Pittsburgh Endowment Professor of French
April 29, 2009
A week or two after President Hill invited me to speak to you today, we happened to meet one early morning by Sunset Lake; she asked me whether I was beginning to regret having accepted her invitation. In a way, I was. My French upbringing has not prepared me well for the sort of personal talk that Americans can deliver so gracefully, and the prospect of addressing you all was quite intimidating. But, since I also felt honored and was not going to back out, I started rummaging in my head through the jumble of experiences, attachments, and interests that, somehow, constitute my life -- our lives.
As I was going back and forth between the major places where I’ve lived -- Algiers as a child and adolescent, Paris as a student, and Poughkeepsie as a married Vassar professor --, and as I was mentally moving between the different scholarly paths I’ve followed -- ancient Greek, then French fiction, later contemporary French poetry, and, more recently, film--, I remembered a passage in Marcel Proust’s A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur [In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower]. I haven’t taught Proust in years, but his images are so vivid and cinematic that they get implanted in your brain. In this passage, Marcel, the narrator, wakes up on the train at dawn and sees some clouds whose pink color gradually spreads across the sky; it seems, says Proust, “to be privy to the profoundest secrets of nature”. And I quote:
Then the train turned away from it, the railway line having changed direction, the dawn scene framed in the window turned into a village by night, its roofs blue with moonlight, the washhouse smeared with the opal glow of darkness, under a sky still bristling with stars, and I was saddened by the loss of my strip of pink sky, till I caught sight of it again, now reddening, in the window on the other side, from which it disappeared at another bend in the line. And I dodged from one window to the other, trying to reassemble the offset intermittent fragments of my lovely, changeable red morning, so as to see it for once as a single lasting picture.
So, in one single movement, Proust’s sentence has moved from a hidden significance to what is the overarching aim of his work, A la recherche du temps perdu: to make the "intermittent fragments" that constitute one’s life experiences --and therefore one’s self-- coalesce into one continuous whole.
Do you perceive your lives as a “tableau continu”, a "single lasting picture"? I certainly don’t. Rather, whenever I try to piece it together, I find myself stuck in the rather ridiculous posture of young Marcel, running between the two sides of the train, and trying to catch up with time and space, as they swerve, change, and disappear. Fleeting fragments. Perhaps the work of art -- and that is Proust’s meaning -- can make of those fragments a “tableau continu” -- such as the novel that Marcel spends the whole In Search of Lost Time not being able, yet, to write. Otherwise, the danger, in telling stories about our own past is that the very telling dries up memories, or replaces them with some ossified, and ultimately false, version of them. They’re no longer images in your head, they’re words, already told, in your mouth. -- Not a very helpful notion when you’re trying to write a convocation speech.
I found confirmation of this sense that telling of one’s past is not without risks, in the work of a French writer I’ve recently written about, Jacques Roubaud. Roubaud is a poet and mathematician, who has also authored an autobiographical work in 6 volumes, called Le grand incendie de Londres [The Great Fire of London]. He decided to become a poet, he tells us, after his young brother's suicide, as a way of fashioning a life, against the temptation to kill himself also. For years, he elaborated an impossibly complex project, that intertwined poetry, mathematics, and fiction. Inevitably, he failed to accomplish it. The Great Fire of London is the narrative of that failure. Like Proust, Roubaud places memory at the center of his writing. Unlike Proust, however, he thinks that writing memories destroys them. His autobiography is therefore a long conflagration, a great fire. But like Proust, again, Roubaud builds a great work from that fire -- that is, he writes from the failure to write.
I find this idea of turning failure into a process of discovery, which is characteristic of modernity, infinitely encouraging, not only for writers and artists, but for the rest of us. It enables us to think that time is on our side. For example, another French poet, Francis Ponge, after spending years writing and rewriting a poem on the sun – a magnificent poem, by the way – decides that this long process of failing to finish the poem is part of what the sun itself and the poem are about: “We have brought time into our scheme.”, he says [“Nous avons mis le temps dans notre complot.”] This model offers us an alternate way to think about the rhythms of our lives, when delaying, undoing and redoing, or even procrastinating -- all that wasted, lost time, is actually not lost, because it allows other things to take shape, that might, otherwise, not have. Let’s call this the Penelope principle. As she weaves and unweaves, not only does she keep the suitors at bay and prepare for Ulysses’ return, but she may also weave a different, more daring or significant, cloth. We can take this as a metaphor for the underlying workings of unproductive activity. The heroics of inefficiency.
