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  • 20 Nov 2020 7:00 AM | Deleted user

    By Katherine Hammitt

    First section of L'île des rêves écrasés

    First section of L'île des rêves écrasés, Chantal Spitz (1991)

    From the first page of Chantal Spitz’s 1991 novel L’île des rêves écrasés, it is clear this work will defy expectations. This text, lauded as the first francophone novel by a Tahitian author, immediately confronts the reader with five pages of verse written in Reo Tahiti, an autochthonous language of the French overseas collective Te Ao Mā’ohi, or French Polynesia. Neither translated nor summarized, these initial pages set the scene for more than the story to unfold; from the beginning, this novel challenges the reader’s understanding of the islands and the continued marginalization of Polynesian voices.

    It is a challenge characteristic of the author’s work and of the work that francophone authors are doing across Oceania. Though the francophone spaces of the Pacific Ocean are underrepresented in francophone literary and postcolonial studies, they are the site of abundant literary and critical production. As francophone studies reaches for new ways of imagining transcolonial solidarities, francophone Oceania fosters connection and collaboration across thousands of miles of water. While literary works from Te Ao Mā’ohi/French Polynesia and Kanaky/New Caledonia are as diverse as the communities in which they are produced, writers like Ari’irau, Claudine Jacques, Nicolas Kurtovitch, Titaua Peu, Déwé Gorodé, and, of course, Chantal Spitz are engaged with producing stories that defy Western literary conventions and celebrate the continuation of their own rich literary tradition.

    Chantal Spitz at Festival Étonnants Voyageurs 2012. Wikimedia CommonsChantal Spitz is arguably the most well-known author from the region. Beyond her status as the first Tahitian writer to publish a novel, she is a central figure in her literary community. In 2002, she cofounded Littérama’ohi, a literary journal that publishes works from writers across Oceania. The journal is dedicated to fostering literary connections within French Polynesia and to promoting Polynesian voices. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and literary festivals, such as Lire en Polynésie, which has just concluded its 20th annual salon du livre (this year entirely online). An outspoken proponent of independence from France, Spitz has published several critical articles and a collection of political and personal essays, Pensées insolentes et inutiles (2006). Her literary work is no less political. In addition to L’île des rêves écrasés, Spitz has written two other novels, Hombo, transcription d’une biographie (2002) and Elles, terre d’enfance (2011), as well as Cartes postales, (2015), a collection of short vignettes.

    Spitz’s writing is characterized by her commitment to promoting Polynesian voices, often as she highlights their historical marginalization. In the epigraph to Pensées insolentes et inutiles, Spitz writes,

    j’écris ce que j’ai envie d’écrire

    dans l’illusion d’écrire de ma propre voix

    dans une vaine tentative d’indépendance

    face à une société peureuse

    comme un constant exil

    Spitz writes against this estrangement from her own voice, both within the content of the narratives she tells and in the form of her writing. In L’île des rêves écrasés, Spitz emphasizes the contrast between Tahitian and French languages, underlining the ecological violence depicted in the story with the linguistic violence inherent in French Polynesia’s colonial relationship with France. Cartes postales confronts the Edenic image of Tahiti by portraying a reality of extreme, everyday violence, captured in seven vignettes told from the perspective of locals on the Polynesian island. Spitz’s writing defies Western conventions of genre, weaving verse in with prose, and even abandoning punctuation and capitalization. Her lyrical style is a commitment to the oral form, a continuation of the rich oral tradition across Oceania. It is a further resistance to ontological violence against Polynesian literary production, undermining the false, Western dichotomy of written vs. oral by embracing the productive merging of the two forms.  

    Spitz is undoubtedly a central figure of the literary community in francophone Oceania, her work a cornerstone of the canon. But the breadth of literary production in the region defies brief summation. It is a diverse canon whose authors are each in their own way committed to the promotion of marginalized voices and defying expectations.

