By Arman Teymouri Niknam, PhD candidate, Department of English, Aarhus University, engatn@cc.au.dk

Whom can one trust in a world full of evil? In relations between humans, trust and distrust are phenomena that are as unmeasurable[1] as they are abundantly existent. They have the power to fashion the way in which we relate to others, and vice versa. As this article argues, Mary Wollstonecraft portrays how trust can be a blessing as well as a curse. In her unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria, Wollstonecraft shows us why trusting is a risky endeavour: we might be disappointed or our trust may be misused and exploited by others so that we fulfil their needs instead of our own. The novel was published in 1798, one year after Wollstonecraft’s premature death, with her former husband William Godwin as editor. It portrays women in 1790s England who try to find their own voice in a society and a familial setting beset with gender inequalities.[2] As is evident from the case of the main character Maria, this quest for empowerment is not risk-free for the women characters. Wollstonecraft’s female characters want to decide for themselves whom to love and how to live. Maria [The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria] deals with the fragility involved in this search for female empowerment. In this article, I argue that the novel, not least the main character Maria, represents an early example of the “transformation in intimacy”, which Anthony Giddens describes as a part of modernity in The Consequences of Modernity. Maria’s efforts to create genuine relationships can be linked to Giddens’ description of how relationships in modernity demand an “opening out of the individual to the other”.[3] Moreover, for Giddens, personal trust in the modern age is inextricably linked to the possibility of a rupture of personal ties. Because of the fragile nature of trust in modernity, Giddens claims that trust is something which must continually be worked upon, as is also the case in Wollstonecraft’s Maria.

Wollstonecraft was in many ways an extraordinary woman. She was part of a group of radical women writers who lived unorthodox lives in England in the 1790s. In an age where many women writers wrote inoffensive love stories, these writers wrote political books and fiction with normative aspirations. This means that their writings were active attempts to affect both the norms and the society of their age. Wollstonecraft tried to commit suicide twice and had premarital romantic relationships with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay, which in turn led to the birth of an illegitimate child, Fanny Imlay. Wollstonecraft went to revolutionary France during a time in which the French revolution was despised by many of her countrymen and women. She died prematurely in 1797 following the delivery of her daughter Mary, who would later marry Percy Bysshe Shelley and become known as the writer Mary Shelley. Shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft’s death, her husband William Godwin published his memoirs about her life. Godwin’s revelations about her life created an outcry in the greater public, not least because of the details about her sexual history. As a result of Godwin’s memoirs, Wollstonecraft’s reputation suffered a tremendous blow, which lasted about a hundred years.[4]

Giddens’ sense of trust

Anthony Giddens highlights the notion of trust in his sociological work on the consequences of modernity. He emphasises changes concerning trust that have gained ground, particularly in the Western world, during the last four centuries. Giddens’ ideas on trust may strengthen our grasp of how the novel Maria thematises trust and distrust. Reading Giddens alongside Maria suggests that it is possible to place Wollstonecraft’s work on the cusp of modernity. Moreover, such a reading enables us to better perceive how Maria presents a valuable perspective on matters of trust and distrust, not least as seen from a feminine or disenfranchised perspective.

In The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens defines trust as a confidence in the reliability of a person or system, regarding a given set of outcomes or events.[5] For Giddens, confidence expresses a faith in the probity or love of another, or it expresses the correctness of abstract principles. Concerning personal relations, this means that if a person trusts another person, he/she believes that the other will handle situations in a certain, desirable way, and this belief comes from a sense of the other’s uprightness or a sense that the other loves one back.

For Giddens, we can never fully master trust, notwithstanding any efforts we may make to control it. As he writes, “All trust is in a certain sense blind trust”.[6] Despite this contingency, trust and risk intertwine in his account since Giddens sees the formation of trust as something which normally serves to reduce the dangers we face.[7] Giddens writes that risk is usually calculated consciously, and he notes that there is a balance between the calculation of risk and trust.[8] This does not mean that each instance of trust necessarily constitutes a conscious kind of commitment for Giddens.[9] However, the change from kinship-based traditional cultures to modernity[10] results in our actions and social practices being under a constant sense of review. Giddens calls this the “reflexivity of modernity”.[11] Giddens claims that modernity involves a general shift in relations between persons: In pre-modern times, friendship was characteristically based upon values of sincerity and honesty. Emotional intimacy was not a condition for maintaining personal trust. In modern societies, honour is replaced by loyalty, and loyalty is mainly based on personal affection. Sincerity is replaced by authenticity, which involves being open and well-meaning, but not necessarily always telling the truth.[12] All this means that personal trust has become fragile in modernity; it has become a project, something which must be continually “worked at“, and it requires what Giddens describes as an “opening out of the individual to the other”, or “a mutual process of self-disclosure”.[13]

The opposite of trust is not mistrust for Giddens, but a form of anxiety, because a lack of trust entails a lack of familiarity with one’s surroundings.[14] In Giddens’ terminology, this lack constitutes a lack of “ontological security”.[15] Ontological security refers to “the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action”.[16] It concerns a sense of the “reliability of persons and things”, which he sees as central to the notion of trust. Using philosophical terms, Giddens explains how ontological security is about a “being” or “being-in-the-world”; it is an emotional phenomenon (rather than cognitive) and has to do with the unconscious.[17] In the adult personality, Giddens claims, trust in others “is a psychological need of a persistent and recurrent kind”, closely bound up with ontological security and a feeling of the continuity of things and persons.[18] As shown later, it is, surprisingly, Maria’s lack of ontological security that leads to an excessive amount of trust.

Distrust, risk, and freedom in Maria

Maria begins in medias res in a private mental asylum where Maria is struggling. She has been stunned by the acts of her husband, George Venables. He has placed her in the mental asylum against her will and taken their little child away from her. We later learn that George has done so because Maria no longer wants to live with him. In this dark moment, Maria feels a sense of desperation as she grieves at the thought of losing her daughter. Yet, she becomes determined to make an effort so that she may better her situation. This is obvious in the following passage where free indirect discourse is used:

She had hitherto meditated only to point the dart of anguish, and suppressed the heart heavings of indignant nature merely by the force of contempt. Now she endeavoured to brace her mind to fortitude, and to ask herself what was to be her employment in her dreary cell? Was it not to effect her escape, to fly to the succour of her child, and to baffle the selfish schemes of her tyrant – her husband? […] By force, or openly, what could be done? But surely some expedient might occur to an active mind, without any other employment, and possessed of sufficient resolution to put the risk of life into the balance with the chance of freedom.[19]

Upon her arrival at the asylum, Maria is able to experience only feelings of anguish and contempt. Yet, she subsequently becomes resolved to escape and rescue her child. As the narrator indicates, she is willing to risk something in order to gain the chance of freedom. George has put her in an asylum even though she does not seem to suffer from any kind of mental illness.[20] She has thus truly paid a high price for defying her confused and vicious husband. Maria tells the story about a woman who dares to act on her feelings of distrust towards her husband. Ultimately, George seems to be interested in her only because she gives him access to her uncle’s money. Distrust, risk, and freedom intertwine in this novel in the sense that distrust has the potential to lead women to risk their ordered lives for the hope of gaining an ideal state of freedom in their lives. The boldness involved in risking distrust, i.e., the audacity of acting on one’s sense of distrust, is evident towards the end of the novel. Maria here speaks in front of the jury that has prosecuted her lover from the mental asylum, Henry Darnford, for adultery and seduction:

Neglected by my husband, I never encouraged a lover; and preserved with scrupulous care, what is termed my honour, at the expense of my peace, till he, who should have been its guardian, laid traps to ensnare me. From that moment I believed myself, the sight of heaven, free – and no power on earth shall force me to renounce my resolution.[21]

Maria was, in her own words, not looking for another man until it became clear to her that her negligent husband was deceiving purely to take advantage of her. From the moment she truly became aware of her husband’s intentions (to exploit her goodwill for financial reasons), she relinquished her sense of obligation and felt a strong sense of freedom. Maria’s process of gaining control over her own destiny was in reality more gradual than her explanation to the jury implies. It took many years of struggle for her to realise that she needed to leave her husband. When her husband puts her in the mental asylum, she only manages to escape from there because of the help she receives from the warder Jemima. As the novel is unfinished, we do not know how Maria’s story ends. Wollstonecraft sketched several possible endings for the novel, many of which see Maria’s life end in despair and trouble. Nevertheless, an earlier incident in the novel, which will be discussed shortly, wherein she expresses her desire to leave her husband, still represents a watershed moment, full of hope of gaining self-determination and freedom.

Contributing to God’s creation via the use of reason

A large part of Maria consists of Maria’s memoirs to her little daughter. In the memoirs, Maria tells her daughter how she slowly realized the defects of her husband after they had married and moved to London. She first made what she describes as a “fatal error”. This fatal error was to believe in the widespread idea that goodness of disposition is the most important thing in the situations of life.[22] Such a statement seems enigmatic. In order to understand it, I believe we must keep Mary Wollstonecraft’s wider philosophical thought in mind. For Wollstonecraft, there is a difference between the spontaneous and casual feelings of virtue on the one hand, and the proper sense of virtue on the other hand. A proper sense of virtue is grounded both in reason and in feeling.[23] According to these elements in Wollstonecraft’s thought, it is not satisfactory that human nature contains innate goodness; we need to work on becoming better human beings through our use of reason. As also noted by the contemporary scholar Martina Reuter,[24] Wollstonecraft had an optimistic belief in the human ability to contribute to God’s creation via the use of reason. This is connected to Wollstonecraft’s attitude towards trust since her writings often dismiss types of friendship and love that do not promote a cultivation of mind and virtue. Wollstonecraft largely maintains that healthy human relations can prosper only if the connections are grounded on a reason-based virtuous conduct, instead of being grounded on an unreasoned, naïve kind of trust. We find an example of this in her autobiographical travel book Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Upon her return to a town in Norway, she feels ignored by the inhabitants and notes that it requires more “cultivation of mind to keep awake affection” than most people suppose. She thereafter criticises the commonplace praise of “undisguised confidence” in matters of love.[25]

Maria continues her description of her former life with George with the following statement: “One trait in my character was extreme credulity; but when my eyes were once opened, I saw but too clearly all I had before overlooked”.[26] Here, Maria clearly points to a reflective engagement with trust in which one opens one’s eyes and lets go of being credulous. Because of her efforts to let go of credulity, she was able to judge her husband’s conduct differently. He gradually appeared in a much less positive light than before. The loss of credulity hence enabled her to ‘open her eyes’ to the realities of her husband’s being. Maria realised that her husband had treated her unfairly, and she was then able to imagine a life without him. Maria slowly grew to express a firmness of purpose in her relationship with George. In her memoirs, she describes how she was not able to confront George properly for the first many years of their marriage, or to confront what she calls his “distasteful fondness”.[27] What limited her at this stage of their marriage was her sense of “compassion” for him together with what she describes as a “fear of insulting his supposed feelings”.[28] This restraint of her critical feelings later changes into a full-blown determination to change the status quo. This is exemplified in a conversation related in Maria’s memoirs in which Maria scolds her husband for wanting to sell her body to one of his friends as if she were a prostitute. While her husband’s friend is there, she tells the friend that he stands as a witness of her wish to quit the house and then makes the following remark: “I will provide for myself and child. I leave him [George] as free as I am determined to be myself – he shall be answerable for no debts of mine”.[29] Accordingly, distrust in Wollstonecraft’s novel paves the way for efforts to reach emancipation – however difficult it is to carry out these efforts.

The goodness of trusting others

Even though the novel deals with distrust, Maria in fact also shows the goodness of trusting others without an excessive focus on the risks of doing so. If we focus too much on the dangers of engaging with others, we risk denying ourselves the possibility of experiencing relationships composed of love. In her memoirs, Maria warns her daughter of adopting “the frigid caution of cold-blooded moralists”.[30] Maria thus emphasises the importance of including trust and love towards a person one loves without being overly cautious.

Maria depicts trust as both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, one should avoid trusting others, or at least be careful and reflective when doing so, since it creates vulnerability, even potentially endangering one’s life. On the other hand, trust forms the basis of friendship and love, which is why trusting others without an excessive focus on the risks of doing so can lead to both love and affection for humankind. This ambivalence is also visible towards the end of the novel when Maria spends time with her lover Darnford, whom she receives “as her husband”:

There was one peculiarity in Maria’s mind: she was more anxious not to deceive, than to guard against deception; and had rather trust without sufficient reason than be for ever the prey of doubt. […] Maria now, imagining that she had found a being of celestial mould – was happy, – nor was she deceived.[31]

Here, Maria is in love and highly values trust, even a kind of trust not yet supported by reason; at this point in the novel she would rather be trustful than be left in doubt. Yet, just two pages later the general dangers of credulity are brought up again when Maria “inconsiderately” consents to giving George all her uncle’s money so that he may leave her and Darnford in peace. George does not keep his promise of leaving them in peace since he later sues Darnford for adultery and seduction of his wife. Consequently, Maria contains at least two different, and rather contrasting, positions on the value of trusting others. Trust is depicted as a necessary source for genuine human affection. But in Maria, to trust those who do not deserve our trust is also described and revealed to be a dangerous enterprise.

Trusting Wollstonecraft

One might ask whether readers can trust the novel’s descriptions of Maria’s memoirs, whether they can trust the narrator who generally seems to be on the side of the female cause. Maria is clearly a sympathetic character whose role is to inspire, even provoke readers of the novel. In her preface to Maria, Wollstonecraft acknowledged that her novel is a deliberate portrayal of the oppression of women.[32] Maria clearly connects to the aims of Wollstonecraft’s gender politics; Maria’s voice greatly corresponds to Wollstonecraft’s thought. It is the specific oppression faced by women, which is here the main cause for the existence of the ‘wrongs of woman’. This expression refers both to the faults of misogynist “oppressors” and the faults of weak “ordinary” women.[33] However, even though Maria seems to be cast as the heroine of the novel, she is not altogether innocent. This becomes clear when Maria puts strong efforts into gaining the approval of Jemima, the warder.

While Jemima’s name means ‘dove’, which is a common (biblical) symbol for peace and deliverance, her life story is anything but peaceful until she meets Maria in the asylum. Jemima went through a chaotic childhood as an unwanted child and ended up in prostitution when she grew up. At an early stage of their relationship, Maria thinks Jemima will be able to help her escape the asylum. They develop a tender friendship, which leads Jemima to give an account of her life-story to both Maria and Darnford. The warm feelings involved in this friendship seem to be genuine and mutual. Yet, just after Jemima has told her life-story, she becomes the main “subject of reflection” for Maria, who is eager to learn what has happened to her daughter:

Maria thought, and thought again. Jemima’s humanity had rather been benumbed than killed, by the keen frost she had to brave at her entrance into life; an appeal then to her feelings, on this tender point, surely would not be fruitless; and Maria began to anticipate the delight it would afford her to gain intelligence of her child. This project was now the only subject of reflection; and she watched impatiently for the dawn of day, with that determinate purpose which generally insures success.[34]

Maria’s thoughts reveal that even she, the heroine of the novel, borders on becoming a cunning character who thinks of how to use Jemima’s generosity and vulnerability for her own purposes. Maria is thus not as flawless and innocent a character as we might initially think. She tries to win Jemima’s affections and build up Jemima’s ability to trust her. Trust is here used as something which serves a clear purpose, however uncertain the outcome will be.

Emotional intimacy in the age of modernity

There are links between Anthony Giddens’ description of the demand to ‘open oneself up’ in modernity and the way in which personal relations are depicted in Maria. Part of the reason why Maria, Jemima, and Darnford establish a strong relationship in the mental asylum is because they try to open up their life-stories and emotional lives to each other. Furthermore, Maria’s relations to both her husband Venables and Jemima are cases in which trust is continually developing, being in a state of change, and something which is ‘worked at’, especially by Maria herself. Giddens notes that relations grounded in personal feelings, informed by sociability, have surpassed the stability of honour-based relations that was a part of pre-modern societies.[35] Maria’s refusal to be with the husband she once married, and later falling in love with the man of her dreams,[36] illustrate what Giddens calls the ‘transformation of intimacy’: It is a shift from a kinship-based relational structure to a structure based upon the individual’s own emotions and self-reflexivity.

Maria’s story clearly exemplifies the fragility of trust in modernity. Maria is caught, at times, between wanting to trust her husband and acknowledging the dangers of credulity. Giddens points to the ways in which we are never fully able to master trust. Personal relations are much more at risk of being broken in the age of modernity. This fragility of trust is present in Wollstonecraft’s novel, perhaps even in the relation between Maria and Jemima. Whereas Giddens claims that relating to trust normally serves to minimize the dangers associated with risks, Wollstonecraft’s novel portrays how engaging with distrust can cause dangers or result in unstable circumstances, yet also be part of a struggle for greater freedoms.

Risking (Dis)trust

For Giddens a sense of ontological security is closely related to trust.[37] In this passage from Maria’s memoirs in Wollstonecraft’s novel, it is precisely a lack of ontological security, which leads Maria to become too trusting of George:

The second son, George, paid me particular attention, and finding his attainments and manners superior to those of the young men of the village, I began to imagine him superior to the rest of mankind. Had my home been more comfortable, or my previous acquaintance more numerous, I should not probably have been so eager to open my heart to new affections.[38]

Maria’s memoirs here indicate that had Maria had a greater sense of ontological security as a youngster, she would probably not have had an excessive amount of trust towards new acquaintances. This means that in Maria’s account, the continuous confidence and stability in one’s environment and in others, what Giddens calls ontological security, is something that actually enables one to exercise a healthy amount of distrust. If we grow up and live in a comfortable environment, we may thus not only learn how to trust others (cf. ontological security); we may actually as well gain a healthy amount of cautiousness towards new acquaintances, making us more prone to a healthy level of distrust. Understood in this way, the ability to distrust is as necessary for the wise individual as the ability to trust.

If we become aware of the dangers of trusting others blindly, we are able to think and act differently towards our surroundings. Even though Wollstonecraft extols friendship and love, her writings in many respects demand of us, and particularly of women, to let go of a laissez-faire attitude where sentiments have control over conduct when we relate to others. Instead, we should control conduct using both reason and feelings. “Risking (Dis)trust” hence refers both to the risks involved in trusting others, as well as the risks involved in responding actively to one’s sense of distrust. In sum, Wollstonecraft believed on the one hand in the blessings of trust and love, and on the other hand she saw the ability to act on distrust as a means of empowering women. Her manifold ways of engaging with trust in Maria illustrate this ambivalence.


[1] An inspiration here has been Simon Sinek’s description of trust as unmeasurable in a TED radio podcast talk on trust and consequence (2015).

[2] Some parts of this article originate from my conference paper at the third meeting of the Trust and Risk in Literature Network. I am very grateful to Pamela Clemit for her valuable comments on the paper. Clemit was my mentor during a research stay from April to June 2017 at Queen Mary, University of London.  I would also like to thank my main PhD supervisor, Joseph William Sterrett, for his useful comments. Comments from the editors of Spheres have also greatly helped in shaping the article.

[3] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, p. 121.

[4] Barbara Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, p. 9.

[5] Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, p. 34.

[6] Ibid., p. 33.

[7] Ibid., p. 35.

[8] Ibid., p. 35.

[9] Ibid., p. 90.

