Academic journal article French Forum

Existential Angst and Role-Playing Revisited in Paule Constant's Fiction

Academic journal article French Forum

Existential Angst and Role-Playing Revisited in Paule Constant's Fiction

Article excerpt

Paule Constant's first novel, Ouregano (1980), is set in the early 1950s, at the height of existentialism's colonization of French consciousness and just a few years before the demise of the French colonial empire. In the fictional African outpost of its title, the novel brings together a cast of white characters that includes the Administrator, the Judge, the Doctor, the Teacher, and their Wives. What unifies the members of this rancorous group is that they all struggle, and fail, to find the decor, the props, and the audience necessary for the successful performance of the roles they have adopted in life. Whether unable or unwilling to find a better alternative, they all tenaciously adhere to these roles, and they persist in doing so despite the pain and destruction this adherence sows in their lives as well as in the lives of those who are dependent upon them.

Constant's entire fictional universe (eight novels so far) is in fact heavily populated by role-players. In Balta (1983), which is set in a newly post-colonial Africa and which brings back several of Ouregano's characters, a number of European and African characters perform the role of Academic, with all the petty ambitions, rivalries, intellectual insecurities, and 1500-page doctoral theses that go along with it. (1) In La fille du Gobernator (1994), the Governor of the colonial prison in Cayenne and his Wife (dubbed "la mere de Dieu" for her relentless piety) take method acting to its extreme by playing out their chosen roles of military and religious martyrs to the bitter end (they both effectively commit suicide). (2) Following their theatrical lead, their daughter Chretienne also attempts to perform a role, albeit a less hazardous one (that of Bernadette Soubirous in consultation with the Virgin), but while her classmates are entranced by her performance, their parents find it less than convincing (119-21). (3) In Confidence pour confidence (1998), the four female protagonists who come together for a feminist colloquium in Kansas (one of whom is an actor by profession) all play roles of one kind or another--Femme fatale, Abandoned Wife, Woman-Who-Does-It-All, etc. In a perfect play of mirrors, a game of which Constant is particularly fond, (4) one of the women even goes so far as to usurp the role, indeed the very identity, of one of the other three. (5)

Ouregano and Balta in particular are replete with allusions, some subtle, some more explicit, to Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist notions concerning role-playing and authenticity. Sartrean Existentialism posits, we will recall, that while the human being exists, he is not; that is, he lives but has no pre-determined essence or purpose. (6) Although this lack of essence means that the human being is perfectly free, he is also, Sartre argues, responsible. He is responsible for creating or for "choosing" himself, not once and for all, but at each and every moment of his life. Of course, this never-ending obligation to create and recreate oneself is exhausting. An easier alternative, one for which most individuals opt according to Sartre, is to assume, on a permanent basis, a ready-made role. Most people select roles that society sanctions, such as those chosen by the majority of the members of Ouregano's white society--Judge, Doctor, Wife, etc. A smaller number choose roles that society condemns, like Swindler or Murderer (Alexandrou and Beretti in Ouregano), but it is precisely in censoring these roles that society implicitly recognizes and so legitimizes them. These are the roles that society loves to hate but upon which the roles of power and prestige (e.g. Judge and Administrator) depend. For Sartre, individuals who choose to play roles (of any kind) and who then begin to believe that these roles are innate and necessary rather than adoptive and contingent live in what he calls "bad faith." That is, they try to persuade both themselves and others that they are not playing a role at all. (7)

Using such Sartrean concepts as a framework, in what follows I will examine the different varieties of "bad faith" in which several of Constant's characters dwell and will point out some of the more egregious (and often comical) instances of role-playing in which these characters participate. …

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