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Call for Papers | Portals, Spring 2017, Volume 14

Let us turn a critical eye to objects in relation to human beings, as portrayed through literature and culture. With the recent proliferation of Brown’s “Thing Theory,” our understanding of the relationship between humans and inanimate objects has expanded. An analysis of the materiality of the human body as it compares to that of objects, as well as the distinction between “object” and “thing” will make up the focus of the upcoming 2017 Portals volume.
The Comparative Literature Student Association invites you to submit original critical essays and short creative fiction of a comparative or critical nature. Papers that engage the theme of human-object interaction in diverse literary and linguistic traditions will be featured prominently, though all will be considered.
Submission Deadline: April 9, 2017
Send your original and previously unpublished submission as a .doc attachment to with Portals Submission in the subject line.

Authors will be contacted within two weeks of the deadline.
Submission Guidelines:

  • Essays should be in MLA style, 12-point font, and no longer than 25 pages; these will compare at least two texts from different linguistic traditions. Citations should include the original language and an English translation.
  • Authors may submit up to 3 pieces of critical or comparative fiction.
  • Authors should be currently enrolled undergraduate students, graduate students, or doctoral candidates.
  • Include a 250-word abstract and a cover sheet with contact information, including school affiliation and current academic standing. Your name should not be featured outside the cover sheet; this is a blind selection process.
  • Submissions not in English will be considered, though translations will be prioritized.

All inquiries should be directed to our editors at:

Portals is published once a year in the spring semester at San Francisco State University, in conjunction with the Comparative Literature Student Association (CLSA). Portals features student work that contemplates literary topics across cultural, regional, linguistic, and temporal boundaries. Portals is available in scholarly journal listings worldwide.
We encourage authors to read our journal thoroughly before submitting.

Is Doctoral Study Right for You?

Presented by Ellen Peel
Professor of English and Comparative & World Literature

Thursday, September 11
4:30–5:55 p.m.
HUM 587

All graduate and undergraduate students considering applying to a Ph.D. program are invited, especially those with a major in the College of Liberal & Creative Arts.

Sponsored by the College of Liberal & Creative Arts

Traveling Through Fantastic Modernity: Reconsidering Time Travel Fiction as a Landmark of Historical Fiction

by Baoli Yang

Regarding denial of the historical features of time travel fiction and the confusion about the identification of this genre, I propose that literary genres are not mutually exclusive categorizations but perspectives through which different aspects of literary texts can be enlightened. Some time travel fiction in world literature can actually facilitate modern audiences to approach  and understand  historical events and formulate a historical consciousness more easily. Thus, time travel fiction can be regarded as a sub-genre of historical fiction. This paper will compare “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” by Lilian Lee, “Incident at Sokolniki” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and Laughing Wolf by Tsushima Yuko, to discuss how time travel fiction engenders personal empathy by using the history of personal experience which reconstitutes an individual’s national identity. These three works highlight the confrontations of human trauma in their collective history or personal memory. Structurally, time travel fiction creates defamilarization of historical events by manipulating “chronotopes” and forming novel patterns of fabula and sjuzet.  From the perspective of affect theory, time travel literature subjectifies history and opens a new avenue for historical awareness. These texts show that time travel as a device does not inhibit the preservation of informative historical accuracy or the production of an imaginary empathetic power for the modern reader, but rather celebrates emotions and feelings that were not recorded in historiography. Furthermore, the rise of time travel fiction symbolizes a new morality in the writing of realism in modern times.

In March 2011, under the pretext of preventing their audience from receiving an inaccurate perception of history, the government of China banned a number of popular time travel television dramas which had characters traveling back and forth between the past and the present. Most of these time travel dramas are based on popular fictions. Their official censorship announcement reads: “[…]several time travel dramas have arbitrarily fabricated mythical stories with strange and quirky plots, their means of expression is absurd and they depict superstition, fatalism and reincarnation […] In light of this, hopefully all the institutions involved in their production will rectify the ideology of their creative output…” “别申报备案的神怪剧和穿越剧,随意编纂神话故事,情节怪异离奇,手法荒诞,甚至渲染封建迷信、宿命论和轮回转世…对此,希望各制作机构端正创作思想…( The State Administration of Radio Film and Television)[i].  In a conference explaining the announcement, a government spokesman expressed special concern over the classification of time travel themes: “apparently [time travel dramas] do not fit into any of the categories of costume, modern or mythical drama.” He also pointed out: “now there is no conception of history in the prevailing time travel fiction and the connotation of the whole genre has no positive influence… it has no respect for history or culture.” “古装、现代、神话似乎都不合适。穿越剧可以成为题材百花齐放的品种,但题材内容表现方式有很多可商榷的地方。…现在穿越剧毫无历史观可言…对历史文化不尊重。(  Chinese censorship betrays a certain dangerous and threatening, yet seductive, attractiveness of the time travel theme, which is powerful enough to confuse the audience’s perception of the historical past and literary genres. At the same time, this announcement discredited the attribution of literary creativity and the possibility of serious reflection on history in the time travel genre.[ii]