[10] For Anthony Giddens, the term ’modernity’ refers to ”modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence” (The Consequences of Modernity, p. 1).

[11] Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, pp. 36-39.

[12] Ibid., pp. 118-121.

[13] Ibid., p. 121.

[14] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[15] Ibid., pp. 92-100.

[16] Ibid., p. 92.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 97.

[19] Mary Wollstonecraft, “The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria”, pp. 70-71.

[20] Gary Kelly notes that mental asylums in late 18th century England “were private businesses, and there were many cases of families, with the collusion of corrupt doctors, having relatives who were not insane confined in such places for illegitimate reasons, such as control of property or disposing of a spouse. Conditions were often horrific, inmates were commonly mistreated, and women were sexually exploited by warders and other inmates” (Gary Kelly, “Explanatory Notes”, p. 188). Even though Kelly writes about how, by the standards of the time, the madhouse where Maria is confined seems unusually safe and well-run (ibid.), Maria seems to be put there without sufficient justification. In my opinion, Maria does not appear mentally disturbed from a reader’s perspective, even though she is quite desperate at times. Maria seems especially desperate when she is in the process of trying to convince the warder Jemima to help her get out of the mental asylum. An example is a passage from Chapter Two wherein Maria is about to fall into a state of despondency, but is cheered up when Jemima suddenly delivers some books for her to read. The changes that occur in the way in which Jemima receives her thus play a role for Maria’s mood (Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, pp. 77-78).

[21] Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, p. 173.

[22] Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, p. 127.

[23] See e.g. this passage from Maria about the dangers of excessive passion without reason: “Still Maria, accustomed to generalize her observations, was led to conclude from all she heard, that it was a vulgar error to suppose that people of abilities were the most apt to lose the command of reason. On the contrary, from most of the instances she could investigate, she thought it resulted, that the passions only appeared strong and disproportioned, because the judgement was weak and unexercised; and that they gained strength by the decay of reason, as the shadows lengthen during the sun’s decline” (Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, p. 84).

[24] Martina Reuter, “’Like a Fanciful Kind of Half Being’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Criticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, pp. 927-928.

[25] Mary Wollstonecraft, “Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark”, p. 74.

[26] Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, p. 127.

[27] Ibid., p. 135.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 143.

[30] Ibid., p. 113.

[31] Ibid., p.165.

[32] “In many instances I could have made the incidents more dramatic, would I have sacrificed my main object, the desire of exhibiting the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society. In the invention of the story, this view restrained my fancy; and the history ought rather to be considered, as of woman, than of an individual” (Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, p. 67).

[33] Mary Wollstonecraft’s two-sided understanding of the expression ‘wrongs of woman’ can be sensed in the novel’s preface wherein William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s last husband, included an extract of a letter Wollstonecraft sent to her friend George Dyson (Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, pp. 67-68). Wollstonecraft here elaborates on the meaning of the term ‘wrongs of woman’, just after having described a miserable marriage: “I should despise, or rather call her an ordinary woman, who could endure such a husband as I have sketched. These appear to me (matrimonial despotism of heart and conduct) to be the peculiar Wrongs of Woman, because they degrade the mind. … This is what I have in view; and to show the wrongs of different classes of women, equally oppressive, though, from the difference of education, necessarily various” (ibid.). A woman who, despite having an “improving mind”, does nothing but obey her husband is thus an “ordinary woman” (ibid.). Her behaviour is part of the ‘wrongs of woman’, as is the behaviour of her oppressive husband.

[34] Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, p. 107.

[35] Ibid., p. 120.

[36] Barbara Taylor emphasises that Henry Darnford in no way lives up to Maria’s high expectations. He merely proves to be a “philanderer” who is “temporarily transformed into a romantic hero by the power of Maria’s imagination” (Taylor, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, p. 135). Taylor asserts that Darnford at first is inspired to act up to Maria’s “glorified image” of him, but this changes when “his real character begins to reveal itself” (ibid.). All five conclusions, which Wollstonecraft sketched for Maria, Taylor points out, “involve Darnford’s betrayal of Maria” (ibid., pp. 135-136). Taylor certainly has a point in her critical assessment of Darnford’s character since he lived as a libertine up until he met Maria, and several of the outlined conclusions do involve Darnford’s betrayal of Maria. Yet, I would maintain that, throughout most of the novel, Maria and Darnford’s relation includes a high amount of sincere affections, well-meaning thoughts and trust in one another, even though the danger of betrayal lurks in the background: “Desire was lost in more ineffable emotions, and to protect her [Maria] from insult and sorrow – to make her happy, seemed not only the first wish of his [Darnford’s] heart, but the most noble duty of his life. Such angelic confidence demanded the fidelity of honour; but could he, feeling her in every pulsation, could he ever change, could he be a villain? The emotion with which she, for a moment, allowed herself to be pressed to his bosom, the tear of rapturous sympathy, mingled with a soft melancholy sentiment of recollected disappointment, said – more of truth and faithfulness, than the tongue could have given utterance to in hours!” (Wollstonecraft, “Maria”, pp. 90-91).

[37] Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, p. 92.

[38] Wollstonecraft, ”Maria”, p. 115.


Giddens, Anthony (1990): The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge & Malden: Polity Press, 1990), p. 34.

Kelly, Gary (2007): ”Explanatory Notes”, in Kelly, Gary (ed.):  Mary and The Wrongs of Woman (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press).

Reuter, Martina (2014): “’Like a Fanciful Kind of Half Being’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Criticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau”. Hypatia 29, 925-941.

Sinek, Simon (2015): “Trust and Consequences”, http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/406238794/trust-and-consequences, Friday, May 15, 2015. Accessed 8th August 2017.

Taylor, Barbara (2003): Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Wollstonecraft, Mary (2007): “The Wrongs of Woman: Or, Maria”, in Kelly, Gary (ed.): Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press).

Wollstonecraft, Mary (2009): “Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark”, in Tone Brekke and Jon Mee (ed.): Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press).


National Identities – Editorial

When we sent out our call for papers on “national identities” in March, we could not foresee the British vote for Brexit or Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. These events have made the theme even more pertinent than it already was. The West has stepped further into an age of uncertainty that gives rise to disturbing questions.  Will Trump be the isolationistic president he has promised to be? Will he build his wall on the Mexican border? Will the U.S. leave NATO? What will happen when the U.K. leaves the EU? Are we witnessing a nationalistic remapping that will put a stop to the internal peace that the Union has experienced and, to a large extent, actively conserved since its founding?

Confronted with the challenges of globalization, terrorism and the refugee crisis the EU has not yet come up with a convincing master plan that can truly gather its nations. Skepticism towards the Union and national conservatism is growing in Poland and Hungary that are increasingly following their own paths. Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, France and Germany have reintroduced national border control. Right wing nationalism takes up a still expanding part of European political landscape, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, UKIP in the U.K. to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark and The Golden Dawn in Greece.

The concerns expressed by such political actors have correlated with a renewed attention to the question of national identity. As a concept it was coined around 1960 but only in the 1980s did it gain a central position in Western political debates, as a response to increasing immigration and globalization. Its position was accentuated after the fall of the Soviet Union and up through the 1990s. Many controversies have arisen from it and it is still an object of constant negotiation today.

With this very first issue of Spheres we want to ask what role so-called “national identities” play in our contemporary age of globalization, transnationalism and uncertainty. We want to explore how language, literature, traditions, political discourse, science and remembrance of past events participate in the crafting and problematizing of national identities.

In the article “Nationens ret: Gastronationalisme i europæiske madprogrammer” Danish Jonatan Leer investigates how food programs in television enables a gastronationalism by embracing local or national cultures into the art of food making. Looking specifically at Le Chef en France and Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain, Leer analyses how these programs try to create relations between food, traditions and cultural heritage, but in the end stages ‘the modern man’ and an idea of food at once nationalistic and exclusive. Read the article here: NATIONENS RET: GASTRONATIONALISME I EUROPÆISKE MADPROGRAMMER – by Jonatan Leer.

Through an analysis of Xabi Molia’s 2007 novel Reprise des hostilités Philippe Brand shows how literature can play a powerful role in critiquing the constructed nature of narratives of national identity like the ones found in contemporary French far-right political discourses. Read the article here: WHAT COMES AFTER THE END? LITERATURE AND FRENCH IDENTITY IN XABI MOLIA’S REPRISE DES HOSTILITÉS – by Philippe Brand.

Merry Low discusses how different layers of memory interact in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1989 film La Vie et rien d’autre. After an in-depth analysis of the film, Low connects these various national narratives with Michael Rothberg’s notion of ‘multidirectional memory’ and points to Taverniers strikingly subversive use of rural space in an effort to undermine the monolithic castle of official History. Read the article here: COMMEMORATING WAR IN FRANCE: COLLECTIVE AND INDIVIDUAL MEMORY IN BERTRAND TAVERNIER’S ‘LA VIE ET RIEN D’AUTRE’ – by Merry Low.

Finally, Mads Damgaard Pedersen examines what role the idea of national identity (or, if you like, national stereotypes) came to play in the recent political scandals in Brazil that ended in the impeachment of the president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Damgaard analyses the complex double binds in a society that seems to accept a certain everyday corruption while dismissing it violently on a broader scale. Read the article here: THE CATCH-22 OF BRAZILIAN NATIONAL IDENTITY AND CORRUPTION DISCOURSE – by Mads Damgaard.


By Philippe Brand, Assistant Professor of French, Lewis & Clark College, pbrand@lclark.edu.

Precipitated by recent terrorist attacks and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, questions of national identity have become a battleground in French political discourse as candidates attempt to position themselves for the upcoming presidential elections of 2017. As France contemplates its future, the tenor of the debate can be measured by the titles of such recent bestsellers as Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission [Submission] (2015) and Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français [The French Suicide] (2014). Significantly, as illustrated by recent polemics over the way French history is taught in schools, politicians are arguing not only over France’s future, but also over its past. These arguments highlight a desire to craft history as a coherent, linear narrative promoting a certain ideal of French identity. As a result, literature, by calling attention to its own artifice and narrative structures, can play a powerful role in critiquing the constructed nature of such narratives of national identity. Xabi Molia’s 2007 novel Reprise des hostilités [Resumption of Hostilities] paints the portrait of a France teetering on the edge of the twenty-first century, afflicted by a literal ‘decomposition’, where everything rings hollow: feelings, language, political discourse, and even the afterlife. At the same time, another narrative grows in the interstices, nourished by quotations from the great writers of the twentieth century, and writing emerges as a potential last form of resistance and recognition for those left behind by the movement of History.

Molia’s novel tells the story of the life, the death, and the afterlife of Marin, a young author struggling with his frustrated desires. Obsessed with Joseph Bel, an unscrupulous businessman turned right-wing political figure whom he blames for his father’s death, Marin hatches an ill-conceived plan to infiltrate Bel’s inner circle and orchestrate his downfall. Disgusted with Bel’s nationalist rhetoric but seduced by his power, as Marin grows closer to Bel, his plot for revenge is suddenly interrupted by his own unexpected death. Death, however, far from giving closure or a sense of meaning to his life, opens up a new horizon. The so-called ‘Paradise’ in which Marin awakes after his death slowly reveals itself to be a carceral space filled with microphones and cameras that record every action of its inhabitants, and Marin resolves to escape. In this fragmentary text, characterized by chronological jumps and intercalated micro-narratives, the reader must reconstruct the events of the novel to understand Bel’s political ascendance, Marin’s fate, and his desperate attempts to change the course of history.

Narrative Structure and Political Storytelling

Although debates over pedagogical approaches to French history date back to the 1970s, the most recent controversy erupted on 28 August 2016, when François Fillon, former Prime Minister and current prospective candidate of the center-right party Les Républicains, declared that French history should be “rewritten […] as a national narrative. The national narrative is a History made up of men and women, of symbols, of places, of monuments, and of events that find meaning and significance in the progressive creation of the singular civilization of France.”[1] Not to be outdone, a few weeks later Fillon’s political rival, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, promoted the concept of a national narrative that would operate as a sort of all-encompassing myth capable of erasing contemporary differences of ethnic and cultural identity: “Regardless of the nationality of your parents, young French citizens, from the moment you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls and Vercingétorix.”[2] It is crucial to note that the idea of a national narrative is not limited solely to the right. Weighing in on the debate on 27 September, the left-wing Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon declared “Personally, I don’t want a Gallic ethnicization of the debate. But yes, I declare that we are the daughters and sons of the Enlightenment and of the great Revolution! From the moment one becomes French, one adopts the national narrative.”[3] This desire to create a national narrative is acutely powerful because it comes at a time when France feels adrift from its traditional moorings. As intellectual historian Mark Lilla argues in his study on reactionary political thought, “Over the past quarter-century, French society has undergone changes that almost no one is happy with, and neither left-leaning intellectuals nor centrist politicians seem capable of addressing them satisfactorily.”[4] Lilla notes that such conditions create a fertile environment for nostalgia, which he argues “can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope.”[5] Historian Pierre Nora employs an explicitly literary term when discussing that traditional nostalgic account of French history, describing it as a “national novel” stretching from “Gaul to de Gaulle”.[6] For Nora, that model of traditional history as novel — “the old national identity, one which associated past and future in a sense of continuity, of filiation, and of project” — has come to an end, and the question of what will come next remains to be defined.[7]

In his essay Le Dénouement, literary critic Lionel Ruffel traces a connection between the disappearance of an overarching coherent historical narrative and a blossoming of formal innovation in contemporary literature. Ruffel describes a recurring theme in a group of recent French novels, namely, the depiction of liminal or transitional states that call into question conventional notions of beginnings and endings. He claims that such scenes can be read as “a problematizing of the end that serves as a narrative and diegetic frame for books”.[8] Ruffel sees this tendency as an attempt to resituate the novel within a literary and historical context unsettled by the events of the late twentieth century. He argues:

beginning around the end of the 1970s and during the next twenty years, people began to evoke four types of ends, which are close to each other, without being equivalent: the end of avant-gardes, the end of ideologies, the end of history, the end of modernity under the name of postmodernity.[9]

Ruffel argues that as writers begin to question those notions in their fiction, they tend to employ narrative forms that undermine the underlying teleological assumptions that structure such arguments about ‘the end’. In particular, he takes notice of “the recurrence […] of these endings that open the story”.[10] Just such an “ending” opens Reprise des hostilités, as on the very first page of the novel, Marin wakes up dead. More specifically, he awakens in a strange bed, in what appears to be a nondescript hotel room, and his evident confusion is played against the reader’s uncertainty as both reader and Marin attempt to make sense of Marin’s situation.

Literary scholar Peter Brooks claims in his book Reading for the Plot that “Narrative is one of the large categories or systems of understandings that we use in our negotiations with reality, specifically, in the case of narrative, with the problem of temporality: man’s time-boundedness, his consciousness of existence within the limits of mortality.”[11] From the conventional notion that it is “death that writes finis to the life and therefore confers on it its meaning,” it logically follows that in narrative, “only the end can finally determine meaning, close the sentence as a signifying totality.”[12] Indeed, as Marin is informed, one of the most popular activities in the afterlife is the composition of “life stories […]. We help people create some order out of the events of their life, so that they can give some meaning to what they have done”.[13] Marin’s death, however, rather than providing a sense of closure, opens the door onto a new realm of narrative possibility. His death serves as a hinge, both endpoint and beginning for the two narrative strands that compose Marin’s story.

The novel that begins with Marin’s death can be envisioned as a sort of double helix, with the story of Marin’s life and the story of his afterlife wrapping around each other as the non-sequential text leaps chronologically — and ontologically — from one narrative thread to the other. The text is divided into sixty-five short chapters, most just a few pages long. As the narrative segments begin to coalesce, the reader is drawn into not one, but two interwoven story lines that resonate in intriguing fashion with each other, as well as with a number of shorter micro-narratives interspersed throughout the text. The intertwining of the two narratives also serves to defer the resolution of both threads, as Molia plays heartily on what theorist Roland Barthes refers to in his work S/Z as the “hermeneutic code”, or elements in a story that are not explained, creating a sense of mystery for the reader.[14] The reader discovers early on, for example, that Marin is in a section of Paradise reserved for those who died a violent death, and Marin notes in passing one day that “the wound in his torso had scarred over and almost disappeared”.[15] We do not know, however, how Marin died, nor do we know the circumstances that led to his violent death. Over the course of the novel, the reader’s desire to discover the truth about Marin’s death is initially deferred and then intensified by the mystery of what will happen in his afterlife, as Marin, increasingly desperate, resolves to escape from Paradise. In turn, the narrative tension of Marin’s afterlife is heightened and deferred by events back on earth, for the novel slowly reveals fragments of Marin’s life, leading up to his untimely death.

Historical Turning Points

Following the loss of his job at a business run into the ground by Joseph Bel, Marin’s father drives his car into a tree, dying instantly. Obsessed by his father’s death, for which he holds Bel responsible, Marin vows to avenge his father and slowly infiltrates Bel’s inner circle. Bel’s rise as a politician from small-town mayor to the founder of his own political party takes place against the backdrop of a clearly identified France at the turn of a new millennium.[16] His populist, anti-European Union, anti-immigrant politics reflect and play off contemporary anxieties about France’s place in the world at the start of the twenty-first century:

He fustigated ‘[…] these gentlemen from Paris, the whole clique of incompetents and the old boys network’, the disappearance of democracy in favor of the insane multiplication of intermediaries, the central banks, the judges, Europe […]. – Me, he repeated, I’m from the France of good, decent people, workers and blue collars, not the France of Brussels and stuffed shirts.[17]

Bel’s rapid ascension over the course of the novel demonstrates the efficacy of such discourses, which have been echoed recently throughout Europe.

