Memmi’s unheard sense and sensitivity:
A Praxis of Truth
Él no necesita la verdad; necesita la esperanza.
Adán Madrigal, 2014
More than a precautionary compassion is needed if we are to help decolonized peoples; we must also acknowledge and speak the truth to them, because we feel they are worthy of hearing it.
Albert Memmi, ix 2006
Albert Memmi is a novelist, philosopher and sociologist born in Tunis, into a Jewish family. He studied at the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Tunis and eventually moved to France, wrote in French and became a French citizen. His published work is a quest to comprehend and situate himself in the worlds in which he lives.
Through his writings and characters, Memmi observes his relationships to himself and others (spouse, family, neighbors), with different identities (Tunisian, French, Jewish) and societies, as well as to the larger ideas and issues of his time (such as colonization in the fifties, decolonization in the present). His uneasy existence as an Arab, a Jew, and a Frenchman, a colonizer and a person who’s been colonized—as he perceived himself and described himself in his writings–– makes him an object of study, a mirror through which he has been able to analyze larger questions.
Memmi’s coming and going between the subjective and the objective brings to the surface insights unreachable through other means. The result is brilliant, and—-sometimes–-perplexing; it is always quite solitary. It is always risky.
Memmi’s oeuvre is a pursuit and a praxis of truth within an ethos of integrity. Memmi performs an exhausting exercise to reach the depth of his preoccupations. In his Testament Insolent (2009), Memmi wrote "Bien que, dorénavant, mes intérêts me portant surtout ailleurs, la dominance continue à me préoccuper [...]1 (47). In his first writings, in the fifties, Memmi addressed his Jewish Tunisian experience only through novels. La Statue de sel is published in 1953. The first English edition was in 1955, under the name The Pillar of Salt. After La Statue de sel, Memmi published Agar in 1955. In 1960, it was translated into English under the name of Strangers.2
Memmi’s most acclaimed and influential work is the essay Portrait du colonisé, précédé du Portrait du colonisateur, published in 1957, translated as The Colonizer and the Colonized in 1962. This work describes and explores the colonized and colonizer condition under the essay genre. It will be in the sixties that Memmi integrates under the essay genre his own personal experience as a Jew and a Tunisian with his observations and reflections about the oppressed and excluded people. Portrait d’un Juif was written between 1962 and 1966, and was translated subsequently as Portrait of a Jew and The Liberation of a Jew, in 1966.
For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the risks Memmi takes specifically in the construction of two of his characters of his early novels, Alexander Mordekhai in La Statue de sel (The Pillar of Salt) (1953) and the unnamed protagonist in Agar (1955) (Strangers). Both characters pursue truth, which leads them to meet themselves, their different parts. The action in the novel advances with their steps to accomplish that integration. The purpose of this article is to assess Memmi’s thought and oeuvre as powerful, enduring, and full of possibilities; thus, valuable—on both the literary and humanitarian scales.3 His other novels such as Le Scorpion (1969), Le Désert (1977), Le Pharaon (1988) as well as his essays such as: Portrait du colonisé, précédé du Portrait du colonisateur(1957); Portrait d’un Juif (1962), La Liberation du Juif (1966), L’Homme Dominé (1968), Ce que je crois (1985), Portrait du decolonisé arabo-musulman et de quelques autres (2004) and Testament Insolent (2009) serve as a backdrop against which those risks can be truly assessed.
La Statue de sel, as in Agar, Albert Memmi chooses a main character that is male, Tunisian, and Jewish like himself. In La Statue de sel, his name is Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche, a native in a colonial country, a Jew in an anti-Semitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe. Mordekhai’s father is also a Tunisian-Italian Jew as was Albert Memmi’s father. Mordekhai’s mother is an indigenous (Touansa) Jew. Mordekhai is recruited by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and introduced to French culture, as Memmi was. The unnamed character from Agar returns to his hometown (in Tunis), after he finishes his medical degree in Paris, with a bride, a blonde Catholic from Alsace. Memmi himself started his studies in medicine.
