Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Undoing Odysseus's Pact: Marginal Faces and Voices in the Narratives of Assia Djebar and Agnes Varda

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Undoing Odysseus's Pact: Marginal Faces and Voices in the Narratives of Assia Djebar and Agnes Varda

Article excerpt

While reading Ces Voix qui m'assiegent ... en marge de ma francophonie, Assia Djebar's collection of writings on language, I could not help but recall Agnes Varda's autobiographical film Les Plages d'Agnes, in which she narrates her own life story by returning to specific scenes from her films. Each memory becomes a shore at which the filmmaker stops to reconstruct a significant moment of her life. Just like Varda, in Ces Voix qui m'assiegent, Djebar revisits key scenes from her books, including the prologues and epilogues, to reflect on the symbolic significance of her novels and her own position visa-vis French and Francophone literature. Both authors use Homer's Odyssey as an allegory to construct a metanarrative about their career and personal experience. The Odyssey is, of course, a common literary trope, but Varda and Djebar bring another dimension to this classical narrative, almost turning it upside down. As they revisit the patriarchal repertoire of images, stories, and documents, they challenge the masculine control over women's representation and authorship that is explicit in Homer's text.

In this article, I attempt to construct a dialogue between the novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar and the writer and director Agnes Varda. Most often, academic studies consider Djebar's work through a postcolonial lens, focusing primarily on Algerian colonial history. As a result, the reading of French patriarchy in her work is frequently confined to the framework of French imperialism, where it is seen as an oppressive structure, but also as a liberating outlet: Djebar's French education opened the door for her writing career and allowed her to escape from the tradition of seclusion and veiling. (1) By opening up a dialogue between Varda and Djebar, I seek to complicate this binary by looking into French patriarchal structures operating within the domain of artistic expression. I ask how these two artists, who were paradoxically situated simultaneously at the margins and the center of their fields, addressed this challenge while treating themes inside and outside the Hexagone. In performing this reading, I do not wish to consolidate a universal "patriarchal project" or gloss over the different contexts of both authors under a banner of French universal feminism. As Clarisse Zimra has suggested, a feminist reading

need not imply that one comes to a definitive and essential textual truth, but, rather, to a specifically grounded and firmly circumscribed one. "French Feminism" (the handle has conveniently covered a variety of diverging positions) was always more strategy than methodology. ("Disorienting the Subject" 151)

By examining this moment of convergence between patriarchies, I seek to highlight the elusive way in which power structures operate by constantly organizing and reorganizing their discourse, sometimes aligning with forces that seem to be contradictory to their own. This will in turn elucidate the complex and precarious position of Djebar's work as it navigates the sometimes competing and sometimes converging French and Algerian patriarchal structures.

At the center of these converging patriarchal systems figures a gendered dynamic that operates by disconnecting female voice and image--a visual representation, or an abstraction of women's body--in the way that Djebar describes in her critique of Delacroix's painting Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, "Regard interdit, son coupe" (262) (forbidden gaze/severed sound). Djebar concludes her Femmes d'Alger by casting light on broader patriarchal mechanisms at work outside the Orientalist, or colonial, purview of the harem: "II n'y a plus de serail. Mais la 'structure de serail' tente d'imposer, dans les nouveaux terrains vagues, ses lois de l'invisibilite, loi du silence" (262). (There are no longer seraglios, but "the structure of the seraglio" tries to impose its laws of invisibility and silence over the distant new lands. …

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