In her study on fin de millénaire French fiction, Ruth Cruickshank calls attention to a perceived crisis of “l’exception française, a nexus of identity narratives — economic, political, diplomatic, cultural, and indeed, literary — felt to be under increasingly severe threat from global market economics.”[18] It is precisely that anxiety that Joseph Bel seeks to exploit in his grasp for political relevance. In a pivotal scene, Bel organizes a grand celebration in Poitiers to commemorate the turning of the millennium, evoking the past to introduce his vision of the future. Dressed as Charles Martel, the Frankish ruler who halted the advance of Muslim forces in the Battle of Poitiers in the year 732, Bel declares, “if I chose this symbolic place to enter into the new millennium with you, it’s because I believe in the future […]. Our French civilization is marvelous, […] and we are the living testimony of a glorious history.”[19] Bel’s evocation of French exceptionalism is calculated for maximum political impact, but the hollowness of his discourse is revealed later in the novel, when he decides that his traditionalist rhetoric has become politically ineffective and he abruptly decides to change course in his political platform:

They would no longer be opposed to abortion. They would no longer talk about Christian culture and the glorious past. They would shift the focus toward poverty and social justice, the corruption of the elite, the violence of the suburbs, the dangers of immigration and globalization. They would be part of the twenty-first century. […] Around us, things are moving, it’s the new millennium, we need to be part of it.[20]

Bel’s discourse provides a pungent commentary on the contemporary French political landscape. He is ruthless with his political rivals, media-savvy, and good on camera.[21] Throughout the novel, Molia demonstrates the centrality of the media in the construction of Bel’s image through the elaboration of a tightly woven web of references to television appearances, magazine profiles, and books written both by and about Bel.[22]

As Marin becomes increasingly complicit with Bel, writing his speeches and composing his biography, he begins to feel more and more culpable. When Bel introduces Marin as his “collaborator”, the historic echo of French collaboration in World War II is made explicitly clear.[23] Marin, like many of the other characters, considers the end of the twentieth century, the moment in which he is living, as a historical turning point, and wonders what will come next, following what French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard referred to as the end of “grand narratives”:[24]

He imagined past eras as epic times: violent perhaps, unsettled and uncomfortable, but thrilling (with battles, utopias, reasons for being, the Resistance, May 68). Often, he dreamed up of giving up that portion of liberty that others had won for him, so that he could reconquer it. […]

He felt like he had been born just after the last revolution, in one of those peaceful Western conglomerates where history seemed to be finished, he wrote in a new notebook.[25]

As Marin walks through the streets of Paris one night, he speaks to himself out loud, trying to situate himself in history and to bring his project into being by giving voice to it, “I’m walking in Paris. I’m at the end of the twentieth century. The end of the twentieth century. That which follows the end. My name is Marin. I’m going to avenge my father.”[26] His extraordinary self-consciousness reveals an unpleasant truth about his ambitions: to put it bluntly, Marin feels like a bit of a loser, and his project of vengeance gives him something to do and provides a raison d’être that has been sorely lacking in his life. Marin is constantly telling himself stories about his own life, and throughout his abbreviated existence, the gap between his desires and his reality vexes him as he attempts to find a role to inhabit. Simply put, Marin’s plans for vengeance give him a spectacular project to accomplish, allowing him to experience an intense “exaltation […] in imagining himself as the executor of a clandestine justice.”[27] Marin savors his project, and although he keeps delaying the actual accomplishment of his plans, that deferral heightens his excitement while he imagines the various ways his vengeance could play out. As he progressively comes to realize that he is simply not a man of action, however, Marin must concoct ever more elaborate and subtle plans to justify his dithering.

Tales of Guilt and Decline

Indeed, a great deal of self-justification is called for, as the trappings of success that attend Marin’s infiltration into Bel’s inner circle prove quite alluring. Although he is appalled by Bel’s rhetoric and ashamed by their association, Marin quickly comes to appreciate the perks and the affluence that accompany his new lifestyle, moving into a new apartment in a trendy neighborhood. As soon as Marin starts earning a bit of money, he immediately upgrades his lifestyle, furnishing his apartment with:

rare materials, brushed stainless steel, Moroccan zellige tiles […], exotic woods […], a rug from Boukhara, an Italian couch […]. The expenditures were significant, without a doubt too much […], but Marin insisted on these furnishings, which gave him the happy concerns of a homeowner.[28]

As time goes on, Marin grows more comfortable, and his plans to avenge his father lose their urgency: “A new life was starting. […] He was buying good bread, thick steaks, artisanal cheeses and imported wines. […] Little by little, his plans for revenge were drifting away from him.”[29] Most importantly for Marin, his new affluence offers him an immediate sense of belonging, predicated upon a shared sense of cultural capital:

He drank smoked tea on café terraces, absent-mindedly observing all these people who read the same newspapers as him, who also dreamt about Cuba and trekking in India, who also talked about one day leaving everything behind to move to the countryside, and also about going to see the new Iranian film.[30]

That consumer mentality is not limited to earth, however, for it extends even to the afterlife. Paradise is not a place for leisurely contemplation—there are hardly any novels to be found in the library—rather, there is a bustling casino, not to mention the possibility to go kayaking, play beach volleyball, and participate in bikini contests. The vision of Paradise as stereotypical male fantasy responds to the expectations of consumers conditioned by a lifetime of exposure to media representations of such images. The nubile women of Paradise incarnate a fantasy of women as indistinguishable and interchangeable objects designed for sexual pleasure,[31] and indeed, Caroline, Marin’s sexual partner in Paradise, briefly assuages the feelings of sexual inadequacy that plague Marin on earth. That sense of inadequacy is exacerbated by his internalization of the expectations and aesthetics of contemporary pornography. As Marin thinks back to his relationship with Chloé, “He chafed at the memory of the way they used to make love. He’d go about it better, today, and he imagined it more or less like in a porno film […]. He felt capable, now”.[32] Although Marin has already published two science fiction novels, he hungers for more widespread recognition of his literary potential. While he is ashamed to admit it, he takes pleasure in writing for Bel. The experience lends him a certain “status as a writer, to which, whatever he might say, he was not indifferent. […] Considering the rhythm of the sentence, the richness of the sounds, the brilliance of his vocabulary, Marin had found his own style.”[33] Hearing Bel speak his words aloud, however, is excruciating.

Bel’s political ascension can be seen as a response to popular perceptions that something is rotten in the state of France itself. A pervasive sense of moral decay runs throughout the pages of the novel, from the mediocre, derivative novels of writer Valéry Mouscron to Joseph Bel’s underhanded political tactics.[34] What is more, the country is afflicted by a quite literal “decomposition,” a mysterious sort of fungus that attacks whatever it touches, from buildings to people.[35] Indeed, Antoine, Marin’s older brother, is one of its victims, and we see him for the last time dying in a hospital, his body covered with splotches and his hand eaten away.[36] If I alluded to Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet a moment ago, Shakespeare’s tale of a son who must avenge his father’s death resonates throughout the novel. Marin perpetually defers his plans for revenge, and during their last encounter, Antoine berates Marin for his failure to act, calling him “Monsieur Hamlet.”[37] Earlier in the novel, Marin quotes directly from the play, noting that “never had he seen his father’s ghost before him, telling him in a cavernous voice: ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love, revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.’”[38] Most importantly, just as Shakespeare employs the device of a play within a play, Marin comes up with the idea of writing a book within a book.

A Literary Vengeance

After Bel asks Marin to ghostwrite his autobiography, Marin concocts the most baroque of his various revenge schemes, “an infallible and refined vengeance,” one that has the dual advantages of destroying Bel’s reputation while simultaneously proving Marin’s literary genius.[39] Marin hits upon the idea of composing the entirety of Bel’s autobiography from unattributed citations from a host of famous twentieth-century French writers, changing only dates and proper names, as needed, “He would sometimes have […] the feeling of putting together a puzzle, not making one up: he would gather together the interlocking fragments of an ongoing story.”[40] In Marin’s fantasy, the particularity of Bel’s autobiography goes unnoticed at first, but as time goes by and readers start to recognize familiar passages, he imagines the eruption of a media scandal, with newspapers proclaiming “Not one single line was written by him! He pillaged our libraries! THE PLAGIARISM OF THE CENTURY![41] Following the outrage, Bel’s career collapses. Yet Marin’s story continues, and he imagines that many years later, a curious writer whom he calls “B” decides to investigate the intriguing tale. As B researches Bel’s history, he comes to realize that the politician could never have pulled off such an audacious feat; therefore, someone else must have accomplished the entire scheme. Once B discovers Marin’s name in the archives, and more importantly, his career as a writer, things begin to fall into place:

He would immediately want Marin to be the plagiarizer, a man of the shadows who wordlessly accepted the thankless tasks he was offered, while secretly preparing a formidable sabotage. It would be very novelistic, exactly the sort of thing for B, himself a writer, in his spare time, of cerebral police thrillers. Caught up in the game […], he would pursue the investigation, preceding in a way his own detective, who would reconstruct in turn, in the next volume of the series of which B was the author, the secret chronology of the crime.[42]

This dizzying mise-en-abyme allows Marin to become the unsung hero of an epic tale of good versus evil. Indeed, in his fantasy, “Marin had contributed, modestly but all the same, to the rescue of the Republic. Marin had shaken up the course of History. […] And it was thus, after this inexorable chain of circumstances, that Marin would regain his standing.”[43]

Confronted with his inadequate projects for vengeance, an increasingly desperate Marin finally decides to have Bel killed, at that point less for his father’s memory than for his own humiliation and self-loathing. Reprise des hostilités abounds with deception and trickery, and Marin’s assassination plot is one of many such instances. Marin proposes a faked assassination as a political stunt to Bel, who is plunging in the polls. Bel takes the bait, but unknown to him, Marin instructs the killers to go through with the shooting. Ironically, just as Marin fears that his elaborate literary intrigue may somehow backfire and ultimately benefit Bel, the assassination plot is botched, and Marin takes a nine-millimeter bullet to the chest while Bel survives and goes on to enjoy an ascendant political career.[44] Marin’s death in the final pages of the novel finally answers the question of how he ended up in Paradise, yet another narrative thread remains.

What Comes After the End?

Throughout the novel, scenes from Marin’s afterlife are intercut with his tale of revenge, and while the tale of his life leads necessarily and inevitably toward his death, the story of his afterlife leads toward a much more unpredictable end. The disclosure of Marin’s violent death in the first chapter shapes the reader’s horizon of expectations, and the knowledge of Marin’s death also alters the reader’s experience of the novel, creating a degree of complicity between reader and narrator. Throughout the account of Marin’s life, the reader knows more than he does, which lends both poignancy and comic effect to certain events in his life. Interestingly, Marin has a different epistemological status in the two narrative strands. During the story of Marin’s life, the reader knows a crucial bit of information that Marin lacks, while in his afterlife, Marin knows much more than the reader, as Marin recently lived through — and still remembers — the events of his life that the reader must reconstruct from the fragmented, non-linear segments of narration.

Marin’s escape from Paradise quickly turns into a disaster as he is pursued through a densely wooded forest by a contingent of heavily armed men. In Marin’s final scene in the novel, he discovers a vertiginous truth. Running at a full sprint, he comes to a halt at the edge of Paradise. Hemmed in by soldiers, with no way to escape, Marin steps over the edge of the precipice onto a crumbling bridge, “he was getting to the end and knew less and less what he would do next.”[45] As the bridge falls to pieces under his feet, he grabs onto a cord, and the final sentence of Marin’s story ends with him dangling over the void, sliding down the last few meters: “Next, he would see what happened”.[46] Marin’s death in the botched assassination brings the first narrative thread full circle, answering the question implicitly posed in the first chapter. The unresolved — and perhaps irresolvable — final scene of his afterlife, however, raises a host of unanswerable questions. How could Marin die, if he is already dead? What could come next in his story? An after-afterlife?

Ruffel notes a preponderance of similar moments in French novels published around the turn of the millennium. Opening his book with an almost identical scene that takes place in Antoine Volodine’s 2002 novel Dondog, Ruffel asks:

But what can it mean, this figure that presents itself ‘at the brink of nothing,’ legs hanging over ‘into the void,’ thinking about ‘what is to come’? And what can we say about its repetition? Evidently it evokes an end-game. […] But this representation is more complex. […] Another story is taking shape, after the end, that prolongs or renews it.[47]

For Ruffel, such scenes open up a space for what he terms “le dénouement”:

Neither beginning nor ending, limited and transitory […], it deploys a complex temporality, at the same time turned toward the past that it transforms and toward the future that it authorizes. The dénouement opens onto the unknown, onto the ‘void,’ onto ‘what is to come,’ on the ruins and the remains of the past.[48]

Reprise des hostilités explores those notions in a variety of ways, examining a specific instance of personal history, namely Marin’s life, death, and afterlife — with its uncertain resolution — in order to evoke a host of larger literary and societal issues.

Literary Heritage and the Art of the Puzzle

Molia saves some of his largest surprises for the metaliterary realm. The question of how to come to terms with the literary heritage of the twentieth century runs throughout Molia’s works, and in this novel, he proposes an intriguing answer. Ruffel argues that that question is central to the practice of writing at the end of the millennium:

An idea of modernity that bore certain aesthetic and political values has passed away. And that death raises […] the question of heritage. Faced with mourning, several approaches are possible. The heirs can deny, can distance themselves from an era, or to the contrary can live with its phantoms, can be (in the proper sense of the word) haunted by it; can transform it and carry it into the future.[49]

One of the primary ways in which Molia “lives with the phantoms” of his predecessors in Reprise des hostilités is through the incorporation of citations from various authors into his text.  In a postscript on the final page of the book, the following notice appears:

(This book contains citations, and sometimes rewritings, from: Louis Aragon, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Butor, Albert Camus, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary, André Gide, Jean Giono, Julien Gracq, André Malraux, François Mauriac, Robert Merle, Henri Michaux, Roger Nimier, Georges Perec, Marcel Proust, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Radiguet, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Françoise Sagan, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Simon, Marguerite Yourcenar.)[50]

Like Marin, who dreams of clandestinely composing a text from the assembled works of classic twentieth-century French writers, Molia smuggles quotations from twenty-six illustrious predecessors into his own novel. Molia’s postscript is in fact a double citation of sorts, for while it calls attention to all of the authors whom it names, one writer in particular stands out from that list: Georges Perec.[51] Indeed, Molia notes, “Perec is, in a certain way, omnipresent in the novel. But, in a mise-en-abyme that surely amuses no one but myself, I chose to cite… his manner of citing his borrowings from other texts at the end of La Vie mode d’emploi.”[52]

While contemplating the assemblage of the combinatorial masterpiece of plagiarism that he imagines destroying Bel’s career, Marin envisions that process as resembling the creation of a puzzle, a metaphor that finds suggestive echoes in Perec’s work. In the preamble to La Vie mode d’emploi, Perec devotes several pages to that very notion, using “the art of the puzzle” as a metaphor to describe a highly articulative ludic relationship—characterized by “cunning, entrapment, illusion”—between puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver, and by extension between writer and reader.[53] Marin imagines himself as a master puzzle-maker, constructing a hidden trap concealed within Bel’s autobiography. In order for Marin’s scenario to be realized fully, however, he needs a puzzle-solver to follow his tracks, therefore he imagines the author B, an ideal reader capable of finding all the hidden clues and teasing out the deep structures—the “true” story—that lies beneath. B, Marin’s model reader, is a crucial figure in the text, his interpretive prowess in the cat-and-mouse game set up by Marin pointing toward the importance of careful, inquisitive reading in a situation where things are not what they seem.

The Clinamen and Literary Innovation

Molia’s text requires an active effort from its reader on multiple levels. Formally, on a surface level the reader must reconstruct the fragments of Marin’s life and afterlife in order to make sense of the story. Then, the final revelation that Marin’s imagined novel of citations is a mise-en-abyme for Molia’s actual novel encourages the reader to go back and search out the quotations and textual elements covertly incorporated from other writers’ works. Some of those citations are relatively easy to pick out: for example, when Marin and Gaspard descend into the underworld of Paradise, a few lines taken directly from Proust serve as their password.[54] Other citations may be harder to find, however, and in fact, they may not exist at all, as Molia reveals:

I must […] admit that, in the interest of producing a ‘clinamen,’ certain authors mentioned on the last page (was it Jean Giono? Marguerite Yourcenar? I no longer remember precisely) are neither cited nor rewritten in the novel. But I was convinced that someone would find them in there anyways.”[55]

As literary scholar Warren Motte notes in his essay “Clinamen Redux”, “clinamen” is a term coined by Lucretius to describe a “swerve” in what is otherwise an immutable organization of elements.[56] Motte asserts that the clinamen is a suggestive figure that animates many of Perec’s rigorously constructed works, in particular La Vie mode d’emploi, as “he came to feel that the textual system must be intentionally flawed, the flaw scrupulously cultivated, in turn, as the real locus of poetic creativity.”[57]

Like Perec in La Vie mode d’emploi, Molia establishes a system and then subverts it for his own ends. The cat-and-mouse game takes on another level, as the hunt for citations becomes more complex. The reader may well start second-guessing the accuracy of his or her conclusions: are certain passages truly citations from other writers, or does the expectation of finding something lead us to erroneous identifications?[58] What is more, who would be the ideal reader with the adequate knowledge to find all of those citations? As literary theorist Pierre Bayard reminds us in his work How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory”.[59] Bayard claims that that is so for a variety of reasons. In the first place, “even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist.”[60] Perhaps more significantly, even the books we do read escape little by little from our memories. As Bayard puts it, “When we talk about books, then, […] it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances.”[61] If I cited earlier the full list of authors to whom Molia alludes, I did so to call attention to the immensity of the virtual challenge that Molia presents to the reader. It would be staggeringly difficult for a reader to discover all of the citations buried within the text. At the same time, Molia is not simply trying to create a puzzle for the reader, for his use of citation is also a strategy to come to terms with the literary heritage of the twentieth century.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom also invokes the figure of the clinamen, embracing it as the animating principle of what he describes as “the central working concept of the theory of Poetic Influence, […] an instance of creative revisionism.”[62] In Bloom’s view, the clinamen represents a “poetic misreading” which allows strong poets to swerve away from their literary antecedents and to assert their own position.[63] For Bloom, that process is an essential component of the ways in which authors come to terms with those who came before them, and he claims, “Like Lucretius himself, they opt for clinamen as freedom.”[64] I believe that Molia employs just such a strategy in Reprise des hostilités. Through the citation and rewriting of his literary predecessors, Molia inserts their words into a new context, making them mean something new. His interventionist approach is a dynamic process, creating a virtual space within Reprise des hostilités where the words of different canonical writers come together in a collaboration their authors had never imagined. Italo Calvino remarks that while all literature is inherently combinatorial, it continually attempts to make something new out of its combinations.[65] By resituating citations from other authors within his own work, Molia calls attention to the fact that although the literary heritage of the twentieth century looms large for contemporary authors, that heritage can be envisioned not as a burden, but rather as a catalyst to spark further innovation.

A Literary Counter-History and the Era of Suspicion

Just as Marin’s intertextual creation stealthily infiltrates Molia’s novel, another literary project also appears within its pages, a “counter-history” that might serve as a “portrait of a senseless century” compiled by Ninipotch, a member of Bel’s circle[66]:

He had toyed with the idea of a book that would chart the course of the twentieth century through these figures relegated to the margins of time, these beings who had never been, it seemed, carried by the major movement of History, these minor beings, or rather consigned to minority by the course of events […].[67]

Ninipotch’s proposed book would provide a sort of negative image of the twentieth century. If it is a commonplace that history is written by the winners, then Ninipotch’s project would tell the stories of those who came in second, as an ironic counterpoint to the historical projects of politicians such as Fillon and Sarkozy. Fragments from Ninipotch’s imagined book are inserted between the chapters of Marin’s story, and in them a variety of intriguing individuals come to light, some of whom are real, and some completely fictitious. As Molia describes in an interview, that blurring of fact and fiction highlights what is for him an essential function of literature: “For me a novel is not a book of truth. […] It is a way of signifying what literature is in relationship to other discourses. Unlike religious or political discourses, which rely on a language of certainty, the novelist is in a state of permanent questioning. Which requires on the part of the reader a distance, a state of vigilance.”[68]

Nathalie Sarraute’s “era of suspicion” is alive and well,[69] and a playful tension between false appearances and reality plays out in the book in a variety of ways. True to its theme of false appearances, at first glance Reprise des hostilités appears almost free of intertextual references. Just beneath the surface, however, a quite different story emerges, for Molia’s novel can be read as a sustained attempt to come to terms with and to create something new from the literary heritage of the twentieth-century novel. The question of interpretation comes to the forefront as the reader navigates through the dense web of references to the real world and to the realm of literature. At the same time, the pervasive menace of Bel’s reactionary rhetoric grounds the novel in contemporary French—and indeed, global—political discourse, exposing the false claims and hollow language of political opportunists. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States seems to have been anticipated by Bel’s media-savvy political machinations, and Bel’s claims of national decline and threats to national identity are being echoed across the United States and Europe today. If reactionary thought relies on a nostalgic, idealized version of the past, literature can help us problematize and critique such simplistic narratives. Although historians claim from their perspective that the “national novel” of a glorious past is dead, that vision of an idealized past seems to be enjoying a long and vigorous afterlife in the political realm. While Molia makes no claims to provide easy answers to the political issues that confront French society, he makes a compelling case for the enduring power of the novel to help us make sense of the past and to imagine possible futures, as we contemplate what might come next.


