Academic journal article Style

The Light Continent: On Melancholia and Masculinity in Maupassant's "Lui?" and "Une Famille"

Academic journal article Style

The Light Continent: On Melancholia and Masculinity in Maupassant's "Lui?" and "Une Famille"

Article excerpt

In an essay titled "Femininity," Sigmund Freud is noted for having observed that "[t]hroughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity" (22:113). Yet Freud was certainly not the first to have raised the question. In a chronicle titled "Une femme" published in 1882, Guy de Maupassant had cited a similar inability to explain la femme: "Nous ne la comprenons pas, nous ne la pressentons pas; nous ne l'expliquons jamais" 'We do not understand her, we cannot fathom her; we never explain her' (Chroniques 2: 113). While Maupassant's remark has remained relatively obscure, Freud's observations on the feminine, although Freud never delivered "Femininity" as a lecture, have assumed a prominent position in a number of critical discourses. (1) After Freud, the masculine would become the norm while the feminine would be relegated to the "Dark Continent" of psychoanalysis, a gesture that in itself would spawn voluminous commentary from feminists such as Helene Cixous and Cather ine Clement, who contend:

The 'Dark Continent' is neither dark nor unexplorable: It is still unexplored only because we have been made to believe that it was too dark to be explored. Because they want to make us believe that what interests us is the white continent, with its monuments to Lack.


Although recent scholarship (Bayard; Krumm) has confirmed connections between Maupassant's narrative and Freud's theories of the unconscious, a great number of Maupassant's works suggest that the "dark-continent" scenario does not explain gender's implications for narrative. In his short stories, Maupassant often thematizes conventional notions of the male's primacy in patriarchal society and narrative as well as the female's subjugation to patriarchal order; yet the author constantly and repeatedly confronts these "givens" of gender paradigms with the logical impasses inscribed in their mythic origins. This is especially apparent in the two tales I will discuss here: "Lui?" (1883) and "Une famille" (1886). In each of these tales, indices of masculine primacy emerge in parallel with symptoms of the melancholia of the male narrators. This melancholia, a depressant that sustains narration, replays one of the central myths of patriarchal culture, that of the drunken, naked Noah covered by his sons. (2) The epist emic development of this mythic moment is intriguing insofar as the obscured patriarch, by virtue of being cloaked, is opposed to the "dark continent." The semiotic "luminosity" of the patriarchal phallus is thus entangled with an undisclosable melancholia. Although the evidence of this melancholia, the patriarch's drunkenness, is enshrouded through the restaging and effectively obfuscated, it is nonetheless always present in symbolic configurations of phallocentric meaning. Moreover, it is in this staging of melancholia, the depressant coursing through the primal patriarch's veins, as semiotic primacy that the masculine acquires meaning.

Enigmatic Theories/Theorizing Enigmas

Maupassant' s exploration of the enigmas of gender is particularly interesting in that it problematizes a priori a number of critical and theoretical stances that took root in Maupassant's time and emerged in the convictions of twentieth-century Western culture. Indeed, the bulk of Maupassant's aeuvre can be read as a massive prolepsis of modern epistemic tendencies. It is therefore perhaps useful briefly to review the cognitive framework at play here before proceeding to those two tales.

That gender difference conditions the semiotization of the human body and influences the semiotics of discourse is, of course, in no way a new concept; yet the particular modalities of how this semiotization might connote empowerment of one gender over the other seems to reach a decisive moment in the writings of Jacques Lacan. Lacan, in what has come to be one of the most well-known formulations of post-Freudian psychoanalysis, places the phallus at the center of the symbolic order:

For the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function, in the intra-subjective economy of the analysis, lifts the veil perhaps from the function it performed in the mysteries. …

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