Since the publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, traditional Western literary criticism has mainly regarded themes of time travel as science fiction.[iii] This categorization has prevailed, thus contributing to the abundant output in the genres of literature, film and other media. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, both of which did not emphasize the aspect of science fiction.. However, there are also some doubts about this, from insiders such as Paul Nahin, a mentor to time travel fiction authors, who comments: “The only place you could find people writing positively about time travel and time machines was in science fiction, and even science fiction writers didn’t really believe the concept was anything more than a fantasy. They wrote time travel stories because readers loved the idea, and editors would pay for what the writers produced” (2). H.G. Wells explained how he arrived at this realization: “[Works of time travel fiction] are all fantasies, they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream”(Nahin, 6-7). These two opinions on the classification of time travel are based on the plausible probability that it could technically happen in real life.

However, similar to Chinese censorship, Nahin fails to explain why audiences fancy this “nonsense” genre. Consistent with banning time travel fiction in China, the views of Nahin and H. G. Wells convey that time travel fiction has nothing to do with reality and history.  Therefore, they consider time travel narratives as fantasy, namely “self-coherent narrative[s] that [are] impossible in the world we live in.”[iv]  Since fantasy is strongly connected to “unrealistic” narratives, the perspective of realism would view time travel fiction as ahistorical, and thus deprived of a specific, real-world history.

The aforementioned attempts at categorization reveal an endeavor to recognize literary works by means of fixed taxonomies of mutually exclusive literary genres in order to seek the text’s “absolute truth.” However, many literary critics have challenged the stability of these concepts with respect to the genre of narrative. Jonathan Culler asserts that genre is “a set of expectations, a set of instructions about the type of coherence one is to look for, and the ways in which sequences are to be read” (Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach 51). Similarly, Foucault points out in The Order of Things, that categorization is “a limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that (xv). With novels as an example of literary narratives, Mikhail Bakhtin notices their rise in modern times, but also states that “the novel precisely as a genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development” (11).  While Culler reveals the psychological motivation behind labeling genres onto literary texts,  Foucault challenges the legitimacy of categorization. Nevertheless, by the comparison of narratological features of epic and novel, Bakhtin argues that even if we are justified to discuss the genre of the representative of the “absolute past,” namely the epic, it is premature to judge the genre of the representative of lengthy prose narrative, namely, the novel. Notably, Bakhtin does not deny the necessity of genres when discussing prose works – he also suggests that there could be new perspectives with which to view this issue.

Bakhtin implies that any literary text is a heteroglossic locale and has various identities within literary genres and could thus meet various subject expectations. Any conclusion regarding time travel fiction as representative of a single genre only highlights one aspect of the whole narrative. The attempts to categorize the time travel theme suggest multiple possible interpretations from the perspective of various literary genres as long as the classifications are all relevant to the texts. Time travel could be seen in ancient drama to reveal  traditional lifestyles, modern drama to show modern trends, myth to idealize national origins, or science fiction that displays advanced scientific inventions or fantasy involving the supernatural. Because time travel pays strong attention to the changes of time, we could also expect to read this genre as historical fiction.

Strikingly, critics from both East and West have rebuked the idea that texts featuring elements pertaining to time travel could also relate to the genres of historical fiction or realism. These critics arbitrarily assume that time travel fiction completely fails to meet certain expectations people have for the genre of historical fiction. So then, what are people’s expectations of historical fiction? To what extent is it true that time travel fiction does not fit the criteria of historical fiction?