[1] “réécrire […] comme un récit national. Le récit national, c’est une Histoire faite d’hommes et de femmes, de symboles, de lieux, de monuments, d’événements qui trouvent un sens et une signification dans l’édification progressive de la civilisation singulière de la France.” Durand, “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, p. 1.

[2] “Quelle que soit la nationalité de vos parents, jeunes Français, au moment où vous devenez français, vos ancêtres, ce sont les Gaulois et c’est Vercingétorix.” Durand, “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, p. 1.

[3] “Moi je ne veux pas d’une ethnicisation gauloise du débat. Mais oui, je dis que nous sommes les filles et les fils des Lumières et de la grande Révolution! A partir du moment où l’on est français, on adopte le récit national.” Durand, “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, p. 1.

[4] Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind, p. 108.

[5] Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind, p. xiv.

[6] “De la Gaule à de Gaulle, le roman national […]”, Gherardi, “Pierre Nora: ‘Le nationalisme nous a caché la nation’”, p. 1.

[7] “l’ancienne identité nationale, celle qui associait le passé et l’avenir dans un sentiment de continuité, de filiation et de projet”, Gherardi, “Pierre Nora: ‘Le nationalisme nous a caché la nation’”, p. 1.

[8] “[une] problématisation de la fin [qui] sert de cadre narratif et diégétique aux livres.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, pp. 46-47.

[9] “dès la fin des années soixante-dix et durant les vingt années qui vont suivre, on commence à évoquer quatre types de fins, qui sont proches, sans s’équivaloir: la fin des avant-gardes, la fin des idéologies, la fin de l’histoire, la fin de la modernité sous le nom de postmodernité.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 83.

[10] “la récurrence […] de ces fins qui ouvrent l’histoire.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 88.

[11] Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. xi.

[12] Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 22.

[13] “les récits de vie […]. On aide les gens à remettre en forme leur itinéraire, pour qu’ils puissent donner du sens à ce qu’ils ont fait” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 52.

[14] Barthes, S/Z, p. 24.

[15] “Sa blessure au torse avait cicatrisé et presque disparu.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 29.

[16] The bulk of the main story takes place in 1999 and 2000.

[17] “il fustigeait ‘[…] ces Messieurs de Paris, tout la clique des incompétents et des copains d’abord’, la disparition de la démocratie au profit de la multiplication démente des intermédiaires, les Banques centrales, les juges, l’Europe [….]. – Moi, répétait-il, je suis de la France des braves gens, des travailleurs et des cols bleus, pas de la France de Bruxelles et des collets montés.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 310.

[18] Cruickshank, Fin de Millénaire French Fiction: The Aesthetics of Crisis, p. 2.

[19] “si j’ai choisi ce lieu symbole pour entrer avec vous dans le nouveau millénaire, c’est parce que je crois en l’avenir […]. Notre civilisation française est merveilleuse, […] et nous sommes le témoignage vivant d’une glorieuse histoire.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p.149.

[20] “On ne serait plus contre l’avortement. On ne parlerait plus de culture chrétienne et de passé grandiose. On allait se recentrer sur la pauvreté et la justice sociale, la corruption des élus, la violence des banlieues, les dangers de l’immigration et de la mondialisation. On serait du vingt et unième siècle. […] Autour de nous, ça bouge, c’est le millénaire, il faut qu’on soit dedans.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 245-46.

[21] See 116-17 and 268 for examples of how Bel provokes his political opponents into physical confrontations on camera.

[22] For a televised interview with Bel, see 343. Magazine articles discussing Bel appear on 173-74, 258-259, and 249-51. An excerpt from Delauney’s book, which quotes Bel’s autobiography as well as a book written by his employee Gwenaëlle Puech, can be found on 37-39.

[23] “collaborateur”, Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 194.

[24] Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir, p. 7.

[25] “Il s’imaginait les époques passées comme des temps épiques: violents peut-être, incertains et inconfortables, mais exaltants (des luttes, des utopies, des raisons d’être, la Résistance, Mai 68). Souvent, il rêvait de rendre la part de la liberté que d’autres avaient gagnée pour lui, afin de la reconquérir. […] Lui pensait être né juste après la dernière révolte, dans un de ces conglomérats occidentaux paisibles où l’histoire semble finie, écrivît-il sur un nouveau cahier.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 124.

[26] “Je marche dans Paris. Je suis à la fin du vingtième siècle. La fin du vingtième siècle. La suite de la fin. Je m’appelle Marin. Je vais venger mon père.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 74.

[27] “exaltation […] à s’imaginer en exécuteur d’une justice clandestine.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 55.

[28] “des matières rares, de l’acier brossé, des zelliges marocains […], du bois exotique […], un tapis de Boukhara, un canapé italien […]. Les frais étaient importants, sans doute trop […], mais Marin tenait à ces aménagements, qui lui procuraient d’heureux soucis de propriétaire.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 205.

[29] “Une vie nouvelle commençait. En bas, dans la rue Montorgueil, il achetait de bon pain, des entrecôtes, des fromages fermiers et des vins étrangers. […] Peu à peu, son projet de vengeance s’était éloigné de lui.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 205-06.

[30] “Il buvait du thé fumé à la terrasse des cafés, pour regarder distraitement tous ces gens qui lisaient les mêmes journaux que lui, rêvaient eux aussi de Cuba et du périple indien, parlaient aussi de tout quitter un jour pour la campagne, et aussi d’aller voir le prochain film iranien.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 206.

[31] As Marin watches one of the bikini contests, “he became painfully aroused in front of these creatures, he wanted to grab one of them by the hair, one of the five, any of them […]. He heard, off in the distance, the name Marianne, proclaimed Miss Swimming Pool, a round of applause. The young woman looked him. She looked like Marianne. They all looked like Marianne.” “il bandait douloureusement devant ces créatures, il avait envie d’en attraper une par les cheveux, une des cinq, n’importe […]. Il entendit, très loin, le prénom de Marianne, proclamée Miss Piscine, les applaudissements. La jeune fille le regarda. Elle ressemblait à Marianne. Elles ressemblaient toutes à Marianne.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 70-71.

[32] “Il s’irritait au souvenir de la façon qu’ils avaient eue de faire l’amour. Il s’y serait mieux pris, aujourd’hui, et il imaginait ça à peu près comme dans un film porno […]. Il se croyait apte, maintenant.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 306.

[33] “statut d’écrivain, auquel, quoi qu’il en dise, il n’était pas indifférent. […] Considérant le rythme de la phrase, la saveur des sonorités, l’éclat de son vocabulaire, Marin s’était trouvé du style.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 150.

[34] See Valéry Mouscron’s description of his latest works and Joseph Bel’s attacks on rival Claire Commynes. Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 254-55 and p. 268.

[35] “décomposition,” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 177. The decomposition is spreading to Paradise as well, as one of Marin’s new acquaintances mentions, “it seems like there’s another complex that had to be evacuated. Someone brought up some crap, some sort of corrosive fungus that’s mucking up everything.” “il paraît qu’il y a un complexe qui a dû être évacué. Quelqu’un a remonté une cochonnerie, une espèce de champignon corrosif qui bousille tout.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 28.

[36] Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 291.

[37] Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 292.

[38] “Jamais il n’avait eu devant lui le spectre de son père, qui lui disait d’une voix caverneuse: ‘Si jamais tu aimais ton tendre père, venge son meurtre horrible et monstreux.’” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 122. See Hamlet, Act I, Scene V.

[39] “une vengeance infaillible et raffinée,” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 182-83.

[40] “il aurait parfois […] le sentiment de réussir un puzzle, et non de l’inventer: il rassemblerait les fragments vertébrés d’une histoire suivie.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 184.

[41]Pas une seule ligne n’était de lui! Il pillait nos bibliothèques! LE PLAGIAT DU SIÈCLE!” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 184.

[42] “aussitôt il aurait envie que ce soit Marin le faussaire, un homme de l’ombre qui acceptait sans mot dire les tâches ingrates qu’on lui proposait, mais préparait en sous-main un formidable sabotage. Ce serait très romanesque, exactement ce que chercherait B, lui-même écrivain, à ses heures, de polars cérébraux. Pris au jeu […], il poursuivrait l’enquête, précédant en quelque sorte son détective attitré, qui reconstituerait lui aussi, dans le prochain tome de la série dont B était l’auteur, la chronologie secrète du crime.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 186.

[43] “Marin avait contribué, modestement mais tout de même, au sauvetage de la République. Marin avait bousculé le cours de l’Histoire. […] Et c’est ainsi, après cet implacable enchaînement de circonstances, que Marin retrouverait son rang.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 187.

[44] A short text, entitled “Le Livre d’un jeune homme,” appears as one of the two “Annexes” that close Molia’s novel. In that text, Bel appears on a literary television show, and although the host harangues Bel for his right-wing political views, it is clear that as Marin feared, both his autobiography and the assassination attempt have served to burnish Bel’s reputation and boost his approval ratings.

[45] “Il arrivait au bout et savait de moins en moins ce qu’il ferait ensuite.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 339.

[46] “Ensuite, on verrait bien.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 340.

[47] Que peut alors dire cette figure qui se présente “au bord du rien”, les jambes ballant “dans le vide”, réfléchissant “à ce qui allait suivre”? Et que peut dire sa répétition? Évidemment elle évoque une fin de partie. […] Mais cette représentation est plus complexe. […] Il se développe une histoire, après la fin, qui la prolonge ou la renouvelle.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 9.

[48] “Ni début ni fin, limité et transitoire […], il déploie une temporalité complexe, tout à la fois tourné vers le passé qu’il transforme et le futur qu’il autorise. Le dénouement ouvre à l’inconnu, au ‘vide,’ à ‘ce qu’il allait suivre,’ sur les ruines et les restes du passé.” Ruffel, Le Dénouement, p. 11.

[49] “Une idée de la modernité s’est achevée qui portait des valeurs esthétiques et politiques. Et cette mort pose […] la question de l’héritage. Face au deuil, plusieurs voies sont possibles. Les héritiers peuvent nier, conjurer une époque, ou au contraire vivre avec ses fantômes, être (au sens propre) hantés par elle; la transformer et la porter dans l’avenir.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, pp. 88-89.

[50] (Ce livre comprend des citations, et parfois des récritures, de: Louis Aragon, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Butor, Albert Camus, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marguerite Duras, Romain Gary, André Gide, Jean Giono, Julien Gracq, André Malraux, François Mauriac, Robert Merle, Henri Michaux, Roger Nimier, Georges Perec, Marcel Proust, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Radiguet, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Françoise Sagan, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Simon, Marguerite Yourcenar.) Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 353.

[51] Perec lists the names of thirty authors in a “Post-scriptum” at the end of La Vie mode d’emploi that serves as a model for Molia. Perec’s postscript reads: “(Ce livre comprend des citations, parfois légèrement modifiées de: Rene Belletto, […] Théodore Sturgeon, Jules Verne, Unica Zürn.)” Perec, La Vie mode d’emploi, p. 653.

[52] “Perec est, d’une certaine manière, omniprésent dans ce roman. Mais, dans une mise en abyme qui n’amuse sans doute que moi, j’avais choisi de citer… sa manière de citer ses emprunts à d’autres textes à la fin de La Vie mode d’emploi.” Molia, “Interview,” p. 1.

[53] “la ruse, le piège, l’illusion,” Perec, La Vie mode d’emploi, p. 17.

[54] Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 140.

[55] “Je dois […] avouer que, par souci de produire un “clinamen,” certains auteurs mentionnés dans la dernière page (étaient-ce Jean Giono? Marguerite Yourcenar? Je ne sais plus précisément) ne sont ni cités ni réécrits dans le roman. Mais j’étais persuadé qu’on les y trouverait quand même.” Molia, “Personal Letter,” p. 1.

[56] Motte, “Clinamen Redux,” p. 264.

[57] Motte, “Clinamen Redux,” p. 276.

[58] As is the case for the art expert, Vallecas, in one of the intercalated micronarratives in Reprise des hostilités (295).

[59] Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, p. xix.

[60] Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, p. 3.

[61] Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, p. 48.

[62] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 42.

[63] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 14.

[64] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 44.

[65] “I believe that all of literature is implicit in language and that literature itself is merely the permutation of a finite set of elements and functions. But surely literature is constantly straining to escape from the bonds of this finite quantity, surely literature is constantly struggling to say something that it does not know how to say, something that cannot be said, something it does not know, something that cannot be known? […] The whole struggle of literature is in fact an effort to escape from the confines of language.” See Calvino, “Myth in the Narrative” 76.

[66] “cette contre-histoire, […] la peinture d’un siècle insensé.” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 223.

[67] “Il avait caressé le projet d’un livre qui retracerait le cours du vingtième siècle à travers ces figures inscrites dans les marges du temps, ces êtres qui n’avaient jamais, semblait-il, été portés par le mouvement majeur de l’Histoire, ces êtres mineurs, ou plutôt mis en minorité par la suite des événements […].” Molia, Reprise des hostilités, p. 221.

[68] “Pour moi un roman n’est pas un livre de vérité. […] C’est une façon de signifier ce qu’est la littérature par rapport à d’autres discours. Contrairement au discours des sectes ou des politiques, qui recourent au langage de la certitude, le romancier est dans le questionnement permanent. Ce qui requiert de la part du lecteur une distance, un état de vigilance.” Molia, “Interview,” p. 1.

[69] “ère du soupçon,” Sarraute, L’Ère du soupçon, p. 63.


Barthes, Roland (1970): S/Z, (Paris: Éditions du Seuil).

Bayard, Pierre (2007): How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, (New York, Bloomsbury).

Bloom, Harold (1973): The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Brooks, Peter (1985): Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, (New York, Vintage).

Calvino, Italo (1981): “Myth in the Narrative,” trans. Erica Freiberg, in Federman, Raymond (ed.): Surfiction. (Chicago: Swallow Press).

Cruickshank, Ruth (2009): Fin de Millénaire French Fiction: The Aesthetics of Crisis, ((Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Durand, Anne-Aël (2016): “‘Roman national’, ‘récit national’: de quoi parle-t-on?”, in Le Monde 28 September 2016, http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2016/09/28/roman-national-recit-national-de-quoi-parle-t-on_5004994_4355770.html accessed 30 September 2016.

Gherardi, Sophie (2007): “Pierre Nora: ‘Le nationalisme nous a caché la nation’”, in Le Monde 26 March 2007, http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2007/03/26/pierre-nora-le-nationalisme-nous-a-cache-la-nation_884396_3224.html accessed 30 September 2016.

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Shakespeare, William (1603): Hamlet, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).


By Merry Low, Ph.D. Candidate, Florida State University

In the summer of 2014 the French government initiated a series of projects comprising La Mission du centenaire de la Grande Guerre. These commemorative acts were examples of the political appropriation of collective memory that demonstrate the extent to which the memory of the First World War remains a subject of historical and narrative priority in France. In his 1989 film, La vie et rien d’autre, Bertrand Tavernier explores the complicated and polemic nature of the first attempts to memorialize the sacrifice of the Unknown Soldier. One can understand the act of commemoration in Tavernier’s film as a palimpsest of three historical periods in France: the memory of World War One, the 1989 Bi-centennial of the French Revolution of 1789, and the Centennial of the First World War, celebrated in 2014. Woven throughout this temporal palimpsest is memory – a “multidirectional memory,” as Michael Rothberg suggests, which “acknowledges how remembrance both cuts across and binds together diverse spatial, temporal, and cultural sites.”[i] La vie et rien d’autre is an example of such multidirectional memory work because it links the memory of World War One to the remembrance of the French Revolution – two seemingly disconnected events.

In what follows, I will explore the relationship between individual and collective memory as it is represented in Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre, and how this complicated rapport questions and undermines the political and ceremonial efforts to forge a national narrative that often contradicts and undermines individual memories. On the one hand, the superimposition of the memory of separate events, which links the French Revolution to World War One, conflates the distinctiveness of each war and in so doing, the blending of these travesties effectively conveys the horrid and gruesome nature of any such conflict, regardless of its historical specificity. All at once, linking these separate events proves to be a source of imagination and creativity, as Rothberg suggests: “producing new objects and new lines of sight”[ii] when considered in tandem. On the other hand, in this palimpsest of war and remembrance, the loss of the individuality of soldiers, ultimately symbolized by the Unknown Soldier, is equally, if not more egregious than the totalizing effects of military combat. Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre certainly provokes its audience to carefully consider the representation and memory of war in the collective psyche. With these considerations in mind, I argue that Tavernier challenges any official attempts, past and present, at unification under a monolithic collective memory through his subversive use of space and choice of marginal figures as his main characters in La vie et rien d’autre.

La vie et rien d’autre (1989)

While La vie et rien d’autre certainly revolves around World War One, the focus of the narrative does not center on the details of various battles and the action of combat itself. The film also does not glorify military generals nor does it laud military tactics in the French army. Instead, Tavernier provides a raw and untold narrative of the aftermath of World War One. In La vie et rien d’autre, Tavernier reflects less on the war of 1914-1918 as an historical event, than on how that event is remembered in the immediate following the conflict.

Set in October 1920 around the battlefields of Verdun, La vie et rien d’autre portrays the war-torn countryside in the fictional town of Vézillé where the mine-infested soil has absorbed some 1.5 million French soldiers. The film zooms in on the fictional Major Dellaplane (Philippe Noiret), whose raison d’être in the military is to identify fallen soldiers and locate those who went missing in action. However, Dellaplane is ordered to locate an anonymous soldier to be buried as France’s Unknown Soldier (le Soldat Inconnu), thus reversing his regular duties of meticulously restoring the identities of the dead – instead of matching bodies to names, he now must find a nameless body to signify all those names for whom no corpse was ever found. Dellaplane challenges his superior general about the nature of finding an anonymous soldier by quipping that if newspapers were to find out about this, then the Unknown Soldier’s mystery would evaporate and lose its symbolism; despite his initial skepticism, Dellaplane accepts his new mission.

In the midst of this frustrating search, Tavernier inserts a somewhat bizarre love story. Madame Irène de Courtil, a rich Parisian looking for her missing husband, François de Courtil (the son of a powerful general in the French army), seeks out Dellaplane, who is overburdened by his impossible task, and demands his full attention in her quest. Meanwhile, Alice Vallier, a younger woman who has just lost her job as a teacher, curiously ends up in the same village, Vézillé, where Dellaplane and his men have set up headquarters for identifying soldiers. Alice, like Irène, is looking for her missing lover, Charles Féron.

Throughout the course of the film, Dellaplane falls in love with Irène and discovers that François de Courtil and Charles Féron are the same man: François de Courtil abandoned Irène, changed identities at some point before or during the war, and fell in love with Alice. Dellaplane decides to conceal this fact from the two women and continues his amorous rapport with Irène. In the end, Irène, who eventually falls in love with Dellaplane, moves to the United States as Dellaplane resigns from the military and moves into his inherited pastoral estate.