Memmi succeeds in rendering the multiple layers that co-exist in conflict in the experience of such complex characters. Memmi’s struggles to express these conflicts in a language, a structure, French,4 to which he has no emotional ties from his childhood, is a risk and a struggle in itself, which is the principal struggle of his characters.
Thus began my hand-to-hand struggle with language, if only because my pronunciation of the French r and of the nasals was wrong. Dimly, I felt that I would penetrate into the soul of this civilization by mastering its language. I wrote without pause and I was never satisfied because I saw that I nearly always worked on the skin of things and failed to reach the flesh. I sometimes asked myself riddles: what is the right word for such and such a thing? It seemed to me that objects would remain foreign to me until I was able to name them correctly. (Statue, 108)
Memmi’s decisions to take elements of his own biography, I argue, become lieux5 from where Memmi is able to deconstruct and reconstruct his characters and himself. Memmi resorts to the depths of his lived experiences, which can be only comprehended by inhabiting them. Memmi needs to appeal to his complex reality, otherwise he would lack a possibility—or a language—to explore and unveil it.
The referent world Memmi fictionalizes in his novels is foreign to the Tunisian world, the Jewish world and the French world all at once. It is a world of constant flux, and overlapping, where rupture seems to emerge as the only constant and permanent reference. Thus, the ethical need of Memmi is to firmly adjust to references to the real (unseen) world, the one of his own deep displacement. His deep world is invisible and undepictable in its richness and contradictions—within the mainstream French wor(l)ds.6 Memmi goes from one layer of pain and confusion to another, cleans them so effectively that he is able to transcend the attachments to his own emotions, transform them and offer them to his readers. The journeys of Memmi’s characters guide us to enter through their struggling words to worlds full of possibilities and literary implications. The specificities of his characters’ experiences and situations allow us to understand exclusion fully. In parallel, behind those specificities lies a universal principle: any person who is excluded in any aspect of life (whether interpersonal, social, economic, ethnic, religious, or worldviews can connect with these characters.
At the genre level, Memmi crosses the lines of what is fiction, essay and ethnography. At the personal level, Memmi shares through his characters his most intimate fears and attachments. Exposing them so limpidly in a language foreign to his immediate affections is a majestic search of integrity and of courage.
Unfortunately, I spoke like no one on earth. I tried desperately to speak this language which wasn’t mine, which perhaps will never be entirely mine, but without which I would never be able to achieve self-realization.7
Mordekhai and the unnamed protagonist rebel against Judaism, religion itself, and the “superstitions of orientals.” Yet, they exhaust all their emotional and intellectual resources to persist in being part of their families, and maintain their emotional ties.
In his first novel, La Statue de sel (1952), Memmi describes Mordekhai’s experience as a child playing in the alley Impasse Tarfoune in the Jewish quarter of Tunis. The novel continues with Mordekhai’s quest to understand himself in his family, community, and world.
In Agar, the novel develops when the unnamed protagonist returns to his hometown with his Alsatian wife. The novel describes and explores the difficulties in the character’s relationships, where he feels excluded from all of them: with parents and spouse, with the neighbors and the community. Memmi takes a double risk here. The unnamed protagonist makes efforts to be accepted by family and community in spite of the fact that he has crossed the boundaries of what is expected from a Tunisian and from a Jew in that time and space. The communities with which the protagonist has to interact (larger Tunisian society, Jewish religious, Jewish secular), guard identity as a way to survive in a world dominated by Christianity and the ‘West’. He sees himself as part of a ‘chain of life’ he cannot betray, because of his communities’ condition as oppressed people. Thus, the character faces the moral concern that by breaking from his communities, he threatens their intimate existence and survival. The unnamed character wants to honor that chain of life, and also wants to feel free to use his own links––such as his wife, who honors another dimension of himself; the camaraderie on one side and the kindness and care he received from her in his experience in France. The family and community feels that it is impossible to fit the new links; and the spouse feels it is impossible for her to be part of that chain. The unnamed struggles to integrate his multiple experiences and sensitivities.