Historical fiction is far more complicated than mere prose narrative that is “set in the past” or a “fictitious narrative […] that makes use of historical personages or events.”( Murfin and Ray 157).  First of all, history should play a significant role in the plot of this genre: “in serious examples of this genre, historical events, processes, and issues are central to the story line rather than providing peripheral or decorative touches” (Murfin and Ray 156). Since human      perceptions of linear and progressive time are the basis of truth,” it is reasonable to follow that  human perceptions of these aspects are needed to write  convincing historical fiction. Therefore, historical fiction is a sub-genre of realism. Even though authors could use narrative techniques, (such as flashbacks) to manipulate the representations of time in fiction, the causality of plots still indicates a coherent linear time inside the texts. If time travel fiction disturbs human perceptions of linear time and challenges the causality, it could be easily charged as “the other” of historical fiction. Thus, the conventional historical novel established its legitimacy by giving audiences the impression of linear time. Accordingly, Sir Walter Scott shows that “linear time” becomes a moral code for the conventional writing of historical fiction.

However, history does not only manifest itself via linear time. In addition, history is about human and human feelings. When discussing the purpose of historical fiction, many critics have used “historical novels” as examples: “historical novels are often vehicles for their authors’ insights into historical figures and their influences or into the causes and consequences of historical events, changes, or movements.” (Murfin and Ray 157) In other words, historical fiction expresses an author’s reflections on the causality related to history through certain personages in certain historical settings. Moreover, the role of historical events, changes or movements, and the characters themselves, should have interactions with and impact one other. Nicola Chiaromonte noted the irretrievable duality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and pointed out that “historical events [… appear] as a series of happenings that have neither meaning nor rationality, insofar as they do not spring directly from the ‘normal’ existence of individuals, and have no clear connection with their ordinary motives” (32)  In this sense, Tolstoy does not represent the ways in which history is involved with individuals, especially their personal lives, he only “exposes rather than solves the antinomies inherent in a rationalistic view of history.”(Chiaromonte 35)

Georg Lukacs intensifies the interplay between history and the individual by emphasizing the importance of characters to convey the meaning behind historical fiction: “What matters[…]in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality” (42).  Therefore, the accurate “retelling” or restoration of historical facts is not the major expectation of historical fiction for Lukacs, but rather the transmission of human feelings and emotions under certain historical conditions is the prime task that historical fiction is required to fulfill. Lukacs tries to shift the core of historical fiction from the representation of historical events to the impact of history onto human beings. As a result, linear time is not the central concern for historical fiction. Lukacs’ argument bears a new ethic in the writing of historical fiction, which gives full attention to a more humanistic mentality in certain historical periods. Indeed,  the genre of time travel  serves as a good example for the new ethics of historical fiction.

Time travel fiction can be defined as an imaginative work which violates mans’ biological perceptions of linear time; it creates interactions of events and characters in different temporal and spatial zones, and therefore presents characteristic patterns of  a “chronotope.”[v]  Time travel fiction does disturb  the linear time-frame from which people normally rationalize history, while seemingly violating the Marxist progressive stages of history developments and betraying the principles of realism.  Therefore it goes against the “totality of the life” (Lukacs 219).   In contrast, conventional representations of history in literary works, such as those by Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare, intended to abide by linear time and attempted to imitate reality. However, should linear time as “an objective presentation of details and events” set the criteria for historical fiction ? (Murfin and Ray 329). Can fiction with a time travel theme be an alternative which reveals the aforementioned “poetic awakenings in history?”

Jerome de Groot discusses the function of realism in The Historical Novel: “the realism of the novel allows the reader to engage with and empathize with historical individuals and thence gain a sense of their own historical specificity” (29).  Linear time, as a supposed mimetic reality,  facilitates “a subjective concentration on personal feelings, perceptions, and imaginings of various characters” (Murfin and Ray 329).  If the alternative presentation of time in fiction  functions equally or even more effectively in this regard, time itself may embody a “communicative intention” of historical fiction (Culler 53). Most works of time travel fiction deal with different historical periods, focusing on transitions and comparisons of time and space and underline the concern of communicating emotion evoked by historical specificity through dramatically transporting characters into different historical periods. Moreover, “time travel” as a scientific act or a supernatural phenomenon is just a device to catalyze or dramatize a plot and usually does not determine the nature of the entire text. Variations of time travel do not affect historical or realistic features if a fictional work possesses them and may even help grasp the zeitgeist of different periods.

