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Aggressivity in self writing: Colette's Etoile Vesper and Michel Leiris' Fourbis.

Self writing marks a turn in the development of autobiographical writing in which the focus shifts from a complete, encapsulated version of the writer's life story to a searching discourse that attempts to redefine the writer's relationship to the present. (1) One of the consequences of the move to self writing is the undermining of the discourse of mastery that previously characterized the autobiographical subject. In self writing, the image of the self that autobiography had posited as "triumphant, unshakeable, fixed for eternity," (2) breaks up under the effects of conflicting unconscious drives. Far from being in control of their destiny, the self writer submits to the vicissitudes of a subject that has now become the site of the "return of the repressed," (3) where it is exposed to phenomena such as the eruption of affect, the appearance of the symptom, and the manifestations of aggressivity.

The aim of this paper is to examine two twentieth-century French pieces of self writing, Colette's Etoile Vesper and Michel Leiris' Fourbis, (4) focussing particularly on the signs of aggressivity that appear in the texts. The assumption is that aggressivity is not an incidental effect of self writing but an important part of its operation as a process of reconstitution of the subject. More precisely, aggressivity informs self writing in so far as the latter consists of multiple identifications that the self writer only partially understands and almost never controls. The mandatory detour via psychoanalysis will be brief. Identification, Freud tells us, is "the original form of emotional tie with an object," (5) and as such provides the earliest form of contact that the subject establishes with the world and others. Of central importance is the assertion made by Freud and Lacan, and supported by other writers such as Girard and Borch-Jacobsen, (6) that to the extent that identification lays the foundation for the subject's relations with others, it is based on primordial forms of violence. Whether one considers, with Freud, that the process of identification derives from libidinous object-ties, as exemplified by the infant who assimilates through ingestion the objects to which it is attracted, or whether one follows Lacan in privileging the "mirror stage" in which the infant discovers with jubilation, then attacks with fury, the image of a fully formed being that it recognizes as its own, identification is accompanied by a release of affect that translates in behavioral terms into a hostile, aggressive attitude.

Colette's and Leiris' texts are constructed around such identifications. These include the objects, the people or the situations that the self writer selects because of a perceived analogy with aspects of their life story. It will become apparent that each of these identifications is associated with some form of aggressivity, suggesting that it is precisely through aggressivity that the identifications are authenticated. It is through aggressivity, in other words, that the identifications mark themselves as compelling moments in the playing out of the self writer's life and destiny. Such is the case in both Colette's and Leiris' texts. Here, the subject of self writing is characterized by a chronic sense of vulnerability that is explicitly related to their physical and psychological state. Colette is a victim of an incapacitating arthritic condition, while Leiris suffers from a morbid disposition and a pathological fear of sexual relationships. It is not surprising, then, that the identifications on which they base their self writing involve narrative patterns that convey outwardly or inwardly directed forms of aggressivity.

Colette's Identifications of Pain

To begin with the aging and incapacitated Colette, self writing is a way of marking out the boundaries of her world and ensuring its protection. Her world, consisting of her small apartment and the Place du Palais Royal that she constantly surveys from her window, is a world in which she is at peace, as she puts it, to write and suffer. It is from within these boundaries that she develops her strategies to deal with the mostly threatening forces lurking outside. Hence her concern to ward off unwanted visitors, such as those who come to solicit the attention of Colette the writer and public persona, or the German soldiers who venture into the place du Palais Royal during their patrols. (7) Faced with the permanent threat of intrusion, self writing is a means for her to clear the decks: "Vide le Jardin. Vide le logis, sauf de moi" (161). Aware that she cannot live totally cut off from the outside world, she institutes a system of checks and filters designed to keep out all visitors bar those who have convincingly demonstrated their interest in her and her personal well-being.

Self writing is a means of removing the constraints that, because of financial necessity, she had to endure as a professional writer in the form of deadlines, editorial interference and public demand. Her writing is now undirected and unmotivated: "Il se peut que je ne publie pas ces pages. C'est la premiere fois que j'ecris sans compter" (149). Colette recalls with delight her childhood practice of adding heads and tails to her words and turning them into sketches of insects. In these graphic figures which, on her admission, "ne faisaient pas serieux" (151), she abandons herself to a form of literary regression that reacquaints her with the physical pleasure of writing. More importantly, she revels in the freedom to write what she likes and in the way she likes. The focus of her writing shifts accordingly towards the people and things that are closest to her--her apartment, her belongings, her neighbours, her friends and, most significantly, her illness.

