuns …, ne pas marcher pieds nus, parler correctement, ne jamais employer d'expressions “vulgaires”, interdiction d'avoir l'accent, la moindre intonation algérienne …” (Pieds-Noirs 48). Embodied in this rigidity of life in the metropolis is the oppressiveness of bourgeois ideology to which both the narrator and her mother in Les Mots pour le dire fell victims. Ironically enough, the mother whose life has been ruined by the metropolitan-imported bourgeois values continues to represent and reproduce them. In the lecture she delivers to the daughter on the subject of menstruation, the mother attempts to instill a disgust for her body and sexuality (Mots 138-41). In contrast to this repressive and stifling metropolitan space, Algeria is portrayed as the site of elemental nature, totally free and uninhibited. Significantly, it is not in her parents' bedroom, but in the open Algerian beach watching an indigenous couple that the young narrator witnesses the primal scene during which she experiences her own sexual awakening (Pieds-Noirs 23-26).

As the Other land, Algeria is not only the other of the metropolis, but Cardinal's (m)otherland also happens to be the land of the colonized others. It was through a violent act of expropriation that this “other land” became Cardinal's motherland, with the result that the Algerians themselves became Others in their own land. Such displacement6 has caused profound social and psychological estrangement among the indigenous people as noted by Frantz Fanon who wrote in a report to the director of the psychiatric hospital at Blida-Joinville in Algeria in 1953:

Si la psychiatrie est la technique médicale qui se propose de permettre à l'homme de ne plus être étranger à son environnement, je me dois d'affirmer que l'Arabe, aliéné permanent dans son pays, vit dans un état de dépersonalisation absolue. Le statut de l'Algerie? Une déshumanisation systématisée. … La structure sociale existant en Algérie s'opposait à toute tentative de remettre l'individu à sa place.


This observation of the Algerians' complete alienation in their own homeland strangely and poignantly contrasts with Cardinal's lyrical narrative of her carefree, blissful, and harmonious childhood life in Algeria.

The most troubling fact in Cardinal's narrative of her relationship to Algeria is the occlusion of the history of violence as well as that of the violence of history in her texts. For Cardinal, “Histoire” or “History” with a capital H is antithetical to “histoires” with a small h, or stories, an opposition she establishes at the very beginning of Pieds-Noirs. “Le temps de l'insouciance. Quand le souci de l'His-toire ne pèse pas et que les histoires de famille prennent le dessus” (9). She further associates History with France and the metropolitan French as opposed to the Pieds-Noirs' stories: “Si l'histoire de la vie privée des Francais de France est indissociable de l'Histoire de la France, pour nous les Pieds-Noirs, l'histoire qui nous est propre s'incrit d'abord dans nos histoires” (9).

It may be by thus dissociating the Pieds-Noirs' stories from France's history, in particular the history of colonial conquest, that Cardinal could construct the founding myth of her family in Algeria without at all mentioning the historical circumstances leading to their establishment in the colony. In her account of her ancestors' initial settlement in Algeria, Cardinal adopts the traditional pioneers' narrative with the usual evocation of hardship and sacrifice, the forefathers' courage and perseverance in overcoming all odds, and the final well-deserved recompense, a narrative told in the mode of the founding epic of yore:7

Cette terre, les premiers colons s'étaient donné du mal pour la rendre cultivable. Ils avaient asséché les marécages qui grouillaient de vipères et de moustiques à palud-isme. Ils avaient drainé l'eau salée qui imbibait les plaines côtières … Ils s'étaient crevés à la peine sous le soleil. Les fièvres et la fatigue les avaient fait mourir comme les pionniers de légende. …

(Les Mots 154)

In this founding myth, which serves to legitimize her Pied-Noir family's entitlement to the land, no reference is made to the brutal colonial dispossession of the local people to the settlers' benefit, the effect of which continued to adversely affect her Algerian contemporaries. Writing in 1956, Jean-François Lyotard reported in the journal Socialism and Barbarism,

In Algeria, of the 4.5 million hectares actually cultivated, 2 million belong to the Europeans, and precisely 1.5 million to 7,000 colonists. … Since the worst lands are left to the “natives,” the poor soil combined with small landholdings make 70 percent of Muslim farms economically unviable. The formidable mass of peasant smallholders and expropriated peasants cannot find employment either in industry or on the large farms because of mechanization. The fate of the North African peasantry is henceforth clear: it dies of hunger.


Cardinal's historical amnesia8 comes out most scandalously in her account of the circumstances surrounding her ancestors' territorial acquisition in Algeria: “L'ancêtre avait emporté des biens, des meubles, de l'argent. En plus, sitôt arrivé, on lui avait octroyé une concession de quelques milliers d'hectares à déchiffrer. S'il en tirait quelque chose ils lui appartiendraient dans vingt ans” (Autrement dit 21, emphasis mine). Besides passing over the savage colonial wars of conquest, the “En plus” in the statement relegates the whole imperial venture to the realm of the happy accident whose callousness echoes J. R. Seedley's in his claim that the British empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness. The casual nature of the whole enterprise is further reinforced here by the use of the impersonal pronoun “on” that granted immense territorial holdings to the ancestor. Still the most amazing term in Cardinal's account is the verb “octroyer,” which, according to Le Petit Robert, means “Accorder à titre de faveur, de grâce.” The overall impression conveyed here is that the Pieds-Noirs' expropriation of the land took place in the most amiable condition. Even when, later, in Au Pays de mes racines, the narrator mentions briefly the fact of the conquest in relation to her family's settlement, she quickly dismisses the indigenous people's claim to the land by the typical colonial discourse of “natives' inability”:

Peut-être que, avant la conquête de l'Algérie par les Français, toute cette terre en friche appartenait à sa [Barded] famille ou peut-être était-elle le domaine des tribus errantes dont les héririers pouilleux ne savaient même plus où faire pisser leurs chèvres?

(13; emphasis mine)

What is reproduced here, of course, are the arguments that have been traditionally advanced by settlers to rationalize their appropriation of the colonial territory: given their nomadic life style and their incompetence, the “natives” have really no use for the land, which just lies wasted. It is, therefore, only fair that the settlers with their industry and skills should be left to exploit the unutilized resources.9

Not only is the history of colonial conquest omitted in her account of the ancestors' settlement in Algeria, but in her narrative of the fight between her contemporary Pieds-Noirs and the Algerians, Cardinal also depoliticizes the colonized's struggle for independence by framing the historical events in a romantic tale of passion. While stating that she is not trying to excuse her own people, the Pieds-Noirs, the narrator in Au Pays de mes racines explains their savage opposition to the Algerian liberation movement in terms of their equally savage and blinding passion for the land, a land they love beyond reason:

Je ne cherche pas à excuser le peuple des pieds-noirs dont je fais partie. Il est inexcusable. Mais je sais d'où est venue sa perdition: d'un amour passionné … Impossibilité d'imaginer qu'on ne va pas encore copuler avec sa terre et la féconder et la parer. Passion aveugle, brutale, bestiale, stupide, mais passion authentique et archaïquement pure. …


According to the narrator, then, what motivates the terrorist acts of the OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète, the extreme right wing French Secret Army Organization) is not so much a defense of material gains, but a mad love for the land: “Je sais qu'il y avait des intérêts et même, pour une poignée de pieds-noirs, des intérêts importants. Mais ce ne sont pas ces intérêts qui ont fait I'OAS, c'est l'amour aveugle du pays, l'amour fou de cette terre” (68). In her romancing of her fellow Pieds-Noirs' attachment to the land, we find again the same problematic images of an unproblematic life made of elemental pure sensuousness, of perfect communion between humans and nature, a life, we read: “faite de sensations, d'emotions, de sentiments, d'impressions; une vie nerveuse, une vie langoureuse, une vie douloureuse, une vie sensuelle, une vie de pied-noir. Une vie où la communication entre le pays et l'être se fait constamment” (70). Likewise, in the same passage, the Pieds-Noirs' relationship to the land is highly aestheticized (thereby depoliticized) by couching the narrative in an intensely poetic and lyrical language. When the author comments on the Pieds-Noirs' reasons for wanting to keep Algeria for France, we are told not of the exploitation that once benefited both the settlers and the metropolis, but of the Pieds-Noirs' childlike desire to continue to bring back to France priceless (in both senses of valueless and of utmost value) and inoffensive gifts such as: “des branches de jasmin, des couronnes de fleurs d'oranger, du vin à quatorze degrés, du blé noir, des fruits gonflés de jus, des poissons d'or et d'argent” (68).

Besides the erasure of the violence underlying both the founding of the family's wealth and the settlers' continued presence in Algeria, the exploitative power relation between the Pieds-Noirs and the Algerians is often seriously underplayed in Cardinal's work. For example, in Les Mots pour le dire, the evocation of the vineyard harvest scene in the family farm is cast in the mode of idyllic pastoral narrative, a genre widely associated, as Sidonie Smith shows, with the imperial and colonial project.10 The passage shows the narrator's grandmother, the matriarch, at the center of her little universe, busy receiving, we read, “avec du thé à la menthe, les petits propriétaires arabes des environs qui avaient trop peu de vigne pour avoir leur propre cave et faire leur propre vin. Alors ils vendaient leur raisin à ma grand-mère” (157). What has been left out in the narration here is the reason why the Arabs produced so little of the grapes or why so much of the land has been devoted to viticulture among a people whose religion forbids alcohol consumption, a fact that the narrator of Les Mots herself recognizes: “Les ouvri-ers n'en buvaient pas, leur religion le leur interdisait” (158). The explanation lies in precisely the totally disproportionate land distribution among the European settlers and the Arabs as documented in Lyotard's work and in Pierre Bourdieu's The Algerians.

Not only was the best land taken away from the Algerian farmers, but precisely as a result of their territorial dispossession, the fellahs and the former tenant farmers, deprived of their means of livelihood, had to hire themselves out to the colonists at a miserable salary11 to supplement their meager resources. On the basis of the law of demand and supply, some of the white settlers, as Bourdieu points out in Le Déracinement, not content to pay a preposterously low salary to the fellahs, adopted a rotation system so as to avoid having to contribute to the workers' social security. The documentation of the savage exploitation of the Algerian farmers that we find in Bourdieu strangely contrasts with the idyllic depiction of life on Cardinal's family farm. In the reminiscence of Les Mots's narrator of the harvest season, we read:

Ces jours-là, il était beaucoup question de la générosité de ma famille. On savait dans la province que la fête des vendanges était particulièrement fastueuse chez nous. …

Après le repas il y aurait une longue sieste à l'ombre des eucalyptus, pour la digestion. Puis ce serait la fête préparée par les ouvriers, avec des chants, des danses … Par les fenêtres du grand salon toute la famille leur lancera des paquets de tabac, du dentifrice, des savonnettes parfumées au patchouli, de petits miroirs de celluloïd, des peignes, des brosses à dents, des bijoux de pacotille. Un luxe inouï!

(159, emphasis mine)

Within the context of colonial history, the wampum presented here as “luxe inouï” for the poor “natives,” token of the colonizers' “generosity,” requires no further comment.

Given the exploitative nature of the relation between the settlers and the indigenous people, I find it quite difficult to applaud Cardinal, as some critics do, for her so-called “métissage.” For one can celebrate unreservedly the phenomenon of “métissage” or “cultural hybridity” in the colonial context only if one totally overlooks the historical circumstances that led to the unequal encounter of cultures and its resulting tragedy, as elaborated in Fanon's Peau noire masques blancs. If in Au Pays de mes racines the narrator can joyfully exult over her condition of being creole “être une créole est une joie, une pétillance en moi” (23), it is because she belonged to the dominant group that had the power and the freedom to move between cultures. Yet such a choice was not available to the colonized, who were denied access to and recognition by the colonizers' society, a fact that Lyotard analyzed in his discussion of the unequal relation between the French and the Algerians:

No Algerian bourgeois, even if he marries a French woman, even if he apes French manners to perfection, can be admitted to European society. And there is not one of them who has not in the course of his life suffered, under one form or another, an unforgettable humiliation. No European shopkeeper or employee lives in the same building or even the same quarter as the Algerian shopkeeper or employee.


Even if one limits oneself to Cardinal's case, one still has to wonder what kind of métissage hers amounts to. In her praise of the hybridity Les Mots's narrator, Lionnet speaks of her identification with “the Non-European, Third World elements of [her] ‘alien’ culture” and her acceptance of “the privileged difference of métissage” (193). Yet within the history of colonization, these “Non-European, Third World” elements have nothing privileged about them, especially in the colonized's experience. In Pour la revolution africaine, Frantz Fanon presents to us the latter's perspective on the so-called “meeting of cultures”:

On assiste à la destruction des valeurs culturelles, des modalités d'existence. Le lan-gage, l'habillement, les techniques sont dévalorisés … les nations qui entreprennent une guerre coloniale ne se préoccupent pas de confronter des cultures. … L'asservissement, au sens le plus rigoureux, de la population autochtone est la première nécessité. … Pour cela il faut briser ses systèmes de référence. L'expropriation, le dépouillement, la razzia, le meurtre objectif se doublent d'une mise à sac des schèmes culturels. … Le panorama social est destructuré, les valeurs bafouées, écrasées, vidées.


Whatever “Non-European” or “native” elements that make up Cardinal's métissage belong to a debased and mummified culture. In his discussion of the question of “déculturation,” Fanon delineates for us the colonial cultural politics vis-à-vis “native” cultures:

C'est ainsi que l'on assiste à la mise en place d'organismes archaïques, inertes, fonctionnant sous la surveillance de l'oppresseur et calqués caricaturalement sur des institutions autrefois fécondes. … Le souci constamment affirmé de “respecter la culture des populations autochtones” ne signifie donc pas la prise en considération des valeurs portées par la culture. … Bien plutôt on devine dans cette démarche une volonté d'objectiver, d'encapsuler, d'emprisonner, d'enkyster.


In effect, is not the Algeria that is evoked by Cardinal in her Pied-Noir childhood memories precisely the archaic Algeria to which Au Pays's narrator longs to return in the hope of recovering “une palpitation archaique, primaire, primordiale” (88)?12 This escape into the archaic may be read as her refusal to face the messiness of the colonial enterprise as so aptly registered in this remark by Marlow: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (Conrad 19). It is then not surprising to read the narrator in Au Pays express her wish to stay away from people and culture upon her return to Algeria: “Oui, je l'avoue, c'est ce qu'il y a en moi d'archaïque que je recherche et j'ai l'impression que c'est par la terre elle-même que je l'aborderai, pas par les gens. Les gens portent une culture qui embrouille l'ar-chaïsme; je le voudrais brut” (42-43, emphasis mine).

By thus juxtaposing Cardinal's story of her (m)otherland to the history of French colonization, one cannot help feeling more than a trifle troubled by the Pieds-Noirs' narrator referring to the Algerian war of liberation as “une guerre fratricide” (80). Even though in Les Mots the author claims that her most beautiful childhood memories were associated with the time she spent on the family farm playing with the Algerian children, one wonders what happened to those friendships as the playmates grew into adults. The narrator does not seem to be able to sustain this relationship with the Algerians, who play no more role in her later life except as servants. Indeed, in the works we have been discussing, the Algerians we come across are generation-after-generation domestics in their narrator's family, as we read

Ces gens, pour la plupart, naissaient et mouraient là, laissant leur place à leur progéniture. Je jouais avec les enfants de Barded qui avait joué lui-même avec ma mère, dont le père avait joué avec ma grand-mère et le grand-père avec mon arrière-grand-père, et ainsi de suite depuis cent ans passés.

(Les Mots 154)

In what sense were the Algerian servants “brothers” to their Pied-Noir masters, as suggested in the description of the war as a “fratricidal war”? If they were truly the Pieds-Noirs' equals, why then, when speaking of “mon peuple” or “chez nous,” would Cardinal limit herself only to the Algerian French or to what she describes in Au Pays as “Chez nous, dans les families d'origine française,” (37) to the exclusion of the Arabs, while claiming Algeria as “ma terre” and “mon pays”?

Are we then to understand the word “brothers” in the paternalistic terms of an Albert Schweitzer who has been often quoted as saying: “The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother” (qtd. in Achebe 11).

As Benjamin put it so well in his discussion of cultural treasures, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” In our engagement with colonial or postcolonial works that celebrate cultural “métissage” or “hybridity” like those of Cardinal, it is important that we practice a contrapuntal reading by juxtaposing them with texts such as Fanon's Peau noire,Masques blancs, and Pour la révolution africaine, Assia Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia, or Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayed's Le Déracinement, texts of resistance that give us the barbaric underside of colonial history. Only by reading thus would we begin to appreciate and understand both the complexity and complicity of Cardinal's relation to her (m)otherland.


  1. Besides Lionnet, we find a similar conflation in Marguerite Le Clézio, who speaks of “the mother's body and the land, Algeria,” being “metaphorically conjoined as symbols of origins from which the daughter is drastically severed” (385) and in Anne Donadey Roch, who states that “cette relation symbiotique mère-fille est réfletée dans l'attachement que la narratrice porte à son pays” (572).

  2. We read in Autobiographical Voices that “Colonialism, like sexism, is degrading and abject. It is their combined forces that kill ‘the mother and the motherland’ …” (201). Lionnet is not unique in eliding these two distinct forms of oppression. Susan Hardy Aiken in her discussion of Isak Dinesen's work adopts the same premise of the “shared” oppression of women and the colonized. Following Freud's metaphor of female sexuality as “the Dark Continent,” Hélène Cixous, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” likewise establishes a parallel between white women's oppressed plight and that of the colonized by linking the former's emancipatory psychosexual politics to the anticolonial black nationalist movement.

  3. For an illustration of the complexity of gender/race/class conflicts, see Jacklyn Cock's sociological study of the exploitation of black women in South Africa, in which she shows that in a colonial society, race and class can take precedence over gender: “the system of racial domination provides white women with important mechanisms of escape from this structure of constraints [imposed by ‘sex bars’]. The employment of cheap black domestic labour is one instance and this presents a challenge to conventional feminist analysis” (8).

  4. In Culture and Imperialism, Said defines “contrapuntal reading” as a reading that looks at the cultural archive “with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts” (51).

  5. Cardinal's writings on Algeria can be read as the postcolonial development of “l'algéranisme,” which Jean-Robert Henry defines as “l'affirmation littéraire, entre 1895 et 1940, de son identité par le colonat d'Algérie” (8). In fact, as shown by Paul Siblot, Cardinal's works on Algeria participate in a literary current established by a community of Pied-Noir writers such as André Trives, Roland Bacri, or Alain Vircondelet. One common theme in these works is the return to “l'Algérie heureuse,” which is to be recaptured in a narrative of “[m]igration dans le temps et les territoires de l'enfance, pélerinage aux origines, quête d'identité, de vérité, difficile marche vers soi dans les limbes des réminiscences, jusqu'au seuil du présent …” (160).

  6. For a detailed and systematic documentation of the ways in which French colonization by its land policies has destroyed the cultural and economic fabric of Algerian indigenous society, see Pierre Bourdieu's Le Déracinement and the Algerians.

  7. As a counter narrative to Cardinal's epic tale of her ancestors' heroic deeds, one can juxtapose Pierre Bourdieu's historical and sociological documentation of the Pieds-Noirs' settlement in Algeria and its effect on the life of the indigenous people. Bourdieu points out that not only did the colonial state provide the necessary land for the colonists; we read that “it constantly gave them aid in various forms: the creation of the structures that are indispensable for agricultural development such as drainage and irrigation (three-quarters of the irrigated lands belong to the Europeans …), financial and technical assistance, and commercial protection” (The Algerians 122).

  8. It is highly interesting to compare Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire to L'Amour, la fantasia by the Algerian woman writer, Assia Djebar. Like Les Mots,L'Amour is also an auto-biographical novel. As contemporaries, both writers have lived similar events in Algeria albeit from opposite sides, yet their autobiographies are so different. The major contrast between the two lies precisely in the massive presence of history in L'Amour, in which the story of the narrator's life is intimately intertwined with that of colonial conquest and resistance. This link is built into the very narrative structure, which consists of an alternation of chapters on the history of colonial conquest as well as the War of Independence and the narrator's own personal story, thereby showing how the narrator's own identity and that of her people have been profoundly shaped by the history of colonization.

  9. These same arguments, that native Americans had no concept of individual, private territorial ownership in precontact time, have been used by European settlers to justify their expropriation of native American tribal land on a massive scale. For a case study of such occurrence, see Harvey A. Feit's “The Construction of Algonquian Hunting Territories.”

  10. In tracing the history of the pastoral mode in Western culture, Sidonie Smith shows that traditionally the pastoral speaker tends to occupy a socially and economically privileged position in relation to the pastoral subjects he/she creates out of the pool of “lowly people, people of color, women, peasants” (170). What informs the pastoral narrative is, Smith argues, “a desire to escape the corruptions of the metropolitan center,” which leads the pastoral speaker to “[journey] to colonized territories, there to identify with indigenous peoples, those who seem to have maintained that close relationship to nature and to the essential core of being” (171). It is in the pastoral speaker's very identification with the “low” indigenous peoples against the “high culture” of the distant metropolis that Smith locates the pastoral mode's representational violence, for “After all, the lowly are projections of the universal subject's desire for innocence, integrity, and uncomplicated meaning. They are not assigned a subjectivity of their own” (171). This pastoral psychology strongly underlies Cardinal's representation of Algeria.

  11. In Political Writings, Lyotard lists for us the income of the vineyard workers of the time: “In 1951, the daily wage of the seasonal workers in the vineyards of the Constantinois ranged between 200 and 250 francs in return for eight, ten, and sometimes twelve hours of work. And there were still Tunisian peasants crossing the border who would accept 180 francs” (174). Now the francs in question are the old francs. The value of the new franc that was established in 1960 is at 100 of the old one. Thus 200 old francs equal 2 new francs or 40 U.S. cents.

  12. For a critique of Cardinal's archaizing narrative of Algeria, see Winifred Woodhull. This fascination for the “archaic Other” or the Other as the archaic is not unique to Cardinal. Under different guises, one can find this cult of the archaic in, for example, Victor Segalen's obsession with the ancient Chinese civilization or even in Roland Barthes's reinvention of the “feudal phase” of Japanese culture in L'Empire des signes.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments. New York: Anchor Book. 1990.

Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1990.

Barthes, Roland. L'Empire des signes. Paris: Flammarion, 1970.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Algerians. Trans. Alan G. M. Ross. Boston: Beacon Press, 1956.

Bourdieu, Pierre & Abdelmalek Sayed. Le Déracinement: la crise de l'agriculture tradition-nelle en Algérie. Paris: Minuit, 1964.

Cardinal, Marie. Les Mots pour le dire. Paris: Grasset, 1975.

———. Autrement dit. Paris: Grasset, 1977.

———. Au Pays de mes racines. Paris: Grasset, 1980.

———. Les Pieds-Noirs. Paris: Belfond, 1988.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Eds. Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron. New French Feminisms. Brighton: Harvester, 1980. 254-64.

Cock, Jacklyn. Maids and Madams: A Study in the Politics of Exploitation. Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1980.

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness” and “The End of the Tether.” New York: Airmont, 1966.

Djebar, Assia. L'Amour, la fantasia. Paris: J. C Lattès, 1985.

Donadey, Anne Roch. “Répétition, maternité et transgression dans trois oeuvres de Marie Cardinal.” French Review 65.4 (1992): 567-77.

Fanon, Frantz. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Seuil, 1952.

———. Pour la révolution africaine. Paris: Maspero, 1964.

Feit, Harvey A. “The Construction of Algonquian Hunting Territories: Private Property as Moral Lesson, Policy Advocacy, and Ethnographic Error.” Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge. Ed. George W. Stocking Jr. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1991. 109-34.

Henry, Jean-Robert. “Résonances maghrébines.” Le Maghreb dans l'imaginaire francais: la colonie, le désert, l'exil. St Etienne: Edisud, 1985. 5-14.

Le Clézio, Marguerite. “Mother and Motherland: The Daughter's Quest for Origins.” Stanford French Review Winter (1981): 381-89.

Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Political Writings. Trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Siblot, Paul. “Retours a ‘l'Algérie heureuse’ ou les mille et un détours de la nostalgie.” Le Maghreb dans l'imaginaire francais: la colonie, le désert, l'exil. St Etienne: Edisud, 1985. 151-64.

Smith, Sidonie. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993.

Claire Marrone (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Marrone, Claire. “Pretense and Possibility: The Tomorrows of Charles, Lula, and Marie Cardinal.” Sites 1, no. 2 (fall 1997): 527-40.

[In the following essay, Marrone discusses the relationship between the dual protagonists in Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula and notes their gender-based differences in thought, language, and desires.]

Marie Cardinal has enjoyed international notoriety for over two decades, particularly since the publication of her most celebrated text, Les Mots pour le dire (1975). Autobiography has always been at the center of Cardinal's production, and her search for self-knowledge has taken various forms. Her corpus, which includes over fifteen works of fiction, autobiography, and criticism, has been especially relevant for contemporary feminist critics, for her writing highlights such issues as: the fusion and non-fictional elements; historical, mythical and political constructions of female identity; the mother-daughter relationship; and exilic writing.

Many of Cardinal's text trace her nomadic existence. Born in Algeria 1929 to a French colonial family, she currently resides a portion of the year in Malaucène, in the South of France, and part of the year in Montreal. Some twelve years ago, Cardinal became a Canadian citizen. She feels at home amidst the Quebeckers who, because of their history of colonization, remind her of the pieds-noirs.1 Her texts often thematize geographical wandering as analogous to the psychological journey of self-discovery.

In Marie Cardinal's latest text, Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula (1993)2, words and writing provide once again space for self-exploration. As in so many of Cardinal's previous texts, personal experience constitutes the impetus for the story. The relationship between the two lifelong lovers, Charles and Lula, resembles Marie Cardinal's relationship with her own husband—a relationship which endures change and separation, but also allows personal and sexual freedom to both partners.3 Like Cardinal, Lula is over sixty years old, lives in Provence and is native of Algeria. Like Jean-Pierre Ronfard, Cardinal's husband, Charles is from the north of France, a researcher, and an avid theater lover. There are also differences between the real and the imaginary couple, however. In an interview with me, Cardinal explains that she is “bouffée par (sa) famille”, by the comings and goings of children, grandchildren and in-laws … by the commotion of meals, demands, responsibilities. …4 Lula, on the other hand, has devoted her life mainly to her profession, journalism. When questioned about the autobiographical inspiration for the character Lula, Cardinal explains: “Peut-être que j'aurais aimé être Lula. Peut-être que j'aurais aimé passer ma vie à écrire” (author's interview). The significance of these remarks is not whether or not there is any “truth” to the characters of Charles and Lula, but rather how the play of autobiography and fiction in Jeudis creates a space for the writer to imaginatively explore potential selves. I shall argue in this paper that just as Cardinal communicates with her readers through posturing and pretense in the various autobiographical personae she creates, Charles and Lula analogously communicate in Jeudis through a series of masks, dramatizations and pretexts. In the above-cited interview, Cardinal continues: “Les Grecs étaient de très bons psychologues. Ils savaient que dans un être humain, il y avait 36 facettes, 36 possibilités.” Cardinal indeed suggests such a myriad of possible identities in her numerous self portraits. Although we can never be certain that the real Cardinal actually wishes to communicate through her characters, we can infer a connection between the author and those characters who resemble her through Cardinal's constant preoccupation with the self and autobiographical expression in her writings. States Cardinal: “J'ai besoin d'être la femme de chacun de mes livres” (Autrement dit 85). I will first illustrate Cardinal's use of personae. Then, I shall exemplify Cardinal's posturing vis-a-vis her public—readers who, in response to the author, assume many roles. Next, I will demonstrate how this paradigm of pretense parallels Charles and Lula's similar use of masks. Finally, I shall relate the performative art of writing to storytelling in general, and consider the creative process of narrative, and the fabulation it entails, in terms of gender.

Cardinal postulates a multitude of conceivable selves, autobiographical to a grater or lesser degree, in her numerous works—the woman haunted by la chose in Les Mots pour le dire, the suicidal Camille in La Souricière, Simone threatened by a rival in Une Vie pour deux, Simone the teacher and devoted mother in Comme si de rien n'était (we recall that Cardinal's given name is Simone), Elsa, who struggles with her daughter's drug addiction in Les Grands Désordres—all of which can be read as variations on a central theme, that of the author's life. Toward the end of Cardinal's renowned Les Mots pour le dire, the narrator decides that she will one day write her own life story. Yet the product will be a roman: “je raconterais … la guérison d'une femme qui me ressemblerait” (269, emphasis mine). Such narrative play with fictive and autobiographical elements, quite common in contemporary writing by women, opens the space for reconsideration of the self with each new portrait. Colette T. Hall affirms: “Cardinal who uses own life experiences as a starting point for her creation, establishes her own identity when she projects on her female protagonists her possible selves” (“‘She Is Me More than I’” 63). Lucille Cairns concurs that Cardinal “write(s) principally of her own experience and would seem to be incarnating herself, or certain facets of herself, under diverse guises in each new protagonist” (281).

Cardinal also seeks self-understanding through relationships with others. In her various autobiographical portraits, protagonists enact Cardinal's significant connections with her parents, her husband, her children. Several critics such as Nancy Chodorow have emphasized the fact that women define themselves and experience themselves relationally, whereas men feel more autonomous. Hall concurs that in many of Cardinal's autobiographical texts, whether they be written in the first person or the third person, “the narrator—the author's double—searches for her identity in connection to others” (“‘She Is Me More than I’” 60). She explains that Cardinal explores her relationship with her mother in Les Mots pour le dire, with her husband in Une Vie pour deux, with her father in Le Passé empiété and with her daughter in Les Grands Désordres (“‘She Is Me More than I’” 60). We notice that Cardinal continues the search for self-definition through association with others in her recent texts. In Comme si de rien n'était, she explores her relationship to a community of women in a polyvocal narrative, and in Jeudis she again explores the bond with her husband.

Might we extend this paradigm even further and postulate that relation to others exists in the imagination as well, and that it is in fact an inspiration for writing? I shall argue that Cardinal in essence dialogues with numerous potential selves through the writing process. For example, certain characters reappear in several texts, and with each refabricated portrait, the author understands better her own identity. Carolyn Durham has written extensively on the techniques of repetition and rewriting in Cardinal's corpus, and documents the reappearance of several characters in various guises in Cardinal's works: the young virgin who experiences sexual awakening despite the conventional mores of her family (Autrement dit,Les Mots pour le dire,Une Vie pour deux, etc.); the suicidal mad woman (Écoutez la mer,Les Mots pour le dire,Une Vie pour deux, etc.); the middle-aged artist, spiritually reborn through her newfound identity (La Souricière,Écoutez la mer, etc.) (Durham 59-60). Durham also points out the frequency of “autocitation,” or the repetition of significant passages, sometimes verbatim, from one work to the next. For example, the scene in which a young mother tells her teenage daughter of attempts to abort her is found in La Clé sur la porte, and later, in a different context and through another narrator, in Les Mots pour le dire, and once again in Au Pays de mes racines (Durham 59). Cardinal's corpus, then, essentially becomes a “pre-text” for each new literary project upon which she embarks. Such repetition and rewriting attests to an intertextual dialogue between Cardinal and the personages she creates—characters who come back to her and who are refashioned in the author's imagination. The link between all of Cardinal's writings is the obsessive return to characters who become interlocutors with the writer, and who help her consider the complexities of the self. Cardinal emphasizes this association from one text to the next:

J'ai trouvé que c'était une chaîne, l'écriture. … C'est toujours le même livre qu'on approfondit, qu'on élargit, qu'on agrandit, qu'on voudrait améliorer, qu'on voudrait perfectionner, etc. Je pense qu'après, quand on est mort, l'ensemble des livres, ça fait un livre.

(author's interview)

Anne Donaday adds that Cardinal develops her sense of selfhood through relationships with her female characters from one text to the next:

Toutes ces femmes dont elle se réclame de livre en livre, sa mère, sa sœur morte, sa fille, Mary, les héroïnes tragiques méditérranéennes (Médée, Clytemnestre, Electre, Iphigénie), 'sont des miroirs dans lesquels je me reflète' (Cardinal, Le Passé empiété, 258), miroirs à double face représentant l'angoisse de la mort tout en servant de moyens de la renaissance.


I posit that the internal dialogue between Cardinal and her own characters is also extended outward, as the author reinvents herself and re-presents herself for her public with each new text. Writing becomes a narrative performance for the public, and reading and criticism—by writers, by scholars, by women who have been so moved by Cardinal's works—allow us to enter into “conversation” with the author. Through the responses and reactions of her public, Cardinal is able to grow and develop as a writer. Central to Cardinal's perception of self is indeed her identity as an author. She states: “C'est sûr que ce qui me fait le plus exister, bien plus que les enfants, les petits-enfants et le reste, c'est l'écriture. Si on m'enlève l'écriture, je ne suis plus rien” (personal interview). This is echoed in the autobiographical Les Mots pour le dire, where the main character's self-understanding is closely linked to her success as a writer; writing becomes, in fact, integral to the cure for her mental problems. Furthermore, Cardinal has stated on several occasions that she writes for women, for those, in particular, who: “ne savent pas traduire en mots ce que leur corps sait: la lenteur des gestations, la viscosité féconde … le poids du temps … L'archaïsme de nos vies de femmes …” (Autrement dit 81). Sophie Godin confirms: “Cardinal est de ces écrivains qui parlent de nous, de notre vie, de nos malaises, avec des mots quotidiens. Ses romans sont ceux dans lesquels l'on se reconnaît.” Pierre Maury ponders the pressure Cardinal must undoubtedly experience, in particular after the success of Les Mots pour le dire: “Comment, en effet, penser que l'on va continuer de répondre à l'attente de femmes dont la vie a parfois changé après la lecture (des Mots pour le dire), sinon en continuant à suivre son prope chemin?” We, the readers, in particular women readers who constitute the majority of Cardinal's reading public5, respond, demand, expect, await new texts. We, too, wear various hats as we approach each narrative—we are women, sisters, mothers, daughters, critics, writers, friends. We may respond to her texts differently depending on the role we assume at the moment. In the case of Jeudis, the critic in us wonders if the dialogue between Charles and Lula is contrived. We prefer Cardinal's poetic meditations. Consider, for example, the following description of Lula:

Elle n'a pas envie de parler. Elle est plongée dans une torpeur où elle se plaît. Elle flotte dans le magma rassurant des devinettes et des clefs de son passé. … Elle est dans ce berceau, dans cet œuf, elle n'a pas le désir d'en sortir.


We prefer her insertion of past events which slowly illuminate Charles and Lula's relationship. A letter from Charles dated March 26, 1955: “Lula, ma douce-dure … je vais me marier avec Françoise, une amie d'enface …” (140-41), followed by “La veille, Lula avait appris qu'elle était enciente … Elle n'aurait pas de mari, et alors? Et puis, si elle avait un fils elle l'appellerait Charles et si elle avait une fille elle l'appellerait Charlotte” (143-46). The feminist in us cheers Lula's independence, her ability to juggle career and family life, and her questioning of traditional roles. Lula indeed has a daughter, Charlotte, yet Charlotte confides in her father when she becomes pregnant, and it is he, rather than the mother, who arranges for an abortion—a secret never revealed to Lula. Finally, the mothers and daughters in us marvel at Cardinal's humility (“Je ne me prends pas du tout pour un grand écrivain,” personal interview), and her capacity to convey the affective aspect of women's lives in Jeudis and in her other texts:

Si j'ai un talent, ce n'est pas un talent d'écrivain. Je crois que j'ai le talent de savoir ce que j'ai en commun avec les autres. Et au fond … pourquoi (mes) livres ont de tels succès? Parce que c'est la vie de toutes les femmes. Moi, je suis une femme parmi d'autres.

(author's interview)

Our interpretations and criticisms become part of an ongoing conversation between author and public. Cardinal's relationship with her women readers can also be extended to her rapport with the public at large when issues such as deadlines for new manuscripts, revenue from sales, and challenges by the Parisian writers' elite to participate in new trends (many of which Cardinal refuses) are considered. The “autobiographical pact” (Lejeune) becomes one not so much of veracity and intention, but of a continuation of writing and production by the author, and an amplification of desire and expectation by the reading public.

A brief analysis of the two main characters will help elucidate the parallel between the performative nature of Cardinal's writing and the masquerade in which Charles and Lula engage in Jeudis. The two main characters are in many ways polar opposites. Lula is attached to nature, to individuals and to humanity. She seeks to understand the patterns and tendencies of her character. Charles is fashionable and flirtatious. He flees commitment, strong emotional bonds and self-interrogation. Each finds the personality of the other incomprehensible, and at times frustrating, yet they engage in a game of seduction and restraint which creates mutual desire. Uncertainty and fear of loss of the beloved partner furthermore heighten Charles and Lula's attraction to one another.

Despite differences and geographical distance, Charles and Lula's desire to relate, communicate and love in their own way inspires them. Hence when Charles finds himself in Avignon near Lula's home for three months, he proposes a strict agenda of meetings once per week so that he and Lula can debate, philosophize about various subjects, and take stock of their lives. He suggests: “Pendant que je serai à Avignon, nous rencontrer régulièrement, à date fixe, à heure fixe, pour faire le point … Se rencontrer avec un but précis: débattre sur un sujet choisi d'avance” (21). Their Thursday meetings to follow will revolve around such topics as le nouveau, les nomades, liberté-égalité-fraternité. We hear echoes of the romans d'idées of the eighteenth century, where fragments of philosophical conversation, otherwise common to the essay, were integrated into a novelistic structure (Enthoven and Scarpetta 153).6 Lula marvels at Charles' proposal which responds to her innermost yearnings: “parler, faire le point, y voir clair, mettre de l'ordre dans ses pensées …” (22). Regular Thursday meetings are in fact a contrived arrangement which allows the couple to fulfill their mutual desire to be together. At the same time, it allows them to repress any overt and conventional commitment, much in keeping with the unconventional relationship they have lived for over forty years. Why does the couple need such a structure in order to be together and relate on a profound level? What impact does such an artificial arrangement have on their exchanges? Will they communicate differently due to personality and gender over the course of their meetings?

Several scenes in Jeudis exemplify Charles and Lula's communication with one another through various masks, dramatizations and pretexts. When Charles surprises Lula at her country home, for example, she is overjoyed, but she will only reveal limited pleasure: “Elle sait qui est là, c'est Charles … Déjà, son dispositif de défense se met en place et pourtant la joie frétille en elle … Lula ne laissera pas paraître l'essentiel de son plaisir” (9). When Lula cannot reach Charles by telephone to propose a topic for their first session, she reflects: “Tant pis … Après tout, ces conversations hebdomadaires ne sont qu'un prétexte. C'est toujours comme ça: quand ils ne se sont pas vus depuis longtemps ils déguisent l'excitation de se retrouver en conduite prudente” (28). Charles, too, is careful to restrain his true emotions: “Il sait qu'il doit mesurer ses réactions, ne pas prendre les choses trop à la rigolade, ou trop au sérieux” (13). In some cases, the performative nature of language serves as a tool of manipulation and power—discourse is organized in order to receive a desired response. For example, when Charles discloses that his greatest cowardice (the topic of their first debate) is in love relationships, his exposé becomes a dramatization through which he solicits Lula's pardon. We read: “Afin de prouver sa sincérité, Charles se jette avec emphase dans la confession” (30). After recounting how he abandoned a lover and her sick child who had become attached to him, Charles breathes a sigh of relief: “En fait … il est soulagé, Lula vient de lui donner l'absolution: il croyait avoir parlé de sa plus grande lâcheté et elle dit qu'ils n'ont pas commencé à parler de la lâcheté … Ouf!” (34). I would argue that their lack of direct communication allows Charles and Lula not only to prolong their game of seduction, but that such pretense also grants them greater creativity in revealing who they are or who they would like to be.

The role-playing thematic also accentuates the complex nature of the self in philosophical terms. At one of their sessions, for example, Charles invents a fable. Lula muses: “Le ton de la voix de Charles a changé. Il joue un rôle. C'est peut-être lorsque, délibérément, il joue un rôle qu'elle le trouve le vrai et qu'elle le préfère” (88). Do Charles and Lula flee their “true selves” as they reach beyond direct, straightforward exchange? In fact, the opposite becomes clear—such role-playing, such extension of the boundaries of the self which enables the couple to communicate in an imaginative and hypothetical fashion, leads to greater self-understanding.7 Similarly, the role-playing with which Cardinal experiments in her personal narratives, and the various autobiographical personae she creates, provide the structure through which she can dialogue internally in an ongoing quest for self-definition. She accentuates or suppresses (consciously or not) aspects of her own character, and the fiction of fantasy colors her personal portraits. In turn, the various roles we the readers assume allow us to become players in the drama of literary production. Finally, Cardinal's creative performances for her readers, like Charles and Lula's game of pretense and possibility in their exchanges, are echoed in Jeudis in the author's treatment of storytelling in general. Just as personal history can be told from various subject positions, and modified with each new narrator and every new text, so can the “story” of collective “History” vary according to she/he who tells the tale. Cardinal states:

Mon idée c'est toujours de mettre l'Histoire avec un grand H en cause, parce que je trouve que l'Histoire nous est mal enseignée et nous est mal racontée. C'est vrai qu'en grande partie c'est pace qu'il n'y a pas de femmes dans l'Histoire ou très peu, et que je trouve ça pas juste parce que l'Histoire ne pourrait pas exister si les femmes n'existaient pas.

(author's interview)

During Charles and Lula's debate on L'Histoire (the double entendre resonates effectively in French), for example, another of their Thursday topics, fabrication and falsification are once again at issue. Charles digresses into a discussion of the theater, and soon realizes a similarity: “L'Histoire comme le théâtre est une façon mensongère de raconter les choses, de les corrompre en leur donnant une forme séduisante et impure” (84). Lula agrees: “L'Histoire est du théâtre … puisque l'Histoire fait ‘comme si’ les femmes n'existaient pas” (84), (recalling the title of her previous text, Comme si de rien n'était, where the absence of women from History was precisely a major thematic). Charles concludes that “tout art, toute façon de raconter la vie est falsification” (85). Not only does this statement remind us of the performances staged by Charles and Lula, but Charles' exposé draws our attention to the “art” we are in the midst of reading. Jeudis, this “façon de raconter la vie” … de Cardinal, is, like all of her autobiographical attempts, a fabrication, another version of her life story.

The presence of typical female protagonists in Cardinal's corpus—women who revel in artisanal activity and handicrafts (the embroiderer in Le Passé empiété, for example), women who are attached to nature and cultivation of the soil (Lula in Jeudis)—is germane to the activity of fabrication. The craft of writing is linked to other organic, creative expressions. Furthermore, Cardinal dismisses Western hierarchies that dictate: “écrire, c'est mieux que faire la cuisine” (author's interview). Rather, the chemistry of cooking, like the wonder of weaving, is an art. Durham explains that the natural, social and aesthetic dimensions of culture are intertwined in Cardinal's texts (46). As such:

Cardinal restores the female text to its original definition as an artisanal activity: text, ‘woven thing,’ from the Latin texere, to weave, fabricate. Moreover, this connection to fabricate, ‘to construct by putting together finished parts,’ … reminds us that ‘fabrications’ or ‘fictions’ (fictio, a making, fashioning) did not begin as falsehoods but, like Cardinal's fusion of autobiography and novel, as carefully crafted construction.


Yet what does such fabrication mask? Lula's remarks on subjective History are telling. For Lula, the writing of History is not merely a linguistic game. She states: “Si l'Histoire est une falsification, elle altère donc une apparence, quelque chose qui existe” (82). Hence History, including personal histories, represents a certain reality for Lula. Similarly, there exists a reality behind Cardinal's various versions of her own (hi)story. Her semi-fictive/semi-autobiographical representations do not veil inner absence. Rather, they point to a sujet en procès (Kristeva), a self which exists, but which can constantly be redefined.9 Feminist critics adhere to the necessity of affirming a female self—a self which has in fact eluded them through centuries of male constructions of female identity. They do not, however, posit the self as stable and unchanging, but rather point to the constructed nature of selfhood according to such elements as race, ethnicity, history, public perceptions, and, of course, gender.

Cardinal's numerous autobiographical creations tell “her story” as it is intimately linked to “herstory.” Through her various fabrications, she also participates in women writers' efforts to articulate female subjectivity. In her endeavor to write female experiences, Cardinal has long been an advocate of the need for women to manipulate male language rather than to create a separate écriture féminine. She encourages women to shock, to speak frankly, but to use this language to speak their own experiences. Through the use of a “transformed, traditional language (which gives) visibility to women's experiences,” (Hall, “L'Ecriture féminine” 237) women will be able to demand freedom and change. Trinh Minh-ha explains that though Cardinal is opposed to an écriture féminine or masculine, she affirms the presence of an autre discours. Cardinal seeks, “à travers l'emploi inchangé du matériel, dénoncer les manques du langage existant et son échec à traduire les vérités de femme. Il faut pour cela, dit (Cardinal), ‘nous mettre au ras de notre corps … exprimer l'inexprimé (52). Cardinal's desire to give language to the hitherto silenced others and to break down linguistic barriers, constitutes a contemporary female strategy to express what is “forbidden” in female discourse. It is also an effort to subvert women's traditionally submissive role. In order to express female experiences, Minh-ha concludes that many women refuse “cette perte de substance des mots, cette division entre le Sensible et l'Intelligible” (53). The fullness of language that Cardinal seeks, along with many contemporary women writers and critics, is necessary if women are to encapsulate their experiences, write the body, and have the persuasive power their words must carry.

We in fact observe early on in Jeudis that Charles and Lula speak differently. During their debate on L'Histoire, we have an example of two subjective (hi)stories, one from the male and one from the female point of view. Cardinal thus illustrates stereotypical distinctions between male and female discourses. One critic explains: “Charles construit des discours autour (des) sujets. Lula, elle, renvoie le plus souvent possible au concret, aux souvenirs, à leur expérience commune et à leur fille Charlotte … L'esprit d'abstraction, réputé philosophique et masculin, s'oppose ainsi celui qui celui qui sans arrêt ‘retourne à du vécu, de l'identifiable’” (A. A., 66). Charles and Lula fabricate, for example, possible legends explaining the history of truffles, a vegetable known to be “sauvage (et) imprévisible” (87), characteristics which recall classical definitions of women. Charles begins with the typical patriarchal formula: “Il était une fois” and tells the story of a “un homme bourru qui avait douze femmes noires” (88). Whereas Charles embarks on a story of polygamy, Lula picks up his tale and retells it in her own fashion. She spins the story of a lumberjack and his beautiful sow who, through a series of substitutions of younger sows for the original, seems never to die—l'éternelle truie similar to l'éternel féminin. The sow digs holes where delicious truffles grow. The lumberjack is the envy of the town when he markets his truffles known as dames noires. Both Charles and Lula move from specific terminology: les douze dames noires, to different significations. Each invent different stories of the dames noires/truffes noires through their own imaginative and narrative preferences. The difference of their stories is based on gender.10 Charles, becoming uncomfortable, protests, “On est parti des mêmes faits. Mais de quoi parlons-nous? Toi de l'éternel féminin et moi de la polygamie historique. Finalement c'est en jouant au jeu du vrai et du faux qu'on se définit, qu'on se raconte, qu'on s'affirme (92, emphasis mine). Fabrication then, of stories and History, refers back to the speaker, back to the self; it is this fictional process which leads to self-learning. Likewise, the fabulation of self-portraits—the jeu in Jeudis where “I speak” (je dis), where Cardinal speaks in part through Lula and where Lula pretends to speak herself—is ultimately a therapeutic process.