The film ends with a voice-over of a love letter that Dellaplane sends to Irène in which his post-scriptum evokes, once more, the loss of men in the Great War, as he concludes with a chilling equation: had all the dead marched, the victory procession through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris would have lasted eleven days instead of three hours. Tavernier instills this sense of loss as Dellaplane, scarred by the tragedy of fallen men whose identities would never be recovered, insists on sharing these details in a simple love letter to Irène. While the inclusion of such romance could be viewed as Tavernier’s pandering to the sentiments of an audience, this peculiar love story is more complicated due to its contribution to the theme of lost individuality and identity, as will be discussed later.

Subversive Use of Space

In terms of cinematography, La vie et rien d’autre is neither innovative nor spectacular. Its cinematic simplicity permits the viewer to combler les lacunes, to fill in the gaps, of official history through its aesthetic opacity, which disturbs viewers’ expectations of a film that is supposed to be about war, where reenactment of actual warfare is present. Instead, Tavernier’s film is rather uneventful and relatively calm. However, there are moments where repercussions of the war are felt, as they occasionally interrupt the dreary landscape.

This type of contrast is evident even in the title sequence where Tavernier alternates between the opening credits with a haunting instrumental score and a still frame of waves crashing in on the shores of the presumably northern French coast. Catherine O’Brien suggests that Oswald d’Andrea’s chilling musical score’s underlying military rhythms with “the sound of the drum beat which allows the undercurrent of war to permeate the atmosphere of peace” creates a contrast between the tranquil sounds of the ocean and the devastating effects of war.[iii] Such an opposition sets the tone for the total devastation of space that results from World War One. This juxtaposition is also present in the ending sequence, which portrays a desolate landscape and Major Dellaplane walking through idyllic fields of grain with the voice-over of his “love letter,” which abruptly concludes with a post-scriptum concerning the enormous loss of lives in the war.

Yet, the majority of the film does not occur on the beaches of the northern French coast; rather, Tavernier has chosen the French countryside as the setting of his film, which introduces a sort of opposition between village and city life – a dynamic of conflict that evokes similar disparities (especially of the economic nature) that factored into the events leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. This type of contrast is most evident in Irène de Courtil’s intrusion into the rustic scenery from her Parisian dwelling, which constantly provokes less than positive reactions from the rural inhabitants. For example, as Irène, in her chauffeured vehicle, passes by a farmer whose horse is plowing his land, the farmer sneeringly remarks that although those rich Parisians may lead comfortable lives, they are all “cuckolds.” The village inhabitants hold an advantage over the urban intruder, Irène, who is completely unaware of their snide remarks.

Tavernier’s use of rural space illustrates his desire to fill in the blanks left out by official history by allowing the paysage to ‘speak for itself.’ In his film, Tavernier creates the physical space for less likely personages of rural France to voice their experience of war. While collective history is one that is often retold through official parades, national monuments, and political speeches – traditions and structures that are normally associated with important cities as sites of national identity – the histories of rural inhabitants are far less glorious in their living in the continual aftermath of World War One. In fact, in the beginning of the film, the aforementioned farmer, who mocks Irène, stumbles across a slightly buried helmet as well as a landmine, which explodes later in the film. In this image, we can conceive of the minefields of rural France, just after la Grande Guerre, as covering explosive germs of memory, which continue to erupt throughout the film. In this provincial landscape of La vie et rien d’autre, it is as if the soil of official history is being loosened for the seeds of the lesser-known war stories to be sown and/or unearthed.

This provincial landscape is decidedly unsettled, and unsettling, in the film. The former battlefields upon which Major Dellaplane sets up his headquarters are constantly on the brink of disaster, as landmines continually go off throughout the film. This creates a sort of continuation of the war whose effects are still being felt throughout the landscape of France. The most disturbing incident occurs in a tunnel in which a Red Cross train, filled with soldiers, hits a landmine. This tunnel later becomes the site of Dellaplane’s main excavation. The few moments in which Tavernier employs handheld camera shots, an effect that renders viewers anxious as they anticipate a pending disaster, occur when soldiers or civilians, looking to identify their fallen soldiers, approach this tunnel. Bert Cardullo argues that the tunnel is the film’s central metaphor with its combination of the “‘resurrection’ of the dead […] and ‘disinternment’ of the war,” which, “from the darkness and dregs of its final station, springs up a lively encampment of relatives, soldiers, coolies, artists, and con men.”[iv] Indeed the tunnel represents the paradoxical nature of the effects of war: that although the war has officially ended, it still continues to wreak havoc on the landscape and its inhabitants.

Before the explosion of the tunnel, soldiers are sitting around their temporary camp eating, drinking, and singing together. One has the impression that all war wounds have been healed as this jolly group of men breaks out into a spontaneous love song. However, this lighthearted moment is disrupted when Dellaplane and some of his workers stumble upon a mine in the tunnel – revealing that the repercussions of war are ongoing and fall short of the glorified status conferred upon war in official history.

Tavernier also emphasizes the makeshift and contingent nature of structural spaces in La vie et rien d’autre. For example, Dellaplane’s “headquarters” consist of a temporary structure divided into offices by flimsy panels. And the disused factory that was owned by Irène’s father-in-law is made into sleeping quarters for people who have come to search for their loved ones. Both of these spaces are viewed from a bird’s-eye perspective through the use of overhead shots, revealing their ad hoc nature – which can be seen as a mirror of the contingent nature of military bureaucracy. What is more, these vertical perspectives reveal the fallacious nature of viewing war from a cold and detached viewpoint, i.e. official memory, instead of experiencing the effects of war through personal encounters with those who have lived through it. One of the most stunning scenes concerning the use of space and overhead shots occurs in this provisional dormitory when, on a Sunday morning, a Catholic mass is held while a small group of musicians gather to rehearse a set of patriotic songs. The priest complains to the loud musicians whose music drowns out his liturgy, but the musicians continue to practice their music, creating a cacophony of sound. This type of clash further underlines the representation of two official versions of history and experience, one pitted against the other, which continually seek to obtain a dominant voice over the other.

Towards the end of the film, the metaphor of the tunnel becomes more nuanced as yet another tunnel, in Grézaucourt, becomes the site of the preliminary ceremony of the Unknown Soldier’s selection. Juxtaposed with the openness of the countryside, Tavernier portrays the underground ceremony in which a soldier randomly selects one out of eight caskets with unidentified French soldiers’ remains to be the Soldat Inconnu. A brief appearance by André Maginot, the French Minister of War lends an official patina to this ceremony as he praises the “anonymous sacrifice and superhuman heroism” of the soldier. After being scolded by his general for being late, Dellaplane quietly taunts his superior by responding that this one Unknown Soldier would reassure the government as they forget the 1.5 million men whose identities had been erased from history because of the war. Dellaplane’s subsequent remarks undergird both his and Tavernier’s mockery of military rituals as subterranean space becomes the guiding metaphor in the film that illuminates the duplicitous and questionable nature of official history.critique-la-vie-et-rien-d-autre-tavernier9

Telling the Untold Stories

Tavernier continues his excavation of the memory of World War One by choosing to tell the stories of marginal figures. As such, he illustrates an aspect of French sociologist Maurice Halbwach’s theory of the social phenomenon of collective memory. For Halbwachs, individual memories always take shape in a social context; yet each personal memory contains highly specific traces that are unique to each individual. According to Halbwachs, if collective memory derives its force and is able to sustain itself from a group of individuals, it is the individuals of the group that perform the act of remembering; and each one of the members’ unique memory projects a particular perspective onto collective memory itself.[v] This mixture of diverse experiences within the collective creates a more complex and multifaceted memory, which complicates any monolithic historical discourse. These individual memories in constant dialogue with the collective create what Halbwachs refers to as histoire vivante as opposed to histoire écrite.[vi] The former produces a history that is constantly renewing itself whereas the latter is more fixed and uniform, unable to absorb diverse personal memories. Tavernier seems to build on this thought in recognizing the dangers of individual memory being absorbed into a national narrative that promotes a monolithic collective memory. Tavernier’s focalization on Major Dellaplane as the protagonist, as well as his inclusion of female perspectives, serves to underscore his attempts to fill in the gaps of national history as he highlights individual memory.

It is noteworthy that Tavernier does not choose a soldier or former commander as his main subject; rather, Major Dellaplane’s obscure role as the identifier of the dead plots a trajectory that diverges from the well-worn path of war narratives that focus on more prominent and conventional military figures. Major Dellaplane’s experience of the State’s attempts to memorialize the war stands in stark contrast to what is officially remembered from the various parades and monuments that form the authorized collective memory of the nation. By relying on Dellaplane’s individual story, Tavernier imagines a decidedly darker and less romanticized version of the myth of the Unknown Soldier.

Furthermore, Tavernier’s inclusion of women in his film reinforces his desire to recover the hidden experiences of marginal figures that were also ruined by the war. Aside from the two main female characters, Irène and Alice, Tavernier begins his film with two figures riding horses on the beach – one is a nun and the other is an injured soldier. When Irène de Courtil tells her chauffeur to stop and ask these two people where a certain hospital with surviving soldiers is, after giving them directions, the nun comments that her brother “used to love those cars.” This small detail is noteworthy as we can infer that this woman’s brother belonged to the massive number of men who perished during the war and that the war has in some ways scarred the living – the survivors – more than the dead. In fact, when Irène arrives at the hospital where she first encounters Dellaplane, there are several soldiers who have forgotten who they are and are experiencing varying degrees of post-traumatic stress, thus foregrounding the loss of individual identity (in this case, literally) as yet another cost of war.

By weaving together the experiences of Irène and Alice throughout his film, Tavernier highlights the importance of women’s untold experiences of the Great War. Irène’s persistence and determination to find her missing husband are of course admirable, but Tavernier does not idealize his inclusion of this particular female voice. Irène’s refusal to accept her high-ranking father-in-law’s shady business with the German arms industry extends Tavernier’s project of exposing the shortcomings and, at times, corrupt nature, of military bureaucracy, often responsible for the transmission of the official history “war” as it is memorialized at a collective level.

Moreover, Tavernier highlights the lack of experiential knowledge that Irène displays when she comments to Dellaplane, after the tunnel explosion, “it is as if the war never ended.” Dellaplane quickly responds to her that she knows nothing of “true” war. For O’Brien, “[t]he emotional legacy of war is played out in male/female power relations, most notably in the sparring between Dellaplane and Irène […].”[vii] In one sense, Dellaplane belittles Irène’s experience of the war by responding in such a way. Eventually, however, the sophisticated Irène becomes sympathetic as she spends more time in the war-torn village and sees its devastating effects on the lives of others in her own country. In this sense, Irene encounters true remembrance, which does not occur in the officialdom of the city, but rather in the barren fields of the countryside.

As a counterpoint to the feminine experience of Irène, Tavernier includes the story of Alice Vallier, who is also in search of a lost soldier. The first interaction between Irène and Alice occurs directly after Alice loses her job and is angrily leaving the town on her bicycle when she makes eye contact with Irène, who is sitting in the back of her car. Their gaze lingers as the camera emphasizes this visual interchange between the two women. Once again, the economic juxtaposition between the urban, represented in Irène’s chauffeured car, and the rural, with Alice’s bike, is a point of cinematic consideration as the viewer is forced to see this disparity between two social groups. Alice goes on to Vézillé to work in a local café, where she eventually converses with Dellaplane about her lost lover, Charles.

Alice and Irène meet once more at Tavernier’s headquarters and Alice wards off a con man posing as an investigator, who approaches Irène by warning her that he is just trying to steal Irène’s money. From this point, Alice and Irène begin to develop a friendship as the film progresses. After Alice escapes an uncomfortable situation where a young man attempts to force himself upon her, she goes to Irène’s quarters in the temporary dormitory and sleeps in the neighboring bed. In the course of the next few days, Dellaplane discovers that the two women, who often discuss their memories of Charles and François, are seeking the same man. However, Dellaplane keeps this information from them and as they say goodbye to one another, Irène gives Alice an empty locket as a souvenir as they exchange a hug and a kiss. The friendship between these two women based on their shared loss can be seen as symbolic of the female war experience.

But this feminine aspect of Tavernier’s film is no way romanticized. Tavernier allows the viewer to see something that eludes even the characters themselves: that the loss of identity is sometimes a conscious decision brought about by those who want to escape their present situation: this of course being the case of François de Courtil / Charles Féron. For François/Charles, the war, whose nature obliterates identity, created the perfect environment necessary for this type of evasion and appropriation of another identity. In any case, the intertwined nature of the relationship among Major Dellaplane, Irène, Alice, and François/Charles evokes the types of “diverse transfers that take place between diverse places and times,” and people, in this instance, during such acts of remembrance in Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory.[viii] Within this intricate web of relationships, one sees a conflation and dissolution of identity and interconnectedness, as characters begin to blend seamlessly into each other, or in and out of one another’s lives.

Yet the most marginal and elusive character of Tavernier’s filmic text is the Unknown Soldier himself. Beyond Tavernier’s film, scholars have noted that the origins of this memorial, in particular, are obscure. According to Carole Blaire, William Balthrop and Neil Michel, the lack of research on the history of the Unknown Soldier’s tomb is stunning: “this research ‘gap’ is not only surprising but quite problematic, given the echoes of interwar commemorative practices and issues up to and in our own time.”[ix] Certainly Tavernier seeks to capture this historical figure, whose “anonymity allowed the Unknown to be a very particular someone to a friend or family member,” that is, according to most national justifications of such a practice.[x] However, Dellaplane’s task of finding an unidentifiable body contradicts his duty to restore to each fallen soldier his lost identity. Whoever lies under the Arc de Triomphe has been denied his identity in order to become, as Philippe Mesnard suggests, “a new symbolic representation that could carry a strong meaning” to fit France’s national narrative.[xi] Although Dellaplane fights for the restoration of this soldier’s identity, in the end, he must carry out his official duty to purposefully forget this soldier’s story. Whereas many view the identity of the Unknown Soldier as a glorification of sacrifice there is an inherent critique of this commemorative act as a celebration of a loss of identity caused by the enormous scope of lost lives during World War One in Tavernier’s film. It seems that what Tavernier mourns the most, through the voice of Dellaplane, is the obliteration of what seems to be an infinite number of individuals, their stories incurred by the Great War, and this subsequent commemorative practice of the Unknown Soldier.

                      To conclude, in his subversive use of rural space, that reveals the lasting scars and devastation of war on the French countryside, and by giving a voice to marginalized figures such as Dellaplane, Irène and Alice, Tavernier exposes the liabilities of a monolithic and authoritative memory, which often manifests itself in certain national narratives, and thus assumes a narrow version of official history and suppresses individual experience. For Naomi Greene, “it is in [Tavernier’s] films about the past that one senses the most profound tremors of the present.”[xii] Viewed in its contemporary context of the Bicentennial of France, 200 years after the French Revolution, Tavernier’s film serves as a mirror for French society, displaying the multidirectional nature of memory, whose “anachronistic quality” brings together “now and then, here and there,” and which “is actually the source of its powerful creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the materials of older ones” as articulated by Rothberg.[xiii] The film’s release coincided with national celebrations after a decade replete with political and social tension among various facets of a French society confronted with a diverse mélange of narratives that challenged its official history. Tavernier’s film can also be read as a reflection on more recent narratives that pervade the collective psyche, including, but not limited to, the president of the French Republic, François Hollande’s call for France to reunite under the commemorative banner of World War One. Accordingly, Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre incites us to constantly scrutinize the various political, social, and national narratives which pervade the collective sphere of remembrance.


[i] Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 11

[ii] Ibid, pp. 18-19

[iii] O’Brien, “ ‘Il y a plus inconnu encore que le soldat: sa femme’ ”, p. 394

[iv] Cardullo, “The Wake of War”, p. 478.

[v] According to Halbwachs,“[…] si la mémoire collective tire sa force et sa durée de ce qu’elle a pour support un ensemble d’hommes, ce sont cependant des individus qui se souviennent, en tant que membres du groupe…chaque mémoire individuelle est un point de vue sur la mémoire collective […].”La mémoire collective, p. 94

[vi] Ibid., p. 113

[vii] O’Brien, “ ‘Il y a plus inconnu encore que le soldat: sa femme’ ”, p. 394

[viii] Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 11

[ix] Blair, Carole, et al., “The Arguments of the Tombs of the Unknown: Relationality and National Legitimation”, p. 452

[x] Ibid., p. 459

[xi] Mesnard, “Memory in Progress”, p. 561

[xii] Greene, Landscapes of Loss, p. 99

[xiii] Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, p. 5


Blair, Carole, V. William Balthrop and Neil Michel (2011): “The Arguments of the Tombs of the Unknown: Relationality and National Legitimation” in Springer Science + Business Media B.V., 12, pp. 449-468

Cardullo, Bert (1991): “The Wake of War” in The Hudson Review, 44, pp. 475-484.

Greene, Naomi (1999): Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema,       (New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

Halbwachs, Maurice (1950): La mémoire collective, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France)

Mesnard, Philippe (2014): “Memory in Progress” in European Review, 22, pp. 557-565

O’Brien, Catherine (1997): “ ‘Il y a plus inconnu encore que le soldat: sa femme’: Questions of identity in Tavernier’s La vie et rien d’autre.” In Wolfgang Görtschacher, Wolfgang and   Holger Klein (eds.): Modern war on stage and screen: Der moderne Krieg auf der Bühne, (Lewison, New York: Edwin Mellen Press)

Rothberg, Michael (2009): Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, (Stanford: Stanford University Press)





By Mads Damgaard, ph.d.-stipendiat, KU

Brazilians are corrupt.

I’m against corruption.

I’m Brazilian.

National stereotypes are terrible things. They are terrible in a double sense: Terrible as concepts to think through, as they tend to cloud and obscure the vicissitudes of humanity – and terrible, as in dangerous and not to be trifled with.

While academics of the humanities in most cases do well to shy away from stereotypes such as “the Brazilian” or “all Brazilians”, no scholar can stop such stereotypes from cropping up in everyday discourse, over and over. Like mushrooms, stereotypes sprout vast-ranging networks of roots, in bewildering and sometimes paradoxical formulations. One such paradox is condensed in the epigraph of this article. The stereotypical identification of Brazilian-ness with corruption is perhaps the most common prejudice held by outsiders, next to “sexual” and “fantastic football players”. No amount of academic debunking seems to kill such cultural clichés.

Stereotypes find fertile ground in the everyday practices and rituals of social life, where nations come together as a community in the imagination – the daily paper, the novel, the morning coffee (Anderson 1983). They are also nurtured intentionally with political motives, when politicians try to mobilize and arouse feelings of collective effervescence by waving the national flag and by constructing national or sub-national identities and rhetorical unity. In the following, I will discuss how the fertile ground of practice (in the Bourdieuan sense) and the nurturing moves of populism (in the sense of Ernesto Laclau’s empty discursive nodes, see Laclau 2005) make such stereotypes come alive and render them powerful, albeit paradoxically so. That paradox, condensed in the first clause, is the subject of this article, and the starting point of a discussion concerning the alleged dark side of Brazilian national identity.

O Jeitinho

The first sentence of our initial clause is perhaps best understood through an example: The notion that Brazilians are (all) corrupt will be illustrated through the jeitinho. Again, o jeitinho is a stereotypical shorthand, characterizing an apparently coherent set of actions and practices, performed every day in Brazil.