In Etoile Vesper, Colette establishes an intimate connection between self writing and the pain and physical incapacitation of the arthritis sufferer. (8) She makes it clear, without any hint of pathos, that she writes in and through pain, drawing from the pain the peculiar movement and rhythm of her writing, but also competing against pain to reclaim for the act of writing a share of her dwindling intellectual and emotional resources. In a line that conveys the full amplitude but also the naturalness of her suffering, Colette notes: "Cet apres-midi me fut une douce journee, passee a flaner et a souffrir" (108). In the conjunction of the vestiges of a free romantic spirit suggested by the word flaner and the reality of her incapacitation contained in souffrir, Colette's self writing establishes the ground for developing a new relationship with the world that reflects her current aspirations.

Remarkably, the double identification of the emancipated writer and the arthritis sufferer reveals a disposition that is closer to cruelty than to compassion. This is evident in Colette's treatment of questions such as love, sex, work, city and family, in which she systematically highlights the cruelty at work behind the benign facade that society erects in their place. In her discussion of love, for example, she dismisses the genteel rituals that distort the true nature of sexual relationships. Love, she states, should be apprehended in its "durete interessee," its protruding "petit groin rose," and its "secret langage de corps de garde" (12). Love is cruel is a phrase that Colette would understand, not in terms of the twists of fate that add color to a love story, but as the harsh reality of the physical and mental oppression that invariably falls upon the bewildered lovers. In a stark return to the literal, she suggests that it is natural that love letters born of the fire of desire end up thrown into real flames by a disillusioned lover. And is jealousy not proof of the incorrigible cruelty of lovers? "[Q]uelle modeste jeune fille, habitee d'amour, ne fletrit in petto sa rivale en la traitant de gueule de pou et de vache malade?" (12, 13). The hostility aroused by love is not, Colette states, the exclusive province of sexual relationships, but informs relationships of all kinds, including those maintained with either sex by an aging, suffering and solitary writer. But Colette presses the issue further by positing a sexual divide between men whose moderate views she finds unacceptable, and women of whom she says: "Il est bien probable que la ferocite est notre climat habitable" (63). The cruelty and the suffering associated with all human relationships mark out, then, an essentially feminine territory that encompasses womanhood at every stage, including old age. Colette concludes emphatically: "Si ces pages sont publiees, tu y liras, femme, ma mechante, mon ingrate, tu y liras, ma pareille, que jusqu'a la fin jaloux, l'amour en cheveux blancs prolonge l'inestimable douleur d'aimer" (147).

Colette's demonstration of the aggressive character of human relationships must be seen against the backdrop of a broader, more comprehensive identification with nature. In nature, she highlights in particular the irrepressible force that accomplishes its work of giver and taker of life without any concession to pity. The onset of spring, for example, attracts Colette because of the sudden and brutal changes it brings about in the natural world. She joyfully experiences the pungent odours, the acidic fluids and the unpredictable changes in temperature, and notes with satisfaction that behind the sight of delicate spring flowers, darker forces take part in a dance of death: "... partout un insecte succombe au bord de la source de vie, une larve laiteuse rend son sang blanc, la chrysalide eclate comme une cosse. Un massacre s'organise dans les tenebres du sous-sol" (12). Colette's identification with her mother and father, itself a complex issue that has been treated in great detail by scholars, (9) is subsumed under this broader identification with nature. Speaking of her mother Sido, Colette marvels at the way in which she turned her domestic space over to the rule of nature, as epitomized by the "... personnel et harmonieux desordre de ses armoires, fleuries de petales seches, de brins de citronnelle, d'araignees d'argent qu'elle enfermait un temps, pour qu'elles detruisent les mites" (142). Her identification with her father is also mediated by elements of the natural universe. The star, "Venus a l'humide eclat" (15), that gave this text its title, became a significant force in Colette's life because of the way it inspired her father to recite ceremonious verses: "Mon pere levait le doigt, nommait: 'Vesper!' et recitait des vers." (15) Whether it appears in its blind cruelty or its pure beauty, nature constitutes the primary identification from which all of Colette's self writing proceeds: "J'entends sangloter les pintades, grommeler la truie ... C'est cela, ma methode de travail ..." (14).