    Primary sources:

    Spitz, Chantal. Cartes postales: nouvelles. Papeete: Au Vent des Îles, 2015.

    ——. Elles, terre d’enfance, roman à deux encres. Papeete: Au Vent des Îles, 2011.

    ——. L’Ile des rêves écrasés. Papeete: Au Vent des Îles, 2003 (originally published in 1991 by

    Éditions de la plage) .

    ——. Pensées insolentes et inutiles. Papeeté: Te ite, 2006.

    Further reading:

    Anderson, Jean. “Translating Chantal Spitz: Challenges of the Transgeneric Text.” Autralian

    Journal of French Studies. Liverpool Vol. 50 Iss. 2 (May-Aug 2013): 177-188.

    Devatine, Flora. Tergiversations et Rêveries de l’Ecriture Orale: Te Pahu a Hono’ura. Papeete:

    Au Vent des Îles, 1998.

    Frengs, Julia L. Corporeal Archipelagos: Writing the Body in Francophone Oceanian Women’s

    Literature. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.

    Margueron, Daniel. Flots d’encre sur Tahiti: 250 ans de littérature francophone en Polynésie

    française. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015. 

    Ramsay, Raylene. The Literatures of the French Pacific: Reconfiguring Hybridity. Liverpool:

    Liverpool University Press, 2014.

    Katherine Hammitt is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture (French and Francophone Studies) at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation project, tentatively titled Beyond the Sea that Separates, engages with women francophone writers of Oceania. Her research interests include postcolonial theory, visual culture, women writers, and memory studies. 

  • 22 Oct 2020 5:53 PM | Deleted user

    By Sarah Forzley

    In a small, rural, private high school, I have the privilege (among many others) of teaching French to the same students from sophomore through senior year. Each year, I can reconsider my curriculum based on the unique makeup of each class. This year’s class of seniors has always liked literature: after reading a few chapters of L’Odeur du café (Dany Laferrière) and Comment peut-on être français? (Chahdortt Djavann), they asked last year if we could move up to the major leagues: completing an entire book. 

    Knowing that I can only assign 30 minutes of homework a couple days a week (my students don’t yet read very fast), and reading comprehension gaps widen over with the length of the text, I turned to graphic novels. I expected that graphic novels would address both comprehension and reading fluency challenges, because the visual text does not rely on linguistic ability and it serves as a support to comprehend the written text. So, last fall we tackled Persépolis vol. 1-4 (Marjane Satrapi, L’Association 2003), which follows the author from childhood in Iran to adolescence in Austria, to early adulthood in France. This fall, we’ve switched to science fiction, reading Le Transperceneige vol. 1 (Jacques Lob & Jean-Marc Rochette, Casterman 1984), which imagines the world’s survivors of a nuclear winter living on a train that can’t stop moving. 

    Now that I’m more than halfway through my graphic novel experiment, I’m reflecting back on the standards I created for my reading/writing assessments, especially this one: “I can analyze/create a complex text that has multiple layers of meaning, showing comprehension of language and content. My response/text analyzes the cause and effects of geopolitical relationships.” Is this standard reasonable? Can we both contextualize graphic novels and model their analysis effectively enough to guide high schoolers to connect big ideas to these books so that they reveal lessons about social, political, and economic situations today? I’m on a mission to find out. Here are my notes from the field.


    I’m still searching for the balance between how much I ask the students to do themselves and how much I provide to them. With Persépolis, I assigned each student to individual research, including interviews with Satrapi, linguistic and political maps of the region, and articles on the Iran-Iraq war. This empowered students to speak up as the class “expert” on a topic whenever we needed to contextualize events in Persépolis, but putting students totally in charge of contextualization meant that I didn’t quite get everyone on the same page. About 90% of my students achieved the aforementioned standard in reading, and only 75% met the standard in writing. With Le Transperceneige, I’ve taken on more of the contextualization, but once I put myself in charge, the inner researcher in me just can’t stop. It’s overwhelming! 