Toward the end of Jeudis, Lula receives a letter from Charles proposing scores of possible topics for their future encounters. The potential for their communion is boundless. Through mutual desire, play and sharing they will come together, but never completely merge. We read: “On ne sait jamais qui sont les autres. On peut tout juste superposer des images” (61), a phrase which resonates Cardinal's continual superimposition of her own concerns onto her characters. Cardinal hints that no one—not even she—can ever entirely understand herself or himself, for one will constantly continue to discover multiple sides of one's own nature and of others.11 We recall the narrator of Le Passé empiété who questions: “Qu'est-ce que c'est. ce que j'appelle ‘mon histoire’? C'est le mouvant, le multiple à l'intérieur de moi. C'est ce qui est à la fois caché et présent dans mes gestes, mes paroles, ma tête. Ce sont mes naissances successives dans mon unique vie” (27). Importantly, however, the discovery of the multiplicity of selfhood does not lead to post-modern alienation and solitude. Rather, self-exploration, communication and writing affirm a joy of living, of process, of encountering the self anew, of sharing oneself with others. Through writing, Cardinal finds a structure through which she can take stock of herself, debate internally and philosophize. Through a similar desire for structure, Charles and Lula debate, play, and philosophize … on Thursdays. We, the readers, are enchanted by the creative discourse of the Other, the author. We anticipate Cardinal's future literary pursuits and subsequent occasions for the encounters with her. Her texts respond to our many needs, and our many selves.

In conclusion, Cardinal also affirms her desire to look to the future in Jeudis. The final passages of the text emphasize the thematic of discovery and union. Lula returns to Provence—a return home after a voyage to Egypt, a voyage into the past—and to a letter from Charles. As Lula wanders throughout her house, organizes her belongings and readies herself for a bath, she realizes that she has been clinging to Charles' letter the entire time. The last line of the text reads: “Elle l'appellera plus tard, demain probablement” (251). This open-ended conclusion creates the space for future encounters—conversations which would undoubtedly provide mental nourishment to take Charles, Lula, Marie Cardinal and her readers well into the weekend.


  1. See Hall's discussion of Cardinal's decision to become a Canadian citizen. She cites an interview with the author conducted by Hélène Pedneault where Cardinal comments on the similarities between the pieds-noirs and Quebeckers: “J'ai toujours senti dans leur discours quelque chose de très proche de moi, c'est un discours de colonisés, pas souvent politique mais passionel, affectif” (Hall on Pedneault 8).

  2. All quotations shall be taken from the edition listed in the Works Cited, and indicated by page number.

  3. See, for example, Cardinal's discussion of her relationship with her husband in Autrement dit.

  4. Excerpts of this interview, “Un Entretien avec Marie Cardinal,” have been published in Women in French Studies 4 (Fall, 1996): 119-131.

  5. See Cardinal's remarks in an interview published in L'Est Républicain: “Les vertus Cardinal” (15 September, 1993). She states: “A 90٪ lors de mes débuts, ce sont les femmes qui me lisaient.” She notes that her public is evolving, however, and that young men between 20 and 25 years old, in particular, are beginning to read her works.

  6. Indeed, Cardinal has repeatedly stated in interviews that when she began this project she intended to write an essay. As she was not pleased with the results, she opted to embed philosophical ideas into a fictional format. See, for example, Chauvin, “Toujours les mots pour le dire …”

  7. We as language teachers encourage our students to role-play in order to liberate themselves from linguistic restraints. When they become “different people,” they express themselves more freely, are often less afraid, and allow fantasy to rule their discourse. We witness similar reactions in the characters of Charles and Lula. As they “pretend” for one another, their communication is enhanced. At the same time, they learn of their own strengths and weaknesses, needs and desires.

  8. As Durham has argued, Cardinal's writing does not consist of mere social documentation or direct exposition of personal events—criticisms, for that matter, attributed to many women writers who prefer the autobiographical mode. Rather, the fabric woven by the blend of autobiography and fiction in Cardinal's texts constitutes a serious literary endeavor.

  9. Cardinal illustrates fluctuating subject positions in Jeudis through her two characters: Charles is for Lula “son amant, son enfant, son ami, son frère, quelqu'un de qui elle est indissociable, son ennemi aussi” (9). We find past versions/hear past voices of Charles in his letters written to Lula over more that forty years and embedded in the narrative. Lula is “elle, la journaliste, la retraitée, la femme, la mère de Charlotte, la grand-mère de John” (132). Further, Lula falls into several categories: “Elle se considère comme une bâtarde, ses papiers sont français, sa terre est algérienne, elle se sent européenne avec passion” (139). History has indeed assigned her many roles to play.

  10. Charles and Lula's different stories also illustrate feminine revisionist History and mythology, a reconsideration of historical and mythical figures from a feminist perspective, which Cardinal herself has practiced in previous works. Consider, for example, the feminine rewriting of the mythological character of Clytemnestre in Le Passé empiété.

  11. When questioned about the failed attempt of Charles and Lula to come to a clear understanding of their lives and their love for one another in Jeudis, Cardinal responds: “Heureusement: Si on arrivait au bout des choses et des gens, il n'y aurait plus de raison de vivre et d'espérer. Toutes les assurances sont vaines et stérilisantes. Cette constatation est le moteur de l'action. A part la mort, quoi de vraiment sûr?” (Contrucci).

Works Cited

A. A. “Le Jeu des sentiments.” Magazine littéraire. Nov. 1993: 66.

Cairns, Lucille. “Passion and Paranoia: Power Structures and the Representation of Men in the Writings of Marie Cardinal.” French Studies 46:3 (Jul., 1992): 280-295.

Cardinal, Marie. La Clé sur la porte. Paris: Livre de poche, 1972.

———. Les Mots pour le dire. Paris: Grasset, 1975.

———. Autrement dit. Livre de poche, 1977.

———. La Souricière. Paris: Julliard, 1978.

———. Une Vie pour deux. Paris: Livre de poche, 1978.

———. Le Passé empiété. Paris: Grasset, 1983.

———. Les Grands Désordres. Paris: Grasset, 1987.

———. Comme si de rien n'était. Paris: Grasset, 1990.

———. Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula. Paris: Grasset, 1993.

———. Personal interview, 30 April, 1994. Excerpts of this interview, “Un Entretien avec Marie Cardinal,” including updated material, have been published in Women in French Studies 4 (Fall, 1996): 119-31.

Chauvin, Valérie. “Toujours les mots pour le dire …” Femmes Info. Hiver 1994: 50.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1978.

Contrucci, Jean. “Marie Cardinal: Les Mots pour se le dire …” Le Provençal 17 Oct. 1993.

Donaday, Anne. “Répétition, maternité et transgression dans trois œuvres de Marie Cardinal.” The French Review 65:4 (Mar., 1992): 567-77.

Durham, Carolyn. The Contexture of Feminism: Marie Cardinal and Multicultural Literacy. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1992.

Enthovan, Jean-Paul and Guy Scarpetta. “Ecrivain par effraction: Marie Cardinal.” La Règle du jeu (1993): 150-58.

Godin, Sophie. “Duo d'amants intellos.” La Dernière heure. [Belgium] 2 Nov. 1993.

Hall, Colette T. “L'Ecriture féminine and the Search for the Mother in the Works of Violette Leduc and Marie Cardinal.” Women in French Literature. Ed. Michel Guggenheim. Saratoga: Anma, 1988. 231-238.

———. Marie Cardinal. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994.

———. “‘She Is Me More than I’: Writing and the Search for Identity in the Works of Marie Cardinal.” Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction: An Essay Collection. Eds. Janice Morgan and Colette T. Hall. New York: Garland, 1991. 57-71.

Kristeva, Julia. “Le sujet en procès.” Polylogue. Paris: Seuil, 1977. 55-106.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le Pacte autobiographique. Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Maury, Pierre. “La Dette de Toni Morrison.” Le Soir [Paris] 3 Nov. 1993.

Min-ha, Trinh T. “L'Inécriture: Féminisme et littérature.” French Forum 8:1 (Jan., 1983): 45-63.

Patrice J. Proulx (essay date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Proulx, Patrice J. “Representations of Cultural and Geographical Displacement in Marie Cardinal.” Centennial Review 42, no. 3 (fall 1998): 527-38.

[In the following essay, Proulx maintains that Cardinal's feelings toward her mother—as described in several of the author's works—are inextricably tied to her sense of belonging to Algeria, her “motherland.” Proulx explores Cardinal's difficulties with her emotional separation from her mother and her physical separation from her homeland.]

We have to accept, however reluctantly, the simple fact that we live in an age of refugees, of migrants, vagrants, nomads roaming about the continents and warming their souls with the memory of their—spiritual or ethnic, divine or geographical, real or imaginary—homes.

—Leszek Kolakowski (191-92)

According to Michael Seidel, in his work Exile and the Narrative Imagination, “an exile is someone who inhabits one place and remembers or projects the reality of another” (ix). This quote epitomizes the situation of Marie Cardinal, a woman who has spent more than half of her sixty-nine years living in different countries around the world, but who continues to recreate her Algerian homeland through the space of her writing. Born in Algiers to a French colonial family, Cardinal was forced to leave the country soon after the outbreak of the Algerian War. Algeria will occupy a primordial position in the author's psychological geography, as Cardinal attempts to articulate her exilic experience and to reconcile her French and Algerian origins.

Although almost all of Cardinal's works, to a certain extent, deal with the issue of her violent separation from Algeria, I will limit my study in this article to those works which most aptly exemplify how profoundly her status as an exile has informed her textual production. Au Pays de mes racines, published in 1980, narrates Cardinal's return to her native land after an absence lasting more than twenty years. At first, she had been unable to return due to the war and its aftermath; later, she had to confront and come to terms with her own fears and confusion stemming from her problematic, conflict-torn relationship with her family members and their politics before she could envision a return to her roots.1

Cardinal, who paradoxically feels both French and Algerian and neither French nor Algerian, essays to reconceptualize her hyphenated existence (as French-Algerian) by means of her writing. Samir Dayal, in an incisive article examining double consciousness, posits that “Doubleness is more productively conceived as the interstitiality of entering (or leaving) and destabilizing the border zones of cultures, as fracturings of the subject that resist falsely comforting identifications and reifications” (48). Cardinal valorizes her positioning in the margins—or the interstices—of two cultures, framing her quest for identity in bi-cultural terms.

Writer and theorist Hélène Cixous, who shares a multicultural heritage with Cardinal,2 vividly expresses the difficulty of conveying one's formative experiences to those who do not share a similar background: “… I learned to read, to write, to scream, and to vomit in Algeria. Today I know from experience that one cannot imagine it: ‘l'algérifrançaise’ [French Algeria], you need to have lived it, to have gone through it” (128).3 “L'algérifrançaise.” For Cardinal, as for Cixous, this conflation of the two terms captures the interconnectedness of the countries themselves, as well as the authors' problematic relationship to both places. The colonization of Algeria by the French, and its implications in her life and in that of her family, is something which Cardinal must struggle to transcend from earliest childhood. Members of her mother's family had been living in Algeria since 1837, so she feels inextricably connected to the land. Nevertheless, she recognizes the fact that she is wrongfully privileged in relation to the indigenous peoples, and begins questioning the immanence of the colonial system in her life. She reveals her uncertainties when scrutinizing her origins in Autrement dit, a book-length interview with writer Annie Leclerc:

Why, in my childhood, did I feel colonization to be shameful, when it had been presented to me as natural and even holy? … I believed everything my mother told me, I knew her to be a spring of truth, a fountain of pureness, a lake of goodness.


Cardinal's mother, a devout Catholic, spent much of her life caring for the ill and the impoverished in Algiers. She nevertheless considered the indigènes as intrinsically inferior to the French, with reasoning that substantiates Albert Memmi's conception of the hegemonic nature of the relationship existing between the colonizer and the colonized.4 The very existence of the “colonized” constitutes a constant threat to the identity of the colonizer, at the same time that it defines the parameters of that identity. In the author's family, it is her mother who causes her daughter untold suffering through her Manichean equating of the French with “good” and the Arabs with “evil.” Cardinal, for the time being, is left with no alternative but to situate herself within the mother's ideological framework. Torn between the love she holds for her mother and her passion for the country and its people, she is not yet strong enough to repudiate her mother's ethnocentric conception of humanity, nor is she even capable of questioning the legitimacy of her discourse: “Who deliberately chooses evil at eight or ten years of age … ? Not me in any case, I didn't have that strength” (Au Pays 31).

Cardinal's ultimate, anxiety-ridden separation from her mother is inevitable—a situation played out metaphorically in Algeria's independence from France. As revealed in an earlier and more well-known text, Les Mots pour le dire, the source of the initial estrangement can be traced back to the mother's prosaic revelation of her myriad attempts to abort while pregnant with Marie. Cardinal's mother was preparing to separate from her husband when she discovered she was pregnant. As this represented an impossible situation for the Catholic mother, already struggling with the idea of divorce, she endeavors to maintain a clear conscience while at the same time trying various methods to rid herself of the unwanted fetus. It is only after six months that she becomes “resigned” to her pregnancy. The narrator experiences this stunning revelation—this violent discourse—as a relentless physical attack upon her body. It is as if, years later, the mother has succeeded in her attempt to abort:

There, in the street, in a few phrases, she gouged out my eyes, she pierced my eardrums, she tore off my scalp, she cut my hands, she broke my knees, she tormented my stomach, she mutilated my genitals.


Inscribed in the text is an implicit convergence of the protagonist's body and Algeria. The body, then, emblematizes the lost country, both in a physical and in a spiritual sense. The scene of revelation assumes added importance when one realizes that blood will flow on this same street during Algeria's War of Independence. Françoise Lionnet, in Autobiographical Voices, addresses the symbolic implications at play here: “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” (204).

At this moment of disclosure, Cardinal is literally forced to reject her mother, as she herself had been repudiated from the moment of her conception. Her first exile, then, is actually related to the brutal disconnection from her family which she underwent while still a child. In Maternity, Mortality and the Literature of Madness, Marilyn Yalom elucidates the significance of the “birth tale” in the life of every individual, and characterizes the ways in which this tale informs one's conception of self. She comments on a passage in Les Mots pour le dire in which the narrator evokes some of her mother's vain attempts to abort, and imagines with what cruel dismissiveness the mother would have addressed the unwanted fetus. Yalom traces out the profound connection between Cardinal's own disturbing birth tale and the sense of deracination it provokes:

What an appalling vision of the myth of birth of the heroine for Cardinal to have carried in her psychic baggage since adolescence! In projecting onto her mother these horrible words, the narrator expresses her own deep sense of what Heidegger called Unheimlichkeit—a sense of having no home in the world.


Her feelings of extraneousness are further shaped by the precarious nature of her relation to her family members. As a child, she lived with her mother and an older brother, spending little time with her father. What Cardinal did not discover until much later in her life is that her mother's rejection of her father stemmed in large part from her father having concealed a tubercular condition—Cardinal's sister, while still an infant, died after contracting the disease. The author had always envied the passion her mother demonstrated for this dead child, and realized she could never hope to compete for her mother's affection with this “perfect” sibling.

The author's response to this alienation from her family lies in a transferal of the love she held for her mother onto Algeria, making the latter an authentic mother/land. In Au Pays de mes racines, Cardinal reveals the survival strategy she formulated upon hearing the words of condemnation pronounced by her mother in the middle of a bustling street in Algiers:

It is there where she abandoned me … in the street. I hung onto whatever I could—the city, the sky, the sea, the Djurdjura Mountains. I clung to them; they became my mother and I loved them as I would have liked to love her.


In both of the cited passages recounting the mother's disclosure, the narrator's insistence on the street as site of revelation bears witness to the very public nature of the episode, and also uncovers the source of her need to turn outward, to embrace the geographical space of Algeria. This will later become transformed into a narrative strategy, as the exiled Cardinal begins writing creative works which allow her to maintain contact with her homeland. Cardinal had always been cognizant of her passion for Algeria, aware of the extent to which her sense of selfhood was tied to her relationship to the land, but her precipitate separation from her mother raised her attachment to the country to new heights. Years later, when she is compelled to leave Algeria, it is as if she loses her mother for a second time.

The dual loss—that of her mother and that of her land—devastated Cardinal and ultimately led to the descent into madness delineated in Les Mots pour le dire. Marguerite Le Clézio, in “Mother and Motherland: The Daughter's Quest for Origins,” asserts the nature of the symbiotic relation between Cardinal's biological and her “adopted” mothers: “The mother's body and the land, Algeria, are metaphorically conjoined as symbols of origins from which the daughter is drastically severed” (385). The primacy of the maternal trope in this work is underscored by the fact that a twenty-page text written by Bénédicte Ronfard, Cardinal's youngest daughter, immediately follows the author's own narrative. Au Pays de mes racines and Au Pays de Moussia,5 bound together in one volume, testify to the embodiment of a matrifocal perspective.

This textualization of the maternal privileges the exploration of matrocentric origins, and allows Cardinal to renegotiate her relationship to her own mother and daughter. In an illuminating discussion of expatriate women writers, Shari Benstock theorizes the strategic importance of any endeavor to reconceptualize the “matria”:

Matria, then, is that which is repressed, rejected, colonized, written over, subjected, erased, silenced. The woman writer must discover her by peeling back the layers of patriarchy. The desire for this mother country is compelling, its discovery renewing, life-giving, passionate, transforming, and integrative.


Many of Cardinal's texts derive their force from the transformative potential informing a narrative project whose aim is to re-member the mother/land—she explicitly seeks to valorize the maternal.

The author, despite her colonial background, always claimed Algeria as her own, and only, country. She becomes one of the dispossessed, one of the thousands of Algerian-born French who must relocate to France. She cannot accept the mutilation of her mother/land which occurs during the Algerian War: “My beautiful land, my mother … I lost you in such a vile and lowly manner!” (Au Pays 54). In her desire to recuperate her loss, Cardinal resembles the archetypal exile, recreating the irreclaimable homeland within the space of the new one. The impossibility of return only intensifies the sense of deprivation and elicits the desire to retrieve a lost heritage. Seidel's characterization of the exilic condition and the geopolitical experiences of the displaced is useful in uncovering Cardinal's own motivations in writing her exile:

Often in exilic fable the home place is destroyed, rendered illegitimate, contaminated, or taken over by conquerors or rival claimants. … Thus those in exile are saving remnants; they imagine in new surroundings the conditions that existed before the trauma that necessitated their displacement.


Cardinal began writing about her homeland as a gesture which would enable her to cope with her exile. Writing becomes an act of empowerment and rebirth, as she re-appropriates her Algerian experience through her textual production. In the forward to her translation of Euripides's Medea, for example, Cardinal discloses how the suffering which resulted from her displacement ultimately inspired her to produce her first work of fiction: “I continued to suffer from the loss of Algeria, in my body and especially in my head, for a long time. It is this suffering which led me to write my first novel” (La Médée d'Euripide 22).

The attempt to reclaim the Algerian homeland serves as a primordial theme in pied-noir literature in general.6 Many of these works posit Algeria as mother/land, but contrary to the questioning of the colonial presence to be found in Cardinal's texts, they limn the descendants of European settlers as the victims, conjuring up a “myth of dispossession” which necessitated their conquest of the foreign land. Philip Dine, in a seminal work on representations of the Algerian War in French fiction and film, intimates that the majority of pied-noir texts evoke what Montherlant has termed nostalgérie, “the exile's veneration of a mythified past” (150). As we have seen, however, Cardinal attempts to distance herself from the neo-colonialist implications of any mythifying structures which would place the suffering of the Algerian people under erasure. In the narrative of her return to Algeria, she explains her position more fully:

Although I am a pied-noir, I never supported French Algeria. … I was against that which my family represented: France and her conquests, her colonial empire, her morgues, her contempt, her racism, her hypocritical humanitarianism.

(Au Pays 153)

Cardinal concentrates on the liberatory possibilities of writing her exile. In her reading of Au Pays de mes racines, Lucille Cairns maintains that Cardinal effectively challenges the hegemonic nature of France's relation to Algeria, seeking to locate herself in the space of the Other: “The text does not deny the political realities of colonialist exploitation and the debilitation this incurs on the ‘host’ land; far from it. However, it does valorise the cultural Other, and aligns Cardinal not with Eurocentrism, but rather with the non-European, the southern Mediterranean, often explicitly with the Arab” (347).7

Despite her fears of confronting the past, Cardinal eventually reaches a point at which she feels she must overcome her apprehensiveness and return to Algeria. The author's claim to an identity which has its grounding in biculturalism is part of what is at stake in this desire. In Au Pays de mes racines, she accentuates the primacy to her mental well-being and sense of identity of effecting a reconciliation of her French and Algerian origins: “Why return there, why write these pages, if not to understand the balance or the imbalance created in me by the union or the conflict of two cultures?” (17). For Cardinal, transcribing her exile facilitates her coming to terms with her dual heritage.

In fact, the author welcomes the diversity of traditions of which she acquired a knowledge through the Arab workers on her mother's farmland and through her Spanish nanny. Lionnet, in her reading of the phenomenon of métissage, or cultural braiding, emphasizes the significance to Cardinal of having experienced such cultural polymorphism in her childhood. She claims that Cardinal's identification with and acceptance of “non-European, Third World elements” leads to “a métissage of the heart and mind” (Life/Lines 264). In Transfigurations of the Maghreb, Winifred Woodhull points to the political implications of the concept of métissage, a concept which “challenges essentialist notions of racial, sexual and national identity—notions that inform France's complacent self-understanding as well as reductive French notions of the Maghreb” (136).

In a passage from Au Pays de mes racines, the protagonist delineates a personal consequence of the physical and spiritual fusion of her French and Algerian heritage: “The fact of being born in the colony to a family of colonialists is heavy to bear; and yet, being a Creole is a joy, a sparkling in me” (23). This creolization counters her mother's white, European “story” with mythic Arabic tales, and it allows Cardinal to transgress the rigid ideological boundaries constructed by her family. In another passage from the text in which she alludes to the dichotomy of her two worlds, Cardinal furnishes the reader with a humorous account of her childhood conception of Paradise which demonstrates the difficulty of effecting a rapprochement between the two:

I think that I imagined Allah's Paradise full of zlabias [honey pastries] and of fritters sizzling in grease, while in the other one you had to play the harp, say the rosary, sit up straight, knees together, on clouds—and that didn't mean a thing to me.


Clearly, her idealized perception of the Arab world comes across as much more sensual and much less rigorous than the vision of the European “paradise” in which her family believed. In fact, as Cairns suggests, Cardinal sets up “a series of binary oppositions in which the correlatives of Algeria are overwhelmingly positive, those of France overwhelmingly negative” (347). Thus, while her framing within two cultures provided the protagonist with the freedom to experience different ways of being in the world, her bicultural identity became problematic at times, as she struggled to please her family without renouncing that part of herself which found its expression in Arabic traditions.

Cardinal frequently returns to questions of identification and differentiation, as she grapples with the realities of positioning herself in a “non-Algerian” space. Cardinal's desire for an “other” way of life, a desire which places her on the periphery of the political/cultural economy of France, can also be conceived of as an act of subversion. For women, especially, any trajectory away from the home is suspect—the expatriate, in her foreignness, is already coded as a source of disruption. Jane Marcus calls attention to the destabilizing implications inherent in woman's separation from the locus of origin:

A woman exile is, in addition, an uncanny figure, in Freud's formulation, for her very body means home and hearth, the womb/home of mankind. … In exile, the woman rejects her role as representative of the home/the mother's body to male desire and so is a threat to patriarchy as well as to the state.


Furthermore, the woman-in-exile who speaks her difference is profoundly disturbing—her very presence implies a discourse which is Other, situated in the margins but with the potential to undermine the patriarchal text. Jane Gallop, in The Daughter's Seduction, posits that “the exile, by being in the place where she is out-of-place, always represents a heterogeneous group. And, of course, she reminds us ‘I speak a language of exile’” (119). As Cardinal affirms in Au Pays de mes racines, “Between the French people and myself exists the space of a land which is not France: Algeria” (132).

Also at stake in the decision to return to her homeland is her identity as a writer, as she finds herself unable to continue her work until she has first achieved a reconciliation with her past. Since her textual production so frequently entails a rendering of the self in discourse, Cardinal senses she must return to her roots before her work/life can progress. She needs to discover, through a confrontation with her origins, other narratives which are available to her and which will permit her to explore her identity in new, more meaningful, ways. Through her writing, she hopes to transgress the symbolic order in which her formative years had been inscribed, appropriating a more liberating discursive space which will allow her to engage in the process of rebirth.