In Etoile Vesper, the identifications with the mother and father are eclipsed by identifications with female figures that mirror Colette's predicament as a suffering writer. One of them is a prostitute whom she remembers seeing on many occasions at the gates of the Place du Palais Royal. When the gates were locked because of snow, Colette would notice the prostitute pressing her body against the iron railings as if to accentuate her exclusion from the inner sanctuary of the square, "... comme si ce blanc rectangle interdit eut ete le symbole d'une liberte inaccessible" (38). It is from behind this physical barrier that the prostitute makes "... cette supreme confidence, cet appel angoisse a une vie personnelle:--Je m'appelle Renee, et je suis du Cher" (36). The constraints that Renee must suffer, coupled with the desire to share her experiences with others in a distinctive voice that bears the traces of her suffering, make Renee a prototype of the female self writer. When she recounts her life story to Colette, she recalls with childish simplicity the physical and moral violence she was made to endure: "... ils faisaient expres de me faire porter tout le temps les plats bouillants, sortant de sur le feu ... tout ca que vous voyez marque c'est leurs ongles ... j'ai fait de la prison ..." (37). Renee mentions in the same breath the private space of her apartment where she can protect the little that remains of her existence: "Pas un homme n'entre dans mon appartement" (37), and later: "j'ai brode un napperon rond qui represente des coquelicots. C'est une vraie feerie" (38). The juxtaposition of the dangerous outside and the secure inside in a narrative that affirms its characteristically feminine qualities and calls forth the characteristically feminine resources of cruelty and innocence indicates just how important Renee's story is in modelling Colette's self writing. In letting her fragile body speak for her, Renee acquires the seductive tone of the consummate self writer: "Je me sauve, ca sent trop le reseda par ici ... Une autre fois je vous raconterai mon pied, pourquoi je boite ..." (37).

A more telling identification is to be found in the portrayal of Colette's poet-friend Helene Picard. For Colette, Helene is a true writer by virtue of the fact that her personal qualities--her ingenuousness, her modesty, her prudishness, her disdain for social conventions--translate directly into her poetry, investing it with a "sensualite informulee" that exudes an "auguste et passionne mepris" (99). Colette affectionately recalls the way Helene refused steadfastly to make concessions, never tempering in the slightest her fierce contempt of the pillars of the Academie who would deny her entry into the literary establishment. Clearly, Colette's identification with Helene is based on their common experience of social exclusion and on the aggressive way in which they protect their personal integrity. The identification is further reinforced by the fact that, like Colette, Helene is struck by an incurable disease and must learn to live in the shadow of suffering, at the mercy of a "... force ennemie [qui] rabattit vers la terre le regard brun et dore epris de tout ce qui etait haut, aile, celeste" (103). Although physically defeated, Helene demonstrates astonishing moral resilience, to the point that she wilfully overtakes her disease by refusing to eat meat, thus hastening her decline. Helene never relinquishes her natural, feminine and poetic fierceness, remaining to the end "tout eclatante de paradoxe" (104). As a touching epitaph to her account of Helene's life and works, Colette notes with admiration her friend's barely disguised hostility towards the companion accompanying Colette. True friendship, she suggests, naturally demands exclusivity: "Nos amis ont bien du mal a aimer nos amis" (105).

The theatre of war provides an equally productive source of identifications for Colette's self writing. It is notable that she portrays the German occupation of Paris not as an event that affects the entire nation but as a local crisis that she and her fellow occupants of the Place du Palais Royal must face alone. In keeping with the extreme irritability caused by her condition, Colette acknowledges the existence of the Occupation only to the extent that it affects her well-being. She tells of the trauma she experienced the night the Gestapo awoke her and her companion, took him from his bed and sent him to the prison camp in Compiegne. The sound of the doorbell and other warning systems such as "la sonnette, les timbres, les haut-parleurs, les sirenes" (127), are now firmly associated with the trauma of the violation of her personal space and the subsequent separation from her companion. At the slightest hint of the sound of the doorbell, which Colette finds "haissable" (127), she unleashes her fury: "J'emm ... toutes les sonnettes, maintenant!" (108). This final sentence with its resounding coda establishes self writing as the scene of reactive violence and an outlet for affect.