    For instance, I’d love to explain the trope of illness in Le Transperceneige in the context of French colonialism. I fear, though, that introducing medical anthropology in colonial Africa and the lasting effects today will create confusion about a topic that I don’t have time to explain adequately. However, COVID-19’s unequal effects on BIPOC people in the United States has rendered more accessible the discussions of illness in Le Transperceneige for this class. Current news about how discriminatory systems have created gaps in health care, housing, finance, and occupation that led to BIPOC people carrying a disproportionate burden of this pandemic are a much easier secondary text for high schoolers than Nancy Rose Hunt or Steven Feierman, and they open the door to narratives about who gets ill, why, and how. We’re still missing the direct connection to French colonialism and the giant historical step back, but when I do finally include that, I’m also going to keep the more contemporary connector I used this year since it’s part of my students’ lived experience.


    The images in Persépolis are simple and clean, which makes it easy for the reader to track both changes and repetition from one frame to the next. It’s really the perfect graphic novel for beginning image analysis! Modeling, explicit instruction, lots of directed practice, and independent practice of image analysis led to 100% of the students meeting the standard for image analysis in Persépolis. On the other hand, the busier images in Le Transperceneige impede visual analysis by a student still struggling to comprehend them. With scaffolding, though, the richness of detail provides more (visual) text for us to analyze.

    Analysis of the written text went much more smoothly in Persépolis than it has so far in Le Transperceneige, primarily because comprehension was so much easier. Every night I offered a menu of comprehension and analysis questions from which students could choose, a model that I’d like to imitate the next time I teach Le Transperceneige. Comprehension dominated our Transperceneige discussions for the first half of the book, delaying guided practice in textual analysis. In the future, I’m going to institute five-minute journaling in response to an analytical prompt at the beginning or end of each class to offer low-stakes analysis practice throughout students’ journey toward comprehension.

    Have you taught these works to high school students or as an introduction to literature in college? Have you found any framings, secondary readings, or activities that worked particularly well? Reply to this post – I’d love to exchange more ideas!

    Sarah Forzley teaches the upper levels of French at Sun Valley Community School. She received her PhD in French with a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies and African Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include (post)colonial diasporic responses to the trauma of spatial constraint and popular imaginings of the nation amidst postcolonial deterritorialization. She has published articles on Malika Mokeddem (Chimères) and Yolande Mukagasana (TROPOS).

  • 12 Oct 2020 4:58 PM | Deleted user

    By Bethany Schiffman

    How can an oppressed people ever use the imposed language of their oppressor—a language created by and for the oppressor—to express their own complex reality? In her book A Small Place Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid evokes the tragedy of this dilemma: “The language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view. It cannot contain the horror of the deed, the injustice of the deed, the agony, the humiliation inflicted on me.”[1] This tension is not a new issue. But the recent Black Lives Matter resurgence and renewed interest in anti-racist pedagogy make the question of how language and genre are entangled with issues of power, and how authors subvert them, even more pressing. I grapple with these questions in my dissertation focused on how Caribbean Départements d’outre mer (DOM) storytellers use oral folktales across media to create and communicate identity.

    Figure 1: Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau's hybridized language in his novel Texaco.

    In their Éloge de la créolité, Caribbean creolists Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant argue for a possible solution to this dilemma : « L’exigence première de l’acte littéraire [est de] savoir produire un langage au sein même de la langue » (“The first requirement of literary creation…is to be able to bring about a language within the tongue itself”).[2] In other words, in order to express what is inexpressible in the colonial tongue, creators should use their own creolized linguistic background to create a new, hybridized language. Indeed, authors from Chamoiseau to Derek Walcott to Kamau Brathwaite to dub poets are known for transgressing the colonial language by creolizing it and pushing it, forcing it to grow and change into something new.[3] But, a literary creation, or acte littéraire, does not simply engage with language; it also engages with genre.