She realizes, though, that the journey could prove destabilizing. Algeria, subjected to numerous permutations, can no longer be “claimed” as her country, and Cardinal experiences very real fears that the mother/land she had attempted to embody in her works for nearly twenty years might ultimately betray her—as her biological mother had done decades earlier. In Au Pays de mes racines, she considers the reasons behind the immobilizing anxiety which was preventing her from making her airplane reservation: “Is it fear of discovering that Algeria no longer means anything to me and to thus find myself in perdition, even more uprooted than before?” (71-72).

Cardinal's presentiments of irredeemable loss and displacement were shared, to some extent, by the majority of the pied-noir community. In an original study which portrays both the strengths and the diversity of the bonds uniting the exiled pieds-noirs with their country of origin, Joëlle Hureau evokes the untenable aspect of the situation in which they find themselves: “In effect, from now on, they no longer have their own space, a land which they can call ‘my country.’ France remains the universe of the Other, a world to which they have adapted, certainly, but which will remain forever alien” (81).

Thus, Cardinal must deal with the recognition of her homelessness on a more profound level than ever before, both in a literal and in a figurative sense. She spends much of her time in Algeria reflecting upon her past and trying to comprehend the unsettling aspects of her relationship to her mother/land. She writes: “Paradise. / Yes, but a paradise I will soon lose. And also a paradise in which I knew horror. Heaven-hell. A double-faced heaven” (Au Pays 176). Cardinal's narrative includes both flashbacks to the time when she was living in Algeria and commentary on the current socio-political realities of the Algerian people, focusing in particular on the situation of women. Gayle Green underscores the discursive possibilities of a narrative which encodes the past as a way of reframing the present:

The alternation of past and present episodes draws attention to the vital interaction of past and present and allows a circling back over material that enables repetition and revision; final scene returns to first scene, with the difference between them providing a measure of change, of a present transformed by memory.


In her texts, Cardinal explores points of articulation between her past and her present which allow her to go forward—it is through her writing that she must create a new site of origin. She will ultimately succeed by inscribing herself textually in the space between the two cultures, a strategy which enables her to joyfully (pro)claim her métissage. She chooses to return to France, and later moves to Quebec, where she will continue to examine the significance of her dual origins through her textual discourse. As Judith Gardiner proposes in regards to the enigmatic situation of women writers in exile, “… writing becomes both home and exile for these writers, marking their displacement from childhood homes but replacing them with intimate invention, with places of their own” (146). For Cardinal, the loss of the native land leads to the creation and validation of a new home territory located in the space of her writing.

The issue of exile and of reconciliation with one's mother and one's land remains a leitmotiv of Marie Cardinal's fictional and non-fictional works. She must search for ways to situate herself within new (con)texts, recasting herself in response to the geographical and psychological dislocation she has experienced. She finds inspiration in the confrontation and the convergence of different cultures and ethnicities, and, in large part, attributes the embodiment of hybridity in her works to her own displacement. Frances Bartkowski, in her critical study Travelers, Immigrants, Inmates: Essays in Estrangement, makes manifest how the dislocation engendered by the exilic space can also generate insightful and thought-provoking new perspectives: “A new place is always an opportunity for sanctioned cross-thinking, inter-speaking (we could say, borrowing from Irigaray), cross-‘dressing’—out of which something may emerge that transforms, transvalues, translates” (xxv-vi). Several years after the completion of Au Pays de mes racines, for example, Cardinal seeks to resituate the extraneous figure of Medea, accused of infanticide, by theorizing a connection between her status as an outsider and her violent impulses. This fictional rendering enables her to continue to explore the exilic condition and its consequences on her own identity. For Marie Cardinal, writing her exile has become the most important gesture in reclaiming her homeland.


  1. In many of her texts, Cardinal refers explicitly to the trope of roots and acknowledges the need to search out her roots in Algerian soil: “I have to state what is at stake in this journey. Finding my roots. Confronting myself” (Au Pays 83).

  2. Cixous is an Algerian Jew of French and German parentage.

  3. This and all other translations from the original French texts are my own.

  4. In his Portrait du colonisateur, Memmi calls attention to the immutability of the particular dialectics involved here: “… the existence of the colonialist is too bound up with that of the colonized, he will never transcend this dialectic. With all his might, he must repudiate the colonized, yet at the same time, the existence of his victim is indispensable to him” (78).

  5. “Moussia” is an affectionate term for Cardinal used by her children. In her brief text, Ronfard inscribes her own perspective on her mother's return to Algeria and situates herself in relation to her mother's native land.

  6. Although the definition of pied-noir is “Algerian-born Frenchman,” the term most likely originated, as Rosemarie Jones suggests, as a way to describe the black boots of French soldiers, or the grape-stained feet of French settlers. See Jones for an insightful critical study of pied-noir literature, with a particular focus on texts from the 1930s and 1940s.

  7. It is equally important to acknowledge the problematic aspects of the author's narrative project. Woodhull challenges the notion that Cardinal's texts avoid all complicity with the colonial system: “… the Maghreb functions, at times, merely as a space where French neo-liberal values are re-inscribed and where the social and psychological conflicts of the postcolonial world dissolve as the French subject phantasmatically returns to a state of plenitude and sensuous delight” (171).

Literature Cited

Bartkowski, Frances. Travelers, Immigrants, Inmates: Essays in Estrangement. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995.

Benstock, Shari. “Expatriate Modernism: Writing on the Cultural Rim.” Broe and Ingram 19-40.

Broe, Mary Lynn, and Angela Ingram, eds. Women's Writing in Exile. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Cairns, Lucille. “Roots and Alienation in Marie Cardinal's Au Pays de mes racines.Forum for Modern Language Studies 29.4 (October 1993): 346-58.

Cardinal, Marie. Au Pays de mes racines. Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1980.

———. Autrement dit. Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1977.

———. La Médée d'Euripide. Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1987.

———. Les Mots pour le dire. Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1975.

Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clément. La jeune née. Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, Coll. 10/18, 1975.

Dayal, Samir. “Diaspora and Double Consciousness.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 29.1 (Spring 1996): 46-62.

Dine, Philip. Images of the Algerian War: French Fiction and Film, 1954-1992. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1994.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Gardiner, Judith K. “The Exhilaration of Exile: Rhys, Stead, and Lessing.” Broe and Ingram 133-150.

Green, Gayle. “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory.” Signs 16.2 (1991): 291-320.

Hureau, Joëlle. La Mémoire des pieds-noirs. Paris: Olivier Orban, 1987.

Jones, Rosemarie. “Pied-Noir Literature: The Writing of a Migratory Elite.” Writing across Worlds: Literature and Migration. Ed. Russell King, John Connell, and Paul White. New York: Routledge, 1995. 125-40.

Kolakowski, Leszek. “In Praise of Exile.” Altogether Elsewhere. Ed. Marc Robinson. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994. 188-92.

Le Clézio, Marguerite. “Mother and Motherland: The Daughter's Quest for Origins.” Stanford French Review 5 (Winter 1981): 381-89.

Lionnet, Françoise. “Métissage, Emancipation and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Creole Writers.” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988. 260-78.

———. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.

Marcus, Jane. “Alibis and Legends: The Ethics of Elsewhereness, Gender and Estrangement.” Broe and Ingram 269-94.

Memmi, Albert. Le Portrait du colonisé, précédé de Portrait du colonisateur. Paris: Gallimard, 1985.

Ronfard, Bénédicte. Au Pays de Moussia. Paris: Editions Grasset et Fasquelle, 1980.

Seidel, Michael. Exile and the Narrative Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Woodhull, Winifred. Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Yalom, Marilyn. Maternity, Morality, and the Literature of Madness. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1985.

Nancy Lane (essay date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Lane, Nancy. “Duras and Cardinal: Writing the (M)Other.1French Forum 24, no. 2 (May 1999): 215-32.

[In the following essay, Lane utilizes the feminist and psychoanalytical theories of Julia Kristeva and Jessica Benjamin to analyze how both Cardinal and Marguerite Duras depict mother-daughter relationships.]

Qu'est-ce aimer, pour une femme, la même chose qu'écrire. Rire. Impossible. Flash sur l'innommable, tissages d'abstractions à déchirer. Qu'un corps s'aventure enfin hors de son abri, s'y risque en sens sous voile de mots. VERBE FLESH. De l'un à l'autre, éternellement, visions morcelées, métaphores de l'invisible.2

Once we begin to accept the idea that infants do not begin life as part of an undifferentiated unity, the issue is not only how we separate from oneness, but also how we connect to and recognize other; the issue is not how we become free of the other, but how we actively engage and make ourselves known in relationship to the other.3

These two epigraphs frame a dialogue about identity and difference that illuminates the relationship between writing and the maternal body in the work of Marguerite Duras and Marie Cardinal. Both writers were born and raised in a French colony, both had a troubled mother and an absent father, and both have produced a series of texts that blur the distinctions between fiction and life, between first-person narrator and character, between novel and autobiography. For both, writing becomes the drama of a radically split feminine subject (melancholic, hysterical, or depressed) searching for itself, and the maternal figure or function is central to understanding how subjectivity comes to write through pain, sorrow, and desire. Following a strand of psychoanalytic theory grounded in object relations and stretching from Melanie Klein through D. W. Winnicott and Nancy Chodorow to Julia Kristeva, what I'm calling “the (M)Other” signifies a particular relation between identity and difference, between self and alterity: the self in and as the Other, alterity inside and outside the self.

A central question for both writers is how subjectivity constitutes itself to write through a complex set of tensions between desire and repression, between “anarchy and totalitarianism,” “between transgression and the Law,” as Kelly Oliver puts it in her introduction to Reading Kristeva: “What is at stake in reading Kristeva's … analysis of the maternal function, and her double-strategy with regard to the speaking body is a reconception of the relationship between identity and difference. … It is important that alterity or difference can exist without being repressed or annihilated and at the same time without completely breaking down identity” (emphasis added).4 Both Duras and Cardinal struggle with the dilemma of how subjectivity can negotiate or come to terms with the M(O)ther's alterity and sameness without falling either into phallocratic unicity (repudiation of the maternal)5 or into disintegration (psychotic merging in the imaginary). Particularly with Duras, this tension underlies the hypnotic character of her post-1958 writing style. For Duras, the introjected depression and traumas surrounding both her mother and her own maternity produce a “mutism” that contrasts with the violent affects just below the surface. At the same time, the very production of any utterance defies the “death sentence” repression adumbrated by Kristeva;6 the tension between these two poles figures everywhere in Duras's work, from the scream of the young girl imprisoned in her basement in Nevers during the Occupation in Hiroshima mon amour (the only utterance on the sound track in this flashback level of the film), to Claire Lanne's refusal to say where the head is in the various versions of L'Amante anglaise, to the unfinished poem (“Winter Afternoons”) thrown into the fire by the husband of “Emily L.” in the novel of that name.

Briefly stated, a Kristevan analysis of depressive neurosis (read through Soleil noir,Histoires d'amour and Pouvoirs de l'horreur),7 theorizes depression and melancholia as stemming from a failure to commit matricide, or a failure to progress adequately from abjection through mirroring to separation from the maternal body. For Kristeva, matricide is “notre nécessité vitale, condition sine qua non de notre individuation” (Soleil 38): “Pour une femme dont l'identification spéculaire avec la mère mais aussi l'introjection du corps et du moi maternels sont plus immédiats, cette inversion de la pulsion matricide en figure maternelle mortifère est plus difficile, sinon impossible. … Elle est moi? En conséquence, la haine que je lui porte ne s'exerce pas vers le dehors, mais s'enferme en moi” (Soleil 39; emphasis added). The situation of the daughter in Kristeva's formulation is thus close to impossible. From Kristeva's point of view, the essential “matricide” being more easily effected by the masculine subject-in-process (the son) than by the feminine (the daughter), it is the male who can elaborate, in the work of art, that “lutte du sujet avec l'effondrement symbolique” that becomes cathartic at the social and the personal levels: “cette représentation littéraire … possède une efficacité réelle et imaginaire, relevant plus de la catharsis que de l'élaboration; elle est un moyen thérapeutique utilisé dans toutes les sociétés au long des âges” (Soleil 35). This is one of the reasons why nearly all of Kristeva's critical writing treats male artists, from Bellini to Proust to Kafka.

Hence, while Kristeva's analysis of depressive neurosis in both writers is compelling, it is a troubling one, not only because it seems to pose a dead end for a woman as daughter, but also because it can be seen to pathologize the maternal figure. Doane and Hodges,8 who situate Kristeva in the context of object relations theory, point out that it is to this theory that we owe the notion of the “good enough mother,” one who would reflect for the child a non-distorted image of its “true self.”9 In the view of Winnicott,10 Alice Miller, and other psychoanalysts interested in “helping mothers,” the mother's failure to be “good enough” is pathogenic: the goal of the good enough mother is to be “killed” by her child so that the child will no longer need to seek her image in the Other and will be able to mourn the loss of the maternal object. Furthermore, such exclusive attention to the intrapsychic domain does not account adequately for the importance of the social and political dimensions of the journey to writing of any woman—and especially Duras and Cardinal, given the particular historical, political, social and religious dimensions of their lives. Thus, while valuing Kristeva's insights into depression and neurosis, it will be useful to look to Jessica Benjamin for an account of subjectivity that includes the social from the beginning,11 thereby helping to theorize how a depressive or neurotic feminine subject comes to writing in a Western, capitalist, colonial patriarchy.


In the works of Duras and Cardinal, the maternal figure is both adored and terrifying, desperately depressed, hostile. Clearly, neither daughter ever received the affirmation of her own identity that a “good enough mother” could have provided. Never having found her own image reflected in the integrated surface of her mother's mirror, the daughter will spend her life seeking an image of herself in the field of the Other. This “splitting” (what Kristeva calls the “clivage morcelant du sujet,” or “morcellement”) leaves narrative traces throughout both writers' works. Already in Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950),12 for example, the illusion of an integrated and recoverable past recounted by a stable narrator is shattered by the occasional eruption of the first person and present tense; the narrative voice in L'Amant (1984)13 is radically split between first and third person;14 by the time of L'Amant de la Chine du nord (1991)15 the narrating voice is so distant that it has become dissociated from the child: “La voix qui parle ici est celle, écrite, du livre” (17). Likewise, in Les Mots pour le dire,16 Cardinal evokes a split between “herself” and “la chose,” “la folle” within her: “Elle et moi. Moi, c'est elle. … Pour raconter le passage, la naissance, il faut que j'éloigne la folle de moi, que je la tienne à distance, que je me dédouble” (15); “Toute ma vie n'était qu'une histoire entre elle et moi” (46). In Autrement dit,17 she blurs the distinction between first and third person: “le ‘je’ pourrait devenir un ‘elle,’ mais ‘elle’ c'est moi bien plus que ‘je.’ ‘Je’ est un masque” (30).

Both daughters are forced to experience and confront directly the drama of maternal abandonment and hostility; in both cases, the physical contact between the mother and child is characterized by excessive violence. Throughout Duras's narratives, the mother beats the daughter savagely (“Et si je veux la tuer? si ça me plaît de la tuer?” [Barrage 137]), most often at the urging of the older brother: “… poussée par lui, elle me battait. Il la regardait et il disait: ‘Vas-y plus fort!’ Il tendait des morceaux de bois, des manches à balai. Elle m'en a foutu des coups, oui, … Pas de gifles, mais des coups de pied et de bâton, aidée par mon frère.”18 In Cardinal's case, the savage beatings revealed in Autrement dit19 are submerged and displaced in Les Mots pour le dire into the scene where the pubescent daughter is forced to endure her mother's vivid descriptions of her futile efforts to abort the fetus who would become Marie: “Après plus de six mois de ce traitement j'ai été bien obligée d'admettre que j'étais enceinte et que j'allais avoir un autre enfant. … Je me suis résignée. … Finalement tu es née, car c'était toi que j'attendais” (166).20

In both cases as well, the mother's marked preference for another sibling is deadly for the daughter. The mother in Duras's narratives never denies that it is her elder son, the murderer, whom she prefers to the point of adoration. As the narrator in L'Amant tells us, “Jusqu'à sa mort le frère aîné l'a eue pour lui seul” (72), and “Je crois que du seul enfant aîné ma mère disait: mon enfant. … Des deux autres elle disait: les plus jeunes” (75). In L'Amant de la Chine du nord, the mother confesses to the Chinese lover that she beats her “prostituée de fille” in order to please the older brother: “pour l'amour de lui, pour lui plaire … pour de temps en temps ne pas lui donner tort” (168). The mother's adoration of her older son is a central fact of this maternal relation, and Duras commented explicitly on the pathogenic character of that love in the essay “Mothers” (1977):

Quand j'ai écrit le texte des Journées entières dans les arbres, il me semblait que cet écrit, oui, je le croyais, avait seulement trait à l'amour de la mère pour son fils—amour fou, mouvement océanique qui engloutit tout dans sa profondeur. …

Et lui, sujet innocent de cette fantastique fascination qu'il exerce sur elle, il souhaite qu'elle meure et de ne plus être préféré à personne et de s'engloutir enfin, lui aussi, dans le sort commun, dans le gouffre commun des orphelins du monde.

(Le Monde extérieur 195)

The preferred sibling in Cardinal's narratives is the sister who died of tuberculosis at eleven months, years before Marie's birth. Each year, the daughter visits the grave to help her mother worship the dead child who receives all the mother's effusive affection by virtue of being dead: “les morts, eux, étaient toujours l'objet de son attention affectueuse” (Mots pour le dire 231). The dead child receives not only the affectionate words (“Ma petite chérie, ma toute petite fille, mon amour, mon pauvre enfant” [231]) but also the kisses that Marie so desires:

Au cours des discours qu'elle tenait à la pierre, il lui arrivait de l'embrasser avec une tendresse extrême. Dans ces instants j'aurais aimé être la pierre et, par extension, être morte. Ainsi m'aimerait-elle peut-être autant que cette petite fille que je n'avais jamais connue et à laquelle je ressemblais, paraît-il, si peu. Je me voyais allongée parmi les fleurs, ravissante, inerte, morte, et elle me couvrant de baisers.


This other daughter whose perfection is eternally preserved in death is the “cadaver” separating Marie from her mother (Mots pour le dire 119). In Cardinal's case, the maternal preference for a sibling is even more devastating than in Duras's; not only is the rival sibling dead, perfectly preserved in a blissful, endless pregnancy that contrasts so painfully with the attempted abortion,21 but she is also of the same gender. Marie's brother (five years older) figures barely, if at all, in these narratives. The mother's obsession with the older brother in Duras's narratives is consistent with patriarchal norms and Oedipal desire. With the father gone, the brother can be read as an incarnation of sexual difference, an object of desire for the mother, a libidinal situation mirrored by the child's desire for her “little” brother. In Cardinal's case, however, the preferred sibling is also a girl, leaving no space in the libidinal economy of the mother for a less-than-perfect living daughter.

Instead of an integrated surface that would reflect her own image, then, what each daughter receives from her mother are savage beatings and insults that reflect the mother's own despair: “J'ai eu la chance d'avoir une mère désespérée d'un désespoir si pur que même le bonheur de la vie, si vif soit-il, quelquefois, n'arrivait pas à l'en distraire tout à fait” (L'Amant 22). Having introjected a maternal object from which she was unable to distinguish herself, neither daughter has access to her own anger; unable to commit the necessary matricide, both daughters nearly drown in a death-bearing symbiosis with the maternal figure. The struggle to negotiate between love and hate, between alterity and identification, characterizes both writers. Throughout the series of plays and narratives that rewrite Duras's youth, the daughter cannot hate her mother entirely, even after enduring her savage beatings,22 and she sees herself through the mother: “J'ai tellement écrit sur ma mère. Je peux dire que je lui dois tout. Dans la vie courante, je ne fais rien qu'elle n'ait fait. Par exemple, ma façon de cuisiner, de faire le navarin, les blanquettes” (Monde extérieur 199). Even after having stopped loving her, the daughter is moved by thinking her own image through the mother: “Aujourd'hui [1988], ma mère, je ne l'aime plus. Quand je parle d'elle, comme en ce moment, je suis émue. Mais c'est peut-être de moi devant elle, de mon image, que je m'émeus” (Monde extérieur 204). Neither is the daughter in Cardinal's narratives initially able to distinguish between herself and the maternal figure: “Oui, c'est ça, mon corps c'est ma mère. … J'ai l'impression que mon corps appartient à ma mère, à la limite à mes parents” (Autrement 198); “Au cours des années je me suis enfoncée en elle comme dans un gouffre noir” (Mots 86).

In both cases, a Kristevan analysis of the daughters' depressive neurosis foregrounds the “death-bearing” mother's responsibility for it all, and maternity itself appears under the double sign of eros and death, especially in Duras. This link is revealed in L'Amant, for example, when the narrator learns of the younger brother/lover's death:

Le petit frère. Mort. D'abord c'est inintelligible et puis, brusquement, de partout, du fond du monde, la douleur arrive, elle m'a recouverte, elle m'a emportée, je ne reconnaissais rien, je n'ai plus existé sauf la douleur, laquelle, je ne savais pas laquelle, si c'était celle d'avoir perdu un enfant quelques mois plus tôt qui revenait ou si c'était une nouvelle douleur. Maintenant je crois que c'était une nouvelle douleur, mon enfant mort à la naissance je ne l'avais jamais connu et je n'avais pas voulu me tuer comme là je le voulais.


Later, she writes in “Ma mère avait …” (1988), “Moi-même, je suis mère. Suis-je folle? Je ne sais pas, mais j'ai très mal élevé mon fils. J'avais perdu un enfant avant lui, à la naissance, et il en a souffert. … Finalement, je pense que la maternité se vit dans l'indécence” (Monde extérieur 205). Certainly, maternity is associated with mourning and death everywhere in her writing: in Moderato Cantabile, Anne Desbaresdes identifies the screams of the murdered woman with her own remembrance of childbirth; in all the novels set in Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the wandering beggar is associated with her moribund/dead child (purchased by the mother in Un Barrage contre le Pacifique only to die); in La Douleur, Duras's dead first-born and murdered Jewish children are mourned; in Emily L, the stillbirth of the poet's infant daughter is connected to her aborted writing; and, finally, in “La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais”23 and La Mer écrite,24 it is the dead young British aviator (W. J. Cliffe, to whom the volume Écrire is dedicated) who stands in for all the dead children and becomes the catalyst for unleashing maternal grief. Although Cardinal is able to write maternity in a more positive register (especially with regard to her own children), she mistrusts what “mothers” have become in western patriarchy: “je suis une mère et je me méfie beaucoup de ce personnage” (Autrement dit 201).

While Kristeva's work gives us great insight into the depressive neurosis that we find in these works, it is less persuasive in explaining how agency or subjectivity can emerge to write: who or what is writing these texts? For Kristeva, only the intervention of a third term (“le nom du père”) permits entry into the Symbolic order “comme reconstituant de l'objet narcissique et comme capable d'assurer son déplacement en dehors” (Soleil 89), and for both young girls, the father was absent. For Kristeva as for Jacques Lacan, the entry of this third term into the “symbiose mortifère avec les mères” (Soleil 257) makes the crucial matricide possible: “L'identité, au sens d'une image stable et solide de soi où se constituera l'autonomie du sujet, n'advient qu'au bout de ce processus, lorsque le miroitement narcissique s'achève en une assomption jubilatoire qui est l'œuvre du Tiers” (Soleil 263). This lack of autonomous identity is one reason why Kristeva (in “La Maladie de la douleur”) finds in Duras's writing a “rhétorique blanche de l'apocalypse,” a paradoxical writing of silence, a non-cathartic literature that stands in sharp contrast to the work of the male artists that Kristeva prefers. Even if we consider that the role of this third term can be played by others than the father (the lover, or the analyst, perhaps?), the emergence of an identity from this perspective depends on repudiation of the maternal (“matricide”) that has been widely critiqued by Dinnerstein,25 Chodorow,26 and other feminists.