Etoile Vesper is not a self-indulgent exercise aimed at reliving past events. Nor does it aim to justify those well-documented acts that have exposed Colette to accusations of immorality. (10) Rather, Colette's self writing is an attempt to construct a meaningful existence in the light of the physical and moral constraints imposed on her by her chronic arthritic condition. The retirement to her fortress apartment is a spatial metaphor for the radical change in the way she relates, as a pain afflicted subject, to the people and things around her. In psychological terms, Colette effects through self writing a regression to the oral stage in which all contact with her surroundings takes the form of an immediate violent appropriation. That the process of appropriation is driven by pain can be seen in the fact that it operates within a closed environment that is kept intact through the establishment of clear boundaries between the outside and the inside and the systematic recourse to reactive violence. Indeed, one could not find a more perfect illustration of the aphorism that states that the more tenuous the threads that connect a person to life, the more virulent the life preserving instincts become.

Leiris' Identifications of Fear

Next to Colette's identifications of pain, Michel Leiris' hesitant, self-doubting and anxiety ridden form of self writing offers a striking contrast. Unlike Colette, Leiris writes Fourbis while still in relatively good health, and whereas the minor ailments of which he complains do not approach the seriousness of Colette's crippling condition, the manner in which he represents them is such that they attain melodramatic proportions. Nevertheless, it will become apparent that beyond the differences in tone, style and temperament, the identifications that constitute Colette's and Leiris' self writing all bear the signs of the deficit of being which lies at the source of aggressivity.

In Fourbis, the identifications proceed by way of the association of ideas, characters and settings. Set off from the text in the mode of quotation, the first line "Rideau de nuages" is the object of a gloss that begins with an examination of each of the terms. Rideau denotes a barrier that separates and conceals, while the word nuages suggests a state of form-lessness in which the familiar world and its objects are dissolved. Taken together, the words rideau de nuages, or bank of clouds, immediately recall in Leiris the threshold of consciousness that lies between sleep and wakefulness, and in which he regularly "loses himself" as he moves between the two states. Leiris then moves to a second interpretation in which rideau de nuages refers to the periods of writer's block to which he claims he is prone, and which he had recently experienced on discovering that his latest book was a critical and commercial failure. The third interpretation, which concludes the gloss, is the most significant one. Behind the image of nebulousness and impotence suggested by the rideau de nuages, there lies, Leiris claims, a deep-seated fear of death: "... angoisse, sitot tire du noir par ce signal, de se sentir petrifie, redevenu presque conscient mais sans controle sur des membres inanimes, ossements epars attendant un jugement dernier ..." (8).

Such is the pattern of identifications that repeats itself throughout Fourbis. Leiris proceeds by extracting from his familiar world a number of anxiety producing situations--an isolated phrase, a chance encounter, a strange object--which he then arranges by means of a series of associations. In chapter 1, "Mors," the identifications all pertain to situations that give rise to a paralyzing fear of death; in chapter 2, "Les tablettes sportives," Leiris refers explicitly to the sporting heroes he idolized as a boy; and in chapter 3, "Vois! Deja l'ange," he relates an intense sexual encounter he experienced during his military service in Africa. In the long exegeses he devotes to each situation, Leiris seeks to establish the causes of his anxiety in the hope of finding a strategy for redeeming his feeble, embattled self.

The identifications in Fourbis reflect Leiris' taste for dramatization. The title itself suggests an exotic setting in which military leaders meet secretly in the aftermath of a failed campaign in order to count their losses and check their armory before mounting another attack against the enemy. (11) While Leiris does not explicitly develop this military scenario in Fourbis, it forms the backdrop for all of Leiris' self writing, in particular since it employs the dynamics of conflict and envisages different offensive and defensive strategies. In Fourbis, his third autobiographical work after L'Age d'homme and Biffures, Leiris mounts another charge against the forces that oppress him, but before he does so he reviews his strengths and weaknesses and considers the precautions he should take in order to avoid further fiascos. For the moment, the self writer is content to "take stock," ambiguously adopting a strategie de fourbe that serves both to prepare for and delay his final assault on his personal demons and floundering literary career.