Memmi’s characters take uneasy positions. An easy exit for the unnamed protagonist would be to choose one of his parts and to forget the others (have a happy marriage and forget his town and people, or marry a townsperson and forget the person he has chosen). Memmi’s characters original intention in each novel is not to break with one or any of their parts (family, spouses or the French). The unnamed character wants to have a successful marriage, and at the same time fit in his family, in his community, his country, the world, fitting in with full comprehension of the larger picture; without having to deny any part of his realities, and sensitivities, without having to offer concessions.
The different obstacles the characters find, on their path towards integrity, make them reflect and revise what they are doing. At times, they think their efforts might be useless and pointless. Mordekhai confessed that he thought about taking his life in “Departure,” the last chapter of La Statue de sel.8 The unnamed protagonist asks himself if his actions actually have any sense at all.
Perhaps he was right. One must play one game at a time, and keep strictly to the rules: either a definite return to tradition, clericalism included, or else a clean break. But here was I marrying a “foreign girl,” refusing to have my son circumcised, while I hesitated to offend the village folk!… What did I stand to gain by confronting two such different worlds. (Strangers, 90)
The unnamed character gains the courage to look at what is the sense of this intention of reconciling the different parts of himself, his Jewishness, his Alsatian wife, the desire to make his parents happy. In doing so, he takes the risk of finding that all of what he has done has no sense, but still he has the courage to keep questioning. In that serious task of questioning, he does it deeply, with no concessions to himself, with no fear about the answers, with no shields, with no attachments to any of the parts that constitute who he actually is, detached from any community or Western dominance. Courage is the quality used by these characters, as their last possible resource, to take action, since the internal processes that lead them to their decisions and actions, are based on ethics.
Memmi’s characters take the risk of being excluded from the French culture and the modern world. The unnamed character feels he cannot break with the great chain of life to which his family is attached.
When the unnamed character separates from his intimate realm, he finds temporary shelter in the universal principles of metropolitan France. The unnamed character in Agar bitterly reflects, after talking to a lawyer who was supposed to help him in finding a way for his wife be legally accepted in Tunis. After the attorney states “Our community cannot receive a foreign girl into its midst without guarantees,” the unnamed reflects:
And at that very moment, with heart and soul I knew I was on Marie’s side, oh yes! All the best in me, the freest from all barriers and frontiers! It was frightening to look back and think what I might have become without her! (88)
The unnamed character had become a medical doctor in France. He, as Mordekhai, made a choice for French and the hope of “good will” of “metropolitan France.”
Mordekhai confesses that he likes his community’s music where movement and rhythm are more important than the idea. Mordekhai tells himself how he feels regardless of how the modern world might identify him, projecting its images of the Orient. Mordekhai says: “I must confess that Western music rather bored me. As I had not been taught any appreciation of music, I generally had a hard time trying to avoid finding it monotonous and oversophisticated.” (Statue, p. 156). On the other hand, he acknowledges that it is: “the expression of a civilization of men who had become masters of the world.”
As the novels advance, the characters become more and more entrapped. Their feeling of being deprived of the possibility of reconciling their multiple dimensions (their experience with the world and their inner experience) increases on each page. Their surroundings bring images of themselves with which they progressively find it more difficult to relate and cohabit. The hope of being accepted by their communities, families and now, modern society, as who they actually are—all of them simultaneously–vanish as reading progresses. If they want to be themselves, and keep all the traces of their experiences within themselves, they will not be accepted and loved as such. Mordekhai clearly summarizes his breaks, in the last chapter, significantly called “Departure,” of La Statue de sel:
So I have progressed from crisis to crisis, each time finding a new equilibrium, though a bit more precariously; still there was always something left that could be destroyed. This time, the accounts are balanced: at last nothing shields me from myself. I made my break with my break with our blind alley because it was but a childish dream, then with my father and mother when I grew ashamed of them, with values of our community because they were obsolete, with ambition and the middle-class world because they are unjust and their ideals all questionable, with the city because it still lives in Oriental medievalism and has no love for me, with the West because it lies and is selfish. Each time, a part of me has disintegrated. I thought of death, of leaving the world. But never has the idea of death been so familiar and so present, like a ripe decision (p.335).