Jeitinho means, literally, the small road, and figuratively, the way out of a bureaucratic cul-de-sac by illicit means. In practice, jeitinho (Almeida, 2007; Duarte, 2006; Rodrigues, 2011) means asking for a favour that requires some rule to be bent. It means escaping the rigid Lusophone bureaucracy, and it often means giving something back – propina, or kickback – a bribe, if you will. It is, analysed anthropologically, a culturally inherited way of strengthening bonds through a network of favours, payments and small transgressions, thus making partners complicit and inclined to cover each other’s backs. It is alive and kicking, both for the street peddler trying to get out of a fine, and for the political entrepreneur in legislative bodies and court rooms. Everybody knows the implications – and everybody knows somebody who, through the jeitinho, cheats the system. Thus, the stereotype goes something like this: Of course, they (the stereotypical Brazilians) don’t practice the jeitinho themselves, or so the story usually goes, at least when prompted. But on the other hand, that refusal rarely means condemning a friend, cousin, or brother for finding a way out of administrative red tape with extra-legal measures.

As a quasi-accepted practice, jeitinho is one part of a double bind, a catch-22 peculiar to the great wave of corruption scandals engulfing the Brazilian parliament and Presidency these years. In the following, we will have a brief look at the other part of the double bind, that of the populist discourse connecting the Brazilian nation to the combat against corruption:

The Protests of June 2013 and the Impeachment of Dilma Rousseff

With increasing regularity in the last few years, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of São Paulo, Rio, Brasília, Porto Alegre and other state capitals, denouncing corruption in the political sphere. The wave of manifestations began in June 2013, when relatively minor protests against bus fare increases and general discontent with political management, unexpectedly snowballed into millions of protesters, waving wildly different flags. Famously, many banners, in lieu of space to list all the causes of the protest and societal problems, settled for “It was never just about the 20 cent fare increase”. What was it about, then? An impressive array of political mobilization claimed a stake in the June protests, but tellingly, the media coverage was especially tuned to those protesting against corruption.

The government took the cue and responded to that part of the motley political cauldron of points of discontent, proposing various ways of strengthening anti-corruption. Those measures never got off the ground, however, and the following year, in 2014, the Petrobras corruption scandal was triggered, sending shock waves through the political system that are felt to this day.

As is the rule with state companies, the oil giant Petrobras had its directors appointed through political processes, and the directories of supplies, construction, and international affairs had been divided between three major political parties of the government. These directors had then been tasked to not just administering their portfolios, but also making sure that money from contracts between Petrobras and the existing cartel of contractors in the construction sector would be channelled back into party slush funds. In March 2014, a small-time investigation carried out in Curitiba suddenly hit the jackpot by exposing one of the money-laundering schemes in place to occlude the graft in Petrobras. The case threatened to influence the result of the October elections for the presidency, but the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, just managed to carry the votes.

Shortly after the elections, the cry for impeaching Rousseff was heard in the streets of Brazil. As former chair of the administrative board of Petrobras, Rousseff was the obvious target of discontent with the Petrobras corruption, if not, at that moment, with the alarming state of the national economy. In February 2015, March, August and December, manifestations against Rousseff and her party gathered huge throngs in the state capitals, framing her and the Workers’ Party as “corruPTos”, a pun on the party abbreviation PT. Evidence has emerged that the protests were funded by opposition parties, but the slogans of the mobilization spoke of spontaneity and grass-roots: One major organizer was called Movimento Brasil Livre (The Free Brazil Movement), the other Vem Pra Rua (Take to the Streets).

On the protesters’ banners, in the speeches, their songs, pamphlets and online calls for action, the corruption of Brazilian politics was targeted. This constitutes the second part of the catch-22:

I’m against corruption. In fact, corruption is viewed as the most serious problem facing the country, ahead of unemployment, a nearly-broken public healthcare system, crumbling schools, and rampant violence in untold neighbourhoods across the country.

But, and here’s the return leg of our paradox, part 2 of the catch: Everybody wants to keep the jeitinho. 1 Well, not if you ask someone directly, of course. Rather, it is perfectly obvious from legal and media records that even in a political climate obsessed with anti-corruption, top tier politicians don’t seem to stop taking bribes – just like the jeitinho in the daily life of many, many Brazilians seems to persist.

Why would anyone want to maintain the practice of the jeitinho? Because, in the mundane world of compromises and making-ends-meet, it makes everything so much easier; because otherwise you couldn’t count on calling in favours someday, and because the hours and hours of waiting in lines, filling out forms, formally complaining, or even just filing a simple document will eat out the soul of anyone unlucky enough to depend upon the monstrous bureaucracy of Brazil.

The protests of 2015, culminating on March 13, 2016, saw several millions of people calling for the impeachment of Rousseff and the ousting of other corrupt politicians. How can we understand such hypocrisy on a mega-scale?2 One answer could be that though it appears as self-flagellation, protesting against corruption was a strategic union of national signifiers and certain political stereotypes, locating the cause of corruption with the left-wing government and masking the role of the CEO’s of the private sector, the corrupt directors of state companies and the role played by the supporting parties.

Our Flag Shall Never Be Red

The national dimension of the anti-corruption sentiments and the calls for impeachment was all too visible. The organizers had strategically claimed the green and yellow colours of the Brazilian flag as the graphic identity of the protests pamphlets, online calls to action, banners and other manifestation paraphernalia. At each public protest, the national anthem was also heard from the loudspeakers of the wagons leading the protests.

There were practical reasons as well as historical reasons for linking the flag and the national colours to the protests against corruption in the government. One important reason, expressed in a nutshell by Ernesto Laclau (2005) is the emptiness of the national signifier. With the generalized call to action, all of Brazil was discursively configured as the protagonist in the fight against corruption. Such a rhetorical move touches upon the very bedrock of how populist discourse can be constructed, says Laclau, because it envelops “the Brazilians” in a rhetorical unity, while shedding any dividing particularities in the internal, conceptual architecture:

… any popular identity needs to be condensed around some signifiers (words, images) which refer to the equivalential chain as a totality. The more extended the chain, the less these signifiers will be attached to their original particularistic demands. That is to say, the function of representing the relative ‘universality’ of the chain will prevail over that of expressing the particular claim which is the material bearer of that function. In other words: popular identity becomes increasingly full from an extensional point of view; for it represents an ever-larger chain of demands; but it becomes intensionally poorer, for it has to dispossess itself of particularistic contents in order to embrace social demands which are quite heterogeneous. That is: a popular identity functions as a tendentially empty signifier. (op. cit. p. 96)

The green and yellow colours promised to include everybody in the protests, whilst warning that anybody opposed to the protests would necessarily be anti-patriotic. The implicit claim, then, was the classic “either you’re with us, or you’re against us”. Thus, the previously empty signifiers came to mark and signify certain elements as different, creating a quite specific construction of national identity. In more detail, we need to ask what it would take to be against this empty but potentially nation-embracing rhetoric.

Of course, even though the national colours and the discourse seem to signify unity, room was still left for pointing out antagonists. By being against that national unity, signified by the national flag, anthem, and colours, you would supposedly signal not only anti-patriotism, but also an ideological stance: The colour-spectral dimension of the protests was forcefully tied to the cries denouncing communism and socialism as the deeper cause of corruption: “A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Será Vermelha”, Our Flag Shall Never Be Red. That statement associated the colours of the protests with a symbolic struggle over the hegemony of the state – since 2002, the centrist-social democratic Worker’s Party had dominated Brazilian politics, and the Worker’s Party choice of colour is and was, in classic left-wing fashion, red. Thus, the colours associated with Worker’s Party government were antagonized, even if the centrist-social democratic rule of Worker’s Party that begun with Lula taking the presidential mantle in 2002 had required all revolutionary aspirations to be sacrificed on the altar of the World Bank and the hegemonic Washington-consensus way of doing reforms. The green and yellow colours doubled their visual discursive workload by also tying the anti-corruption protests to anti-Cuban and anti-Venezuelan discourse of Brazilian right wing politics.

But claiming the flag had practical implications readily apparent to any large-scale street manifestation organizer. In Brazil, of course, home of the Carnaval – the world’s perhaps most visually daunting spectacle – the import of a coherent colour scheme and easily recognizable group identities is well known. Furthermore, six decades of rampant football fever have put untold millions of shirts of iconic national team players – Pelé, Ronaldo, Dunga, Ronaldinho, Neymar – in the drawers of the Brazilians. Thus, the welding of national identity through football icons, “national” outrage against corruption and a particular political moment of government-loathing emerged. In sum, the rather empty patriotic ideology of the protests combined national symbols with a particular political agency. National identity was thereby constructed, in a sense filling out the semantic void of the invocation of the flag.

As the President was finally ousted with the Senate’s vote for impeachment on August 31, a number of senators burst into singing the national anthem. 26 of the 81 senators are currently investigated by the Supreme court for corruption, fraud or other illicit activities. Several of these senators have been cited in testimonies in the Petrobras case as responsible for appointing the directors that later channelled money to party slush funds. This conclusion, quite fittingly, played out in front of the flag with the national lemma imprinted on it: “Order and Progress”.

A Supremely Ugly Document

While the street protests claimed the flag and the shirts of the national football team, the Senate and the Lower House of Congress claimed the Constitution as the national bulwark against corruption.

But, paradoxically, the Brazilian Constitution, with its awkward phrases, enormous size, and petrified clauses, could be seen as the real culprit. Because of the many compromises and skewed checks-and-balances embedded in the Constitution of 1988, the Brazilian political system has coalesced into a weird form of presidentialism-turned-parliamentarism.

The 1988 Constitution created many possible roads to vetoes, leaving the congressional door wide open for stalemates between executive and legislative branches3. Such stalemates create a consensual and inflexible style of governance. Worse, the Constitutional text has ensured minor parliamentarians a non-exhaustible source of income: Votes of the Congressmen are always a potential “nay”, and such legislative attitude has negligible costs for the common politician. In order to ensure bills getting passed, the Executive branch must therefore incessantly struggle to feed the ravenous appetite of the Congressional cattle for pork and political resources, if not straight-up money in brown envelopes. The jeitinho, at a much larger scale, trading political favours by the welding of personal bonds, reappears as the quotidian way of securing political progression and congressional support.

It was well known to constitutional scholars that the 1988 Constitution was “a supremely ugly document” (Reich 1998:5), but the Brazilian system seemed to behave anyway, even in somewhat a manageable and orderly fashion. The system of managing those coalitions, as disclosed in the Petrobras scandal, was in fact to a great extent facilitated by the greasing of political wheels.

And still, despite that knowledge of greased wheels and oily kickbacks, demonstrated by scores of plea bargains and witness accounts, the Congress and the Senate insisted on holding up the Constitution as the answer to the political crisis. Even with corruption probes threatening central players in the major parties of the Congress, synchronous with a veritable government meltdown, the idea perpetuated that impeachment of the President would solve the problems of the political elite, as long as the wording of the Constitution was honoured and the processes laid down by the Supreme Court upheld. Never mind that impeachment would not change the crisis of political representation, would not stop the veto construction of the parliamentary system, or that impeaching the president will not prevent the leap-frogging new president Michel Temer from being implicated in the very same corruption scandal as his predecessor.

In the political discourse of the supermajority of the Brazilian Congress, impeaching Dilma Rousseff was, emphatically, not a coup d’état. Why? Because the Law was upheld – because impeachment proceedings occurred within the framework of the Constitution.

The President’s Two Bodies

The benevolent light of the Federal Constitution shone upon the Senate, and let the body of the people’s representative and sovereign, the President, be metaphorically burned and substituted for a new body. Kantorowicz’s classic study of the sovereign subject and the double representation or embodiment can fruitfully inform our inquiry into national identity, corruption protests and impeachment:

… the corpus republicae mysticum […] was equated with the corpus morale et politicum of the commonwealth, until finally (though confused with the idea of Dignitas) the slogan emerged saying that every abbot was a ‘mystical body’ or a ‘body politic’, and that accordingly the king, too, was, or had, a body politic which ‘never died’… (Kantorowicz 1957:506)

Ousting one sovereign body makes room for the ritual ascendancy of another, supposedly clean body, proving that the process of expulsion did the people some good. The President is corrupt and ousted, hurray! Viva o novo presidente. The insight into medieval legal and constitutional theology pinpoints how it is possible to sustain the idea that specific persons, not the societal institutions and practices of Constitutions and jeitinhos are the ‘real’ problem. The corpus politicum is a priori morally good, while specific instances and Presidents might be corrupt. The question is reduced to the transferral of power unto the next in the dynastic (or Presidential) line of succession.

This fallacy leads ultimately to the last bit of the catch-22, the eternal double bind of Brazilian anti-corruption discourse and national sado-masochistic relations to political representatives.  The very same adoration and patriotic claims of national restauration and grandeur that underpins the political apotheosis embedded in every general election creates the unsustainable illusion of a powerful Presidency, government and Congress. Disappointing those expectations, the explanation can never be the status quo-preserving political system or the supremely ugly Constitution. The reason for political failure, of course, is unerringly cast as corruption – the single moral flaws of individuals, or, at the most, a single party. That paves the way for a new cast of political leaders, except they are never new in any real sense, but are rather the flotsam drifting at the given moment on the top of the wave of self-loathing directed towards the body political.

In this way, the initial movement is repeated ad nauseam:

Brazilians are corrupt.

I’m against corruption.

I’m Brazilian.

It is like the dialectic made famous in Heller’s novel Catch-22, in which Orr, a friend of the protagonist’s, must be choosing rationally by claiming insanity: A self-annulling process.

By tacitly accepting the jeitinho (or even partaking in it), the stereotypical small-scale corruption is made legit. Denouncing and protesting against it only paves the way to power for other politicians who will eventually be found all too “Brazilian” and corrupt.  Ousting one supposedly corrupt president and introducing another basically mirrors the repeated use of the bureaucratic backdoor and loud denunciation of one’s compatriots for corruption. The hope for a better democracy is dispelled in the very act, and the nation’s reputation for corruption perpetuated. By introducing new politicians to power, driven by a self-eclipsing desire for purity, projecting one’s own transgressions vis-à-vis the society into the televised dramas of the evening news, the initial idea is forgotten, defeated, and the same state of affairs is eventually reproduced.



In fact, it seems impossible to imagine the end of the jeitinho. Just after the 2016 Carneval, I found my own face on the second page of the major Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo. Hanging out for a 5-month fieldwork in the Brazilian capital to study the corruption discourse, I left Brasília for a brief stay in Rio, the cidade maravilhosa. Here, the media conglomerate Globo contacted me for an interview in the paper and a televised interview for their news channel. In the interview, I discussed the tsunami of news on corruption in the Brazilian mediascape, but the eventual published headline ended up reading: ”Maybe the jeitinho will change in 10 years”. The practice of jeitinho seems so ingrained in Brazilian culture that the idea of any changes seemed newsworthy to the editors of Globo. The headline of the Globo interview must have sounded ridiculous or naïve to many readers. Changing the jeitinho? No way, that’s never going to happen. Yet, protesting against corruption was part and parcel of the political arena and the most visible agenda item in the media, dwarfing even the Olympics in Rio and the deforming zika virus.


Maybe the double bind of the Brazilian self-understanding of corruption practices must be understood as a Lacanian pattern, a remnant from Catholic morality, going from sin to confession and redemption on a weekly basis. The transgression of the Law, the jouissance and desire to escape the straight-jacket of rigid rules, are too tempting to resist, but requires penance that in itself produces jouissance (Lennerfors, 2008): The righteous feeling of moral outcry against corrupt authorities, juxtaposing in manifestations one’s own transgression to those of the political elite, purging in a way one’s own soul by denouncing the representative body of the nation, Congress as well as the President. Echoing Georges Bataille (1991), the transgression is implied in the law, and so the just and right way of doing things is constituted and mutually constitutes the dark side of the law (Damgaard 2015). The loudest protests are the most suspect, then, or, with a British bon-mot: “Pot calls the kettle black”.


One political observer coined the term “movement in immobility” to encompass the dignified meandering of the political system, walking but never really getting anywhere (Nobre, 2013).


In the late 90’s, as the democratic system had stabilized and even solved the problem of hyperinflation, many political scientists actually marvelled at the Brazilian presidential system. Thus, researchers invented a new ideal type to describe it, and characterized it as a presidential system working through coalition management, or “coalitional presidentialism” for short (Powers, Raile and Pereira, 2008).


Almeida, Alberto Costa (2007) A cabeça do brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Record.

Bataille, Georg (1991) The accursed share, vol. III. New York: Zone Books.

Damgaard, Mads (2015) “Corruption: Multiple margins and mediatized transgression” in Ephemera, Vol. 15(2), p. 411-434.

Duarte, Fernanda. (2006) “A double-edge sword: The jeitinho as an ambiguous concept in the Brazilian imaginary.” in Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 1, 125-131.

Heller, Joseph (1961) Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kantorowicz, Ernst (1957) The King’s Two Bodies. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Lennerfors, Thomas Taro (2008) The Vicissitudes of corruption. Degeneration, transgression,

jouissance. Stockholm: Arvinius (Ph.D. Thesis).

Nobre, Marcos (2013) Imobilismo em Movimento. Da abertura democrática ao governo Dilma. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras

Pereira, Carlos; Power, Timothy J. & Raile, Eric D. (2008) Coalitional Presidentialism and Side Payments: Explaining the Mensalão Scandal in Brazil. Brazilian Studies Programme, University of Oxford, Workshop Paper 03-08.

Reich, Gary M. (1998) ”The 1988 Constitution A Decade Later. Ugly Compromises Reconsidered” in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 40:4, s. 5-24.

Rodrigues, Ronaldo et al. (2011) “Brazilian jeitinho: Understanding and explaining an indigenous

psychological construct” in Revista Interamericana de Psicología/Interamerican Journal of Psychology, Vol. 45, Num. 1, pp. 27-36


Af Jonatan Leer, Ph.d., Postdoc, DPU

D. 18. juni 2010 blev der inviteret til åben apéritif på gaden i det parisiske kvarter La goutte d’or i det 18. arrondissement.[1] Det virker umiddelbart som et meget hyggeligt og fællesskabsgenerende tiltag. Det var dog en særlig form for sammenhørighed, der skulle genereres. Det var en af de såkaldte ”apéro pinard-saucisson”, som ultra-højreorienterede kræfter har arrangeret flere af over hele Frankrig. De var åbne for alle, men der blev udelukkende serveret vin og svinepølse, og således var det fælles bord ikke åbent for alle, men kun for de ’ægte’ franskmænd. Jøder og ikke mindst muslimer var ikke tiltænkt en plads. Tværtimod skulle menuen netop fungere ekskluderende i forhold til disse ’uægte’ franskmænd.