Thematically, there are three directions of time travel in fiction: the past, the present and the future. Traveling to the future in a work such as The Time Machine is based on pure imagination, detached from history or reality, but the nature of “the future” is an anticipated  one, derived from an established past and present. Derrida dispelled this illusion of “future” by distinguishing it from “l’avenir”: “The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There’s a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival” (Fagan 104).  Once a text depicts a future, it becomes an “artificial” future predicted by current historical assumptions. Therefore, “the future belongs to the ghosts” (Derrida 35).  In his book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson further describes how utopia in science fiction functions as an unsatisfied wish-fulfillment that reflects reality: “Even the process of wish-fulfillment includes a kind of reality principle of its own, intent on not making things too easy for itself, accumulating the objections and the reality problems that stand in its way so as the more triumphantly and ‘realistically’ to overcome them” (83). In other words, time travel fiction transports characters to the future as a way to project a commentary on current affairs.  The “future” is a mirror facing the present. Human history, as such, is rooted in this sub-genre of time travel fiction.

The second sub-genre of time travel fiction in which characters travel back and forth between the past and the present creates comparable experiences in different times and spaces, highlights the discrepancies of the past and present, and enables people to perceive and enhance their awareness of history. From Homer’s Odyssey, wherein Odysseus meets his mother in the underworld to the Hollywood movie Men in Black 3, released in 2012, this mode of time travel has appeared in many works of world literature (and other mediums) across space and time. In these texts, imagined scientific developments are used to rationalize the settings, while in fantasy “time-slip” and supernatural events such as resurrections, accidents, and identity exchanges are employed to make time travel believable. No matter how the author explains time travel, they have to rely on the contrast between the former historical period and subsequent happenings to build two different time periods. Hence, this sub-genre is not ahistorical, but instead, it is intimately related to history.

Therefore, it would be advantageous to discuss time travel fiction from the perspective of historical fiction. Using three time travel works from modern world literature I will discuss the ways in which the theme of time-travel evokes historical awareness and elucidates human emotions under certain historical circumstances.

The first piece is a well-known work of time travel fiction in Chinese, the novella “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” by Lilian Lee (Li Bihua) from Hong Kong. The novella became especially famous after its 1989 movie adaption Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, starring Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. The novella begins with a love story between General Meng Tianfang, who is appointed by the First Emperor of China to supervise the building of the latter’s mausoleum, and the Emperor’s maid Dong’er who was about to be dispatched overseas to search for the elixir of immortality for the emperor. The maid voluntarily sacrifices her life for the general and gives him the elixir which was made by an alchemist. However, the general is buried alive in the mausoleum when the emperor dies in 210 B.C. When a Japanese spy travels to northwestern China to steal treasures from the mausoleum during the turbulent 1930s, the general wakes up and falls in love with the spy’s companion, an actress, who resembles his former love Dong’er. The novella ends when Meng becomes a worker repairing antiquities in the state-owned museum of the unearthed mausoleum in 1989 and encounters another Japanese girl also resembling Dong’er. This work portrays a man who becomes immortal, similar to Virginia Woolf’s 1928 work Orlando, but General Meng is somewhat more stable and reflects more the historicity of the ancient period.

As the winner of the 2001 Osaragi Jiro Prize[vi] Laughing Wolf [vii] by Yuko Tsushima is set in postwar Japan. A twelve-year-old girl Yuki in Tokyo encounters a strange seventeen-year-old orphan Mitsuo who claims that she has witnessed her father’s suicide, which is then followed by Mitsuo kidnapping her. The two children travel around the country by train and observe all kinds of Japanese people suffering poverty, starvation, disease and despair in railway stations and on trains after the war. Eventually the girl is rescued by the police, but only after she develops an emotional attachment to her captor. This novel features intertextuality when the children quixotically co-play the roles of Akela and Mowgli in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and Remi and Capi in Noody’s Boy by Hecor Malot. Even stranger, news clippings about social events in Japan from 1945 to 1947 paralleling and corresponding to the narrative make their way into the latter part of the novel. We see aspects of time travel in that the  length of their travel and the time required do not correspond. The children have not traveled very far or very long, yet the novel begins in1959, during postwar Japan, and ends when the girl follows her mother home and sees the leaders of North and South Korea shaking hands on television, which happened in 2000. However, all of the inserted news clippings are dated from 1945-1947.

The Russian text “Incident in Sokolniki”[viii] by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya tells a ghost story set during wartime in the Soviet Union. Lida, who lives in Moscow, is married to a pilot, but one day she learns that her husband died when his plane was shot down. She attends the official funeral, yet only sees the coffin of her late husband. Afterword, a malnourished and pale man follows her and tells her that he is her husband. They live together again for a couple of months until the man asks her to bury his flight suit that he had  left in the forest. Lida goes to the forest and covers the flight suit with dirt. As soon as she finishes, the man disappears. That evening her husband appears in her dream, thanking her for burying his body. In this story, the  husband’s ghost must embrace his previous life by resuming his past relationship with Lida in order to obtain a proper burial for his corpse. The ghost enables Lida to reconnect with her marriage and live with her husband again for a period, even though she is unaware that the husband is only a ghost desperately trying to have his corpse buried.