Without rejecting the insights that Kristeva's work provides about depression and neurosis, then, let us turn to Jessica Benjamin for a more balanced account of subjectivity. Benjamin offers an alternative psychoanalytic reading that challenges constructions of infantile merging with the mother (whether Freudian oceanically blissful infinite narcissism or ego-psychology's initial symbiotic unity), suggesting that even in the pre-symbolic there is a space for intersubjectivity. This “intersubjective view” is based on “a new perception of the active, social infant who can respond to and differentiate others” (Bonds 19, emphasis in original). This intersubjective view provides a link between intrapsychic life and social life: “The crucial area we uncover with intrapsychic theory is the unconscious; the crucial element we explore with intersubjective theory is the representation of self and other as distinct but interrelated beings” (Bonds 20). By emphasizing the role of culture in gender construction, Benjamin shows that the “mother” (death-bearing or otherwise) is not a “natural” but rather a constructed object, both psychic and social.

As we have already seen, each daughter's relationship to her mother is fraught with difficulty. A purely intrapsychic analysis (along the lines of Kristeva) tends to pathologize the mother. As Benjamin points out, however, such a view excludes any consideration of the mother's own subjectivity, erasing one side of intersubjectivity: “It must be acknowledged that we have only just begun to think about the mother as a subject in her own right, principally because of contemporary feminism, which made us aware of the disastrous results for women of being reduced to the mere extension of a two-month-old” (Bonds 23). Adding an intersubjective view to the Kristevan analysis discussed above opens up the possibility that the pathological maternal figure (“la mère mortifère”) is in fact a subject in her own right, not only or even primarily the “object” of infantile/masculine desire and fear. Benjamin points out how an analytic frame focused on maternal objects undergirds the gender polarities that dominate our culture: “Gender continues, consciously and unconsciously, to represent only one part of a polarized whole, one aspect of the self-other relationship. One person (‘the woman’) is not allowed to play the subject; one person (‘the man’) arrogates subjectivity only to himself” (Bonds 82). As Benjamin puts it, “The ‘real’ solution to the dilemma of woman's desire must include a mother who is articulated as a sexual subject, one who expresses her own desire” (Bonds 114).27

Rather than focusing exclusively on the intrapsychic dimensions of the mother-daughter dyad, Benjamin's analysis includes the role of culture in pathologizing the mother. In the narratives of both Duras and Cardinal, western, patriarchal, bourgeois colonial culture denies the mother's access to social and sexual subjectivity in a particular way, which is why the consequences of a troubled relationship with the mother are different for each writer. Although both families were part of the French colonial structure, their history and class positions were quite different. Cardinal's family was solidly ensconced in the landowning bourgeoisie, having been in Algeria since early in the nineteenth century, whereas Duras's parents were schoolteachers who went to French Indochina to work as government functionaries. The death of Duras's father when she was four effectively exiled the family to the margins of the colonial presence; this economically and socially precarious position so affected Duras that she felt that she and her brother grew up more Annamite than French.

Until her analysis frees her, Cardinal, like her mother, is caught in the confines of family, class, and religion. Solange de Talbiac (“Soso,” Cardinal's mother) was effectively imbued with and defeated by these factors: “‘Soso’ douce, toute jeune, innocente. Les yeux verts de ‘Soso’ si beaux, si purs, si avides de bonheur, si ignorants”; “Elle a eu peur de se révolter avec les mots et les gestes de la révolte, elle ne les savait pas, ON ne les lui avait jamais appris” (Les Mots pour le dire 336, 341). Unable to transgress the Law of the Catholic, bourgeois, capitalist, colonial father, she sublimated her passion and rage into religious belief, abnegation, and the struggle to make her daughter into the “jeune fille rangée” that she needed in order to confirm the truth of her own situation. (With the collapse of the colonial structure comes the mother's own destruction.) Less well assimilated than her mother, Marie is aware early on of the internal contradictions of the French colonial presence in Algeria. The glaring disjunction between what she is told about her position (she is different, separate, superior, privileged) and her own experience of it (she feels most at home with the Arab servants and envies their freedom) is emblematic of the intolerable contradiction between the ideal daughter (the “false self” desired by the mother) and the subject-in-process who somaticizes her rage and goes to war with her body (she does not begin to menstruate until she is 20 years old; she suffers from disabling gynecological problems; she even constructs her cervical cancer as an act of reparation at the time of the mother's death).

While the mother's despair is a telling factor in the daughter's illness, Cardinal's books underscore the role of the patriarchy in producing that very situation. In Autrement dit, she comments explicitly on the connection between patriarchy and colonialism:

Colonie, paternalisme, deux mots, frères siamois, qui me hantent, que je rencontre à tout bout de champ. … J'ai toujours comparé la colonisation au couple traditionnel, à ce qui en résulte: la famille. Et, de même que je ne connais pas de bon couple traditionnel (ce que l'on appelle généralement un bon couple n'est en réalité qu'une association, une combine, un magouillage ou une entreprise de Pompes Funèbres), de même je ne connais pas de bonne colonie.

(Autrement dit 167)

Rather than denouncing the father, however, she sees the absence of the father as a key: “Le père manque à nos vies. L'homme manque à nos existences” (Autrement dit 183). She goes on to describe how bourgeois western culture has erased an authentic “father” by making reproduction the exclusive province (and prison) of the “mother”: “Dans nos bourgeoisies occidentales … l'homme n'est plus qu'un maître berné et la femme une mère abusée” (183). By reducing women to and defining them by their reproductive function, she says, patriarchy has defeated them and created “the mother”: “La mère est née de cette défaite, de cet échec. La mère, cette sainte, cette suppliciée, cette salope, cette pauvre femme!” (187). What is lacking in this “fatherless patriarchy” is what Benjamin identifies as the “missing father” who will recognize and acknowledge the girl's desire: “What is really wanted at this point in life is recognition of one's desire; what is wanted is recognition that one is a subject, an agent who can will things and make them happen” (Bonds 102).28 Cardinal's amusing account of how the Catholic church depicts women reflects this refusal of subjectivity under patriarchy, along with the assertion of the defiant daughter's own will:

La religion catholique y est pour beaucoup avec son monstrueux modèle: la Vierge-Mère.

—Comment une vierge peut-elle être enceinte, ma fille?

—Par l'opération du Saint-Esprit, mon Père.

—Très bonne réponse, ma fille.

—Donc le Saint-Esprit n'est pas un oiseau, c'est un cochon, mon Père.

—Taisez-vous, vous n'avez rien compris, vous serez excommuniée.

—J'ai tout compris au contraire et je me fous d'être excommuniée, car je trouve plus sain(t) d'être maculée qu'immaculée.

(Autrement dit 189-90)

In Duras's case, the young girl lives on the margins of the middle class and the French colonial presence, free of religious constraints and bourgeois repression. This position of greater freedom allows early access to desire in the form of transgressive sexual relations (her incestuous love with the “little brother” and her affair with the Chinese lover).

The mother in Duras's narratives (unlike Cardinal's) is economically exploited and destroyed by the colonial administration; like Soso, however, she is fundamentally denied sexual subjectivity. In L'Amant, sexual union between the child and the lover reveals to the child the decisive insight that “La mère n'a pas connu la jouissance” (50). Writing in 1988, Duras says explicitly: “Je crois qu'un des problèmes de ma mère est qu'elle n'ait jamais eu d'histoires avec des hommes. J'ai le sentiment qu'elle était dans l'ignorance totale de ce que cela pouvait être” (Monde extérieur 203), and this insight is transferred to the mother in L'Amant de la Chine du nord (1991): “C'est ici que la mère dit à son enfant ce qui les sépare, ce qui les a toujours séparées.—Je ne t'ai jamais dit … mais il faut que tu saches … […] … j'étais trop sérieuse, je l'ai été trop longtemps … c'est comme ça que j'ai perdu le goût de mon plaisir” (210-11).

For each daughter, a key to achieving mutuality and subjectivity herself (necessary in coming to writing) is her understanding of how her own mother's subjectivity had been denied, both psychically and socially. In the essay “Ma mère avait …” Duras reflects on the insights into her mother's situation implicit in the passages cited above. Commenting explicitly on the importance of her recognition of the injustices suffered by Marie Augustine Adeline Legrand, she says, “Si j'ai de l'intérêt, de l'émotion, quand je parle d'elle, c'est parce que je pense à l'injustice dont elle a été victime en même temps qu'à celle dont elle a été coupable” (Monde extérieur 204-05). Likewise, a turning point in Cardinal's narrative comes when, for the first time, she hears her mother's name spoken by the doctor and realizes that “Solange de Talbiac” was not just her mother, but a person: “J'ai baissé la tête. J'ai pensé à son nom. Pour moi elle n'avait pas de nom, c'était: ma mère. Dans ce cabinet de médecin parisien je rencontrais pour la première fois Solange de Talbiac” (Mots pour le dire 335). Listening to her mother tell her life story to the doctor, Marie realizes that Soso was tragically deprived of subjectivity herself: “L'émotion m'étouffait. Je la trouvais tellement touchante la femme qui parlait, si naïve et si désespérante aussi: c'était trop tard” (336).

For both writers, the act of writing is linked to a key moment when the daughter recognizes her mother as (M)Other, a figure constructed in and for a patriarchal society. More than just the maternal body, a “natural” primary object, the (M)Other contains and represents the father (missing or not) as well. Because of Duras's liminal class position (distanced but close to both the indigenous population and the French colonists), this moment, and the capacity for writing, come earlier for her than for Cardinal. The economic and social privilege of Cardinal's position made it harder for her to break through the false consciousness surrounding her upbringing; for her, it is the analytic situation that provides the distance required for recognition. This recognition is actualized through writing, a life-affirming, life-saving necessity. Speaking of her first manuscript, Cardinal says,

Cela tenait du miracle, du conte de fées, de la sorcellerie. Ma vie était entièrement transformée. Non seulement j'avais découvert le moyen de m'exprimer mais j'avais trouvé toute seule le chemin qui m'éloignait de ma famille, de mon milieu, me permettant ainsi de construire un univers qui m'était propre.

(Mots pour le dire 271)

Similarly, writing takes priority over “living” in Duras: “Je suis plus écrivain que vivante, que quelqu'un en vie. Dans mon vécu je suis plus écrivain que quelqu'un qui vit” (Monde extérieur 25); “Si je n'avais pas écrit je serais devenue une incurable de l'alcool” (Écrire 27).

In Écrire, Duras characterizes writing as marked by isolation, separation: “Il faut toujours une séparation d'avec les autres gens autour de la personne qui écrit les livres. C'est une solitude. C'est la solitude de l'auteur, celle de l'écrit” (17). In this essay, Duras is describing her writing practice at Neauphle, where she wrote alone, even if a lover was there with her, and was careful never to show her writing to the other. Just as the writer needs this physical space to herself, she also needs separation from those about whom she is writing: only after the little brother's death did she write Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, L'Amant was written seven years after her mother's death, and it was the news of the Chinese lover's death that prompted the blissful year of writing L'Amant de la Chine du nord.29 As Duras put it in 1988, separation is both the condition for and the product of writing: “On se sépare des gens en écrivant” (Monde extérieur 205). Solitude is the condition of writing for Cardinal as well: “mes livres … sont de longues navigations solitaires et tourmentées parmi les tempêtes éblouissantes de l'exaltation et les accalmies dangereuses du doute30 … Disons que le sort de l'écrivain est une solitude parfois heureuse et souvent menacée” (Autrement dit 121). This space for writing suggests what Benjamin calls “disengagement,” “being alone in the presence of the other” (Bonds 42), a spatial metaphor that echoes her description of the genesis of woman's sexual desire: “The idea that sexual desire arises in a state of aloneness—open space—may seem a paradox. But as we have seen, this state offers the opportunity to discover what is authentic in the self. The idea of open space is important for understanding not only the genesis of woman's sexual desire, but also her experience of sexual pleasure” (Bonds 129).

Duras and Cardinal have both spoken of alternate careers they might have pursued as performers: Duras as a pianist, Cardinal as a cabaret singer.31 Writing on Flaubert, Duras points out that, in writing, as in performing, the self is doubled: “Il n'y a rien de plus mystérieux que ça, ce dédoublement de l'être humain dans l'écrit” (Monde extérieur 24). Performing and writing both depend on a privileged space for the disengagement Benjamin describes; the performer is alone in the presence of the other, while the writer is alone both with the eventual reader and with this “other” self who will be writing and written. Moreover, just as all performers (actors, singers, musicians) partially disclose themselves in a setting that blurs the boundaries between public and private personhood, allowing them to be both self and other, these two writers have played at self-disclosure in their writing, both in their autobiographical fictions and in their many published reflections upon these works.32

Spatial metaphors abound in both writers' description of their own writing processes, literal “corps à corps” between the body and the page. For Duras, the writer must possess superhuman strength in order to write (Écrire 29); for Cardinal, this struggle is grounded explicitly in the maternal body (Autrement dit 71). Both writers describe their books in terms of gestation, delivery, and post-partum depression: “La plus forte histoire de toutes celles qui peuvent vous arriver c'est d'écrire. Je n'en ai jamais eues d'aussi violentes—sauf, si, mon enfant. D'ailleurs je ne fais pas la différence. C'est complètement l'équivalent de la vie” (Duras, Monde extérieur 24).33 Like the growing fetus, the book being written is yet to be known, to be discovered through writing: “L'écriture, c'est l'inconnu. Avant d'écrire on ne sait rien de ce qu'on va écrire. … C'est l'inconnu de soi, de sa tête, de son corps” (Duras, Écrire 64); “Chaque livre est un théâtre de notre mémoire et, dans notre mémoire, la part de l'inconscient est bien plus grande que celle de la conscience. Alors nous ne savons pas expliquer ce qu'est notre livre. … [L]'écrivain lui-même ne sait pas tout à fait ce qu'il a écrit” (Cardinal, Autrement dit 121). Once the wrenching delivery has been accomplished, the writer can fall into depression, vividly described by Cardinal in Autrement dit (75-81) as a state of emptiness and uselessness. Now “completely written,” the book (child) is cast into the world on its own: “C'est impossible de jeter un livre pour toujours avant qu'il ne soit tout à fait écrit—c'est-à-dire: seul et libre de vous qui l'avez écrit” (Écrire 27); as Cardinal puts it, “Il est fini, il est chez l'éditeur, il marche tout seul” (Autrement dit 76).

Rather than drowning in a “death-bearing symbiosis with the mother,” then, Duras and Cardinal somehow came to writing. What their writing depicts and enacts is in the first instance a confirmation of Kristeva's analysis of depressive neurosis in the daughter: “La fille se substitute à la folie maternelle, elle tue moins sa mère qu'elle ne la prolonge dans l'hallucination négative d'une identification toujours fidèlement amoureuse” (Soleil noir 250). In the case of Duras, Kristeva concludes that writing never moves beyond “the pain of sorrow” but is instead “un naufrage de mots face à l'affect innommable” (264); for her, Duras's writing propagates the disease of sorrow (“la maladie de la douleur”): “Sans catharsis, cette littérature rencontre, reconnaît, mais aussi propage le mal qui la mobilise” (237). As we have seen, however, the daughter's subjectivity emerges in both Duras and Cardinal through recognition of the political and social dimensions both of the self and the (M)Other. Duras has called writing “une sorte de faculté qu'on a à côté de sa personne, parallèlement à elle-même, d'une autre personne qui apparaît et avance, invisible, douée de pensée, de colère, et qui quelquefois, de son propre fait, est en danger d'en perdre la vie” (Écrire 64-65). What I am suggesting here is that this “autre personne” is at once Other and Mother, elaborated in and through an intersubjective space of writing.


  1. This article began as a paper written for a panel on Duras and Cardinal. I am grateful to Claire Marrone for inviting my initial submission to the panel she organized at the 1997 NEMLA meeting.

  2. Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” Histoires d'amour (Paris: Denoël, 1983) 226.

  3. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (NY: Pantheon, 1988) 18.

  4. Kelly Oliver, Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-bind (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993) 11-12.

  5. Simone de Beauvoir is the most notable instance of such repudiation in the French tradition. See Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (NY: Bantam, 1971) for a radical American formulation of repudiation of maternity. Benjamin distinguishes between repudiation and renunciation of femininity in her discussion of the oedipal period (168-69), and this distinction is useful in trying to explain the difference between Duras and Cardinal, on the one hand, and Beauvoir (for instance) on the other.

  6. “La plus ou moins grande violence de la pulsion matricide selon les individus et selon la tolérance des milieux entraîne, lorsqu'elle est entravée, son inversion sur le moi: l'objet maternel étant introjecté, la mise à mort dépressive ou mélancolique du moi s'ensuit à la place du matricide. Pour protéger maman, je me tue tout en sachant—savoir fantasmatique et protecteur—que c'est d'elle que ça vient, d'elle-géhenne mortifère … Ainsi ma haine est sauve et ma culpabilité matricide est effacée. Je fais d'Elle une image de la Mort pour m'empêcher de me briser en morceaux par la haine que je me porte quand je m'identifie à Elle. … c'est Elle qui est mortifère, donc je ne me tue pas pour la tuer mais je l'agresse, la harcèle, la représente …” (Julia Kristeva, Soleil noir: dépression et mélancolie [Paris: Gallimard, 1987] 39).

  7. Julia Kristeva, Pouvoirs de l'horreur: essai sur l'abjection (Paris: Seuil, 1980).

  8. Janice L. Doane and Devon Hodges, From Klein to Kristeva: Psychoanalytic Feminism and the Search for the “Good Enough” Mother (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992).

  9. Alice Miller, in Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, trans. Ruth Ward (NY: Basic Books, 1979), describes how the important “good enough mother” should function: “In the first weeks and months of life he needs to have the mother at his disposal, must be able to use her and to be mirrored by her … : the mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and baby gazes at his mother's face and finds himself therein … provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small helpless being and not projecting her own introjects onto the child. In that case the child would not find himself in his mother's face but rather the mother's own predicaments. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain” (32). For Miller, the unconscious needs of the mother sift through the infinite potentialities of the child and activate precisely those that will create for the mother the child she needs. If this mother's needs are too great—if she lacked the opportunity to affirm and solidify her own integrated self through mirroring when she was a child—the child will suffer: “[If the mother] is unpredictable, insecure, anxiety-ridden, or hostile, or if her confidence in herself as a mother is shaken, then the child has to face the period of individuation without having a reliable framework for emotional checking to his symbiotic partner” (35).

  10. Donald Woods Winnicott, The Child and the Family: First Relationships (London: Tavistock Publications, 1957).

  11. This is not to imply that the social is absent from Kristeva's analysis of the maternal; on the contrary, as Oliver points out, she “argues that maternity calls into question the boundary between culture and nature” (9n). Whereas Kristeva concentrates on the oscillations between the semiotic and the symbolic as a potentially revolutionary force, what is needed is a fuller account of the social, political, historical context of this dialectic. See Oliver 8-14 for an excellent framing of the debate around Kristeva's politics (or lack thereof).

  12. Marguerite Duras, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (Paris: Gallimard, 1950).

  13. Duras, L'Amant (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1984).

  14. This splitting within subjectivity is beautifully figured in a passage near the end of L'Amant, where the body of the child becomes “il,” a third presence sharing space with the girl and her lover: “Il [the lover] discerne de moins en moins clairement les limites de ce corps, celui-ci n'est pas comme les autres, il n'est pas fini, dans la chambre il grandit encore, il est encore sans formes arrêtées, à tout instant il est en train de se faire, il n'est pas seulement là où il le voit, il est ailleurs aussi, il s'étend au-delà de la vue, vers le jeu, la mort, il est souple, il part tout entier dans la jouissance comme s'il était grand, en âge, il est sans malice, d'une intelligence effrayante” (121).

  15. Duras, L'Amant de la Chine du nord (Paris: Gallimard, 1991).

  16. Marie Cardinal, Les Mots pour le dire (Paris: Grasset, 1975).

  17. Cardinal, Autrement dit (Paris: Grasset, 1977).

  18. Duras, “Ma mère avait …,” Le Monde extérieur: Outside 2 (Paris: POL, 1993) 204. See also, for example, L'Amant 72-75.

  19. Commenting on the differences between Les Mots pour le dire and her own psychoanalysis, Cardinal told Annie Leclerc in Autrement dit, “Par exemple je n'ai pas écrit un mot des raclées que ma mère me flanquait pour un oui ou un non. Pourtant il en était souvent question pendant mes séances de psychanalyse car encore aujourd'hui j'ai peur des coups, peur qu'on me fasse du mal, sans compter que le spectacle de la violence de ma mère inhibait la mienne. … Au contraire, l'histoire de l'aveu de l'avortement raté de ma mère n'a pas eu une grande importance dans ma psychanalyse parce que j'en avais un souvenir très précis et que j'en avais tiré toutes les conclusions possibles avant de commencer le traitement. … Mais, en l'écrivant, c'est devenu énorme, ça a pris une place formidable” (29-30).

  20. This is what the narrator of Les Mots pour le dire calls “la saloperie”: “Là, dans la rue, en quelques phrases, elle a crevé mes yeux, elle a percé mes tympans, elle a arraché mon scalp, elle a coupé mes mains, elle a cassé mes genoux, elle a torturé mon ventre, elle a mutilé mon sexe” (164).

  21. Explaining why her mother eventually visited the grave only once a year instead of daily, the narrator tells us, “Elle n'avait plus besoin de venir aussi souvent car, peu à peu, son bébé mort avait de nouveau germé en elle et y vivait pour toujours. Elle en serait enceinte jusqu'à sa mort. Alors, j'imaginais qu'elles naîtraient à l'infini, ensemble, l'une berçant l'autre, flottantes, heureuses, folâtrant dans l'Harmonie, parmi le parfum des champs aériens de frésias où s'ébattraient des ânes roses, des papillons dorés et des girafes de peluche. Elle riraient, elles dormiraient, rassasiées du mutuel et constant amour qu'elles se donneraient” (Mots pour le dire 233).

  22. See, for example, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique: “On ne pouvait plus lui en vouloir” (137), and L'Amant: “Dans les histoires de mes livres qui se rapportent à mon enfance, … je crois avoir dit l'amour que l'on portait à notre mère mais je ne sais pas si j'ai dit la haine qu'on lui portait aussi et l'amour qu'on se portait les uns les autres, et la haine aussi” (34).

  23. Duras, Écrire (Paris: Gallimard, 1993).

  24. Duras, La Mer écrite (Paris: Marval, 1996).

  25. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (NY: Harper, 1977).

  26. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978).

  27. The consequences of the “objectification” of the mother are negative for both daughters and sons, since identification with the maternal leads to loss of self for both sexes: “once identification with the other is denied, love becomes only the love of an object, of The Other. Since the mother is deprived of subjectivity, identification with her involves a loss of self” (Bonds 171). Thus, according to Benjamin, boys are deprived of the period of “playful, secondary identification with femininity” that could facilitate acceptance of difference across the sexes rather than repudiation of femininity: “Perhaps, then, the way out of the oedipal repudiation of femininity must be sought in the period that comes before it. Between the boy's early disidentification with the mother and his oedipal separation from her is a neglected phase of secondary identification with femininity. Insofar as the culture forecloses this possibility by demanding a premature entry into the oedipal world, gender identity is formed by repudiation rather than by recognition of the other” (Bonds 169).

  28. For a fuller discussion of the importance of the father in the development of feminine subjectivity, see pp. 92-114.

  29. Duras recounts in the preface to L'Amant de la Chine du nord how the year she spent “enfermée dans … le bonheur fou d'écrire” (11) allowed her to write novels again: “Je suis redevenue un écrivain de romans” (12).

  30. Compare what Duras says about doubt: “Le doute, c'est écrire” (Écrire 26).

  31. For Duras, see Écrire: “Je crois que si j'avais joué du piano en professionnelle, je n'aurais pas écrit de livres” (22). For Cardinal, see Autrement dit 57-61: “Pendant le court laps de temps où j'ai chanté et dit des poèmes sur une scène, j'ai été très heureuse” (59).