    It is no coincidence that the creolists specify a literary act. Since at least the 12th century in Europe, the written word, and eventually literature, has carried increasing importance over older, oral forms, growing in cultural capital and prestige.[4] Today literature plays a key role in Western culture, serving as a privileged space of cultural negotiation and reification of power and hegemonies. Both the colonizer’s language and the colonizer’s form carry weight in cultural identity formation. In order for a (post)colonial subject to enter into these negotiations and discussions, then, they have no choice but to use the fraught tools handed them by their subjugators. But subverting these elements can allow them to communicate their worldview, their lived experience, the horror, injustice, agony and humiliation inflicted on them.

    If one possible solution to the issue language poses is to hybridize in order to create a new language, then it follows that authors can hybridize forms in order to create new genres within the old. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most obvious and most powerful is to introduce orality into the literary realm. Indeed, in systems of slavery and colonial oppression, tales, songs, and proverbs were often the only way for a people to maintain traditions and communicate without the slaver understanding. For “communities of the African diaspora…orality equals survival.”[5] At first denied access to the literary record, and then confronted with European, text-based models, postcolonial authors have had to find ways to blend their traditional orality with the powerful colonizer’s tool of literacy, to give voice to the one through the “prestige” of the other. I argue that, in so doing, postcolonial authors from around the world are able to appropriate and then subvert Western literary genres in order to express their own, individual, hybrid worldviews and experiences.

    Hybridized language and form in Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer's Cane.

    Figure 2: Hybridized language and form in Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer's Cane

    There are many ways to hybridize orality and literary genres. In Cane, Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer intermixes poetry—or are they songs?—and prose (that one might call short stories), incorporating proverbs and tales into both, and even framing some stories with short verse (Figure 2) in ways that evoke the framing of a folktale.[6] Martinican author Aimé Césaire’s 1939 Cahier d’un retour au pays natal is formatted as a poem but reads somewhere between an ode and a rant, a poem and an essay.[7] Ghanaian author, Ama Ata Aidoo, incorporates orality into her 1966 book Our Sister Killjoy by intermixing—without line or page break—storytelling prose (“He spoke [German] well and was familiar with them in a way that made her feel uneasy. Our sister shivered and fidgeted in her chair”) with verse that seems to convey the narrator’s unedited, stream of conscious thought (“Who was Marija Sommer? / A daughter of mankind’s / Self-appointed most royal line, / The House of Aryan”), seamlessly switching between the two.[8] Even Algerian-French author Faïza Guène, writing from the Hexagon, draws heavily on orality in her novel Kiffe Kiffe Demain (itself pulled from Arabic slang meaning “same old same old”) which New York Times reviewer Lucinda Rosenfeld argues is a blend of novel, adolescent diary entries, political tract, and poetry.[9] And this list barely scratches the surface!

    But what all of these texts have in common is their hybridization of genre that simultaneously subverts the colonial forms and “westernizes” the oral, creating a new form that communicates a heteroglot worldview in a packaging the privileged and powerful are open to. And now, as more and more cultural creation emerges on wiki-type sites, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and online, it is time to not only recognize these creolized genres, but to investigate how the influences of the 21st century are creating ever-new, ever-more-hybridized forms, and how this movement away from highly controlled forms is creating new opportunities for women and other historically-silenced groups.

    Bethany Schiffman is a PhD candidate in the French and Francophone Studies Department at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her research interests include Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Cultures, folklore, and media studies. Her dissertation focuses on hyper-contemporary, multi-media recounting of folktales in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guiana and how storytellers use these stories to create and communicate individual and group identities.

    [1] Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place (New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 31-32.

    [2] French: Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant. Eloge de la créolité (Paris: Gallimard/Presses universitaires créoles), 1989, 46. English: Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. “In Praise of Creoleness.” Translated by Mohamed B. Taleb Khyar. Callaloo 13, no. 4 (1990): 900.

    [3] Knepper, Wendy. Patrick Chamoiseau: A Critical Introduction (Jackson, M.S.: UP of Mississippi, 2012), 64-65.