Mordekhai progressively loses the hope that occupying his actual body and his narratives, he can be grounded and granted a legitimate life from the protagonists outside (families, the city and the ‘West’). He is never going to be accepted with his name and his experience in his alley. The solution is an escape from a social body (scenarios) because given the circumstances, Mordekhai and the unnamed will not be allowed to be simply who they are by, paradoxically, inhabiting who they actually are. They are not escaping from their inner truth, not from the truth of the world.9 They are escaping from the reality of colonized people. Memmi defines colonization as “une forme de brigandage de peuple à peuple, une spoliation et une exploitation : économique, une aliénation culturelle, imposées par les armes, poursuivies et organisées par une domination politique. (25) Within all these bodies ‘controlling’ the subjects, it becomes impossible to just be a man like any other. However, the particular thing in these novels is that the main characters, Mordekhai and the unnamed, are oppressed by both oppressors and oppressed people. Oppression is internalized by the colonized. Family, neighbors and the city impose images and values on their own people. This constitutes what Memmi will call later a duo.
Colonized people are denied their own body by the colonizers: how they speak, how they move, how they connect; the denial of their chain of life; to be loyal to their narratives. As a counterpart, they cannot hear their own voices, denying the peer colonized (all other colonized individuals), who guard that body, as if it were, their freedom, or the possibility to break away from it.
Here there’s no solution; whatever my choice, I would have suffered. If the world is everywhere such a tissue of lies and hatred as here, then life is but endless despair. Perhaps I owe to myself to cross the ocean first. Perhaps elsewhere I will be taken for a man of good will with a simple case history and simple feelings. Perhaps my body and my soul will recover there. If ever I get cured of my tuberculosis and my life which I should never have known, I will then have all of my life ahead of me. The secret of living must be simple, since all men live. If I die, at least my apprenticeship will have been thorough. With all my heart, I hope what I have learned can be of help of others. (Statue)
As the pages go on, the characters become more and more disappointed with the different dimensions they have identifed themselves with. Not only they are depleted from the possibility of being complete with their multiple dimensions (their experience with the world and their inner experience), they become void of any identity.
In the chapter called “The War” in La Statue de sel, the detachment from and lack of identification with European culture moves from the sensorial level to an ethical one. Mordekhai expresses his disappointment with himself for having put his faith in Europe:
When the decrees were published, I was not so much struck by the material side of the catastrophe as disappointed and angry. It was painful and astounding treason, vaguely expected but so brutally confirmed, of a civilization in which I had placed my hopes and which I so ardently admired. With a crash, the reassuring idea that colonial Frenchmen and those from metropolitan France were not the same was now demolished. The whole of Europe had revealed its basic injustice. I was all the more hurt in my pride because I had been so uncautious in my complete surrender to my faith to Europe. (Statue, 272)
In these two novels, the endings are quite abrupt. Rupture is the only solution Mordekhai finds in La Statue du Sel. Mordekhai ends up embarking for Argentina, to start a new life. In Agar, the unnamed protagonist intends to overcome the differences with his wife, but he ends up separating from her. The only possible way to have a life, is to get the courage to encounter oneself. They choose courage after they have tried everything else to break through the duo in which they are trapped.