  32. Such disclosures of the writers' most intimate and painful moments have made more than one reader uncomfortable, from the Parisian critic who wanted Cardinal to remove the “vulgar” words describing her mother's defecation from Les Mots pour le dire (Autrement dit 87), to Catherine Lam, who reacted as follows when Duras published L'Amant de la Chine du nord: “comment faire un roman de ce qui l'a tant blessée? Se livrerait-elle à sa propre parodie?” (“Marguerite Duras ou la prostitution sacrée,” Lettres Actuelles nos. 1-2 [1993]: 7).

  33. In an essay published one year earlier (1981), Duras compares writing to a way of cheating death: “Avec les textes, il doit s'agir de livrer au dehors ce qui est de nature à rester intrinsèquement lié à la personne et qui devrait l'accompagner jusque dans la mort. L'écrit est enlevé à la mort. La mort est mutilée à chaque poème écrit, lu, à chaque livre” (Monde extérieur 17). See also the long lyrical passage in Autrement dit (69-71) where Cardinal develops the metaphor of the book as child: “Les Mots, … se sont collés les uns aux autres … et commencent à former un bloc indépendant de moi, extérieur à moi, qui a une existence différente de la mienne bien que j'aie participé à chacun de ses signes. Ça ressemble beaucoup à un enfant”; “Tout ça pour nous séparer obligatoirement, nécessairement, parce que la gestation est à son terme, que nous nous tuerions à rester encore ensemble.”

Pat Duffy (essay date February 2001)

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SOURCE: Duffy, Pat. “Realigning Cultural Perspectives: Marie Cardinal and Camara Laye.” French Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (February 2001): 5-21.

[In the following essay, Duffy examines the impact of dual cultural heritage on the works of Cardinal and Camara Laye, asserting that many postcolonial writers struggle with issues of self-identity when they attempt to embrace aspects of either culture.]

Aujourd'hui je n'ose pas retourner chez moi, en Algérie, parce que c'est devenu l'étranger aussi. C'est l'étranger partout pour moi.1

With this enigmatic description of her position Marie Cardinal, in Au Pays de mes racines, confronts a sense of alienation arising from experience of a dual cultural heritage. Denied her are the normally comforting associations of the return home, and doubt is thrown not only on the authenticity of the home-coming, but also on her present status which deprives her of any sort of safe cultural reference point. Such a problematic state represents an increasingly common plight well illustrated by Beur writer Azouz Begag, who has described his own strenuous efforts to balance his Beur and French sides as the ability ‘de poser une fesse sur chaque chaise et de rester en équilibre’.2 But, however whimsical, Begag's description also highlights the insecurity that haunts those who attempt to remain poised in such a way. Cardinal herself makes this clear as she questions the feasibility of an attempt to balance between two cultures: ‘[Q]uand la culture est double et doubles aussi les géographies et les histoires, l'équilibre est constamment en péril, il y a peu de repos’ (PR [Au Pays de mes racines] 24).3 In her view, one's loyalties are sorely tested by the effort involved in successfully straddling the two; a feat that ultimately leads to a sense of cultural betrayal as the persona, lacking a clear allegiance, oscillates between its two sides:

Double culture, double liberté pourrait-on croire, mais c'est le contraire. La liberté ne peut se vivre de deux manières différentes. Il faut une grande agilité pour savoir passer d'une liberté à une autre et peut-être même que cette agilité est, en fait, de la duplicité.

(PR 101)4

The ability to reconcile the two sides, without breaking faith with either, has been a preoccupation of many writers, notably Guinean Camara Laye who, particularly during the 50s and 60s, examined the problem in detail.5 Returning home after a long absence he too felt keenly the anguish and uncertainty of the individual caught between two cultures with diametrically opposed value systems, as he stated in his article ‘Et demain?’:

L'étudiant africain qui regagne son pays natal (…) a d'abord quelque peine à se figurer que ce pays natal est bien le sien. (…) Cet étudiant a le sentiment, qui n'est pas faux, d'avoir connu deux mondes différents.6

Such an unsettling experience causes the need to clarify one's relationship with the adopted culture, but when faced with the choice between complete acceptance and denial, neither option is perceived to be satisfactory:

Je ne crois pas qu'un pur refus soit la bonne attitude. Je crois moins encore qu'une acceptation totale soit une attitude meilleure. Il faudrait alors abolir tout le passé. On n'y parviendrait qu'en faisant le sacrifice de son être. Un tel sacrifice, personne ne pourrait raisonnablement le consentir.

(‘ED’ [‘Et demain?’] 291)7

The dilemma of choice between two extremes thus has the effect of destabilizing the individual whose situation is equated with that of someone walking in a desert, ‘où il va errer, sans point de repère, tant qu'un nouvel équilibre n'aura pas remplacé l'ancien’ (‘ED’ 291). Unless some form of understanding can be reached between the two sides Laye may be obliged either to emulate the trapeze act of Azouz Begag, balancing precariously between the two extremes, or to exist, like Marie Cardinal, in fear of cultural betrayal.

This study aims therefore to examine the roots of the sense of division that plagues Marie Cardinal and Camara Laye, identifying parallels both in their growth and in their approach to a resolution. To illustrate this we shall follow the line of autobiographical development, as they pass from the stability of their early youth to the beginnings of cultural division, brought about by the mores of their French schooling and by rites of passage. All the while they are being drawn further from the cocoon-like state of childhood until, finally, we perceive them in adulthood, as products of cultural intersection seeking to recover a close relationship with their perceived roots. While not wishing to be prescriptive, through analysis of their particular responses, it is hoped to establish a case for biculturalism to be seen neither as a marginal position nor as an unavoidable compromise, but as a source of strength; a new perspective which would not only assist those in this singular position, but could also usefully provide us all with valuable lessons in cross-cultural understanding.

The respective backgrounds of these two writers do not immediately reveal cause for comparison. To begin with, Cardinal was born, in 1929, into a wealthy extreme right-wing pied-noir family living in Algiers and this is where she spent her early years. Her relationship with the members of her family was punctuated by extremes. On the one hand she felt love, in the form of gratitude for her Algerian upbringing, and on the other, hatred not only because of the values for which they stood, but also because her family was perceived as an impediment to her relationship with Algeria.8 In 1953 she married and, in due course, had three children. Shortly after the birth of her second child, in 1956, she left Algeria definitively, escaping the escalating turmoil as the country staggered towards independence in 1962. She only returns, with some trepidation, twenty-four years later (PR 169) to witness change and exorcize the past.

In contrast, Camara Laye was born in French Guinea in 1924. Son of a Malinké blacksmith in an inland village, his life, as portrayed in his first work, L'Enfant noir,9 was one of harmony and security in a loving family of which he was the cherished eldest son. Following traditional practices, he seemed likely to succeed his father at the forge but fate, in the shape of the French colonial education system, intervened to circumvent this expectation. Although his mother was very much against any form of separation from her son, his father could see that the future of Guinea lay in the training of its gifted youth and he encouraged the boy to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by a Western-style education. Consequently, in 1947, at age seventeen, Camara Laye was embarking on a year's further study in France as a mechanic, an experience that was to lengthen into a stay of seven years.

Although, apart from their shared experience of French colonial rule, Cardinal and Laye seem to have little in common, remarkable similarities do begin to surface when one pinpoints specific episodes from their youth, as revealed in their respective autobiographical works, Au Pays de mes racines and L'Enfant noir. The period of early life depicted in each is that during which one is most open to impressions and least likely to analyse, a phenomenon inherent in the process of growing up. Autobiography hinging on childhood is thus automatically predicated on the theme of growth, as Roy Pascal states:

It is a theme peculiarly appropriate for autobiographical treatment, since the inner development is so embraced in outer events. In this state, when the child scarcely scrutinises himself, he comes to be and know himself through his awareness of others, of the outer world. The process of growth therefore takes a lively, concrete form, through observed things and people; the widening consciousness is this widening world. (…) And because in childhood we move outwards in all directions, every experience seems worth while and is accompanied in memory by feeling.10

Not only are events pertinent historically, as a record of the author's life, but they also show the developing nature of the adult. Therefore, not only are they fixed in the past, but they are also in process, as the adult evaluates and interprets past actions where the child does not. Hence the desire to examine childhood experience to see where we, as adults, fit in with ourselves as children. Autobiographical writing necessarily involves a degree of personal psychoanalysis during which the work produced functions as an instrument of catharsis, hopefully enabling the writer to come to terms with a specific event or formative period of his or her life. As Lucille Cairns sums up, ‘life must be lived forwards but can only be explained backwards.’11 Therefore, in this way, the autobiographer becomes the child's double, at once attached by historical fact and yet detached in the sense that the childhood self is now a separate entity, a stranger in many ways to be placed, as it were, under the microscope.

Cardinal and Laye both show responses typical of this type of autobiography. The desire to reach back and capture those moments that have formed them is paramount, not only for pleasure but also for analysis, to see how faithful they have been to their childhood selves. Both show a great attachment to the countries of their birth, in Laye's case a natural enough love in view of his happy childhood. This is particularly evident in the first few lines of L'Enfant noir as the child carefully draws a picture of family stability: ‘Ma mère était dans l'atelier, près de mon père, et leurs voix me parvenaient, rassurantes, tranquilles, mêlées à celles des clients de la forge et au bruit de l'enclume’ (EN [L'Enfant noir] 9). In Cardinal's case, however, attachment to Algeria is conditioned by hatred of the mother who had confessed to a number of futile attempts to abort her, in order to sever all links with a despised husband. This revelation of attempted infanticide profoundly affects the ten-year-old girl who, feeling abandoned by her mother, turns to the one constant that cannot betray or disappoint—Algeria:

Je me suis accrochée à ce que j'ai pu, à la ville, au ciel, à la mer, au Djurdjura. Je me suis agrippée à eux, ils sont devenus ma mère et je les ai aimés comme j'aurais voulu l'aimer, elle.

(PR 181)

She identifies completely with Algeria, feeling one with the landscape and investing it with generative power as, ‘[m]a belle terre, ma mère, ma génitrice’ (PR 54).12 This sense of oneness derives not only from rejection of her mother, but also from a vivid awareness of the harmonious rhythms in nature. What amounts to an umbilical link with the natural world is epitomized in her rhythmic evocation of communion with the gently swaying motion of the sea:

Je sais que le rythme invariable qui fait se balancer la mer et mon corps est celui de l'amour. Je ne sais pas pourquoi je sais ça, mais je le sais. Et c'est peut-être parce que je suis incapable de nommer l'amour qu'il est si grand, si important, si grave. Rythme régulier, alternatif: l'autre-moi, moi-l'ailleurs, le différent-moi, moi-le-dehors. L'univers et moi, moi dedans lui, lui dedans moi. Parfaits.

(PR 94)13

This symbiotic relationship with the natural world is also very much a part of Laye's childhood. With similarly evocative power he describes vividly a harvest scene from his youth, where the workers are portrayed as being one not only with each other, but also with nature, both physically and spiritually:

Ils chantaient, nos hommes, ils moissonnaient; ils chantaient en chœur, ils moissonnaient ensemble: leurs voix s'accordaient, leurs gestes s'accordaient; ils étaient ensemble!—unis dans un même travail, unis par un même chant. La même âme les reliait, les liait; chacun et tous goûtaient le plaisir, l'identique plaisir d'accomplir une tâche commune.

(EN 63)14

Laye is vividly aware of the seasons not only because of the contrasts in activities and experiences they afford, but also because of the ever-present sense of life-giving power. In L'Enfant noir, he places great emphasis on the regenerative nature of spring-summer:

En décembre, tout est en fleur et tout sent bon; tout est jeune; le printemps semble s'unir à l'été, et la campagne, longtemps gorgée d'eau, longtemps accablée de nuées maussades, partout prend sa revanche, éclate; jamais le ciel n'est plus clair, plus resplendissant; les oiseaux chantent, ils sont ivres; la joie est partout, partout elle explose et dans chaque cœur retentit. (…) c'était la belle saison et tout ce qu'elle contient—et qu'elle ne contient pas: qu'elle répand à profusion!—qui me faisait danser de joie.

(EN 57)

His expression of the vitality he derives from nature can be compared with Cardinal's similar description of the arrival of spring:

Le printemps dure quinze jours, il est fou: il pète, il pétarade, il tiraille, il éclabousse tout, partout. Les couleurs, les odeurs, les formes, montent et transforment le paysage à une vitesse telle qu'on croirait voir bouger et vibrer la terre. La vie! Une force vitale incroyable, une jeunesse formidable, d'une beauté et d'une vigueur insensées, reviennent chaque année.

(PR 25-6)15

For both authors, the life force is perceived as a form of rhythm which invests human beings with its power. Cardinal, for her part, explains that a return to her Algerian roots is vital because

les rythmes de l'univers qui sont communs à tous les humains sont entrés en moi là, c'est là que je les ai connus. Pour continuer à vivre avec les autres je dois retourner là-bas, laisser ces rythmes me pénétrer de nouveau, retrouver les échos les plus anciens du sang qui bat en moi comme en nous tous.

(PR 88)

For his part Camara Laye evokes the bond of all peoples living together between ‘le ciel et la terre—planète tournant vertigineusement avec tous, autour d'elle-même et autour du soleil’.16 Both Cardinal and Laye therefore portray the relationship between man and the natural world as a vital symbiosis, an indispensable merging of matter and spirit based on the cyclical interdependence of the cosmos.

For both then, the first real disruption of this harmonious continuum comes in the shape of their French colonial schooling. Both are to experience the assimilationist policies of the French education system that led to children in the colonies learning about ‘nos ancêtres les Gaulois’ and ‘les sous-préfectures des départements français’ (PR 145-6) as a matter of course. Both feel a degree of alienation from such cultural information that has little or no bearing on the worlds in which they live. However, for Laye and his classmates the thirst for knowledge of the outside world mitigates the strangeness of what they learn: ‘[N]ous n'apprenions rien qui ne fût étrange, inattendu et comme venu d'une autre planète; et nous ne nous lassions jamais d'écounter’ (EN 84). Ultimately, it becomes a case of ‘le naturel du tout-proche vaincu par la fascination du lointain’17—Laye is lured into embracing this education as a means to facilitate access to wider horizons. Cardinal, however, voices only disillusionment with her convent-style education, summing up with trenchant brevity, ‘mes jardins étaient bons, mon éducation était mauvaise’ (PR 23). She finds her education to be too biased towards France and therefore symbolic of everything she hates about her pied-noir family. She is only able to identify with her studies when they involve Algeria:

Les livres de classe de mon enfance étaient français faits pour de petits Français vivant en France. Des saisons inconnues les rythmaient de feuilles de houx, de brins de muguet, de chaumières enneigées, d'écoliers en sabots … Visions incompréhensibles. Tout m'était incompréhensible dans ces bouquins, sauf les croisades où les Français rencontraient les Arabes.

(PR 103)

Moreover, while French history leaves her ‘unmoved’ (PR 104), the national anthem is, for her, meaningless gibberish:

[J]e ne comprenais pas mieux le La Marseillaise:

(PR 76)

However, like Cardinal who found her French style education bizarre and inappropriate, Laye himself, whether consciously or not, also reveals his ignorance of the culture he is in the process of embracing. When the supposedly well-equipped young student, off to France for the first time yet dressed in inappropriately light clothes for the trip into the Northern winter, is handed a metro map, he is completely perplexed: ‘Mais je ne comprenais rien à ce plan, et l'idée même de métro me demeurait obscure’ (EN 220).18

For both authors, it is thus their respective educations that begin the process of alienation. In Laye's case, a vague awareness of being different from the other children growing up to fulfil roles in village life, leads to unexplained misgivings about the future. As his uncle hands him a bundle of rice stalks during the harvest at his grandmother's village, he muses:

[M]a vie n'était pas ici … et elle n'était pas non plus dans la forge paternelle. Mais où était ma vie? Et je tremblais devant cette vie inconnue. N'eût-il pas été plus simple de prendre la suite de mon père?

(EN 61)19

However, as we have observed earlier, where the child experiences, the adult evaluates, disclosing this unease to be the manifestation of a vague sense of guilt, not only because he is different, but also because he actively seeks that which makes him so. Although Laye is at this time unaware of the consequences of his decision to continue with his Western education, he does, however, sense a growing gulf that the harmonious rhythm of the harvest serves to reinforce:

[J]'étais près d'eux, j'étais avec eux, j'étais dans cette grande douceur, et je n'étais pas entièrement avec eux: je n'étais qu'un écolier en visite—et comme je l'eusse volontiers oublié!

(EN 64)

The conflict between the two sides of his personality, the one wishing to succeed in the Western world and the other wishing to remain part of his African world causes a feeling of unease which is often apparent; for example, when he goes to visit his grandmother. He is, on the one hand, proud of the school clothes which single him out from his playmates in the village and yet, conversely, he is also bothered by these clothes which symbolize his different path and which render him unable to join in the rough and tumble of play:

[T]ant de splendeurs étaient faites pour éblouir de petits campagnards qui n'avaient qu'un caleçon court pour tout vêtement. Moi, cependant, j'enviais leur caleçon qui leur donnait une liberté plus grande. Ces vêtements de ville, qu'il fallait tenir propres, étaient bien embarrassants: ils se salissaient, ils se déchiraient (…). Aussi me serais-je volontiers libéré de ces vêtements d'écolier.

(EN 51)20

Cardinal also questions her relationship with those in her world, for while she, a privileged pied-noir, can lie in bed, her Arab friends must rise very early to help with the grape harvest (PR 96-7). For both children, however, this sense of exclusivity is not perceived as a threat; Laye's misgivings about his difference are conquered, temporarily at least, by excitement: ‘De fait, je l'oubliais; j'étais fort jeune encore et j'oubliais (…); et puis j'étais à l'âge (…) où l'on vit avant tout dans le présent’ (EN 64). Similarly, as she portrays the child swinging on a eucalyptus branch surrounded by reassuring sights, sounds, and smells, Cardinal comments, ‘[j]e vis. J'ai la conscience de la précarité de ce présent mais j'en jouis’ (PR 44).

While education is portrayed as a major cause of alienation in both Laye and Cardinal's work, another key influence shown to estrange them both from childhood itself are rites of passage. For Cardinal, it is her first communion which, as she says, draws her closer to her French side through the symbolic marriage with Jesus: ‘La première communion était un tournant dans notre vie. C'était la fin de l'enfance (…). Après ma première communion, je suis devenue plus française’ (PR 59). The indoctrination she receives regarding sin and the spectre of becoming ‘une mauvaise femme’ nibbles away at her Algerian side and leads her to remark, ‘[à] dix-huit ans, ma conversion était PR 32). In Laye's case, the rites associated with manhood transform him from boy to man, signalling ‘le début d'une nouvelle vie’ (EN 125) and separating him forever, in particular, from his childhood bond with his mother:

Quand j'avais quitté ma mère, j'étais toujours un enfant. A présent … (…) J'étais un homme! (…) A présent, il y avait cette distance entre ma mère et moi: l'homme! C'était une distance infiniment plus grande que les quelques mètres qui nous séparaient.

(EN 148)

Typically, as children they both respond to their ever-expanding worlds whereas the adults undertake the reverse journey, turning their attention to their sources. This focus quickly reveals the ephemeral nature of the childhood state which, once recognized, finds expression in a longing for the unrecoverable:

[J]'y rêve, j'y rêve avec une mélancolie inexprimable, parce qu'il y eut là un moment de ma jeunesse, un dernier et fragile moment où ma jeunesse s'embrasait d'un feu que je ne devais plus retrouver et qui, maintenant, a le charme doux-amer des choses à jamais enfuies.

(EN 189)

As they break with childhood, and begin to acknowledge the loss of a single cultural affiliation, both also experience doubts about their adoption of French ways. Forced to confront the effects of cultural distancing Cardinal admits, ‘[i]mpression que j'ai perdu des maillons de ma vie, certaines clefs (…) que me suis trop francisée, que j'ai oublié quelque chose, quoi?’ (PR 84). Provisionally, she identifies the deficiency as a lost sense of oneness with the Algerian landscape: ‘[C]ette place, où chaque élément est indispensable au moment et où je suis indispensable à chaque élément’ (PR 7). Furthermore, when examining the reasons for her need to go back to Algeria, although she fears to do so, Cardinal emphasizes the ineffable nature of her search for roots: ‘Ce que je vais chercher n'appartient pas, je crois, à l'ordre de la raison. (…) c'est quelque chose qui vient de la terre, du ciel et de la mer que je veux rejoindre, quelque chose qui, pour moi, ne se trouve que dans cet endroit précis du globe terrestre’ (PR 5-6). For her then, the key to restoring a sense of stability lies in the re-creation of a ‘parfaite harmonie avec le monde’ (PR 6); a need for reintegration with Algeria that, it is hoped, will alleviate the perceived artificiality of her life in France:

Désir forcené de retrouver cette personne que j'ai été, que je dois être encore. Depuis trop longtemps, j'ai perdu la connivance avec un espace, la complicité avec un rythme naturel, la compréhension parfaite des signes colorés, odorants, bruyants. Ici je me perds, je m'effiloche, je me dilue, je suis une décalcomanie.

(PR 43)

Laye, however, senses a much more fundamental loss of ancestral knowledge that he, as the eldest son, would normally have inherited from his father over time. This realization is epitomized in his simple acknowledgement of a lack of cosmological information essential to his spiritual connection with Africa: ‘[M]on propre totem (…) m'est inconnu’ (EN 80).21 However, he comes to recognize the essence of life itself as being grounded in constant transformation:

Mais le monde bouge, le monde change, et le mien plus rapidement peut-être que tout autre, et si bien qu'il semble que nous cessons d'être ce que nous étions, qu'au vrai nous ne sommes plus ce que nous étions, et que déjà nous n'étions plus exactement nous-mêmes (…). Oui, le monde bouge, le monde change; il bouge et change.

(EN 80)

Laye expresses the inexorable nature of destiny in terms of a mechanism in perpetual motion:

[C]ette roue-ci et cette roue-là d'abord, et puis cette troisième, et puis d'autres roues encore, beaucoup d'autres roues peut-être que personne ne voyait. Et qu'eût-on fait pour empêcher cet engrenage de tourner? On ne pouvait que le regarder tourner, regarder le destin tourner: mon destin était que je parte!

(EN 218)

The emphasis he places on change as an inherent factor in personal development, reflects his affirmation of the perpetual state of becoming in which we live.22 It is a philosophy that develops into an integral part of his belief in the destiny of all human beings to travel the earth in search of God, and one that comes to be echoed by Cardinal: ‘Il n'y a pas de déjà, rien n'est acquis, tout est en perpétuel devenir’ (PR 87). She describes our united destiny to travel the earth in terms of the graves in the churchyard where her father lies. All are now on an equal footing, united in death and in the recycling, by the earth, of their remains:

La nature les relie les uns aux autres, ils ne sont plus séparés par les limites des concessions, les frontières des propriétés. Ils sont tous embarqués sur un grand radeau immobile dont les cyprès sont les mâts et les palmiers les voiles.

(PR 131)

Their recognition of the evolving nature of the persona, as well as the sense of privilege they feel for the childhoods they have enjoyed, thus gradually leads both writers to a more positive outlook. Laye comes to view the blending of cultures as being analogous to rites of passage, which, although at times painful, lead to rebirth. Once born anew, and having a unique, enriched perspective of the world, the individual is equipped to stand up to the rigours of bicultural existence (‘ED’ 291). This becomes clear as, in Dramouss, he endeavours to describe the man he has become:

Chose étrange, jamais autant que ce soir-là, je n'avais senti et compris combien j'étais un homme divisé. Mon être, je m'en rendais compte, était la somme de deux

(D [Dramouss] 187)

Laye sees his second side as the one which is prepared to sacrifice principle by accepting to live under a corrupt régime in his homeland. However, notwithstanding, he also expresses the sense of enrichment which his unique position affords him.

Equally, Cardinal expresses the dynamic created by the two cultures which have formed her in terms of a combat between two forces that, although exhausting, nevertheless leaves one revitalized:

Être née à la colonie dans une famille de colons est un fait lourd à porter; et pourtant, être une créole est une joie, une pétillance en moi. Sans arrêt la terre et la tête, le corps et l'esprit, se battent et s'unissent dans des mêlées épuisantes.