All three of these fictional works are set in a specific historical past and contain explicit interactions between their characters and historical events. However, the authors chose different raw material with which to reconstruct the past and to depict historical details in different ways. Notably, they all emphasize the psychological trauma that history can inflict on human beings.

“A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” is set in three historical periods: the Chin (Qin) dynasty in 210 B.C., the Republican period in 1930s and the Communist period after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan in 1974. Lee chose material from the “great history,” namely influential events in Chinese history with their corresponding historiography and cultural relics to demonstrate the veracity of her historical settings. The massive mausoleum of the First Emperor of China, which was built before the emperor’s death in 210 B.C., has now become a tourist site in northwest China. Ancient Chinese historiography, such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, and modern scholarship on Chinese archeology[ix] have provided detailed information about the building of the mausoleum and the emperor dispatched envoys who searched far and wide for magical elixirs. When General Meng wakes up and meets the flirtatious actress Zhu Lili, the plot imaginatively combines the notorious Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, the genesis of Chinese cinema since 1905, and the never-ending grave robbing of mausoleums. Lee unveils the third historical period, a new diplomatic and economic epoch in China[x] by arranging for Meng to encounter the female Japanese visitor.

Laughing Wolf includes various historical events following the defeat of Japan in WWII, but the author intentionally avoids choosing any examples of grand narrative in the historiography of that period. Instead, she draws from the “public history” ignored by mainstream historiography, while juxtaposing fiction with actual news clippings[xi] which reported minor crimes as well as peoples’ suffering during postwar Japan. The psychological suffering and living conditions during that period have not been of major concern to historians in that they are  briefly mentioned or totally ignored.[xii] Important sociopolitical and international topics such as Douglas MacArthur’s administration, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and Emperor Hirohito’s controversial Humanity Declaration focused on how postwar Japan was rescued, and subsequently sped forward to achieve economic success. Mainstream historiography offers some background for the novel but the emotional movement within the novel transcends the brief and impersonal data and generalizations found in history books.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Incident at Sokolniki” deals, in part, with “particular history,”[xiii] episodes from a commoner’s life in Moscow during WWII. Compared to the “Great World Patriotic War,” Lida’s husband’s death and burial is far too insignificant to note in a history book and Lida’s life as a widow is too mundane to be of interest. However, the story contains vivid details such as a “ration card,” an “abandoned pilot jacket,” “labor service” and “evacuated Moscow,” all of which lend strong political and historical specificity. As a feature of “Russianness,” proper burial of “the bad death” is a long-standing form of Russian superstition and custom.[xiv] Failure to perform this ritual reveals how their authoritarian government failed in its humanitarian obligations for its soldiers and how it impugned their human dignity even after death. Moreover, Lida is portrayed as a representative of Russian women who were witnesses and victims of the war. The encounters of Lida and her husband represent the norm in that immoral historical period and the suffering of both sexes in the Soviet Union.

The power of these three works does not derive from their accurate, impersonal facts portraying a grand picture of a historical movement or from some specious logic that reluctantly explains the causality of history, rather their literary charm lies in their ability to transmit the “poetic awakening of the people who figured” in historical events and leading the reader to re-experience historical realities.

A common theme of these three works is that they reveal the physical and mental suffering of the masses during the most traumatic moments in the history of their respective countries. They all frame their stories with romance but their goal is far more ambitious than merely telling stories about people in love. These cases of dysfunctional romantic love symptomize the damage inflicted on common morality and the disillusionment of basic desires in these chaotic historical periods. Lilian Lee, a Hong Kong writer, never visited the historical locations or directly experienced the historical transitions in mainland China she writes about, but imagines the suffering people confronted in ancient and modern China. In her novella, General Meng is buried alive in the mausoleum by the First Emperor’s command while the life and death of his lover depends on the capricious moods of those in power. Their romantic relationship exposes the cruelty of absolute power in ancient China. During the 1930’s General Meng’s genuine effort to resume his romance is unceasingly disrupted by the materialism of the object of his affection, Zhu Lili. The bombs and bullets of the war eventually force him to abandon his wishful thinking.