The military identification follows an earlier sporting analogy. In the preface of L'Age d'homme, published in 1939, Leiris describes his autobiographical project in terms of a tauromachic spectacle (12) consisting of a life or death battle between two opposing parts of the self--on the one hand the writerly self, or the torero, whose role is to place himself in close proximity, and with elegant crowd pleasing moves, to the spectre of death; and on the other, the instinctive and habit driven self that is likened here to a raging bull. From the violent encounter between the two opposing selves, Leiris claims to attain true self-revelation, thus validating self writing both as a monumental test of courage and a demonstration of artistry.

Compared to the tauromachic experience of L'Age d'homme, Fourbis approaches self writing less extravagantly, no doubt as a result of the disappointment the writer felt on discovering that the acclamations that greeted his first book were in fact cries of derision. In Fourbis, self writing is again presented in terms of a theatre of violence, but instead of offering a display of heroics, Leiris produces variations of the figure of the victim. In one of its more burlesque episodes, Leiris falls victim to successive knock-out blows in the streets of Dakar, the first at the hands of some local Senegalese who had designs on his wallet and shoes, and the second following an altercation with a French sailor whose racist remarks irked Leiris to the point that he instigated a violent confrontation (170, 171). Leiris recounts this anecdote not only to highlight his poor moral judgement and his lack of physical prowess, but also to signal that the time has come to adopt a more defensive mode. In Fourbis, self writing becomes an attempt to confront his internal and external foes indirectly through the mediation of identifications and associations, in the hope that by this route he can predict their moves and ultimately defuse the regle du jeu (13) that informs their strategy of destruction.

The identifications in Fourbis generally involve situations that are associated with anxiety attacks. One such situation concerns a sound that the young Leiris hears while walking one evening with his family along a country road. The sound stops him in his tracks:
  Le bruit qui m'impressionne si fort est une sorte de grelottement
  rapide et continu, surement bruissement d'insecte (mais je suis alors
  incapable d'une telle identification). Fais-je mine de pleurer ou
  ai-je l'air 'tout chose', la gorge un peu serree en m'enquerant de la
  nature de ce que j'entends? Mon pere me dit pour me rassurer: 'C'est
  une voiture qui est tres loin, tres loin', ce qui me fait encore plus
  peur. (24)

Unrecognizable as either animate or inanimate, living or dead, the mysterious sound appears to lie outside the framework of meanings that constitutes the young boy's familiar environment, and it is this radical otherness that disturbs him to the point of causing him to suffer a welling of tears and a suffocation in his throat. To the extent that the sound enacts an intrusion that threatens his world of established meanings, it triggers defensive mechanisms reminiscent of Colette's reaction to the trauma of being wakened by the doorbell the night the solders of the Gestapo came to arrest her companion. Like Colette, whose self writing proceeds from the need to combat this and other violations of her intimacy, Leiris writes in order to conjure and defuse the dangers lurking in the shadows of his consciousness, in the hope that he can reclaim some of the ground that has collapsed into the rideau de nuages. His glosses, exegeses, enumerations and speculations, all sparkling with verbal dexterity and intellectual acuity, serve to offer some respite from the anxiety attacks, effectively buying the self writer the time he needs to find a way to restore his severed connections with the world of meaning.

In identifying with the strange sound heard during the evening walk, Leiris appropriates all of its characteristics. Like the sound, he becomes a solitary, plaintive and vulnerable entity that cries out in despair before its inevitable death. When the identification reaches the point at which he believes that, through the sound, he experiences his own death, he is struck with terror. He discovers at this precise moment, "l'un des aspects de la mort les moins aises a considerer sans trembler, a savoir que notre fin a toutes chances de n'etre pas fin du monde mais seulement fin se limitant--injustement, semblera-t-il toujours--a nous" (31). Death is a concrete reality that exposes to public scrutiny the signs of degradation and putrefaction. As for Leiris, he imagines on hearing the sound the corpse that he will become, lying lifeless in a world that will continue to move around him, indifferent to his plight. He sees himself now in a permanent state of impotence, a castrated subject. (14)

The above episode is just one of a long list of identifications in which Leiris represents himself in the situation of being both dead and alive, or to put it in more dramatic terms, of being buried alive. He sums up his condition by means of an intriguing formulation: "solitaire d'un monde etrange (ou isole insolite) en nocturne intrusion" (28), and later: "isole insolitement eveille quant [sic] tout le reste est (ou parait) endormi" (31, 39). The figure of the "isole insolite" is the key to Leiris' self writing in so far as it provides a model for all of his identifications and sets out a framework for the process of reconstitution of the self as an object of suspicion and violence. The subject of self writing is now an intruder, a living corpse, a scandal that must be brutally quashed.