    [4] Vitz, Evelyn Birge. Orality and Performance in Early French Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), ix & 44.

    [5] Chancy, Myriam J.A. Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1997), 74.

    [6] Toomer, Jean. Cane (New York, N.Y.: Liveright, 1975).

    [7] Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Paris  Présence Africaine, 1983).

    [8] Aidoo, Ama Ata. Our Sister Killjoy (Harlow: Longman Group, 1977), 9, 48.

    [9] Kelleher, Fatimah. “An Interview with Faïza Guène.” Wasafiri 28, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 3.; Rosenfeld, Lucinda. “Catcher in the Rue.” The New York Times, July 23, 2006, sec. Books.

  • 25 Sep 2020 6:00 AM | Deleted user

    By Viviana Pezzullo

    In the last decades, Francophone Caribbean Studies have increasingly focused on the issues of gender and language independently, however, these two topics have rarely been brought together to enhance our understanding of sociolinguistic power dynamics within Caribbean literature and culture. The relationship between Creole and French is often at the heart of a debate revolving around hierarchy in terms of racial, cultural, and social domination, disregarding the role that gender–with its implications in access to education and employment–plays in it.

    For this reason, it is fundamental for scholars interested in conducting linguistic research or studying the interplay of language, transnational identity, and gender in the Francophone Caribbean, to reclaim the importance of Dany Bébel-Gisler. Her theoretical scholarship about Creole is as groundbreaking as the work of the Créolité group, but far less studied.

    Dany Bébel-Gisler was a Guadeloupean author and sociolinguist who was born in Pointe-à-Pitre on April 7, 1935 and died in Lamentin on September 28, 2003. Her grandfather was a sugarcane plantation owner and her father married a mulatresse who was a worker on the family plantation. At a young age, Bébel-Gisler moved to Toulouse for the classes préparatoires, and she was awarded the Prix Spécial de français, which allowed her to attend the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. While she started her degree with a focus on literary studies, her interest shifted towards linguistics, sociology, and ethnography. Her doctoral dissertation on the status of Creole in the Antilles was published in 1976 by L’Harmattan with the title La langue créole, force jugulée: étude socio-linguistique des rapports de force entre le créole et le français aux Antilles.

    As scholar James Arnold has argued, Bébel-Gisler was not interested in Creole as a code for a limited circle of intellectuals, therefore, distancing herself from the Créolité group. Her approach was more pragmatic and aimed to introduce Creole in school curricula, promoting a writing system specific to Guadeloupean Creole, which she proposes in Kèk prinsip pou ékri kréyól (1975). Bébel-Gisler’s passion for education and pedagogy is grounded in her own teaching practice, which she developed through tutoring children of African and Algerian immigrant workers in Nanterre and Aubervilliers in the 1960s. In most cases, these pupils did not speak French, so this experience heavily informed her research and led her to explore teaching Creole and French as a Second Language, within marginalized communities. With this intent, in 1979, Bébel-Gisler founded the Centre d’Education Populaire Bwadoubout, where students from underprivileged households could study and where Creole was the primary language of instruction.

    In Bébel-Gisler’s work, Creole is both the object of sociolinguistic research, but also the pillar of her militant activism; Creole is that “cordon ombilical qui nous relie à l’Afrique, aux autres, à nous mêmes” (Le défi culturel 23) [umbilical cord that connects us to Africa, to others, to ourselves]. Language as a way to express identity also becomes a key element of nationalistic rhetoric and demands during the Guadeloupen independentist movement of the 1970s and 1980s against French hegemony: “c’est tout ça qui nous à fabriqués, nous, Guadeloupéens” (Léonora 79) [this is what created us, us Guadeloupean]. Through her analysis of the use of Creole, Bébel-Gisler digs into the herstory of Guadeloupe, a past of colonization that for the most part remained “buried,” overshadowed by colonial history. 