I am amazed at not being afraid; but habit gives one courage, and I have actually watched for my self-discovery for a long while: I am dying through having turned back to look at my own self. It is forbidden to see oneself, and I have reached the end of discovering myself. God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt—is it possible for me to survive my contemplation of myself? (Statue, 335)
These characters see with limpid eyes the singularity of every other character and social group with which they interact. These characters are suffocated by the multiple obstacles to just being “a person like any other.” Multiple circumstances and surrounding realities are constantly putting in question their own existence.10 They cannot develop their humanity without having to face how modern culture questions their sense of family, their emotional ties, their taste in music, at every step when they speak with an accent, or join in a dinner, or have to spell their name. On the other hand, their families and communities do not have enough love or trust to just let them be. In spite of all these overwhelming situations, Mordekhai does not lose sight of reality. Life, in its imminent presence is the reality, a force that plays its game, and which rises above all the attachments:
I did not kill myself because I remembered the ditch in summer camp where I used to go and weep every afternoon, and because I refuse to allow myself any compromises. I am leaving now with Henry to give what is left of my life its last chance. (Statue, 335)
Through the character of Mordekhai, Memmi gets with surprising clarity to the center of the pain with no metaphors. Going deep, he finds the light: those moments of real happiness. Overall, I admire the internal work Memmi has undergone to get to those clean words. After the internal work, Memmi has to use his intellectual energy to bring the intrincate reality into a new text(ile) to be shared and to be comprehensible for someone unconnected to the specificities of that reality. In parallel, the depth of his sight makes his particular observations universal. At the core of this emotional-intellectual journey, lies the universal scar of the abuse perpetrated by the perverse use of difference (domination).11 Memmi is able to bring to light the obscurities of wor(l)ds so unintelligible to one another, after this exhausting process. Memmi, through this clean style12 in his novels, crafts the feelings which are hard to articulate and map, and brings them to the surface. And finds, at the center of the crossroads, that domination is the key to comprehend his characters.
Memmi needs to delve down to an important part of the sensitive dimension of his own inherited situation and possible ways of experiencing the scenarios and characters of his upbringing without artificial shame in doing so. Memmi does not embellish the plural and contradictory feelings that these feelings are made of. This attitude might render uncomfortable an intellectual culture which tends to avoid the risks of personal involvement, elaborating abstract and disembodied theories, beautifully crafted in entelechies. Memmi’s simplicity reconnects trustworthy subjective concrete experiences and abstract (“objective”) constructions/systems. Memmi’s pursuit is limpid, and because of that it surprises us by throwing light on our human condition with our everyday battles to deal with ourselves, our miseries, our achievements.13
Memmi’s explorations of his characters serve him as a point of reference that dialogue with his own experience and enrich our understanding of Memmi’s oeuvre. Memmi’s serious, deep, committed, and exhausting journey through his own subjectivity and experience, accomplished with immense courage, clarity and compassion, embodies what many critics have seen as an “objective point of view” in his The Colonized. When he dives deep, Memmi finds the key of his preoccupations (domination) and the wisdom to survive it (his connection with what is beyond domination: truth).
While his The Colonized and the Colonizer is still considered a classic work, Memmi’s latest arguments, as he himself anticipated in the preface of Decolonization and the Decolonized, have been distorted and unheard. Assuming a new risk, Memmi revised his heart’s full statements of The Colonized and the Colonizer and wrote in the introduction:
Rarely have I had so little desire to write a book. For in writing Decolonization and the Decolonized, I feared that my
arguments would go unheard or be distorted, or might compound the problems faced by still fragile societies in need of our support.
Nevertheless when all was said and done, I felt there was an urgent need that formerly colonized peoples have an
opportunity to hear a voice other than that of their so-called allies.
[…] But in writing Decolonization and the Decolonized, I fear I have managed to annoy just about everyone.(ix)
Ending Notes: The Continuities in Albert Memmi
C’est dans l’inventaire de la condition du colonisé que j’ai découvert de nombreux traits de la dominance, mais je suis plus encore frappé par l’ampleur et la generalité de la dominance, donc la colonisation est un cas particulier.(Testament Insolent, 25)
Memmi comments regarding his The Colonizer and the Colonized, “I was Tunisian, therefore colonized. I discovered that few aspects of my life and my personality were untouched by this fact.” Like Memmi, few aspects of the unnamed and Mordekhai’s lives and personalities are untouched by the fact of being colonized. In the preface of La Statue de sel, Albert Camus uses the following words to refer to that mark: “Le curieux sujet du libre qui est aujourd’hui offert au public, c’est justement l’impossibilité d’etre quoi que ce soit de précis pour un juif tunisien de culture française” (9).14 The lives of Mordekhai and the unnamed protagonist are touched by the fact of colonization and by the impossibility to be anything precise, definable. That impossibility through the novels is imposed, is acted out by different characters such as parents and neighbors (in La Statue de sel), parents and wife and rabbis (in Agar). These characters are part of what Memmi will coin as the Duo in his later essay Testament Insolent. In this work, Memmi declares that what has always obsessed him is domination, of which colonization is a particular case, and the most brutal of our times.