Lacan deals with the question of identification in the course of his exposition of the narcissistic phase of psycho-social development, known better as the "mirror stage." The infant's initial jubilation on seeing the fully formed image of itself in the mirror is characteristically accompanied by feelings of aggressivity towards it. Aware of the disparity between its own uncoordinated body movements and the image of the perfectly built body before it, the infant undergoes what Lacan calls a splitting of the ego, creating the scenario of the "corps morcele" (15) in which the infant imaginatively appropriates and destroys, piece by piece, limb by limb, the body it perceives in the mirror. In Fourbis, the "corps morcele" arising from the writer's frustration appears both at the beginning and at the end of the text. In his initial self-portrait, Leiris dwells on the physical signs of aging. Describing himself as "faible de vue, dur de la feuille et bouche bredouillante" (13), Leiris condemns his "inconvenients d'ordre physique" and the "malentendu sentimental" (12) that inevitably spoils his relations with others. He is at this stage in no doubt about the unhappy destiny that awaits him, and that no amount of preventative action, nor even the act of writing, can stay. For even in writing he observes in himself a "ralentissement ... de toute la personne" (13) that foreshadows his own death. When he returns to his self-portrait in the final pages of the text, the description includes details that are even more damning. Now he calls attention to the "rides assez marquees," the "calvitie plus accusee," the "gonflement ... du bord des yeux," the "ventre dont les muscles se relachent," and the troubling absence of "l'enthousiasme priapique" (235). The symbolic dismembering of the body leads naturally, at the end of his enumeration of defective organs, to the discovery of the destiny of his narcissism, that is, a "tendance presque physiologique au repli" and an increasing solitude: "se sentir encore plus seul ... s'emmurer, s'embourber, ne meme plus pouvoir s'expliquer" (235). In Leiris, narcissistic identification leads to the creation of a petrified self that attracts, like a lightening rod, reactive emotions such as hate, anger and shame. Leiris invites the reader to see him as a blight on the human landscape, a morally weak, physically impotent, psychologically unstable and maladapted individual soon to be claimed by death.

Leiris expands the figure of the "isole insolite" by means of identifications that involve ritual practices and beliefs related to the idea of the living dead. He uses for this purpose both his personal experiences and his knowledge as a confirmed anthropologist. While on a visit to the Caribbean island of Martinique, he hears accounts of people claiming to be zombies, described here as "ces charpentes sans intelligence mais capables de se mouvoir" (55). The figure of the vulnerable "isole insolite" arises also in less exotic settings. Stage fright is one of them (42). Another is the labyrinth in Luna-Park, where hapless visitors are subjected to different forms of harassment as they walk around the dark corridors (49). The fear that surfaces in each of these scenarios is allayed by the tone of scientific observation, ironic disdain and burlesque humour he adopts at many points of his narration. In the colorful array of masks of death gathered here, Leiris confounds the reader by setting the fear he experiences against the knowledge of their artificiality. As he recalls the elaborate rituals, the costumes and the painted faces, the presence of an audience, the clownish exhibition of incompetence, he finds consolation in the thought that the dangers that threaten him can be cordoned off into safer zones. Nevertheless, if the anxiety recedes as a result of such carefully orchestrated distractions, the subject of self writing is never free of the fear of its inevitable return.

Leiris' narcissistic identifications continue in his account of his boyhood fascination with jockeys. Having harboured a strong desire to be like the jockeys that are universally admired for their costumes, demeanor and courage, Leiris now abandons the identification on the basis that it is a trap. For, as he now acknowledges, were he to reach the pinnacle of human perfection encapsulated in the image of a victorious jockey, the next step would inevitably be the gradual loss of his powers and the diminution of his status. He admits: "J'ai, certes, un vif desir d'acceder a la jouissance de ce qui me semble parfait mais j'en ai peur aussi: qui dit parfait dit acheve, ce qui signifie sans espoir ..." (93). In other words, he would as a fully fledged jockey enter into the category of the "isole insolite," signifying the imminence of death. The identification is a trap, or leurre in Lacan's terminology, because its very seductiveness creates the fear of an impending catastrophe. A similar reasoning lies behind Leiris' account of his relationship with the African prostitute Khadidja. The fact that he had with Khadidja what he believed to be an unsurpassable erotic experience, meant that all of his subsequent relationships were destined to disappoint. In the aftermath of the affair, Khadidja reveals herself to be "... un deguisement de chair equivoque pris par l'ange de la mort pour se glisser jusqu'a moi et me faire absorber [...] l'idee veneneuse entre toutes de la chute future" (232).