(PR 23)23

Thus, during her return, Cardinal discovers that the links she thought severed by time are very much alive: ‘[J]e n'étais pas sûre de nous, pas sûre de nous aimer encore, l'Algérie et moi. Peut-être que les années et l'Histoire avaient tout démoli. Mais non, je suis bien là, cette terre est toujours ma mère’ (PR 181). She had earlier referred to this unbreakable bond in an interview in 1964, having already been separated from Algeria for nine years: ‘Je ne garde pas le 24 In Au Pays de mes racines, her renewed sense of security testifies to her realization that she will always carry the essence of her Algerian side through the everlasting bond of love. Laye too has become very much aware of the extent to which he and the country of his birth are intertwined:

[L]a terre natale—quoi que l'on fasse et en dépit de la générosité ou de l'hospitalité qu'on trouve en d'autres pays—sera toujours plus qu'une simple terre: c'est toute la Terre! (…) c'est un horizon familier et des façons de vivre que le cœur sans doute emporte avec soi.

(D 11)

As Françoise Lionnet states, the process of discovery which Cardinal and Laye experience ‘thus becomes the source of rebirth and reconciliation, the mode of healing the narrating self’.25

Both authors therefore undoubtedly share a common bond as postcolonial subjects who have had to deal with the effects of dépaysement. Separation from their homelands has caused a sense of ‘dis-location’ in their lives that they at first seek to alleviate through a nostalgic exploration of the womblike state of childhood, a symbol of purity for each. The insecurity of their situations is thus accompanied by a strong sense of bonding with the country of their youth, regardless of experiences that have alienated them. Both feel keenly the sacrifice of a special perspective of the world; a recognition which embraces not only one's cultural background but also one's childhood vision. Therefore, strangers to their childhood selves, and thus unable either to recapture the past or to disentangle the two sides that have combined to produce them, both focus on the recovery of some of what has been lost through distancing, a reaction which, although ostensibly the result of geographical and temporal factors, is essentially motivated by a gnawing sense of spiritual deprivation. Eventually, neither one recovers the past but that is not ultimately presented as a desirable option; childhood memories are transcended, as both authors become aware of the essentially spiritual nature of the hunger that has driven them forward on their respective quests.

Both become very much more preoccupied by the need for self-reconciliation grounded in a realignment of perspective, in Laye's words ‘une naissance nouvelle’ (‘ED’ 291). This birth necessarily involves acknowledgement of themselves as products of two worlds who must constantly come to terms with the binary oppositions which occur as the two moi collide in the persona. The sense of division which both have experienced is gradually identified for what it really is, a paralysing and therefore disempowering state preventing the individual from constructive action. These two authors thus both represent a new breed of postcolonial subjects who recognize that the answers to a successful dual cultural identity lie in addressing the here and now of cultural conflict. By confronting the divisions they perceive, they thus rob them of their power to influence stability. From this secure position they are then able to consider the two sides with a certain objectivity, seeing both positive and negative aspects of the cultures they bestride.

Their need to find a solution is consequently not restricted to a personal resolution but is broadened to include concern for the countries they have left. The artistic and technological achievements of the West are weighed up against a flawed value system and a perceived lack of moral and spiritual integrity.26 Cardinal devotes some discussion to her concern for the plight of Algeria which is having to come to terms with its own dual background—traditional life mixed with an embrace of socialism. In particular, she perceives socialism, with its emphasis on industrious and regulated work habits, to be at odds with the contemplative nature of the Algerian. She foresees great problems ahead in marrying socialism to traditional capitalist thinking:

L'espoir est dans le socialisme, c'est-à-dire dans l'enrichissement collectif. Je ne suis pas certaine que ces mots aient un sens pour le fellah. Je crois qu'il pense encore individuellement la richesse et que le mot propriété, pour lui, n'a rien perdu de son éclat.

(PR 195)

Laye identified similar problems in Guinea as some people were seduced by the promise of quick wealth.27 The search for self-reconciliation thus leads both authors to speak out about changes within their respective countries, to the extent that their quests become symbolic of the endeavours of Guinea and Algeria towards nationhood. Both are able, therefore, not only to look critically at the relationship between France and her former colonies, but also to address issues vital to Algeria and Guinea, such as the adoption of Western ways in social, political and technological spheres, irrespective of their appropriateness to the African milieu. At all times discretion is advised.28

Marie Cardinal and Camara Laye therefore raise issues that are very much at the heart of modern postcolonial debate. The question of cultural allegiance is found to be based on love of one's patrie, that place with which one identifies the best part of oneself regardless of nationality. This begs the question of nationality and patrie, in view of the thousands of young second and third generation Beurs and Africans in France who have no little or no direct experience of the country of their parents and yet cannot deny that part of themselves which is linked to Africa. For many the choice becomes simple, they identify with the country of their birth. In 1987, the Beur rock group Carte de Séjour illustrated precisely this point by adding an extra verse to the nostalgic classic ‘Douce France’ which confirmed their love for the land of their birth—France:

J'ai connu des paysages
Et des soleils merveilleux
Au cours de lointains voyages
Tout là-bas sous d'autres cieux.
Mais combien je leur préfère
Mon ciel bleu, mon horizon,
Ma grand'route et ma rivière,
Ma prairie et ma maison.

It remains therefore for the French to reappraise their definition of ‘foreigner’; an appellation which cannot be applied to these young people whose only knowledge of Africa is derived from the stories of their parents and grandparents or, at best, the occasional holiday. Similarly, we may extend the analogy to entire cultures having experienced the effects of colonialism, some beneficial and some not so beneficial. These cultures cannot go back to the way things were before colonialism. Almost without exclusion, none remembers what things were like before and so cannot possibly hope to recreate what has become for many an idealized view of what life was like. Therefore they have to address the problem with reference to living memory and try to work out a solution.

In the end both Cardinal and Laye come to view cultural duality not as the tearing of a delicate fabric, but as the interweaving of new threads into that fabric, ultimately enhancing rather than detracting from its quality. For Cardinal it is Algerian culture that enriches, while for Laye it is French. Cultural purity is thus rendered an anachronism as, worldwide, cultures are having rapidly to adjust to all manner of outside influence. In the face of such transformation, a willingness to abandon absolute value judgements out of respect for difference and equality is paramount. In so doing we reach a plane from which we are able to negotiate for that part of an adopted culture that we esteem, spurred on by the spirit of enhancement rather than a grudging acceptance of change viewed as an unavoidable reduction of cultural quality. Such a proactive and life-affirming approach is encapsulated in the words of Novena Petelo, a Tokelauan immigrant to New Zealand in 1969 who, despite the trials of life in a new country, proclaims:

I have in my arms both ways. I can see the Tokelau way, it's good. I can see the papalagi [New Zealand] way, it's good. I don't want to put one down, and lift the other one up, or put the other one down, and lift that one up. I can carry them both.29


  1. Au Pays de mes racines (Paris: 1980). (Paris: Livre de poche, 1989), 98. Henceforth references will be made to the reprint using the acronym ‘PR’ followed by the relevant page number.

  2. Robert Solé, ‘Il était une fois un bidonville’, Le Monde, 9 April 1986, 12.

  3. Cardinal expresses her desire for repose in terms of an agreement between her two sides which compromises neither: ‘[J]e voudrais pouvoir être tranquillement bi-culturée sans que la névrose s'empare de ma personne bicéphale, sans que le reniement guillotine l'une de mes deux têtes, sans avoir à faire un choix impossible’ (PR 17).

  4. Cardinal refers to the sense of dépaysement caused by her position on several occasions: ‘[M]a présence ici n'a aucun sens et pourtant nulle part ailleurs dans le monde, elle n'a autant de sens.’ (PR 128) She contrasts herself with a palm tree which experiences no such existential anguish.

  5. See the following articles in particular: ‘Et demain?’, Présence africaine (nouvelle série), xiv-xv (juin-septembre 1957), 290-5; ‘Premiers contacts avec Paris’, Bingo, xiv (1954), 21-2.

  6. ‘Et demain?’, 290. Henceforth references to this article will be made using the acronym ‘ED’ followed by the relevant page number.

  7. Cardinal echoes his disquiet concerning the pull between two cultures with differing codes: ‘[P]our ceux qui sont en voie de développement (ce qui est le cas de l'Algérie), attention de ne pas perdre sa culture en route! Tout cela procure une impression de confusion, de malaise. Idée d'écrire un conte qui s'intitulerait Le Muezzin dans les aciéries’ (PR 138).

  8. Her mother and father were also in the process of divorcing when she was born and there are, consequently, almost no references to a happy family life in Au Pays de mes racines.

  9. L'Enfant noir (Paris, 1953) (Paris: Presses Pocket, 1983). Henceforth references to will be made to the reprint using the acronym EN followed by the relevant page number.

  10. Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), 84-5.

  11. Lucille Cairns, ‘Passion and paranoia: power structures and the representation of men in the writings of Marie Cardinal’, French Studies, xlvi (1992), 282. She is referring to Kierkegaard's views on autobiography.

  12. She describes this relationship in terms of an indivisible identification between herself and nature: ‘Le soir vient, il fait moins chaud, on a arrosé, c'est une délivrance. Une chaise devant la porte, sur la terre battue où des fourmis courraillent, le ciel est rose. Je suis la chaise, le seuil, la fourmi. Pas un grain de ce sol que je ne connaisse, dont l'apparence ne soit depuis longtemps dépassée à force d'être proche et familière et n'indique autre chose: l'heure, le temps qu'il a fait, la saison … Pas une ombre, pas un bruit, pas un souffle qui ne me signifie la durée infinie et la pérennité de mon être là, à cette place, (…)’ (PR 6-7).

  13. For further examples of her preoccupation with rhythm, see PR 25-7.

  14. Compare with Cardinal's description of a similar feeling of oneness with the natural world: ‘[P]arce que la brise de mer souffle ou parce que la petite fille s'est suspendue à une branche basse et se balance entre ciel et terre. Etre là et nulle part ailleurs parce que la douce écorce empaumée caresse ses mains, parce que la branche est souple et qu'un seul coup de reins suffit à la balancer longuement, parce qu'il est onze heures et demie, l'heure préférée de la petite fille, parce que de loin, de très loin, viennent des bruits de travaux agricoles, lourdes pioches, et des odeurs de friture d'oignons, prémices des repas’ (PR 43-4).

  15. For Cardinal the life force is epitomized in the life of the storks who nest on the chimney of her home, bringing mixed blessings in the form of good luck coupled with smoke-filled rooms. They nest in Algeria during the winter and then return to Europe for the Northern summer, leading a successful dual existence: ‘Les cigognes vont et viennent. Elles traversent la Méditerranée’ (PR 108). The sea thus becomes a symbol of the cultural divide which the storks, however, successfully negotiate each year in seasonal transition, thereby deriving the best from both worlds.

  16. ‘L'Afrique et les griots’, in Le Maître de la parole (Paris: Plon, 1978), 23. Senghor also defined rhythm as ‘l'architecture de l'être, le dynamisme interne qui lui donne forme, le système d'ondes qu'il émet à l'adresse des Autres, l'expression pure de la force vitale. Le rythme, c'est le choc vibratoire, la force qui, à travers les sens, nous saisit à la racine de l'être. Il s'exprime par les moyens les plus matériels, les plus sensuels: lignes, surfaces, couleurs, volumes en architecture, sculpture et peinture; accents en poésie et musique; mouvement dans la danse. Mais, ce faisant, il ordonne tout ce concret vers la lumière de l'esprit.’ (Léopold Sédar Senghor, ‘L'esprit de la civilisation ou les lois de la culture négro-africaine’, Présence africaine, viii-x (1956), 60-1).

  17. Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, Éloge de la créolité (Paris: Gallimard/Presses Universitaires Créoles, 1989), 20.

  18. The metro, albeit briefly, later becomes a symbol of descent into the unknown during which we may imagine Laye, as he adjusts to life in Paris, treading on the heels of Orpheus. Dramouss (Paris: Plon, 1966), 61-3. Henceforth references will be made to the text using the acronym D, followed by the relevant page number.

  19. Compare this with ‘[a]h! où était ma voie? Savais-je encore où était ma voie? Mon désarroi était à l'image du ciel: sans limites; mais ce ciel, hélas! était sans étoiles …’ (EN 21).

  20. Similarly ambivalent feelings are manifest during the ritual dancing prior to circumcision when his father's second wife holds up an exercise book and a pen, symbols of Laye's gift as a pupil: ‘J'avoue que je n'y pris guère plaisir et n'en retirai aucun réconfort, mais plutôt de la confusion’ (EN 131).

  21. Further references to his acknowledgment of gaps in his cultural knowledge are to be found in the text. For example:

    [M]ais je n'avais pas l'âge alors ni la curiosité d'interroger les vieillards, et quand enfin j'ai atteint cet âge, je n'étais plus en Afrique.

    (EN 56)

    [C]haque gri-gri a sa propriété particulière; mais quelle vertu précise? je l'ignore: j'ai quitté mon père trop tôt.

    (EN 11)

    [O]u sinon pour quelque raison rituelle qui m'échappe.

    (EN 126-7)

  22. Jean Bernabé et al., in Éloge de la créolité, see their own dual cultural status as ‘une question à vivre’, thus also emphasizing the developmental nature of the self (27).

  23. This depiction of the struggle between cultures is expressed in terms very similar to her description of the battle between the changing seasons.

  24. Freddy de Médicis, ‘Entretien avec Marie Cardinal’, Synthèses, ccxx (septembre 1964), 339.

  25. Françoise Lionnet, ‘Métissage, emancipation, and female textuality in two francophone writers’, in Displacements: Women, Tradition, Literatures in French, ed. by Joan Dejean and Nancy K. Miller (Baltimore: The John's Hopkins University Press, 1991), 256.

  26. For example, in ‘Et demain’, Laye considers ‘cet esprit d'entreprise qui porte l'Européen à s'emparer de tout, à tout conquérir’ (‘ED’ 290). Compare with: ‘Entré dans ce monde de l'esprit et de l'argent, tout m'était apparu, non seulement différent, mais contraire. Ce qui, toujours, m'avait paru sans importance, occupait ici le devant de la scène. Ce qui m'avait paru jusqu'alors important était relégué au dernier plan par les Parisiens. Ce que je jugeais être le mal était considéré comme le bien, et inversement. Mais je ne voulais pas me perdre dans ce monde différent, et j'y vécus en préservant ma personnalité. Dans ce Paris où il faisait un froid si rude, surtout en hiver, il m'arriva souvent de porter mon boubou africain’ (D 102). Cardinal echoes such questioning of European values, see note 7.

  27. At one point, he recounts the story of a former friend who bought a car as a status symbol (D 117-8).

  28. Cardinal also criticizes marriage, finding both cultures to have a bestial side which the Algerians, however, less hypocritically, do little to cloak. (PR 61)

  29. Adrienne Jansen, I Have In My Arms Both Ways: Stories by Ten Immigrant Women (Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990), 51. This philosophy is echoed by another immigrant whose story features in this work. Ngàn Hac Tráng (pseudonym) is a Vietnamese immigrant who is grateful for the opportunities she has had in New Zealand, and balances these with her cherished Asian upbringing: ‘Education has given me some kind of a mixture between Western and Asian culture. I enjoy the opportunities that Western society offers, especially for women—the opportunities to work, and to develop my mind and skills. But I respect Asian values and ways of thinking, the way they approach life. Those Asian characteristics are permanent in me, fixed. The way I think about money, or love, or death, is very deep in me, and it's part of the definition of myself. I don't think anyone can change that, not even me’ (81).

Works Cited

Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, Éloge de la créolité (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).

Cardinal, Marie, Au Pays de mes racines (Paris: 1980). (Paris: Livre de poche, 1989).

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Laye, Camara, ‘Premiers contacts avec Paris’, Bingo, xiv (1954), 21-2.

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Inmaculada Jauregui (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Jauregui, Inmaculada. “Towards a Phenomenology of Writing: A Reading of Marie Cardinal's Les Grands Désordres (Disorderly Conduct).” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 32, no. 2 (fall 2001): 170-81.

[In the following essay, Jauregui evaluates Cardinal's “narrative treatment of a Parisian psychologist” in Les Grands Désordres, arguing that fiction can reveal human truths that often “elude the grasp” of psychology.]


Marie Cardinal's novel Les Grands Désordres (Disorderly Conduct) explores the power of biography and fictional writing to reveal the human world in ways that elude the grasp of an abstract and academic psychology. This essay examines Cardinal's narrative treatment of a Parisian psychologist who, at the beginning of her career, is convinced that natural science will contribute to human knowledge and will reduce suffering. However, a personal crisis makes her question her basic assumptions and leads her to discover the spiritual wealth and revealing powers of narrative writing. The bond between reader and writer is interpreted as an alliance between a host and a guest that conquers narcissism and isolation by building and inhabiting a neighborly world.


The main character of the novel is Elsa, a middle-aged Parisian psychologist with a well-established clinical practice and an international reputation as a developmental theorist. The story begins when Elsa returns from an international conference and finds her apartment ransacked and thrown into a complete disorder. In the course of cleaning her apartment, Elsa discovers the telltale signs of her daughter's heroin addiction. The title of the novel refers to the great disorder created in Else's life following this painful discovery.

Elsa decides to interrupt her professional and scientific career and to devote herself entirely to the task of helping her daughter recover from her addiction. In the course of these developments, mother and daughter become enmeshed in a folie à deux that reduces Elsa to the role of being a mere passive observer to her daughter's excesses. When in the end Laure, the daughter, begins to free herself from her bondage to drugs and from her all too dependent relationship to her mother, Elsa begins to loose her bearings and experiences a profound existential crisis. She begins to questions all her previously unchallenged assumptions about the nature of human suffering and about the meaning of her life and profession. She realizes that in order to escape from her confusion and to find new meaning in her life, she needs to find a different way of understanding and narrating her life. The dramatic action of the story centers on Elsa's struggle to find new ways to order and understand her life.

Elsa seeks the assistance of a novelist to help her write her autobiography and relate her difficult recent experiences with her daughter. The novel opens with the first meeting between the psychologist and the novelist and with their resolve to jointly write the story of Elsa's life. The story they propose to write together begins at the point where Elsa's life takes a sudden and cruel turn and when she becomes aware of the severe limitations inherent in her way of understanding psychological life. It begins with Else's turning away from a doctrinaire scientism and her turning towards the muse of narrative reading and writing in order to better understand herself and her world.

In the course of her new relationship with the novelist, Elsa begins to question her own professional life and her earlier misplaced reliance on an overly technical and materialist worldview. She begins to question her degrading and exploitative relationship to Prof. Greffier, the physicist whose abstract notions of thermodynamics she has taken as a model for her own clinical and developmental research. Most importantly she discovers that her own crudely totalizing, utopian and scientistic vision of the world bears a strange but convincing resemblance to the one that steered her daughter in the direction of drug abuse.

These insights have at first a devastating effect on Elsa. She gradually sinks into a depression and appears to loose her will to live. She retreats first to her apartment, then to her bedroom and finally to her bed where, for a time she finds it impossible to write or even to converse. Her loyal ally, the novelist remains at her side. He regularly visits her apartment, leaves her little gifts and lets her know that she is not really alone in the world. One day he leaves her a tape recorder and Elsa begins to dictate tentative answers to his simple questions. Slowly she recovers her strength and is again able to enter into a more interactive relationship with the novelist.

At the end of the novel when they have completed their project, Elsa and the novelist celebrate their joint accomplishment with a meal at a favorite restaurant. The very last paragraph shows us the odd couple of the psychologist and the novelist leaving the restaurant together for a romantic stroll along the Seine. In the distance we hear the soft peal of wedding bells forecasting an impending marriage between psychology and literature.


It is possible to study literary phenomena from a psychological perspective that takes natural science as its model and the material universe as its ultimate object. Such a psychology guides our interest to the neurological mechanisms underlying the phenomena of language. It may inspire comparative studies of human and animal communication. It may evoke speculations about the biological advantages and disadvantages that accrue to the species from being able to communicate in certain ways. The ultimate aim of all such studies is that of advancing our knowledge and mastery of a natural universe.

It is also possible to undertake a very different type of study, one that does not aim at the conquest a material universe but at the revelation of a human cosmos. Such a cosmos differs in very fundamental ways from a natural scientific universe. It is not merely a wasteland ruled by material forces but a place of habitation. It is constructed on the model of a house, a temple or a city and is traversed by a threshold that assigns different regions and functions to the self and the other. It is an asymmetrical, hierarchically organized space and time that creates the conditions enabling a self and an other to encounter one another. It is governed by the laws of nature that order a natural universe, but it is in addition ruled by the laws of the threshold that guide all relations between host and guest (Jager, 1998).

Alexandre Koyré (1966/1987) has pioneered the fundamental distinction between studies that are guided towards the disclosure of a modem natural scientific universe and those that address an inhabited cosmos in his epochal work From a Closed World to the Infinite Universe. The work has been used as a basis for psychological reflection by Jager (1996) and by Thiboutot and Martinez (1999). Within the phenomenological context of these essays, a literary text reveals itself as a hospitable and public enclave where reader and writer meet to discover and build a common world. In this light both reading and writing appear as “ways in which we sustain a conversational relation” (Van Manen, 1990). Literature comes thus to be understood as a specific interpersonal relation that imposes upon both the reader and the writer the discipline of respecting thresholds and the task of maintaining hospitable relations.

We come to understand that whatever the author writes or says always already includes the presence of the reader or listener. This writing or telling does not begin as a strictly personal upwelling from the inner recesses of a hidden self. It begins at the very moment when the author approaches a threshold that binds writer to reader and host to guests. Reading and writing jointly create an inhabitable space where it becomes possible to reveal self and the other within a shared world.

Each text and each place of dwelling is protected by its own proper threshold that must be respected if it is to function as a fruitful place of encounter. Our first interpretive task is here one of finding a proper way of entering the privileged sphere of an inhabited domain without disturbing its particular coherence and integrity. To enter this privileged sphere requires us to take our distance from the routines of daily life and to open ourselves to a distinctly other world. We can be assisted in this task of crossing thresholds by a psychology that is concerned with meaning, sense and intention and that is ultimately oriented towards the other (Deschamps, C. 1993).


Marie Cardinal's novel can be read on several different levels that mutually inform and enrich each other. We can approach the novel on one level as an engrossing story of a professional psychologist and a mother who desperately seeks to rescue her daughter from heroin addiction. It can also be read as a commentary on human development and a meditation on the mysterious bond that binds a mother to her daughter. On still another level it sheds an interesting light on the nature of substance addiction and its relationship to modern scientism and materialism. However, all these sub-themes are contained within the novel's main theme concerning the mysterious bond that unites author to reader and that makes the creation of a literary text possible.

As we have seen, the story begins at the point where Elsa, the heroine of the novel, attempts in vain to write a coherent account of her struggle with her daughter's addiction. She fails because she remains too set in her naturalistic and academic habit of mind to make sense of human suffering. After a number of fruitless and frustrating attempts at writing her story, she turns to an experienced literary writer for help.

It is at the moment when Elsa enters into this cooperative relationship of an author and a reader that she finds the words to adequately describe her experience. In certain respects, this relationship resembles the one between a mother and a child at the time when the infant begins to speak. The struggle to speak and to write reveals itself here as a struggle to find access to the same primordial and loving domain where a child learn to speak and to listen and where the poet finds words to describe and illuminate the human condition.

The first part of the novel shows us what distinguishes natural scientific from novelistic or fictional writing. Elsa tells the novelist:

I need to write. I have experienced something unusual. It seems to me that I must share it with others … it might be useful to others. On the other hand, I also feel the need to unburden myself. I have tried to write by myself. But I am used to an academic style of writing that has no other goal than to transmit scientific information. I am used to composing technical papers. But what I want to say cannot be expressed in that kind of writing.

(Cardinal, 1991, pp. 10-11)

Elsa complains that she cannot get rid of the royal and academic “we” used in technical papers. On the other hand, the personal pronoun “I” leaves her feeling naked and overexposed. She experiments with different styles of writing but cannot find the right tone appropriate to what she wants to say. In order to escape from these internal constraints, she asks a ghostwriter to come to her aid.

