Academic journal article European Comic Art

Joann Sfar Conjures Marc Chagall: The Politics of Visual Representation in the Rabbi's Cat

Academic journal article European Comic Art

Joann Sfar Conjures Marc Chagall: The Politics of Visual Representation in the Rabbi's Cat

Article excerpt


The five episodes of Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat (2002-2006), recently published in English translation in two volumes (2007-2008), and particularly the latest instalment of the series, Africa's Jerusalem, are rich in meta-narrative and meta-iconic elements. By staging various theological arguments about aniconism in Abrahamic religions, Sfar uses the comics medium to reflect on the prohibition of graphic representation in Judaism and Islam (following the Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons controversy and the trial of the French satirical magazine Charlie-Hebdo). He also distances his work from the usual Western stance on realistic mimesis and its pseudo-scientific epistemology by criticising the European constructs of race and exoticism. Between the anti-iconic prohibition of the East and the false iconicity of the West, Sfar finds a middle ground in the anonymous character of a Russian painter travelling through Africa in the 1930s, whose physical appearance and biographical background recall that of famous Franco-Russian Jewish painter, Marc Chagall. This article will explore how the painter's cultural hybridity and artistic idiosyncrasy allow Sfar to negotiate a perspective on graphic representation which resolves the problem of simulacrum as it is framed in this binary opposition. It will also discuss the manners in which Sfar borrows from Chagall's aesthetics and magic realism in the process, thus creating a new kind of image in the realm of comics.

'La ré, la ré, la réalité' (Louis Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris)

In her essay entitled Le Récit fantastique, Irène Bessière borrows from Jean- Paul Sartre's phenomenology the conceptual distinction between 'thetical' ('thétique') and 'non-thetical' ('non-thétique') discourses in an attempt to define the cognitive ambivalence that constitutes the central device of fantastique fiction.1 In this dichotomy, a 'thetical' discourse is one that affirms and guarantees the reality of its representation ('qui pose la réalité de ce qu'il représente'): such is the case, for instance, of realistic and naturalistic fiction as it developed in nineteenth-century France. By contrast, a non-thetical discourse does not contractually assert its reality or verisimilitude, and makes its unreality clear to the reader from the onset - such is the case of fairy tales and fantasy narratives, which fall under the general category of the merveilleux. Thetical narratives tend to derive their authority from their adherence or conformity to an epistemology positing Truth, be it theological, scientific or historical.

Joann Sfar's provocative epigraph to Le Paradis terrestre ['Heaven on Earth'], the fourth volume of The Rabbi's Cat, appears therefore problematic in regards to this binary opposition.2 When stating that 'the anecdotes mentioned in this book are strictly accurate and never exaggerated, 'cause my granny told them to me', Sfar indeed establishes a relationship of causality (''cause') between a thetical form of storytelling - warranting its representational fidelity to the ontological reality herein depicted - and clearly non-thetical enunciative sources: memory, autobiography, oral history and intergenerational transmission of knowledge, all discourses that often tend to be dismissed as inaccurate, unreliable and subjective. Although autobiography, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau's individualistic assertion of self-knowledge, has often pledged what Philippe Lejeune has labelled a 'pact of sincerity',3 it remains a rhetorical construct fraught with self-invention and just as prone to falsity as most fictions.

Sfar's liminary statement, which paradoxically grounds historical objectivity in subjective remembrance, is certainly to be understood as a tongue-in-cheek proposition, but also as a counter-historical affirmation, in that it shares a similarity with a prevalent post-colonial practice in the contemporary Francophone world, which Françoise Lionnet has labelled 'anamnesis' - the subjective, often intergenerational and polyphonic recalling of the past by social, political and cultural minorities whose experiences and voices have traditionally been excluded from the dominant historical representation. …

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