Begivenhedens provokerende karakter blev bestyrket af det faktum, at den blev holdt i et kvarter med mange beboere med muslimsk baggrund og endda på en fredag, den muslimske helligdag. Det er dog ikke kun valget af ugedag, der er bærer af stor symbolsk værdi; det gælder også datoen. 18. juni 1940 opfordrede Charles de Gaulle i sin første radiotale fra London det besatte Frankrig til at finde våbnene frem og tage kampen op med den tyske besættelsesmagt. Med den omtalte apéritif opfordrede den ydre franske højrefløj 70 år senere franskmændene til at finde svinepølsen og vinglasset frem og tage kampen op mod den ”muslimske besættelse” af Frankrig. Herved kobles den ædle kamp mod nazisterne på liden subtil vis med denne højrefløjs aktuelle kamp mod indvandring og multikulturalisme. Tallerkenen er en af de kampladser, hvor slaget står.[2]

Denne højreorienterede apéritif er et skoleeksempel på det, man i de sidste års madforskning kalder gastronationalisme. Ved gastronationalisme forstås groft sagt madpraksisser, som bruges til at promovere en bestemt fortælling om nationen, der ofte tegner tydelige grænser op; både eksternt i forholdet til andre lande, men også internt i forhold til, hvem der ’hører til’ nationen, og hvem der ikke ’hører til’. Begrebet er lanceret af den amerikanske sociolog Michela Desoucey, som analyserer, hvordan madrelaterede praksisser og diskurser medvirker til at drage nationale grænser og hermed skabe national identitet midt i en globaliseret tidsalder. Desouceys analyse tager udgangspunkt i markedsføringen af den franske specialitet foie gras, som har haft det svært i EU-tiden, ikke mindst pga. dyrevelfærdsregulativer. Herved er denne fede spise blevet en brik i en større anlagt kamp mellem Frankrig og EU (Desoucey, 2010). Gastronationalisme kan således både være en økonomisk eller politisk strategi, men også en diskurs eller en naturliggjort national myte. Fx fremhæver den franske essayist og semiotiker Roland Barthes, hvordan oksebøffen og bøfspiseren er betydningsmæssigt blevet ”nationaliseret” i Frankrig, da begge fungerer som emblemer på national identitet og sammenhørighed i Frankrig (Barthes 1957, 730-731).

Gastronationalismen finder man dog ikke kun i højreekstreme miljøer. Den synes i stigende grad at gennemvæde store dele af de europæiske samfund. I en dansk kontekst finder vi den også. Vi ser det i supermarkederne, hvor vi opfordres til at købe dansk. Vi ser det i Randers, hvor byrådet har befalet obligatoriske frikadelle-serveringer i alle dagtilbud. Vi ser elementer af gastronationalismen i det ny nordiske køkkens nostalgiske længsel efter ”en (for)tid, hvor nordisk mad ikke var influeret – eller kontamineret – af fremmede fødevarer; en længsel efter en mono-racial og mono-etnisk fortid” (Andreassen 2015, 10).

I denne artikel vil jeg argumentere for, at vi også ser en bølge af gastronationalisme i europæiske madprogrammer, nærmere bestemt den variant, som man kalder rejsemadprogrammet, hvor en kok rejser rundt og laver lokal mad (Strange 1999). Hvor rejsemadprogrammet i mange år havde fokus på såkaldte ’fremmede’ madkulturer, så ser man i 2010’erne på tværs af Danmark, England og Frankrig, at landets førende TV-kokke laver madprogrammer, hvor nationen er i fokus, og hvor en oprindelig madkultur skal genopdages. Der skabes i disse kulinariske nationsfortællinger forskellige grænsedragninger, hvorved bestemte identiteter inkluderes, eksluderes og rangordnes i forhold til deres nærhed til nationen. I disse hierarkier indtager de hvide mandlige tv-kokke den øverste position. Dette argument vil jeg fremføre via analyser af det franske madprogrammer Le chef en France (2012) med Frankrigs førende TV-kok Cyril Lignac og Englands ditto, Jamie Oliver, og hans program Jamie’s Great Britain (2011). I min fremstilling vil det franske program udgøre hovedparten af analysen, mens Jamie’s Great Britain vil blive brugt diskuterende. Jeg vil argumentere for, at selvom begge programmer fremfører en gastronationalistisk diskurs, så adskiller disse diskurser sig også fra hinanden, og kan beskrives som henholdsvis en restaurativ gastronationalisme og en multikulturel gastronationalisme.

Først vil det dog være nødvendigt at kigge lidt på rejsemadprogramgenren.

Med TV-kokken på farten

Rejsemadprogramgenren associeres især med den britiske kok Keith Floyd, der i 1980’erne revolutionerede madprogrammet ved at tage kameraerne ud af studiekøkkenet og med på sine mange rejser (Rousseau 2012a, xvi). Floyd drager i sine programmer på kulinarisk opdagelse i fjerne egne af verden iført sin ikoniske butterfly (og med sit ligeså ikoniske og allestedsnærværende rødvinsglas) og laver mad på spektakulære locations. Gennem sine rejser iscenesættes Floyd som en kulinarisk eventyrer og spiller på en særlig maskulin figur, den mandlige eventyrrejsende (Strange 1998, 305), som vækker minder om de britiske koloniherrers udforskning af det gamle imperiums kroge.

Floyd inkarnerer ikke bare civilisationen, han civiliserer også den fremmede madkultur ved at forfine den med sine franske madlavningsteknikker, hvorved den kommer til at fremstå ’genkendelig’ og værdig til at blive serveret på store, hvide tallerkener. Således synes fascinationen af fremmede kulturer også at være koblet til en forestilling om disse eksotiske kulturers underlegenhed (Heldke 2003, 129). En lignende andetgørelse finder man også i flere nyere programmer inden for genren, såsom den britiske kok Gordon Ramsays rejse til Indien i Gordon’s Great Escape fra 2010. Selvom Ramsay udviser begejstring for det indiske køkken, opretholdes klare hierarkier mellem den indiske mad og det gourmetkøkken, han selv står for (Leer og Kjær 2015).

De programmer, jeg vil analysere her, adskiller sig fra de traditionelle rejsemadprogrammer ved, at der ikke er tale om, at en vært rejser til eksotiske egne af verden. Tværtimod udforsker værten sit eget hjemland. Programmerne bygger således på en formodning om, at der i det nære er noget ukendt. Noget, vi trænger til at få udforsket. Spørgsmålet er selvfølgelig, hvem dette ”vi” er? Disse programmer operer ofte med et byperspektiv, og seeren konstrueres som et bymenneske, der ikke har kendskab til det ’traditionelle’ liv på landet. Den ”anden” – det kuriøse individ, som er genstand for udforskningen – er derimod et menneske, som bor på landet og lever, som man har gjort det i generationer uden mærkbar påvirkning af modernitetens indtog.

TV-kokken i Frankrig

Siden sin debut på TV i 2004 har Cyril Lignac haft en række madprogrammer på M6,som er Frankrigs tredje mest sete kanal. Desuden har Cyril Lignac været vært og dommer ved de franske udgaver af Masterchef og Den store Bagedyst. Parallelt hermed har han udgivet mere end 40 kogebøger. Han er således den absolut største TV-stjernekok i Frankrig og har opbygget et større imperium ved frugtbart at kombinere rollen som professionel kok med roller som restauratør, madentreprenør og mediestjerne. Han fremstår som en dynamisk moderne mand, der også rummer et touch af noget metroseksuelt qua sin lange, slanke figur, sit altid perfekte stylede hår og sin lidt pjattende måde at adressere seeren på.

I programmet Le chef en France tager værten på opdagelse i de store franske regioner for at genopdage det oprindelige franske køkken, dets regionale praksisser og fødevarer. Serien består af to sæsoner med hhv. fire og fem episoder i hver. I hver episode tager Cyril Lignac til en bestemt region i Frankrig og besøger lokale madproducenter og opstøver de lokale retter og traditionelle madlavningsformer, der stadigvæk holdes i live. Hver episode er en fortælling om et specifikt territorium og dets særegenheder. Programmet konstruerer både en fortælling om en række unikke enheder i Frankrig og en fortælling om et samlet Frankrig, der binder disse forskellige territorier sammen.  Det urbane Frankrig er således ikke en del af denne Tour de France og slet ikke metropolen, Paris. De lokale repræsenteres dog i forhold til hovedstaden, som netop pga. af sin usynlighed kommer til at udgøre den norm, som denne periferi defineres ud fra. På den måde synes seriens perspektiv at være et centralistisk perspektiv, der således også viderefører en gammel, fransk diskurs om, at metropolen er den samlende kraft i Frankrig. Det er takket være metropolens styrke til at underlægge sig det heterogene korpus af regioner, som det franske territorium består af, at Frankrig er forblevet en forenet stat. Nationens storhed består altså i centralmagtens civiliserende styrke i forhold til periferien.[3]

Cyril Lignac besøger i første sæsons fem episoder Bretagne, Korsika, Auvergne, Marokko og Languedoc-Roussillon. Her kan man ikke lade være med at studse over, at Marokko ganske naturligt glider ind i serien ved siden af de andre franske provinser, som var det stadigvæk en del af Frankrig. I anden sæson udforskes regionerne: Provence Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Île de la Réunion, Pays de la Loire og Midi-Pyrénées: Her forlader Lignac også moderlandet og tager til det franske departement ud for Madagaskar, der modsat Marokko stadig er en officiel del af Frankrig. Selvom disse forskellige regioner samles som en del af Frankrig, opereres der i serien med forskellige nuancer af fremmedgørelse imellem regionerne, som direkte følger den geografiske nærhed til Paris. Således fremstår både Marokko og Île de la Réunion i seriens fremstilling som mere ”unormale”, og Lignac fremstår i større grad på fremmed grund her blandt disse ”vilde” og mørkere mennesker. Mange taler et andet sprog end fransk, og seriens fremstilling betoner, at madtraditionerne her er mere ”uciviliserede”: I Marokko spiser man med fingrene, og på Île de la Réunion er Lignac med til en religiøs fest, hvor hobevis af dyr slagtes rituelt i det offentlige rum. Modsat fremstår Pays de la Loire, der også kaldes ”Frankrigs have”, som mere roligt og tilnærmeligt. Her er menneskene hvide og taler et perfekt fransk, de spiser med kniv og gaffel og degusterer lokale vine fra højstilkede designervinglas.

I alle episoder opsøger Lignac folk i randområderne, hvor traditionelle praksisser holdes i hævd. Modsætningen mellem tradition og modernitet styrer serien narrativt gennem en opposition mellem immobilitet og mobilitet. Lignac inkarnerer mobilitet, når han drager på motorcykel fra et sted til et andet sted, mens de lokale fremstår immobile, da de altid bliver tilbage på det sted, hvor deres familier synes at have været forankret i århundreder. Fx er Lignac med til at hjælpe det lokale bagerlaug i den bretonske by Dournenez med at lave en traditionel kage, Kouing Amann-kagen, som er en tung butterdejsagtig kage. Efter fællespisning på landsbyens plads er det tid til at drage videre. I en afskedsscene ser vi uniformerede bagere, som Lignac roser for at holde den lokale kage-tradition levende, på en lang række, mens Lignac sidder på sin motorcykel. De vinker, da han motorcykler videre i landskabet, og hans næste destination tegnes op på et kort. Her er det tydeligt, at Lignac inkarnerer det moderne dynamiske individ, der hele tiden skal videre, mens de traditionelle mænd fikseres i deres stedsspecifikke lokaliteter, hvor de primært fungerer som anonyme videreførere af traditionen. Lignac fremstår som et individualiseret og dynamisk subjekt i udvikling, mens de lokale fremstår som den uindividualiserede masse, der er determineret af deres kollektive tradition.

Terroir og pastoral nostalgi

Traditionen kobles til stedspecifikke mikrokosmos, som typisk artikuleres gennem begrebet terroir, der især associeres med beskrivelser af vin, men nu bruges mere generelt til at betegne og markedsføre alle mulige produkter ved at betone deres unikke kvalitet og autenticitet bundet op på en stedsspecifik oprindelse. Således er det centralt for Kouing Amann-kagen, at den ikke bare er bretonsk, men kan spores til denne lille landsby Dournenez. Terroir betegner således en særlig kombination af natur og kultur. I Le chef en France synes de traditionelle mennesker at have et særligt gehør for terroiret, som ikke mindst udtrykkes gennem en særlig tidsfornemmelse. Der hviler en antimoderne tidsfornemmelse over de franske landområder, hvor tiden er konkret og naturbestemt. Tiden er aldrig abstrakt og mekaniseret som den urbane tid. Denne rurale tidsfornemmelse markerer også en pastoral nostalgi, da det er underforstået i serien, at livsformen på landet er mere ægte og naturlig, og den tilskrives en oprindelighed, som er gået tabt i det moderne urbane liv.

Lignacs besøg på L’île d’Ouessant, ud for atlanterhavskysten, hvor han skal lære at lave Le Ragout sous la motte er et eksplicit eksempel på denne pastorale nostalgi. Ragout sous la motte er en fåreragout, som er denne isolerede, lille øs specialitet. Det særlige ved den er, at den tilberedes i en jerngryde, som begraves i brændende, tørrede tørv. Marie-Jo, som er en ældre kone og specialist i denne ret, tager Lignac med ud for at grave tørv op på en skråning nær havet. Hun forklarer, at her ”krydres” jorden af de salte vinde, som dag efter dag siden tidernes morgen har blæst henover terrænet. Disse salte aromaer gives ifølge Marie-Jo videre til retten i de fem timer, den skal simre under tørvene.

I denne tilberedningsmetode involveres tiden på flere planer. For det første i det faktum, at det er en langsommelig ret. Først skal tørvene høstes og tørre et par dage, og så skal retten simre en hel eftermiddag. Det kræver altså et tidsmæssigt overskud at lave denne ret, som således ikke er foreneligt med en stresset storbytilværelse. Le ragout sous la motte fordrer ro. For det andet er disse tørv et produkt af naturelementernes påvirkning af jorden over tid, først havbrisens langsommelige forarbejdning af jorden, så den omdannes til krydret tørv, og derpå solens tørring og intensivering af tørvens salthed. Tørven er det centrale krydderi i retten, da den tilberedes i øens jord. Marie-Jo præciserer, at Lignac ikke vil kunne lave denne ret med sin græsplæne hjemme i Paris. Retten fordrer adgang til mulden på denne helt unikke lokalitet.

I dialog med traditionen

Som afslutning på sit besøg i hver region inviterer Lignac de mennesker, han har mødt på sin vej til en lille afsluttende middag, hvor han forsøger at lave en avanceret middag på basis af sine indryk. Der er her tale om en gourmetificering af bonde-og arbejdermad (Stamer 2012), hvor han giver dette jævne køkken et make over, så det kunne blive serveret i en af hans restauranter i Paris. Fx er desserten til hans bretonske middag en dekonstrueret Kouign Amann. Lignac tager et lille stykke af Kouign Amann-kagen og bruger den som bund til en anretning i flere lag. Ovenpå bunden sprøjtes en hindbærcoulis, hvorpå der anrettes hindbær, der er individuelt ”farserede” med samme coulis. Idéen er, at kompositionen skal fremstå som rosenbuket. Mellem disse ”rosenblomster” kommes pistacienødder, som smukt udbygger buketfornemmelsen qua de grønne nuancer. Kompositionen afsluttes med et drys flormelis og en perfekt svunget oval kugle is.

Denne dessert er med Lignacs egne ord en forarbejdelse af den bretonske kage, så den kan bruges som en ”grand dessert”. Han giver altså denne simple kage noget elegance gennem sine mere avancerede teknikker og ’vovede’ kompositioner. Hvor Lignac så en værdi i, at fx bagerlauget i Dournenez opretholder traditionen, så er han i sit eget arbejde mere interesseret i at forfine dette køkken og give det et personligt udtryk. De lokale defineres således  qua deres forpligtelse til at opretholde traditionen, mens Lignac fremstilles via sin kreatitvitet. Han er en kunstner, en créateur.

I Le chef en France opereres med et idealiseret og affirmativt møde med det traditionelle, rurale liv i udkants-Frankrig. Traditionen kan inspirere det moderne menneske og give dette menneske noget tabt ’autenticitet’, dvs. noget rodfæstet, noget solidt, som det mangler i det flydende moderne liv, hvor de traditionelle rammer opløses.[4]

Kouign Amann-kagen er et fornemt symbol på den kulinariske og nationale forhandling, som programmet portrætterer. Programmet påpeger, at det moderne urbane subjekt har mistet kontakten med positive præmoderne kvaliteter, som eksisterer i de traditionsbårne udkantsområder. Lignac forsøger på baggrund af denne erkendelse at integrere og sammentænke den traditionelle verdensorden med den moderne, således at den traditionelle nationale identitet igen bliver fundamentet. Den flotte dessert er netop skabt på en bund af tradition, den originale Kouign Amann-kage. Hele serien fremstår som en jagt på denne tabte nationale tradition, som er gået tabte i de moderne franske metropoler. Lignac vil forsøge at genopleve traditionen i en moderne ramme.

Revitaliseringen af den nationale myte

I 2010 blev Le repas gastronomique des Français [Franskmændenes gastronomiske måltid] optaget UNESCOs immaterielle kulturarv, som det første køkken i verden. I den forbindelse skrev historikeren Francis Chevrier, der anses for at være en af bagmændene bag den politiske proces om at få det franske køkken på verdens kulturarvliste, en bog om den franske madkultur med titlen Notre gastronomie est une culture. Heri efterlyser den engagerede historiker en form for madprogrammer, der kan være med til at formidle den franske madkulturarv (Chevrier 2011, 141).

Le chef en France synes netop at efterkomme den idé, som Chevrier fremfører. Hermed indgår programmet også i den diskussion om mad og nation, som i forskellige udgaver har fyldt den franske offentlighed i de seneste år – ikke mindst i kølvandet på præsident Nicolas Sarkozys relancering af debatten om den franske identitet i sin præsidentperiode (Wagener 2010).

Det er bemærkelsesværdigt, at Chevriers bog meget eksplicit kombinerer en kulinarisk og nationalistisk diskurs. Han plæderer for, at det gode måltid og den gode konvivialitet[5] er et særligt kendetegn for det franske folk (Ibid. 19). I en idealiseret og ideologiserende diskurs beskrives det franske måltid som det, der samler franskmændene og adskiller dem fra alle andre folk.

Det er altså en ganske anden opfattelse end den, den franske sociolog Pierre Bourdieu fremsætter i sin banebrydende bog La distinction (1979), hvor han netop påpegede, at måltidet var en arena, hvor Frankrigs klasseskel blev særdeles synlige. Bourdieus originale pointe er, at smag ikke reflekterer den enkeltes ”unikke”, fysiologiske smag, men derimod den enkeltes sociale position: ”Smag klassificerer og klassificerer den, der klassificerer” er en parole, som fanger essensen af Bourdieus bog (Bourdieu 1979, VI). Smag er en differentieringskunst eller differentieringstaksonomi, hvor smag og ikke mindst afsmag fungerer distinktivt inden for de forskellige klasser og sociale grupperinger, da ”den sociale identitet defineres og bekræftes i forskellen” (ibid, 191). Madkulturen synes at være et ekstremt rigt felt for Bourdieu for sådanne smags- og afsmagskonstruktioner i 1970’ernes Frankrig. Fx fremhæver borgerskabet deres overlegenhed igennem deres raffinerede måde at spise på, som står i kontrast til arbejderklassens bastante køkken, hvor kvantitet er vigtigere end kvalitet. Borgerskabet ser ned på arbejderkøkkenets simpelhed og mangel på stil. Til gengæld afskriver arbejderklassen borgerskabets køkken som snobbet og overfladisk. Begge bruger maden og forskellige kulinariske idealer som medium til at skabe distance til den anden gruppe.[6]

Hos Chevrier ses den franske madkultur kun som en samlende faktor, der opløser klassemæssige og regionale forskelle. Madkulturen synes også at afspejle, at Frankrig er længere fremme i den civilisationsmæssige evolution, da måltidet her er et ritual, der raffineret udspiller sig i flere akter, hvorimod man i Asien og Mellemøsten ifølge Chevrier smækker det hele på bordet på en gang, som man gjorde i Frankrig for 200 år siden. Disse landes køkkener fremstilles som tilbagestående i forhold til Frankrig. Således er den unikke franske madkultur ifølge Chevrier både en national tradition og et udtryk for modernitet, der fortsat kan udgøre en samlende faktor i en tid, hvor globaliseringen truer de gamle europæiske nationale fællesskaber.