So, where is all this going? you might begin to wonder. Certainly far from Algeria. Well, was’nt this what my title promised? Far from Algeria? Has my inefficient meandering not led us where we were supposed to go?
A few years ago, I met a French filmmaker, Elisabeth Leuvret, whose family had settled in Algeria in the 19th century, when France had colonized the country, but had left when it became independent, in 1962; Elisabeth was only a young child then, but her family’s history has so haunted her that the two films she has made so far are about Algeria. When I met her, she was finishing a documentary called La Traversée, [The Crossing], in which she interviewed the passengers on one of the ships that cross regularly between Marseilles and Algiers; some passengers are migrant workers, others are second-generation French citizens who still have ties in Algeria. I was fascinated with Elisabeth’s project and eager to watch the film; I wrote her that I couldn’t wait to see the moment when the ship arrives in view of Algiers. Algiers is a beautiful, white city, built on the slopes of hills that dominate the harbor and I longed to see it again on film, from the same vantage point as the one we had when, with my family, we went swimming in the Mediterranean sea from the docks enclosing the harbor. Elisabeth didn’t respond. As it turns out, Algiers, the white arcades, the Casbah, the green hills, never appear in her movie: she elides the arrival of the ship, in order to focus solely on the movement back and forth between the two cities.
So, this is what Algeria is for me: a mesh of blurred memories. Since 1968, when my family definitively left the country, I’ve had glimpses of Algiers in films, such as Pépé le Moko and Viva Laldjérie. Each time I watch these films, I want to stop them, freeze the frame. But filmic images, like memories, are ghosts -- in one of the readings for my seminar on Spectacle in French Cinema, this semester, we encountered Maxime Gorki's definition of cinema as the “kingdom of shadows;” film images, like memories, escape our attention at the very moment they provoke it. As soon as I focus on Algeria, it slips into the shadows.
Why, then, have I not, like Elisabeth, made Algeria the object of my work, as a teacher and scholar? Too painful a loss, perhaps? Or unacknowledged remnants of colonial arrogance? Contrary to most French people, though, who left the country in haste and fear in 1962, my parents, who were both born there, stayed on. I have warm memories of independent Algeria, when it was safe to travel again and you could drive down all the way to the Sahara. You could feel the Algerians’ elation at their newly-won independence and everything seemed possible in this new, Socialist, country. Contrary to many people around me, I had also understood, before I left home to study in Paris, that Algeria had to become independent. This understanding did not spring from some serious, political, analysis of mine, I have to admit, but because I had met some young leftist teachers from Paris, who talked, in the Hegelian language of the day, of the Sens de l’Histoire: it was the necessary progression of History that colonized countries had to fight for and gain their independence.
I no longer believe that History moves in one forseeable direction, like a river. But Algeria’s movement towards independence was, indeed, irreversible. And, thanks to those Parisian teachers, I still vote for Socialist candidates in France -- even when they’re mediocre. Isn’t this how we form many of our life-long beliefs and commitments, anyway? We meet someone, or read a book, whose words take hold of our imagination, and give shape to our picture of the way things are or ought to be – and to our sense of ourselves. Proust, certainly, did this for me; among other things, he taught me that we only know things retrospectively -- which is how I realized, over the years, that I often understood feelings or situations in relation to his descriptions. And Regis Benichi, the Jewish history professor from Paris who introduced me to Hegel’s conception of history, certainly played a part in my thinking of myself as an intellectual, pursuing my studies in Paris, and, eventually, in my marrying a Jewish filmmaker and becoming an academic -- even though I had grown up in a society where anti-semitism and anti-intellectualism were rampant.
But the question remains: why have I stayed away from Algeria, both physically and mentally? If actually returning there as a tourist does not appeal to me, why not make it a place of study? I have often wondered about my reluctance to do so, particularly since Algeria, and more broadly North Africa, have become an important part of Francophone studies in American academia. It is, I believe, a question of the right distance. We each decide, more or less intuitively, what is the right distance between us and what we choose to study, be it the galaxies or our own social group. And whatever the distance, our object of study has to stir our imagination, at once challenging us and luring us in.