In his novels, Memmi opens through his characters new mindful places from which to feel and think the colonization experience. Memmi is not telling us about how domination is embodied in the dominated, but he allows us to experience it ourselves. In his audacious enterprise, Memmi offers his own lived experience as an artefact. To undertake such a task, he needs to undergo different detachment processes: from himself, from the different parts of himself. All detachments hold within themselves the risk of jeopardizing the comfort that those attachments provide. The risks Memmi takes along his literary and intellectual journey can be summarized as follows. First, detaching from the intimate language of home, in the intimacy that is bound to it, detaching himself from the emotional by using himself as a point of reflection for organizing and thinking beyond. This carries with it the risk of falling apart, and losing a structure, a shelter that can be an ultimate shield, which become translated in the formal level of his oeuvre as an institutionalized literary genre (risk 0, which is connected with risk 3). Secondly, the risk of not belonging to his affective network or chain, of detaching from family, community and city. Becoming uprooted, destructured emotionally and isolated, displaced spatially and geographically, he would have to create his own networks and space (literal and metaphorical) of affection (risk1). Thirdly, the risk of not belonging to and detaching from the dominant culture, French and literary; risking the possibility of losing a social-hierarchical structure within which he could be publicly acknowledged, and legitimized. Memmi risks losing that legitimation also (risk 2). Fourthly, the risk of not belonging to any meta-discourse: intellectual, academic or political, from which he could articulate or defend his different detachments. This completes the circle, returning to the problematic detachment of literary genres. Memmi draws from different literary genres, political agendas and sources of knowledge, exposing his writing to be distorted and miss- classified (risk 3)
All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been, it should be understood, a constant revolt against my attachments; all of my work, for certain, has been an attempt at reconciliation between the different parts of myself. (Albert Memmi, 1995)
Mordekhai hopes to put an end to the suffering of the different rejections he had in his life. And in doing so he adds his own rejections. Camus wrote in the preface of the French edition, “Le jeune homme dont l’histoire est contée ici ne parvient a se définir qu’en additionnant aux refus que les autres font de lui les refus que lui-meme oppose au monde”(1953, 9). The same is true for the unnamed character. Mordekhai lists his unreconciled parts: the alley where he played but which now is a dream, the parents he grew ashamed of, the obsolete values of the community, the unfairness and the tricky ideals of the middle class, the oriental medievalism that has no love for him and the selfishness of the West. Mordekhai cannot breathe anymore in that sea of rejections. He indeed has tuberculosis. He has a last hope to become a simple man by crossing the ocean, and all those attachments will not torture him any more after crossing. At the same time, the unnamed hero leaves his marriage, as if by doing so, he can leave behind the attachment not to his wife, whom he actually loves, but to the space he is inhabiting: the marriage which embodies the social values of both, colonized and colonizer. The unnamed exhausts himself after trying to reconcile them. Both characters hope to escape away from all those spaces, scenarios where the lack of communication and noise had managed to appropriate all aspects of their lives. Love became something else; its traces lost even in the city that had sculpted their sensorial world. As Mordekhai actually articulates it, “the city does not have enough love for me,” it has become the space of permanent failures, reproaches, where demands and expectations are impossible to fulfill.
Are they able to solve their problem of exclusion and rejection by leaving the scenario where rejection is embodied? Are they able to live their lives freely? Camus argues that the end Memmi offers in La Statue de sel is a literary resolution. And for Camus, characters like Mordekhai never leave an unresolved issue.15
The risk Memmi undertakes in his Decolonization and the Decolonized project has to be understood within this sensitive and sensible scenario. Sixty years have gone by. Decolonization has finally took place. Formerly colonized people can govern themselves and own their “chains of life,” the fabrics they are made of. Decolonization and the Decolonized is the bitter, yet lucid, acknowledgement that it is not enough to become decolonized, to be freed by those that attempt against the complete and full development of our humanity. And there is no literary resolution like the one offered in the novels. No true freedom is possible by just cutting the chains that oppress or dominate us; to the emotions attached to us by ourselves and others—communities, family members, dominant cultures.