Fourbis contains a great number of narcissistic identifications that are systematically exposed for their duplicity and destructiveness. Grouped under the figure of "isole insolite," the identifications pertain to people, objects or events that appear in threatening settings. One of these settings is the desert in Africa where Leiris undertook part of his military service. The road sign "piste sans issue" (185) posted by the side of the desert track reflects the anxiety of finding oneself alone in an empty country, surrounded by nothingness, and therefore in an intimate relation with death. Here, the mood is equivocal in that, having acknowledged his fear, he discovers that his solitude effectively allows him to magnify his presence, raising it to a level at which it can compete with the great forces of nature. He thus appears as a unique being: "ne pas simplement etre seul mais etre seul a etre, c'est ce que fait ressentir le desert" (186). Read in terms of the identifications of fear, this final move, which transforms the alienated and threatened figure into a unique, self-enclosed and self-perpetuating subject, is itself fraught with danger, for rather than offering the opportunity for transcendence, it turns out to be one of a series of narcissistic illusions that prey on him in his "corps-a-corps" with death.

Colette's identifications of pain and Leiris' identifications of fear reveal different sources and modes of aggressivity in self writing. In Colette, the aggressivity stems from her need to ensure her survival as a vulnerable subject living in the throes of pain. It was suggested earlier that Colette's self writing is characterized by the entropic principle by which it gradually reduces its field of representation to the point where it only selects its objects from the writer's familiar surroundings. Indeed, Colette admits to her need to effect a saving of psychic energy in comparison with the more creatively demanding fictional works she produced in earlier times: "... voici que l'empechement de marcher, et les annees, me mettent dans le cas de ne plus pecher par mensonge, et bannissent de moi toutes chances d'evenements romanesques" (149, 150). In self writing, Colette withdraws her interest from the realm of the imaginary. Her narrative now targets only the people and objects that are closest to her and whose reassuring presence is tested and true. Her world is a dualistic system in which a clear line is drawn between the inside and the outside, between the inner sanctum that needs protection and outside world that threatens to destroy it, between the inner circle of friends that attract her tender solicitude and the unrecognizable and unfamiliar figures which she expels with rage from her protected domain. The self writer as vigil remains awake to enemy incursions in the form of the unexpected situations that arise to disturb the suffering writer's quietude. She constantly checks her defences against unwanted visits or chance encounters. In doing so, she defends the right of the suffering self to carve out an autonomous existence in the shadow of the pain that has become its single defining principle.

If the line between friend and foe is clearly drawn in Colette, this is clearly not the case in Leiris whose self writing is steeped in ambivalence. Ambivalence not only blurs the distinction between the objects of love and the objects of hate, (16) thus confusing the need to protect with the need to destroy, but it also collapses the distinction between the self and other. Ambivalence in self writing leads effectively to a discourse of unlimited appropriation, making the writing self the sole organizing principle of the work and the world it projects. At the same time, ambivalence in self writing inevitably resolves itself in the typical narcissistic scenario. Self-absorption leads to self-immolation as the self, for fear of being exposed to punishment and violent retribution, hastens its decline by allowing itself to be swallowed up in the rideau de nuages. The self writer's first identification, that of the infant in the oral stage that exalts in its omnipotence, turns out to be an illusion for it invariably leads to a state of chronic morbidity. The innocent infant who says "I am everything I desire" is transformed into a neurotic adult who says "I am everything I loathe," as the self-portraits at the beginning and the end of Fourbis colorfully bear out. In the face of such unpalatable truths, Leiris seeks comfort in the distractions that he believes will postpone his inevitable end. Among these, we have cited his verbal dexterity, the strategic use of theatrical accessories such as frightening masks, and the adoption of roles such as that of a social incompetent and burlesque clown.