Algeria, for me, is not at the right distance. It is at the same time too remote and too close. Too remote because I never learned Arabic and did not learn much about Arab and Berber cultures growing up. When I considered studying a major Algerian writer, Kateb Yacine, after I finished my dissertation, I found I had no point of entry into his work; it was entirely opaque to me, without those flickers of meaning that I can usually hold on to in the most enigmatic French poetry. Even when I read complex but more approachable authors, such as the novelist Assia Djebar, I felt my understanding was thwarted by all that had been so close, yet closed off, and I did not know. And I was too implicated to be comfortable with my limited insights. In response to our desire, different fields of study grant us -- or not -- the authority to speak about them. So, this is probably what keeps me from wanting to write about Algeria, the knot of proximity and estrangement that defines colonialism. Living among the European community in Algiers, I was tied up in this knot; in a way, I still am.
In 1961, I was eager, then, to extricate myself from the knot and go study in Paris. Paris was still a dark, grimy city at the time and it often felt lonely. But the freedom and anonymity of the streets was exhilarating. Even though my family had lived in a safe neighborhood in Algiers, life there had been quite constricted at times. When bombs could explode anywhere --- in cafés, as you see in the film The Battle of Algiers, on buses, in cinemas, on beaches ---, you stopped going to any of those places. I’m always amazed by the resilience of people in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, who keep up with their daily lives as best they can, in the midst of unpredictable violence and danger. But more than freedom of movement, what Paris offered was freedom of thought. Wars don’t only confine your body, they narrow your mind. In Algiers, everyone around me, including my parents, believed in “Algérie française” – that Algeria was part of France. And many, who had nowhere else to go, believed in it desperately. After I met those teachers from Paris and began for the first time to question that assumption, I experienced how difficult it was to dissent.
For example, towards the end of my final year, in April 1961, several generals who were opposed to Algeria's independence, seized power in Algiers and attempted to overthrow de Gaulle's government in Paris. When I arrived on the terrace in front of our class, the morning when the putsch was announced on the radio, I saw the only two Algerians in the class standing by themselves to the side; I went over to speak to them. After that, none of the other classmates would talk to me. The silence that suddenly fell between us gave me a small inkling of the overwhelming force of political passion.
That silence may have helped me make the jump far from Algeria. And, once you’ve crossed one sea, you’re ready to cross any ocean -- and that’s how I ended up in this country, on the West Coast, first, and then here. My beginnings at Vassar were not so auspicious, however. When I started looking for a teaching position, my husband and I had recently moved from San Francisco and we were staying with his parents in Rockland County, about an hour south of here. Totally ignorant of the American academic job market, I sent my resumé to two near-by colleges: Vassar, which my mother-in-law had recommended, and Rockland Community College next door. The Vassar French department happened to have a one-year replacement slot and invited me up for an interview. I came in a mini-skirt -- and found most of the senior members of the department rather stodgy. But Rockland Community College had no opening, so I had to accept Vassar's offer. This was in 1971.
Conclusion As in Elisabeth Leuvret’s film, then, Algiers will probably remain far for me, out of reach. But being somewhat out of reach is a trait that seems to link my successive passions: Greek literature, poetry, and film. Each of them, in a different way, eluded or eludes my grasp, like memories. Studying ancient Greek, I now realize, was a precursor to reading poetry: I always felt that the texts were, at some level, impenetrable, that I would never fully comprehend them. I have the same sense about the contemporary poets I write about. As for film, because it doesn’t keep still, it constantly leaves me behind. My students, who are much better trained in visual culture than I am, can read images more quickly, perceiving, in one glance, the components of an amazing cut in Robert Bresson's L'Argent, for example. I’ve never stopped learning from students in my film classes -- from some of you out there. Films attract me and demand my attention in the same way that poems do, because I can never fully apprehend them – they don't close me off, as Kateb Yacine’s novels once did – they entice me on, and then spool off with their artistry and their meanings before I can fully seize them. Like Penelope’s weaving, films and poems require looking back, going over, following the movement, halting it, moving on again.
In closing, let me bring up an odd verbal tense, whose underlying meanings have been part of my research for quite a while, the future perfect. It is deeply satisfying to me to realize today that, because of President Hill’s invitation and your kind attention, for the duration of this talk, I will—not—have--been so far from Algeria, after all. Thank you.