    Her project of shedding light on Guadeloupean past becomes imperative in Léonora: l’histoire enfouie de la Guadeloupe (1985), probably Bébel-Gisler’s most famous work. Léonora offers slices of life in Guadeloupe while painting a picture of its linguistic habits through the narrative of Léonora–an 80-year-old attacheuse from Lamentin. During a series of interviews, conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s (hence in the middle of Guadeloupe’s nationalistic movements), Bébel-Gisler collected and transcribed Léonora’s words, who becomes the spokesperson of her community. While Bébel-Gisler herself defines the book as a novel, scholars Vera M. Kutzinki and Cynthia Mesh-Ferguson underscore how this is a prime example of the Latin-American genre of testimonio in the French language. The testimonial value as well as the sociolinguistic complexity of Léonora, makes it a suitable source for all sorts of interdisciplinary research, ranging from linguistics to literary studies, through postcolonial history and world politics.

    Léonora is a prime example of how linguistic habits reveal a lot about women’s living conditions and ongoing power dynamics in the Francophone Caribbean. In this context, the dichotomy between French and Creole must be reconsidered in the light gender, taking into account the fact that women tend to rely much more on French as opposed to Creole. In Léonora’s words scholars find literary evidence of what sociolinguist Ellen Schnepel writes about linguistic habits of women in the Francophone Caribbean: “the quest for group identity and linguistic rights conflicts with basic material needs—such as education, jobs, and economic security” (213).

    Further research about Bébel-Gisler’s contribution to Francophone literature and theory is very much needed. Indeed, while Bébel-Gisler is often remembered solely in the context of defining transnational identity or discussing the role of Creole in the schooling system, her works contribute greatly to our understanding of gender, language and power dynamics in the Francophone Caribbean. Her research and theoretical framework not only complement works by Simone Schwarz-Bart and Gisèle Pineau, but also shed a new light on studies about the Créolité. Rediscovering Bébel-Gisler will allow scholars to engage with all sorts of interdisciplinary research, ranging from linguistics to literary studies, through postcolonial history and world politics.

    Further Reading

    Primary Sources

    Bébel-Gisler, Dany.Cultures et pouvoir dans la Caraïbe: langue créole, vaudou, sectes religieuses en Guadeloupe et en Haïti. L’Harmattan, 1975.

    --.La langue créole, force jugulée: étude socio-linguistique des rapports de force entre le créole et le français aux Antilles. L’Harmattan, 1976.

    --.Léonora: l’histoire enfouie de la Guadeloupe. Seghers, 1985.

    --.Le défi culturel guadeloupéen: devenir ce que nous sommes.Éditions caribéennes, 1989.

    Secondary Sources

    Arnold, A. James. “The Erotics of Colonialism in Contemporary French West Indian Literary Culture.”New West Indian Guide, vol. 68, no. 1-2, Jan. 1994, pp. 5–22.

    Kelley, Barbro Lucka. “The Poetics of Nationalism in Dany Bebel-Gisler’s Leonora.”Revista Mexicana del Caribe, vol. 6, 1998, pp. 2018-230.

    Kutzinki, Vera M., and Cynthia Mesh-Ferguson.Afterword.Leonora: The Buried Story of Guadeloupe, by Dany Bébel-Gisler. 1985. Translated by Andrea Leskes, University Press of Virginia, 1994, pp. 261-278.

    Malena, Anne. “Leonora: The Making of the Self.”The Negotiated Self: The Dynamics of Identity in Francophone Caribbean Narrative. Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 27-65.

    Mesh, Cynthia J. “Empowering the Mother Tongue: The Creole Movement in Guadeloupe.” In Springfield, Consuelo López, ed.Daughters of Caliban: Caribbean Women in the Twentieth Century. Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 2-38.

    Santiago, Frances J. “Bebel-Gisler, Dany (1935-2003).” In Knight, Franklin W., and Henry Louis Gates, eds.Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 275-276.