Det er svært ikke at læse Le chef en France ind i sådan en nationalistisk revitalisering af det franske territorium, der romantiserer den franske kultur fra tiden før globaliseringen og før indvandringen. Vi møder også kun hvide franskmænd i de forskellige regioner. Le chef en France byder ikke på et eneste glimt af de 5 millioner muslimer, der bor i landet. Det er ikke deres Frankrig, Lignac besøger. De eneste mørkere mennesker, vi får at se i serien, er dem, Lignac møder under sin smuttur til Marokko. Således afspejler serien en verden, som den så ud for mange generationer siden, hvor hver etnicitet var i sit eget terroir. Det er også bemærkelsesværdigt, at programmet i Marokko adskiller sig fra de andre ved to ting. For det første er der ikke noget afsluttende måltid, hvor Lignac inviterer sine nye venner til middag og improviserer over deres madkultur. Dertil er denne kultur måske for fremmedartet, men det giver i hvert fald et indtryk af, at der er en større distance her mellem den moderne vært og de lokale traditioner og mennesker end i de andre ”hvide” steder. For det andet så betones kønsopdelingen af køkkenarbejdet i dette program flere gange. Det gælder fx, da Lignac en fredag formiddag er hjemme hos en husmoder og lærer at lave en rigtig couscous, mens manden er i moskéen. Her pointerer Lignac, at sådan gør man her. Den samme kønsopdeling bemærkes ikke på Île d’Oussant, når det er to mænd, der dræber fåret til ragout og siger, at nu skal Lignac gå hen til Marie-Jo, for det er kun hende, der kan lave mad. Her kommer Lignac ikke med en kommentar om, at i de mindre moderniserede tilbagestående landlige samfund i Frankrig er der klare opdelinger mellem hvad, der er mandearbejde, og hvad, der er kvindearbejde. Her distingverer serien også mellem en hvid traditionalisme, som beskrives med nostalgi, og en mørkere traditionalisme, der beskrives som fremmedartet.

De ’hvide’ franske regioners forskellighed påpeges igennem programmets jagt på de lokale kendetegn, men de forskellige regioner omfavnes også alle af en idé om en fælles konvivialitetsforståelse (som i Chevriers fremstilling) og af den nostalgiske drøm om en præmoderne pastoral idyl, hvor folk levede i pagt med naturen. I næsten alle episoder er vi ude at fiske og møder landmænd, der har dyr gående i baghaven. Således udvisker programmet også regionernes forskelligheder ved at påpege, at der bag ved disse ’overfladiske’ forskelligheder er en ”dybere” lighed i de rurale franskmænds fællesskab om et traditionelt liv i naturen og i kontakt med det franske terroirs særlige orden. I Le chef en France forsøger Lignac at danne bro mellem de moderne og præmoderne felter inden for det franske territorium.

Jamies britiske rundrejse

Jamie Oliver revolutionerede madprogramgenren i slutningen af 1990’erne ved at gøre madlavning på TV ungt og smart (Hollows 2003). Sidenhen har han opbygget et forretningsimperium, optræder på mange forskellige platforme og har i tidens løb været vært på en række madprogrammer. Heriblandt også flere rejsemadprogrammer. Ikke mindst Jamie’s Italian Escape, hvor Jamie Oliver udforsker det italienske køkken, der har været en inspiration for ham fra starten af karrieren. Mødet med det ’ægte’ italienske køkken bliver dog en blandet fornøjelse. Oliver udtrykker i seriens slutning en vis ambivalens i forhold til italienerne, da han er imponeret over, at italienerne holder fast i deres madtraditioner, men undres over, at de ikke har lyst til at ”prøve noget nyt”. Oliver er særligt skuffet over, at italienerne ikke er vilde med hans nyfortolkninger af deres traditionelle retter. Serien ender faktisk med, at Oliver priser englænderne og deres madkultur, for de er da i det mindste ”open-minded” modsat italienerne. Englænderne er ikke bange for at spise thai en dag, sushi den næste dag og pizza den tredje dag. Deres madvalg er ikke styret af traditioner. Herved bliver spejlingen i italienerne en måde at markere sin nationale stolthed og overlegenhed på.

Det er således ganske naturligt, at Jamie Oliver i Jamie’s Great Britain tager på en kulinarisk rundrejse i England, Wales og Skotland. I introen ’bekender’ Jamie, at han i sit virke som tv-kok har været for fokuseret på at søge inspiration udefra og ikke har udforsket sin egen madkultur – og tilføjer: ”Whatever that is”. Herved sætter programmet også grundlæggende spørgsmålstegn ved selve idéen om en oprindelig og stabil britisk madkultur. For at illustrere denne pointe bruger Jamie Oliver i introduktionen et velkendt eksempel, nemlig apple pie. Æbletærten har i generationer været symbolet på den britiske madkultur, men Oliver påpeger, at selve tærtekonceptet kommer fra ægypterne, at æblet oprindeligt er fra Vestasien, og at kanelet også kommer langvejsfra. Så denne ikoniske, britiske ret er på ingen måde autentisk britisk.

Jamie Oliver ser en stor værdi i det britiske køkken. For ham er det kendetegnende for briternes forhold til mad, nemlig at de er særdeles gode til at appropriere andre køkkener og gøre dem til deres egne. Introen slutter illustrativt med, at vi ser Jamie Oliver servere et stykke apple pie på en tallerken: ”You know what it’s so damn tasty and it’s ours now!” Så overhældes tærtestykket med tyk, britisk custard, hvorefter der klippes til et billede af en krøllet papirudgave af Union Jack. Så rives der adskillige bidder af flaget, og snart er fanen en kollage, der har beholdt Union Jacks geometriske former, korset og krydskorset, men hvor fragmenter af andre nationalflag fylder disse strukturer ud.

Denne kollage illustrerer, at for Oliver er essensen af det britiske køkken at være åben og modtagelig for kulinariske input fra hele verden og samtidig give det et umiskendeligt britisk touch. Herved beskrives Storbritannien som en globaliseret nation, der er i konstant udvikling. Programmet illustrerer således den afsluttende pointe i Jamie’s Italian Escape, hvor han tog fra Italien med en nyvunden stolthed over den britiske nation. Mødet med de stædige italienere, der ikke var meget for at prøve noget nyt, havde lært ham at værdsætte den ”openmindedness”, som karakteriserer briterne.

Et andet eksempel på denne særlige britiskhed finder Jamie Oliver i den skotske ret haggis.[7] Den smager han på en gastropub, hvor kokkene elsker at lave nye variationer af klassiske retter. Haggis er ifølge Oliver en opskrift, der er overtaget fra vikingerne, der slog sig ned i regionen for mere end tusind år siden. Retten har siden udviklet sig. I den version, han præsenteres for på gastropubben, er den vigtigste ingrediens krydderiet allehånde, som kommer fra Jamaica. Dette krydderi er først blevet introduceret i den britiske madkultur lang tid efter vikingerne. Således er denne ret et produkt af både udveksling og udvikling. Det særlige britiske er netop ifølge Oliver at være stolt over udviklingen.

Dekonstruktionen af den gamle myte om et autentisk britisk køkken kompenseres af myten om en særlig britisk måde at være i verden på, som er baseret på udsyn og eventyrlyst kombineret med evnen til at individualisere (”make it our own”). I programmets konstruktion inkarnerer Jamie Oliver dette ideal til perfektion, da han vil arbejde videre i denne ånd og gøre disse britiske klassikere til sine egne (”make them mine”). Både den nationale (”make them our own”) og den individuelle individualisering (”make them mine”) er altså det, der kendetegner Storbritannien og det eksemplariske, britiske subjekt.

Inklusion og eksklusion i madprogrammerne

Forbindelsen mellem terroir, madkultur, etnicitet og nation er forskellig i Jamie’s Great Britain og Le chef en France. I sidstnævnte udforsker kokken kun ’det hvide’ Frankrig. Den eneste undtagelse er en episode i Frankrigs tidligere koloni Marokko. Her møder vi ’mørkere’ mennesker, men de befinder sig ikke på den franske heksagon. Således konstruerer serien et naturligt forhold mellem den franske jord, hvidhed og fransk mad. Selvom de forskellige regioner har deres egenart – graden af hvidhed varierer fra Loire til Korsika, og madtraditionerne divergerer – så konstrueres regionerne som mere ens end forskellige. De fremstår blot som variationer over én særlig fransk tilgang til mad, som binder nationen sammen, og som udvisker alle forskellighederne. Den franske madkultur knytter så at sige bånd fra den franske jord til det fælles nationale bord. Dette bånd er dog i denne fortælling et bånd mellem hvide mennesker. De fem millioner muslimer, som bor i Frankrig, og deres bidrag til det franske køkken, er fraværende. Det er særligt bemærkelsesværdigt, da den nordafrikanske specialitet couscous er den mest spiste ret i Frankrig!

I Jamie’s Great Britain understreges det konstant, at båndet, som den britiske madkultur skaber, er meget mere farverigt. Det er et bånd, der signalerer multikulturalisme og globalisering. Jamie Oliver dekonstruerer myten om, at der findes en statisk og oprindelig myte om et særligt hvidt, britisk køkken, forankret i den britiske jord. Det sker fx, når han pointerer, at selv æbletræet oprindeligt ikke er britisk, men noget, der er importeret til det britiske terroir, hvor det trives vel. Myten om et direkte og naturligt bånd mellem den britiske jord og det nationale bord destabiliseres, da der insisteres på, at der altid har været massive påvirkninger udefra, som afspejler sig på alle niveauer i processen fra jord til bord.

I seriens fjerde episode besøger Jamie Oliver Bristol og fortæller, at denne havn i mange år var centrum for den britiske handel med krydderier og slaver. Oliver understreger, at englænderne ikke skal være stolte over det, men han konstaterer også: ”it is a part of history”. Oliver betoner endvidere, at det caribiske mindretal, der har slået sig ned i byen som resultat af denne historie, nu giver solskin og krydderi til den britiske madkultur. Historien endte altså godt.

Æbletræet og den caribiske madkultur er to former for påvirkning af den engelske madkultur. Forskellen består primært i tidsperspektivet. Træet er kommet fra Centralasien, men har slået rødder i det britiske landskab for hundredevis af år siden, mens de caribiske immigranter er kommet til Storbritannien i nyere tid. De er begyndt at slå rødder, men stikker modsat æbletræet stadig ud. Der er også den forskel, at mens æbletræet er blevet en grundsubstans i det britiske køkken, så tilføjer de caribiske immigranter et pift. De er dog begge centrale i Jamie Oliver s remytologisering af den britiske madkultur.

Således er der altså også plads til de ikke-hvide køkkener og subjekter ved Jamie Olivers britiske bord; man kan nærmest sige, at disse mennesker er fundamentale i det britiske køkken og den nationale selvforståelse i Jamie’s Great Britain. Herved er det britiske køkken i mindre grad knyttet til jorden end til det, som udefrakommende kræfter har tilført jorden. Disse udefrakommende kræfter er dog blevet tæmmet eller samlet under den samlende åbenhed og omstillingsparathed, som Oliver associerer med britiskhed.

Selvom Jamie understreger ”fremmede” kulturers vigtighed for det britiske køkken (og dermed den britiske kultur), så er Jamie’s Great Britain styret af et hvidt blik og en idé om den hvide kernestamme. Under sin udforskning rejser Jamie rundt i en til formålet bygget bil, en rullende pub, der bærer navnet The Cock in Cider. Dette mandehørmende hyggerum med indlagt fadøl kommer til at fremstå som essensen af det ærkebritiske. Det fællesskab, der prises, synes også at være et hvidt, britisk fællesskab, og storheden i det britiske køkken og den britiske kultur består i hvide menneskers evne til at integrere og omfavne fremmede køkkener og kulturer. Dekonstruktionen af myten om et stabilt, britisk køkken og en stabil kultur, erstattes af en anden myte, nemlig myten om Storbritannien som en vellykket multikulturel nation takket være hvide menneskers åbenhed og deres dynamiske forhold til forandring. Det er ikke de etniske småsamfund, der er åbensindede, men derimod den hvide majoritet, der har formået at inkludere hele verden i sit køkken. De etniske minoriteter holder nemlig fast i deres ’egen mad’ og indlemmer ikke det britiske i deres køkkener. Således fremstår de (som italienerne i Jamie’s Italian Escape) fikserede af deres tradition (modsat italienerne er de dog ikke på et fremmed territorium). Modsat minoriteterne evner de hvide briter at shoppe rundt mellem traditioner og ’gøre dem til deres egne’. Således fastholder Jamie Oliver en form for adskillelse i al sin inklusion. Som race-og kønsforsker Sara Ahmed påpeger, så beror det nationale ’vi’ i flere multikulturelle diskurser på inklusion af de fremmede, men i denne inklusion opretholder de ofte på paradoksal vis deres status som ’fremmede’ (Ahmed 2000, 113).

Restaurativ og multikulturel gastronationalisme

I Jamie’s Great Britain og i Le chef en France møder vi forskellige vægtninger og forskellige konstruktioner af nationen gennem en udforskning af dens madkultur og madtraditioner. I begge tilfælde er der dog tale om moderne mænd, der opdager deres ’eget’ terroir og tilskriver det værdi. Herved positionerer de sig selv som dem, der kan skabe bånd mellem forskellige dele af nationen. I Le Chef en France er det den gamle, landlige verden og den moderne, urbane verden. I Jamie’s Great Britain er det mellem de forskellige etniske grupperinger i samfundet.

Så selvom begge programmer opbygger idylliserede fremstillinger af den nationale madkultur som udtryk for national storhed og sammenhørighed, så er der altså også forskel på de to narrativer. Lignacs gastronationalisme har et restaurativt element over sig, da den vil genskabe en særlig traditionel madkultur i moderne rammer. Han vil bevare den monokulturelle nationale identitet i en globaliseret tidsalder, hvor denne tradition er truet.  Anderledes er Jamie Olivers nationale udforskning. Her forstås den særlige britiske nationale identitet som et produkt af en særlig omstillingsparathed og evne til at domesticere de nye ”fremmede” elementer, som globaliseringen har ført med sig. Denne gastronationalisme er snarere en multikulturel gastronationalisme. Denne opretholder dog en hierarkisk skelnen i al sin multikulturalisme, hvor den traditionelle hvide britiske identitet får en privilegeret position.

Denne sondring mellem en restaurativ og en multikulturel gastronationalisme kunne måske inspirere uddybende analyser af de gastronationalistiske diskurser, der florerer i den aktuelle europæiske offentlighed. Mad spiller en central rolle i dette nationalistiske klima, og selvom disse gastronationalistiske narrativer varierer, så synes man på baggrund af denne artikels læsninger at kunne konkludere, at nationale retter promoverer nationens ret til at sikre og fastholde de hvide medborgeres særlige position.




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[1] Denne artikel er en sammenfatning og udbygning af et kapitel af min ph.d. Ma(d)skulinitet (2014), samt artiklerne Gastronationalisme i det moderne Frankrig (FranskNyt 1 2016) og Jamie Oliver: Den multikulturelle gastronationalist (Friktion 2, 2016).

[2] Eksemplet fra Goutte d’or er også diskuteret i bogen La république et le cochon (2013). Heri argumenterer den franske historiker Pierre Birnbaum for, at svinet har fungeret som et centralt symbol for den franske nation fra dens fødsel. Oplysningsfilosoffer som Voltaire diskuterede indædt om jøderne kunne betragtes som rigtige borgere, når de nu ikke spiste svin, der var en hjørnesten i nationens køkken. Svinet har altså fungeret til at definere de rigtige og mindre rigtige medborgere igennem hele republikkens historie.

[3] For en gennemgang af dette komplicerede forholds historiske rødder henvises til kapitlet Le centre et la périphérie (Agulhon 1992) af den franske historiker Maurice Agulhon i den stort anlagte Frankrigshistorie Lieux de mémoires, der er redigeret af historikeren Pierre Nora, som i årtier har arbejdet med den franske identitet.

[4] Flere har påpeget dette fravær af traditioner og strukturer som et grundvildkår i moderniteten. Den tyske sociolog Zygmunt Bauman beskriver dette i bogen Liquid Modernity (2000) hvori det bl.a. hedder, at det er ”rimeligt at betragte ’fluiditet’ eller den flydende tilstand som en dækkende metafor, når vi søger at forstå den nuværende, på mange måder fremmedartede fase i modernitetens historie” (Bauman 2006, 8-9). Den britiske sociolog Anthony Giddens taler om noget lignende med begrebet det posttraditionelle samfund, som er karakteriseret ved individernes relative frisættelse fra samfundets institutioner og kollektive traditioner. Individernes livsbane er ikke kortlagt fra fødslen af klassiske fællesskabsmarkører (religion, etnicitet, klasse), tværtimod ”må selvet skabes refleksivt […] midt i et forvirrende virvar af muligheder og tilbud” (Giddens 1991, 11).

[5] Konvivialitet dækker over ”den særlige følelse af opstemt sammenhørighed folk kan gribes af når de spiser et måltid sammen” (Boll-Johansen 2003, 177)

[6] I de postbourdieuske diskussioner om smag har flere dog påpeget, at de distinktive praksisser ikke længere kun kan forstås på baggrund af (økonomisk) klasse, men at smagsideal nærmere fungerer som indgangsbillet til forskellige ad-hoc-fællesskaber (Povlsen 2007, 47). Den franske sociolog Michel Maffesoli taler allerede i 1988 om neotribalisme, altså et samfund, hvor forskellige nye stammer opstår omkring brands og trends i tiden. Han foreslår, at man må tage grundlaget for idéen om distinktion op til revision, da den bourdieuske distinktion ikke kan gøre rede for disse forskellige nye sociale grupperinger (Maffesoli 1988, 24). Således synes Maffesoli ikke at forfægte idéen om, at den sociale identitet konstrueres i forskellen, men ser den bourdieuske klassedistinktion som én blandt mange; særligt er der i den kulturelle overklasse en stribe nye stammer, som er klassemæssigt sideordnede, men samtidigt distingverer sig fra hinanden.

[7] Haggis er en ”skotsk ret af indvolde fra får traditionelt bestående af en fars af finthakket lunge, hjerte, lever etc. nyrer, fedt og havregryn tilsat hakket løg, korender, rosiner og krydret med salt, peber, muskatnød. Farsen kommes i en fåremave, som derefter koges. Retten, der i dag betragtes som den vigtigste skotske nationalret, spises traditionelt med neeps and tatties, kålrabimos og kartoffelmos ledsaget af whisky, men findes i dag i mange udgaver lavet på forskellige typer kød og med varierende krydring.” (Pedersen & Fakstorp 2010, 111)