Memmi prescribed that “having reconquered all his dimensions, the former colonized will have become a man like any other with all the ups and down of all men to be sure.” (The Colonizer and the Colonized).
In these new decolonized times we have to deal with “all the ups and downs of all men.” This is the simple, and yet complex task undertaken in Decolonization and the decolonized. Memmi’s deepest preoccupation about domination is revisited by rethinking the new situation of the Mordekhais and the unnamed characters. “People still in need of our support”—as Memmi nicely and fondly puts it, need hope to be free from the present and persistent ways of exclusion and domination. They deserve an informed hope. They deserve to hear a voice that is not the one of their former colonizers. Domination, as Memmi in his Testament Insolent attests, is a duo. Memmi clearly had ethnographied that duo of the colonizer and colonized. The colonized is deprived of any possible way of life and the colonizer is tragically enslaved in denying the other’s existence. One is not allowed to see, and the other does not see. Domination is internalized by the dominated, who attach themselves to ideas or feelings that are not of them. Mordekhai and the unnamed are honest toward themselves, see their own weaknesses, show respect and integrity to all of the other characters, especially to those of us once excluded and oppressed. But, “More than a precautionary compassion is needed if we are to help decolonized peoples; we must also acknowledge and speak the truth to them, because we feel they are worthy of hearing it” (Decolonization, ix).
Memmi’s characters dive into the deepest darkness because it is only there that the miracle of comprehension happens, where they co-habit with domination and meet themselves; they preserve differences and try to neutralize the perverse uses of them. Writing is Memmi’s diving equipment into truth and the realities built by domination and the perverse uses of differences for personal or for collective profit. The characters have their moments of doubt in their journey to meet themselves; Mordekhai states: “I should have not supposed to meet myself.” Is that the doubt that dominates today’s former colonized people? In spite of doubts, Memmi’s characters know and perform that there are points where transformation will not be possible if they do not face the truth—as hard and difficult to swallow as it might appear. The decisions of Memmi’s characters brought them to solitude and isolation. That is a possible outcome (paralysis or the construction of fantastic worlds detached from what we are made of) Memmi’s oeuvre, and especially Decolonization, are for me another, and yet parallel, outcome, a way to avoid that isolation by reaching out, without betraying our thoughts and feelings; persevering in the healthy, robust and respectful construction of a communication channel. Memmi, now in his nineties, reassures us that it is the only path we can pursue. Hope moves us, but truth can transform the path of history, opening our eyes to new unthought-of possibilities.
Memmi’s characters face with courage, clear vision, limpidity and love the resistances and rejections of their communities, families and ethnicities, of French culture and the modern world. They stand with “eyes wide open.” Memmi’s oeuvre to meet himself, to work on his own attachments, in order that each and all become complete human beings, is a stimulus for those in need of help to become owners of their own voice. The risks Memmi takes are responsible and exemplary. They involve an unflinching effort to present his experience, courage to see and act, the discipline of self-awareness, a tireless and exhausting clarity of vision. Memmi in his last Decolonization project might manage like his characters in his novels “to annoy almost anyone.” His characters have lost in their path, the comfort of a shelter or the defense of shields. What is gained from all that? It might be the answer lies in Mordekhai’s words: “With all my heart, I hope what I have learned can be of help of others.
* With a
background in communications, comparative literature and anthropology,
Macadar is interested in the building of knowledge, and the genres (e.g.
memory and verbal art) through which it is circulated, as well as the
ethical decisions implied in the production of academic, literary, and
art work and in the everyday language within social contexts, which
drove her to pursue her Ph.D. in Folklore and Ethnomusicology. She is
currently a Research Affiliate with Indiana University. In her
dissertation on Sephardi communities in the River Plate area, she finds
in Memmi’s oeuvre the language to articulate her own experience and to
formulate her questions.