Beyond the many identifications they contain, Etoile Vesper and Fourbis appear to confirm a trend in self writing in which the writing self is portrayed as symptom, that is, as an object that attracts societal anxiety. Medically, symptom is the threat to physical and mental well-being that is identified and suppressed at its source by therapeutic techniques. Metaphysically, symptom is a sign that the principle of destruction is at work and that the end of life as we know it is imminent. In either case, the subject as symptom is one that attracts violence. But when, in a reversal of anxiety filled modes of thought, self writing gives voice to the symptom, and lets the subject of pain and fear speak in its own right and operate its own identifications, then we as readers enter, as Lacan says, into the domain of the ethical in which we are enjoined to face the reality of our death. (17)

The University of Adelaide


(1) For Michel Foucault, from whom the term is borrowed, self writing is one of the many "arts of oneself" practised in Greco-Roman culture. More specifically, it denotes "... that exercise of thought on itself that reactivates what it knows, calls to mind a principle, a rule, or an example, reflects on them, assimilates them, and in this manner prepares itself to face reality." Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (London: The New Press, 1997) 209.

(2) Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Lacan: The Absolute Master, trans. D. Brick (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) 49.

(3) "... le refoulement ne peut etre distingue du retour du refoule par ou ce dont le sujet ne peut parler, il le crie par tous les pores de son etre." Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966) 386.

(4) The texts studied are Colette, Etoile Vesper (Paris: Librairie Artheme Fayard, 1986), and Michel Leiris, Fourbis (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1955).

(5) Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, trans. J. Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1959) 39.

(6) In addition to Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, see Jacques Lacan, "L'agressivite en psychanalyse" in Ecrits, Rene Girard, La violence et le sacre (Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1990) and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Emotional Tie: Psychoanalysis, Mimesis, and Affect (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1993).

(7) Published in 1946, Etoile Vesper contains a great number of memories, impressions and paraphernalia pertaining to the "quinze cents jours de guerre et d'oppression, de destruction organisee" (27) that had come to an end a year earlier.

(8) Colette's first symptoms of arthritis of the hip appeared in December 1938. See editor's note in Colette, OEuvres, vol. 4 (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2001) 1374.

(9) See Jacques Dupont, "Identite et identifications dans l'oeuvre de Colette" in Colette, nouvelles approches critiques. Actes du colloque de Sarrebruck, reunis par B. Bray (Paris: Librairie A.-G. Nizet, 1986), and Jerry Aline Flieger, Colette and the Fantom Subject of Autobiography (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992).

(10) See Michele Sarde's accounts, in Colette libre et entravee (Paris: Editions Stock, 1978), of the "Scandale du Moulin-Rouge" in which Colette exchanged an excessively passionate kiss on stage with her lover and co-actress la Marquise de Morny (208-211), and of the affair with her step-son Bertrand de Jouvenel that effectively ended her second marriage (391-395).

(11) The verb fourbir is given as "to prepare for battle." Interestingly, a sporting analogy is suggested with the noun, fourbi, which is given as "gear" or "fishing rod, hooks and goodness knows what else." Collins-Robert French-English English-French Dictionary (HarperCollins, Third Edition).

(12) Michel Leiris, "De la litterature consideree comme une tauromachie" in L'Age d'homme (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1939).

(13) La regle du jeu being the title of Leiris' four part autobiographical project, consisting of Biffures (1948), Fourbis (1955), Fibrilles (1966) and Frele Bruit (1976).

(14) Consider Freud's telling commentary on the fear of castration: "I am therefore inclined to adhere to the view that the fear of death should be regarded as analogous to the fear of castration and that the situation to which the ego is reacting is one of being abandoned by the protecting super-ego--the powers of destiny--so that it has no longer any safeguard against the dangers that surround it." Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (London: Hogarth Press, 1936) 93.

(15) Ecrits, 104.

(16) Freud explains ambivalence in these terms: "Alongside of the child's intense love there is always a strong aggressive tendency present, and the more passionately the child loves the object, the more sensitive it will be to disappointments and frustrations coming from it." Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1933) 159.

(17) "C'est cette victime emouvante, evadee d'ailleurs irresponsable en rupture du ban qui voue l'homme moderne a la plus formidable galere sociale, que nous recueillons quand elle vient a nous, c'est a cet etre de neant que notre tache quotidienne est d'ouvrir a nouveau la voie de son sens dans une fraternite discrete a la mesure de laquelle nous sommes toujours trop inegaux." Ecrits, 124.
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Author:Poiana, Peter
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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