Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Family Comes First: I-Identity and We-Identity in Pierre Bergounioux

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Family Comes First: I-Identity and We-Identity in Pierre Bergounioux

Article excerpt

The article examines three of Pierre Bergounioux's most closely related works--La Maison rose, L'Orphelin, and La Toussaint--and argues that their interconnected narratives testify to an Eliasian conception of the relationship between identity, kinship, and community. Thus, with each resumption of the narrator's family history and with each reangling of focus comes a new perspective on the ways in which historical and geographical contingencies and social and kinship bonds shape and constrain the individual, and new insights into the tension between involvement and detachment, between, on the one hand, emotional and instinctive implication and, on the other, critical distance and rationality.


Like the work of two of his literary heroes--William Faulkner and Claude Simon (1)--Pierre Bergounioux's autofictional texts return repeatedly to the same characters, locations, and situations. Among the various explanations which might be mooted for the ways in which his texts intersect with each other, it might be suggested that Bergounioux's work is underpinned by a coherent, inclusive project which takes the form of a quest for understanding of the relationship between self and community and, in particular, family group. I would also argue that this project is, in part at least, informed by his reading of the work of Norbert Elias. (2) Bergounioux's familiarity with Elias's figurational theory is confirmed by a number of explicit references in both his autofictional and non-fictional works. (3) Although most of these references consist of passing, comparative, or circumstantial remarks, they offer evidence, nevertheless, of broad familiarity with the sociologist's work. (4) However, it is perhaps in Bergounioux's accounts of his characters' interaction with others and in the evocation of the impact upon their lives and opportunities of social and familial context and historical and geographical environment that one finds the most telling evidence of the influence of Elias on his thinking. This article will analyse three of Bergounioux's most personal and most closely related texts (La Maison rose, L'Orphelin, and La Toussaint) (5) and will argue that his reiterative autofictional approach is wholly consistent with and, perhaps at least to some extent, explained by his Eliasian perspective on socialization and individuation and on involvement and detachment. With each return to his family history and with each adjustment of the perspective on his relationships with his parents, grandparents, and extended family and on their relationships with each other comes a new insight into the ever-shifting balance between what Elias calls 'we-identity' and 'I-identity'. Each reprise of the same or related personal data also brings into sharp focus the question of the narrator's involvement with and detachment from his milieu and of his capacity both to draw upon and to distance himself from the legacy--familial, social, cultural--that comes with being born in a given place, at a given time.

'We-identity' and 'I-identity'

For Bergounioux, as for Elias, the individual comes into being in and through his/her interaction with others. The individual is not and never becomes a sovereign, independent entity, but an element in a much larger network of interrelationships that govern the opportunities and choices available to him/ her; (6) individuality is 'society-specific' and personal choice takes place within parameters that have, to a large extent, been predetermined by historical, geographical, social, and familial circumstance:

By his birth [the individual] is inserted into a functional complex with a quite definite structure; he must conform to it, shape himself in accordance with it and perhaps develop further on its basis. Even his freedom to choose among the pre-existing functions is fairly limited. (SI, p. 14)

Indeed, even those elements which seem to be most idiosyncratic, most personal, and most essential are, at least to some extent, the product of this dynamic network of relationships with others:

Ideas, convictions, affects, needs and character traits are produced in the individual through intercourse with others, things which make up his most personal 'self' and in which is expressed, for this very reason, the network of relations from which he has emerged and into which he passes. …

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