1 Translation is mine: “Whilst, and henceforth. . .domination still preoccupies me.”
2 Strangers does not translate Agar [Hagar] in its multiple layers. It has lost the heteroglossia, contained in the term agar. I am lending myself the term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin, as the discourse or word, which within itself speaks multiple languages at once. Agar means and in itself contains multiple meanings. Those meanings get completely lost in the translation to Strangers. In Spanish, the translation of the novel keeps the name Agar.
3 These characters function as Beatrice in Dante’s Inferno.
4 Memmi does it in a monolithic language.
5 I have in mind De Certeau’s concept of lieux, and lieux de savoir, particularly exposed and developed in The Practice of Everyday Life (L’invention du Quotidien, 1980) and very successfully translated into Spanish as La invención de lo cotidiano.
6 Each language is a compound of the traces, emotions, and histories embedded in it.
7 The French original does not speak about self-realization. It says: “et pourtant m’est indispensable à la conquête de toutes mes dimensions.” The Spanish translation translates it literally “indispensable para la conquista de todas mis dimensiones.” There is an important difference between being able to conquer the different dimensions we are made of, and self-realization. Probably one is a condition for the other one, but that step should not be ignored. I argue that the conquest of the different dimensions of himself and the characters is the flesh of Memmi’s oeuvre.
8 See quote at RISK 3.
9 Camus in the preface of La Statue de sel, “Ce genre de héros ne part jamais, ou, s’il part, c’est avec lui-meme, qui ne change pas”(10).
10 Camus writes in the preface: “Que sera-t-il donc pour définer? On serait tenté de dire un écrivain, puisque Memmi donne avec La Statue de sel une prevue qu’il l’est, et puisque aussi bien un écrivain se définit d’abord par une incapacité, d’ailleurs nostalgique, à se fonder dans l’anonymat d’une classe ou d’une race” (9, 10).
11 This is how Memmi defines Domination in Testament Insolent.
12 This clean style should not be confused with simplicity. Other Memmi scholars have claimed the same.
13 Albert Camus.
14 “The curious theme of this book that today is offered to the public is the impossibility for a Jewish Tunisian of French culture of being anything precise” (translation is mine).
15 “Mais il s’agit d’un artifice Romanesque. Ce genre de héros ne part jamais, ou, s’il part, c’est avec lui-même, qui ne change pas.” (La Statue de sel,10).
LIST OF WORKS CITED
Bakhtin, Michel. The Dialogic Imagination Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Macadar, Marquesa. Sephardic Diaspora: A Case Study in Latin America Ann Arbor. UMI, 2009.
Madrigal, Adán. Repensar los ejes de nuestros movimientos intelectuales con ojos nordafricanos y chicanos. In Simposio Genealogías Críticas Contemporáneas. Lecturas Latinoamericanas. V Congreso Interoceánico de Estudios Latinoamericanos, II Congreso Internacional de Filosofía y Educación en Nuestra América, Mendoza: Universidad de Cuyo, Noviembre 2014.
La Statue de sel. (The Pillar of Salt) 1953; Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1972.
The Pillar of Salt. New York: Criterion Books, 1955.
La estatua de sal. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de la Flor, 1979.
Agar. Paris: Corréa, 1955.
Strangers. New York: Avon Book Division, 1960.
Portrait du colonisé, précédé du Portrait du colonisateur. Paris : Corréa, 1957.
Retrato de un judío. Buenos Aires: Editorial Candelabro, 1964.
The Colonizer and the Colonized. New York: Orion, 1965.
Ce que je crois. Paris: Grasset (1985).
Le nomade immobile. Paris: Arléa, 2000.
Decolonization and the Decolonized. Minneapolis: The University of Minessota Press, 2006.
Testament Insolent. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2009.
LIST OF CONSULTED WORKS
Brozgal, Lia. Against Autobiography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013
Roumani, Judith. Albert Memmi. Philadelphia: Celfan Edition Monographs, 1987.