    Schnepel, Ellen M. “The Other Tongue, the Other Voice: Language and Gender in the French Caribbean.” Language and Social Identity. Edited by Richard K. Blot. Praeger, 2003, pp. 199-224.

    Viviana Pezzullo is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Studies (French, Francophone Caribbean, and Italian) at Florida Atlantic University. Her research interests include 20th- and 21st-centuries literature and culture (with a particular emphasis on women writers), visual arts, translation, and digital humanities. She has published in The French Review, and her article on Christine de Pizan’s protofeminist translation of Boccaccio is forthcoming in 2021 in NeMLA Italian Studies.

  • 11 Sep 2020 6:00 AM | Deleted user

    By Aileen Ruane

    The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our quotidian, but has also served to reintroduce scholars and the general public alike to some of literature’s most timely works. Chief among them has been the 1947 novel La Peste by Albert Camus, which recently returned to the top of the best-seller list, over 70 years after its initial publication. Dr. Jennifer Frey’s philosophy, theology, and literary criticism podcast features an episode in which the novel’s pertinence to this pandemic is discussed under its English-language translation, The Plague. La Peste’s indelible presence in literary studies and popular culture is well-documented: allegorical meanings, the Algerian War, depictions of illness and space, linguistic structures and innovations all contribute to its grim resurgence in popularity in 2020.

    However, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis clos epitomizes another potentially advantageous perspective on our quarantine moment. While Camus’ novel illustrates daily life during a plague (including eerie resonances for 2020), Sartre’s existentialist, one-act play exposes our contemporary preoccupations with what other people are doing and thinking in relation to one’s self. It questions whether or not we would act in such ways towards one another if we knew we didn’t have some kind of audience. The notion of performativity advances the argument that identities are formed through a series of iterated acts that are internalized to the point of appearing to be inherent. 

    Whether in a negative or positive sense (or something betwixt and between), our identities are therefore performances that we embody in relation to our communities and society writ large. The boredom, frustration, and anxiety that first materialize during confinement eventually reveal graver concerns about the nature of being, doing, and relationships. We need only refer to the confusion, anxiety, and even rage surrounding the obligation to wear masks or avoid gatherings as examples of our preoccupation with what the Other is doing and how that necessarily affects our being. Due to continually evolving information about the nature of the virus and public health authorities’ efforts to mitigate the death toll, simply minding one’s own business and forgetting the Other’s presence has proven difficult, especially given the complex relationships among consumers of social medias, which have been exacerbated during lockdown

    Moreover, Huis clos predicts the mounting horror that boredom has brought on during this pandemic through social media platforms. Throughout the play, the three characters struggle with interacting in confinement, in part due to preoccupations over whoever is not involved in a particular interaction. After having ostensibly agreed to remain silent and immobile for the duration of their confinement, Estelle still needs to apply her blush and lipstick, but finds she has no mirror. While Garcin mutely ignores Estelle’s requests to loan her one, Inès offers help, stating “aucun miroir ne sera plus fidèle” than her own gaze.[1] During their ensuing dialogue, Estelle continues to call out to Garcin, worried that they are boring him, yet also expresses relief that “heureusement que (elle jette un coup d’œil à Garcin) personne ne m’a vue” upon learning from Inès that the lipstick was applied poorly.[2]

    Boredom quickly turns to anxiety, and despite Estelle’s words to the contrary, her performance of femininity is connected to an awareness of Garcin’s presence. Even though NYU provided students who are quarantining in its dormitories with digital access to exercise, mindfulness, and social programming, students admit that it’s not the same as face to face interaction, and that there’s an inherent difficulty/lack of motivation associated with working out alone in a dorm room. They’ve taken to various social media platforms in order find mutual commiseration.