Elsa seeks a proper distance from her own troubling situation. She cannot make sense of her world from the remote distance imposed on a natural scientific observer. Yet she also fears the prospect of losing all distance and dissolving in an isolated world of personal hurts and complaints. The relationship Elsa seeks is thus no longer that of a scientist or a technician seeking to gain control over natural upheavals and disasters, or that of a neurotically complaining victim who experiences life's trials as a personal assault on her narcissistic self. Instead she seeks the mutually revealing encounter between author and reader, which at the same time is one between a host and a guest. She seeks a disciplined relationship that will help her re-discover a meaningful and inhabitable world.

In order to prepare herself for her encounter with fictional or literary writing, Elsa must distance herself from the natural scientific habits of her discipline. Retracing for us the path of her intellectual development, she describes her earlier theoretical work in psychology in which she sought to establish a parallel

between the nervous mechanisms of the human body and those of any other piece of mechanical equipment. I have found that the laws of thermodynamics can be literally applied to the human body conceived as a machine. Starting from the moment that heat passes from one system to another energy is created. But it is also at that moment that entropy sets in and that disorder begins to manifest itself. This energy and this disorder modify the systems from which they emanate. This is as true for a system of valves and pistons as it is for two neurons.

(Cardinal, 1991, pp. 175-176)

Elsa's thinking remained confined to a purely mechanistic and natural scientific paradigm. She had come to understand that increased complexity in any natural system tends to expose it to a greater risk of breakdown. This insight into the natural world formed the basis of her psychological understanding of the human psyche and of human problems. She tells the author that it occurred to her that

the more we try to perfect the system, the more bolts we insert, the more pieces we hammer or solder together, the more we divert, shunt or bracket, the more energy gets lost and the greater is the chance that the whole system will break down.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 176)

Elsa drew the conclusion that psychological problems result in an analogous manner from imposing too many restrictions on the psychic organism and making too many demands on it.

The more laws and regulations there are, the more there is of rules, parents, food, furniture, houses, schools, the more separate spheres there are and the more distinct influences the more difficult it becomes to maintain a mental balance.

(Cardinal, 1991, pp. 175-176)

The task of the psychologist becomes one of identifying points of conflict and friction in the system of the psyche. The psychologist's task becomes here one of detecting hang-ups and conflicts within the psychic apparatus. By removing these, the psychologist manages to restore proper functioning to the system.

Elsa's development as a psychologist did not stop at this point, however. She felt frustrated by her inability to translate this mechanical vision of conflict, unhappiness and psychopathology into precise mathematical terms. She became briefly interested in biology and became especially fascinated by endocrinology. She gradually replaced her nineteenth century mechanical model of the psyche as a piece of machinery governed by pulleys and levers with a twentieth century biological model governed by genetic materials and internal secretions. But she held fast to a wholly natural scientific view of psychic life. Once, in a heated discussion with Professor Greffier, her physicist mentor and abusive lover, she defended her discipline in the following way:

Whatever it is that makes it possible for you to do physics can serve me to do psychology. I also can in some way work with such concepts as “energy”, “work”, “order” and “disorder” or “chaos.” You do exactly the same thing that I am doing, only what you do is called physics and what I do is called psychology.

(Cardinal, 1991, P. 213)

The novel makes us understand that neither Elsa nor her daughter can come to a broader understanding of themselves and others as long as they remain fixated on a purely materialistic and technological understanding of their world. To better understand their world, Laure must cease depending on heroin and Elsa must find a way to recover herself from her utopian and scientistic worldview as well as from her demeaning relationship with Professor Greffier.

When Elsa tries to describe her painful and degrading affair with the physicist, she cannot find the words. She sets aside a period of eight days in which she struggles to put her thoughts and feelings to paper, and in the end she succeeds and produces an account that the novelist includes unedited in the novel. Elsa begins to understand the revealing power of novelistic writing. She learns that in order to truly grasp the meaning of an event in her life, she needs the quiet and solitude that only writing can provide. Understanding her world requires that she cultivate a receptive, hospitable place where her own and her neighbor's impressions, feelings and thoughts can come truly into their own and fully manifest themselves. To enter the world of literary and fictional writing, Elsa must first distance herself from the seamless natural and physical universe of Prof. Greffier. She must come to accept that the human world can be unified and made coherent only by means of metaphor and through the cultivation of interpersonal relations.

The novel evokes the idea of weaning and elaborates an implicit theory of human development that begins with an exodus from paradise and with the child's acceptance of a terrestrial life of cultural mediation and labor. A child enters into a fully human relationship only after first having renounced an absolute claim to the mother and after having accepted the sharing of her love and care with others. In human development, the infant moves away from an original state of fusion with the mother and steers in the direction of a more independent and mediated relationship to her. Subsequent human development appears in this light as a cultural and psychological elaboration of a mediated distance between the infant and the mother and between the self and other, understood as host and guest.

The novel presents Elsa's depression, following the recovery of her daughter, as an infantile regression to an earlier state of fusion. In order to recover, Elsa must surrender her doctrinaire utopian and materialist conceptions of the world and establish a closer alliance with the arts and literature. In the end she discovers a human world that can be understood only by means of conversation and by representing it in an act of reading, writing, painting, sculpting, dancing or singing. In the end, Elsa finds access to a world that is made inhabitable by the written and spoken word, one that can be fully revealed only by telling and by listening to stories.


We have understood weaning thus far as a rite of passage that guides the infant via a threshold from a homeless, pre-verbal world to a fully “conversational” or “neighborly” world of reciprocal relations. A “neighbor” is literally “someone who dwells nearby”. (Heidegger, 1971, p. 147). Neighborliness implies a relationship that avoids absolute fusion on the one hand, and absolute separation or indifference on the other.

A child who has been “weaned” has, as the etymological origins of the word suggests, learned “to dwell” in a world divided by thresholds. Such a world conforms to the image of a house, a temple or a city.

The passage from a pre-verbal world to a neighborly one presents an enormous challenge to the young child. It means leaving behind a paradisiacal world where self, other and world together form a wholly natural and unproblematic unity. It means entering a world where differences need to be respected and maintained and where love and friendship can be made to flourish only at the price of constant vigilance and cultural effort. This passage from a pre-verbal to a cultural and symbolic world demands a painful sacrifice that cannot be made all at once and that demands a long period of adjustment. There follows a gradual and difficult developmental process, replete with many lapses and retrogressions, in which the child gradually comes to terms with the new world of neighborly relations. Nor is this process of adjustment or development ever completely finished. We never stop longing for a seamless and boundless life without asymmetry and hierarchy where there are no thresholds to cross or laws to obey and where the self has an absolute and totally effortless access to the other. We never stop longing for an infantile state of primordial fusion, and we do not cease dreaming of our effortless inclusion into a natural, a social or a celestial world. It remains part of the human condition to remain forever haunted by the memory or the prospect of a union beyond words, laws, rituals and cultural conventions. The ultimate outcome of the child's voyage from a wordless paradise to a neighborly world depends in large measure on the cultural support the child receives from the family and the community. Under the best of circumstances, the child's weaning remains a provisional accomplishment that remains forever subject to regression and repeal.

The melancholic yearning for a lost paradise finds its ultimate expression in addiction. The story does not address addiction solely in terms of a craving for various chemical substances, but conceives of it more generally as an irrepressible desire for relationships that lack boundaries. In Elsa's life this yearning takes the form of a crude and utopian scientism that willfully overlooks the differences between an inhabited world and a natural scientific universe or between a human body and a machine or a biological specimen. It shows itself in the careless abandonment of fundamental distinctions and the crude attempt to dissolve the borders between a human world and an abstract material universe. It manifests itself also in her formless, clinging love for Laure and her desire to dissolve the very thresholds that mark the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Both Laure and Elsa are in search of a boundless and paradisiacal world where the law of the threshold is suspended and where all culture sustaining differences have been dissolved. Both seek a world beyond mediation and cultural effort.

In the end, Elsa begins to realize the similarities between her own and her daughter's conduct. She comes to understand that both had searched for an infantile and absolute paradise but had found only a kind of hell. She says,

I lived only in the absolute, like Laura. All passions tend towards the absolute and are addictive. This I did not understand at first.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 33)

Elsa's intellectual quest had been dominated by the quest to recover a lost paradise and an ideal world without friction, without human obstacles and disappointments. Her quest to save her daughter took the same absolute and passionate turn that mimicked Laura's excesses with drugs and alcohol. Both mother and daughter came under the ban of a boundless and passionate quest to regain access to an infantile world. They withdrew from the inhabitable world of neighborly relations and ended up in the wilderness.

The metaphor of “addiction” shows us in a very concrete way the process by which one may lose access to a fully human, intersubjective world and find oneself ontologically reduced to the status of a merely natural thing or object. In Roman law, the verb addicere refers to a legal pronouncement whereby a bankrupt debtor, an addictus, is transformed from a free citizen into a slave, who henceforth becomes the legal property of his creditor (Ramos and Bonet, 1991). This judicial pronouncement transformed a relationship between neighbors into a new servile relationship between a master and a slave. In the ancient world, this judgment did not merely entail the loss of one's freedom but a loss of the right to a threshold and to a domain of one's own. The slave became legally part of the slave-owner's household and was transformed into a piece of property. The enslavement of a debtor or of a captive in a war involved the loss of a threshold in the same way that the humanization or emancipation of a child or a slave involved the legal putting into place of a mutually respected threshold (Jager, 1999). The path of addiction or enslavement shows itself therefore as one that leads to the loss of one's domain and to one's relegation to the world of natural or material objects. The opposite path of emancipation leads to the cultivation of one's own domain and to finding one's way within a world traversed by thresholds that together form the basis of an inhabitable world.

The process of the re-humanization or the emancipation of a slave or an addict no longer appears simply a question of removing restraints or of granting a greater freedom of action. It demands that the addict make the same painful sacrifice that the infant is required to make upon entering the reciprocal world of neighborly relations. Emancipation means giving up the dream of living in a boundless universe and accepting the challenge of a rule-bound, reciprocal and limited world. In this world traversed by thresholds, one must knock on doors to be able to enter; one must speak in order to be understood; and one must love in order to be loved. This sacrifice separates the addict not only from his favorite substance or his preferred utopia; it severs him from his relationship to a primordial and infantile world and thereby evokes the sorrow of exile.

Then, when they came back to Paris, when it became clear to me that they were talking up a normal life and talked less and less about drugs, when I understood that they were no longer hooked on heroin I began to unravel and sink.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 207)

As Laure began to take up life as a free person in a free world, the mother felt herself being exiled from her symbiotic relationship with her daughter. But rather than choosing freedom for herself, Elsa recoils from the world and encloses herself within a hermetic and melancholic circle. This circle, kyklox in Greek, evokes the image of melancholia, understood as a desire that searches in vain for its lost object and then returns in disappointment to its starting point forming a terminally closed circle (Juaristi, J. 1999).


We learn from the novel that to truly love and understand our world means to stand back from it and to allow a distance and a difference to separate us from all what we most ardently desire to possess and to make our own. Such love and understanding is the fruit of sacrifice. It demands the surrender of all absolute claims to what we love and a renunciation of fusion and transgression. It requires the acceptance of distance and mediation.

Elsa notes that it is impossible for her to make sense of certain events in her life and she realizes that she can come to a proper understanding of these only by having recourse to writing. “I could not talk about this; I needed writing … the silence of writing” (Cardinal, 1991, p. 145). Elsa needs the distance and the silence implied in writing in order to begin to understand herself and her world. The discipline and the silence of writing creates an hospitable enclave. The writer invites the personages, events and circumstances of his life to enter this charmed circle and to reveal themselves in these receptive surroundings.

This charmed circle, this receptive and revealing space and time of writing is not the artifact of a solitary genius but the mutual creation of reader and writer, of a host and a guest. Both reader and writer stand back from their ordinary preoccupations within a quotidian world in order to create together a stage where a shared world can manifest itself free from the coercion of an arbitrary will and from the tyranny of necessity.

To write a story means to create a dwelling place. It means to lay down a threshold that gives access to a common, human world. To read a story means to enter the hallway of a house or a temple. Reading and writing do not follow the pattern of scientific explorations or that of clever or fierce conquests, but rather that of neighborly visits. That pattern guides our steps across a threshold via a ritual that begins with greeting a host and with an exchange of gifts, followed by our entrance into a new world. If the visit is fruitful, it leads to an intimate self-disclosure not only of the hosts and the guests but also of the world they share in common.

Reading and writing appears as the mutual creation of an inhabited space where the merely natural sounds and sights of spoken and written words and the merely natural gestures of biological creatures are transformed into gifts that reveal a human world. The novel presents this creative exchange between reader and writer in the form of a dialogue between Elsa and her literary collaborator. Together they build a hospitable site where Elsa's painful and chaotic experiences are to be transformed into gifts that are exchanged between writer and reader. This gift-exchange transforms a merely natural site into a hospitable and revealing domain. It simultaneously transforms Elsa's primordial and narcissistic world into one that can be shared with neighbors and that thereby becomes, all at once, coherent and inhabitable.

We see once again how a human world is founded on the sacrifice of an earlier infantile world. This sacrifice creates an aperture, a door-way that gives access to a differently constituted world. It is only the latter world that makes place for a self and for another person. It is only such a world that can allow us to become neighbors. We repeat this sacrifice each time we truly encounter another person or prepare to confront another world.

We learn from the novel that this primordial sacrifice takes the form of an exchange of gifts by which we make sense of ourselves and of our world. This sacrifice remains forever a fragile gesture that breaks down in the absence of continued and vigorous cultural support. The exchange between Elsa and the writer who becomes her collaborator is often fitful, and at times it appears as if the work they have jointly undertaken will not see the light of day. Elsa interrupts their discourse for various lengths of time as she slips back into a melancholic and self-absorbed world. At times she refuses altogether to write or to talk and at one point she appears to lose even her will to live. But it is telling that even though she withdraws for long periods into her bedroom, she does not object to her collaborator's visits. He brings her little gifts, which she leaves unopened on the table.

These odd things made up the only conversation we had, the only relation we had. I deposited these gifts in the living room from where she would take them, but she did not unwrap them. There were lots of flowers left in that living room, faded, dried up, rotting. But she did not throw them away. Also she left the key in the lock. I existed for her. My existence never had meant more to anybody, I was certain of that. What did she want from me? In the morning I brought her a tape recorder. I did not know what to bring her. Nothing interested her. She did not even look at me.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 135)

For a while all verbal exchanges between Elsa and her interlocutor came to a halt. But in their place there appears an exchange of gifts that maintains the relations. Towards the end of the novel, Elsa explains that even though she was at the time unable to fully accept the gifts of the novelist, they nevertheless were extremely important to her recovery.

I will never forget your visits, your gifts, all that you gave me when I could not speak. You know, all those different things you brought, I did not touch them. One day I brought them all to the kitchen. All these odd things were meant for me, they represented a relationship between myself and an other … between you and me … I seated myself in front of them. I examined them, I tried to understand who I was and who was this woman to whom you offered these gifts.

(Cardinal, 1991, pp. 242-243)

For a moment it looks as if Elsa is going to die. The narrator tells us, “(h)er suicide took on almost visible form and lay beside her in her bed. I was certain she was going to leave us. … that she was going to die” (Cardinal, 1991, pp. 135-136). For a while all conversation ceases.

But Elsa gradually recovers from her extreme impassiveness and begins to respond with the aid of the tape-recorder to the questions addressed to her by her partner. Once again Elsa's words traverse and heal the distance that separates her from her alter ego. Once more she finds the strength to embrace the human condition and to accept the distance and the difference that separate her from, and bind her to her neighbors. The narrator tells us that “she had found once more the proper distance that we had established earlier” (Cardinal, 1991, p. 139).


Writing can be understood as a way of leaving behind a boundless and universal world and as a way of entering and supporting a human cosmos. It is made possible on the basis of a renunciation that has been transformed into a positive cultural activity. It is founded on the sacrifice of narcissism and omnipotence, and it demands the acceptance of a world in which understanding becomes a cooperative effort between self and other, between reader and writer.

Writing forever repeats the struggle of the wordless infant who enters a fully intersubjective world. It repeats this renaissance, this second birth in life when the child discovers the symbolic realm and finds words to form thoughts and delineate experience. To enter this new world, the child must come to a positive appreciation of limits by transforming mere obstacles into thresholds (Jager, 1996, pp. 26-48). It is such a threshold that transforms mother and child into neighbors and that forges a creative link between author and reader.

The narrator of the story observes that by becoming independent, the daughter gave birth to the mother: “Laure gave birth to Elsa (Laure mettait Elsa au monde)” (Cardinal, 1991, p. 181). This second birth in life takes place when Elsa begins to accept the limits her daughter sets on their relationship. It is in this way that a formless and chaotic togetherness becomes transformed into an orderly and neighborly relation. We learn that “Elsa no longer went to see her daughter without first being invited” (Cardinal, 1991, P. 181).

If we understand “emancipation” in its Latin etymological sense of ex-mancipare we come to recognize it as “a being released from the hands or the hold of someone else into one's own authority” (Klein, 1971, p. 243). It means being released from a merely instrumental bond forged in the struggle with natural obstacles, and it means finding freedom within a relationship forged by hospitable thresholds. Emancipation speaks of being released from the tyranny of belonging entirely to a quotidian and material world into the freedom of a festive world of mutual recognition and an exchange of gifts.

To read and to write means to emerge from the anonymity and obscurity of a quotidian workaday world into the light of showing, telling, imagining and understanding. Reading and writing sheds a light upon the world.

Elsa is at first afraid to write. She confesses, “(t)he idea of the book frightens me … because it is so public” (Cardinal, 1991, p. 155). As long as she remained submerged in the workaday world of her natural scientific speculations she could feel shielded and secure. The narrator observes, “(i)t is true that Elsa never permitted herself to be distracted from her work. But then, nothing distracted her more than did her work” (Cardinal, 1991, p. 113). Within this closed sphere of daily work, she could avoid truly being intimate with anybody. She could also avoid intimate reflection on her own life and on her relationship to her daughter.

Elsa did everything she could to tranquilize herself. She went so far as to take refuge in the obscure jargon of her profession. She thought of herself in terms of a technical vocabulary that effaced all emotion and that gave the appearance of reality to what in fact was folly and nonsense.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 26)

Elsa limited her horizons to what is ordinary and to what can be understood from the perspective of a workaday world. In that world the human body makes its appearance as an instrument and language appears in the guise of a technical aid to solving practical and material problems. By limiting her horizons to this workaday understanding, Elsa adopted the perspective of a slave. She attempted to dissolve herself completely into an instrumental and material world where everything can be understood in terms of material interactions where she herself would be transformed into a natural object. Such a task-obsessed world leaves no room for intimate encounters with either things or human beings. Within this domain, self and other cannot gain sufficient freedom from each other and from their surrounding world to forge viable relationships and to reveal a common world. Such a world leaves no place for conversation, for art and religion, and ultimately, it would not even leave a place for science or technology. To escape that monotonous work-obsessed world, Elsa must rediscover the festive world of literature and involve herself in the give and take of reading and writing.

We saw how in the Ancient world, a slave became emancipated by means of a rite of passage that gave access to a public and a private life. We saw how this religious and judicial rite transformed a purely quotidian and instrumental alliance between a master and his slave into a festive and hospitable relation between neighbors. The rite of emancipation lifted the slave from an undifferentiated unitary and material world of workaday tasks endlessly succeeding one another into a cosmic world of work and celebration, of inside and outside, of self and other, of host and guest.

As we have seen above, emancipation demands the sacrifice of a unitary world in which everything and everybody belongs to everything and everyone. This sacrifice is symbolized by an exchange of gifts. A gift or offering demands that we separate from something that belonged to us and that formed part of us. This offering crosses a threshold that marks the domain of the other and in this crossing it becomes a gift. Such an offering points in two directions: it recalls the painful sacrifice of something one treasures and it simultaneously announces a new union and the beginning of a conversation.

Elsa's joint enterprise with her novelist friend takes the form of a rite of passage in which she weans herself away from a unitary and narcissistic world and finds access to an inhabitable world. Elsa finds her freedom in the act of reading and writing her autobiography. She herself notes that she needs to write and to deliver herself of a burden (Cardinal, 1991, p. 10). She gains her freedom by means of a writing that is not in the first place an expression of an inner self but that takes the form of a careful cultivation of a distance that links and that separates the reader from the writer. She practices a writing that cannot be separated from the fundamental notions of neighborly relations, of sacrifice and gift exchange.

Within the terms of the novel, Elsa's emancipation takes the form of her exchanging stories with her novelist-friend. Elsa writes and talks into a tape recorder and then passes the texts and tapes to the writer, who gives them a new form and then passes them back to Elsa. This exchange pulls Elsa out of her isolation and weans her away from a unitary and self-absorbed world. It permits her at last to truly inhabit her world.


Within the terms of the novel, Elsa's relationship to her writer-friend repeats the relationship between a wordless infant and the mother who teaches her to speak. It inflicts the pain of a growing distance between a mother and a daughter, which is repeated in the relationship between reader and writer. This wound of distance and difference can be overcome only by conversation and by an exchange of gifts. It is this exchange that ultimately rescues Elsa from her isolation and that draws her back into a livable, human world.

For twenty years I have done little else but protect myself from love. … All things considered, it is more difficult to give and accept love than it is to give in to passion and to take refuge in the absolute. … (T)he absolute is a retreat and an asylum. Laure has been able to find her way out of it, and I have to do the same because otherwise I will die.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 243)

We learn that the fortress in which Elsa withdrew was that of an ideological scientism that took thermodynamics as an ultimate metaphor for understanding the human world. It represented her complete self-enclosure within the professional world of the physicist professor Greffier, whom she served as a mere appendix or cipher.

I have already talked so much about the fortress in which I withdrew, which is the world of thermodynamics, of professor Greffier (the physicist) and of my own profession …

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 243)

Elsa recognizes the debt of gratitude she owes the novelist who helped her find the words that gave form and content to her own thoughts and feelings and that transformed what was at first no more than a destructive self-preoccupation into a valuable gift that she could exchange with others. For the first time in her life Elsa feels truly happy and she wonders why. Her friend, the novelist tells her

It is because you are no longer compulsively in need of something to complete yourself. You no longer crave Elsa the all-knowing scientist, you no longer are in need of her.

(Cardinal, 1991, p. 244)

Elsa is leaving behind an infantile world of passion ruled by the overwhelming need to overcome distance and difference and to close the gap that separates self from other. At the end of story, she comes to the conclusion that “(a)bsolute unity, the all inclusive one, is inhuman, and it is incomprehensible. We cannot achieve such unity without abandoning the human condition” (Cardinal, 1991, pp. 243-244).

All her life long Elsa had wanted to understand and heal others. In this desire she had been guided by the example of natural science and technology. It is this orientation that ultimately leads her astray. In the end she discovers that neither natural science nor technology can help her decipher the mysteries of hospitality, of neighborliness, friendship and love. We do not come to a closer to an understanding of these mysteries by making them the object of a naturalistic investigation and thereby obscuring their essential character. Even if we were able to chart all the chemical, physiological, or behavioral components of a human encounter we would hardly know more about human companionship or generosity, or gift exchange. We cannot even make proper use of the natural sciences without first recognizing the profound mystery of civility and friendship upon which they are based. Elsa discovers that all knowledge grows out of a relationship of self to other: “(K)nowledge does not exist until it is part of a couple, of two” (Cardinal, 1991, pp. 243-244). We stand here before the mystery of intersubjectivity as the foundation of a human world. This mystery cannot be unraveled by the natural sciences because it forms the ultimate foundation and horizon of these sciences.

Elsa had at first wanted to master the mental incoherence and chaos of her patients by relying on her natural scientific expertise and on the metaphors she derived from physics and biology. She wanted to bring order to the chaos of her patients' lives by superimposing upon it the order of an abstract natural scientific world. In the end she learns from the novelist that even the world of science remains viable only as long as it remains inserted within a larger cosmic world of hospitable exchanges. She comes to understand that a primordial world of universal and single-minded passion must be tamed by finding its place within a larger world of companionship, friendship and love.


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Principal Works


Further Reading