    Unlike Sartre’s characters, we are not necessarily confined to a literal single room, yet we still experience the anxiety-inducing effects of the Other’s gaze, due to the prevalence of applications like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Zoom: are we doing as much as the next person? Are we perhaps too productive? Why aren’t they wearing masks? How will people react if I appear to transgress? These platforms expand upon the space — mise en scene encompassing the world of the play to global performance scenes — described by Sartre to fit our contemporary moment, all whilst redefining and reconstructing confinement as having as much to do with the object(s) of our own gaze as it does with that of the Other. Like Huis clos, social media constructs a form of embodiment by performing connection, even whilst we are quarantined or resistant. Like Garcin, Estelle, and Inès, our preoccupation with the Other diminishes any real opportunity to tune out, thus choosing to remain confined in a hell of our own making, as Inès states.

    We can speak of performance thanks to the generic differences between La Peste and Huis clos,  which subsequently help to explain the latter’s relevance in 2020: Camus’ novel allows the reader to experience the town of Oran from a distance through its narrative and linguistic structure, whereas Sartre’s play plunges the audience, as a community, into a present-tense exploration of the Other’s gaze. Whereas Camus’ narrative eventually concludes, Sartre’s trio realizes that they must, in the words of Garcin, “continuons.”[3] It is this performance in forced confinement to which the audience is party that makes Huis clos an uncomfortable corollary for us right now.

    In the play’s final scene, Garcin makes the infamous pronouncement, “l’enfer, c’est les Autres”[4], essentially meaning that human beings are relentlessly conscious of the Other’s regard, and are thus subject to the increasing anxiety that results from the inability to ignore such a preoccupation. Interestingly, Sartre admits that Garcin’s assertion has a more pragmatic application. In a recorded interview, Sartre claims that the impetus behind the narrative structure for Huis clos was a desire to craft a play in which the three main characters would always be on stage together.[5] The reason for this was that if one of them ever left the stage, s/he would constantly worry that the other two had bigger, more significant roles to play.

    In linking his philosophy to the pettier aspects of the theatrical medium, Sartre essentially theorised the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) long before social media. When Garcin demands that they endure their sojourn in hell by closing their eyes and attempting to forget one another, Inès immediately resists, wanting instead to “choisir [son] enfer”, through hyper-awareness of what Garcin and Estelle could be doing.[6] Pretending is an act of bad faith, so it is better to engage rather than allow the object-person of one’s attention to divert this attention elsewhere.  

    Our pandemic event transforms the notion of FOMO as suggested by Huis clos and Inès’ vow to never leave her fellow captives in peace. From the exasperated rebukes of “it’s just like the flu!”, through the various phases of lockdown, to tentative reopenings and a disheartening return to quarantine, the concept of hell being other people proves apt during a period in which we deliberate the ethics of reporting our neighbours to law enforcement, should we suspect them of flouting lockdown regulations. The anxiety induced by the Other’s gaze when we’re simultaneously physically isolated and electronically connected demonstrates the broad scope of the play’s relevance.

    In the end, Sartre’s characters form a cautionary tale for us as we trudge forward with an “eh bien, continuons” during a pandemic that shows little sign of abating just yet. As such, Huis clos implicates a wider community than simply that of its characters. Because it is expressed via the first-person plural, present tense form, Garcin’s comment opens up to directly address and include us, asking us to actively consider the choices we make, the manner in which we treat the Other, even from a social distance.    

    [1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos suivi de Les mouches, Gallimard, 1947, p. 45.

    [2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, p. 46.

    [3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, p. 94.

    [4] Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, p. 92.

    [5] See “Sartre – L’enfer, c’est les autres ‘Explications’”,

    [6] Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos, p. 50.

    Photo credit: Étienne RichardAileen Ruane is a Fonds de recherche du Québec – société et culture (FRQSC) postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University. She holds a PhD in Études littéraires from Université Laval where her dissertation took a comparative approach to the analysis of Québécois translations of Irish theatre via the notion of performativity. Her current project looks at performing/performative femininity/feminisms in Irish and Québécois theatrical translations. 

    Twitter: @Francophoney82

    Photo credit: Étienne Richard


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