Born in 1947, the author of Laughing Wolf, Yuko Tsushima, possesses an instinctive sympathy for the people who suffer in her novel. The children traveling among the masses of the  displaced Japanese are also depressed by an absence of  home, hob, and hope. The reality of great despair and depression overshadows their childish fantasies to act out roles from works of fiction and eventually their games are discontinued in the middle of the novel. The girl’s forced separation from her captor after they have developed an intimacy and the massive crimes they encounter during their travels suggest how disconnected and devastated the Japanese were during the postwar period.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, the authoress of “Incident at Sokolniki” maintained a strong stance of dissent toward the Soviet Union. In her story, she employs a ghost who returns to the human realm to ask his beloved wife for simple human decency in order to expose how common life was traumatized by the war and socialist governance. However, the loss of her husband and the fear of burying a corpse in the dark display the grief and mourning of one female’s unfortunate life beyond any written description. Her wish that they return to their normal marital life becomes disenchanted by the ghost’s intentional subterfuge. These three works successfully capture certain devastating moments in the most intimate of human relationships under exigent historical circumstances. Those moments manifest “poetic awakenings” that naturally evoke the emotional empathy of readers from any historical period. In addition, these three works also manage to reflect certain stable characteristics of their respective historical periods by portraying characters with specific historical features.

In “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” the artless general symbolizes simpleminded loyalty to his ruler and his love that lasts forever, a stubborn brave masculinity that only existed in pre-modernity, and a humble attitude towards life that has been lost in the commercialism and materialism of modernity. His archaic mentality results in torture, as he lives in the modern world, and his longing for his emperor and the old country persists throughout the novel. The contrast between his original obedient and committed lover Dong’er and the materialistic and superficial actress Zhu Lili reflect the dramatic historical transition of human mentality during the intervening two thousand years. Even though Zhu is moved by Meng’s loyal affectation towards her and also thinks “only things from the ancient times can be like this,” in the end she chooses to sell out General Meng as a living antiquity.

In Laughing Wolf, the pervasive mentality of postwar chaos overshadows the entire novel. “Even small children had to put up with various sufferings and sorrows” (Yuko 85).  Females  fear displaying their femininity because too many males can easily take advantage of them. People everywhere are “scrawny-looking,” “sluggish” and “exhausted.” Even though the girl who was kidnapped forty years prior narrates the beginning of the novel in the form of a flashback,  she still maintains a nostalgic yet depressing mood throughout. In addition, instances of large-scale crimes in the novel are extreme outbursts of repressed emotions in postwar Japan.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Incident at Sokolniki” focuses on a typical Russian woman Lida, who follows all of the prescribed societal norms. She becomes numb when she learns of her husband’s demise because that is the role of pilot’s wife in wartime. The Soviet Union required such sacrifices from women like Lida. However, when she could not find her husband in the woods after burying his flight suit, her instinctive fear overtook her composure. That moment betrayed the helplessness of a widow in Soviet times, whose emotional cries  mainstream historiography largely ignores. Through engaging with these three works, readers can immerse themselves in the emotions experienced by others in past historical moments.

Hence these three works employ various time travel themes, and thus unravel the poetic awakenings of people living in different historical periods while conveying the feelings and emotions that their characters experienced in the past. In this sense, these narratives fulfill the expectations of historical fiction. However, compared to conventional historical fiction, time travel fiction has its own unique structures which defamiliarize common notions of time and space. Even though Terry Eagleton points out that “defamilarization” is only a “deformed ordinary language in various ways” (3) and “an art that estranges and undermines conventional sign-systems,”(86), the time travel motif not only marks an artistic breakthrough in the genre of historical fiction but also indicates a change of perception regarding the modern and post-modern period. How then does the time travel function as a narrative device to facilitate the artistic creation of historical fiction? I will explore how these three texts use this device in order to elaborate on their structural novelty.

Viewed from the vantage point of Russian Formalism, these three stories involve three different types of relationships between fabula and sjuzet.  Per narratology, fabula describes “the raw material of story events as opposed to the finished arrangement of the plot.”(Baldick 123). It equates to histoire (story) in later French narratology. Sjuzet is the “finished arrangement of narrated events as they are presented to the reader,” (Baldick 309) which also has an equivalent recit (plot). Scholars such as Culler and Derrida have debated the relationship between fabula and sjuzet.”[xv] These three time travel texts reveal interesting interactions between fabula and sjuzet, to which we now turn our attention.

In “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” the protagonist travels dramatically forward from the remote past, but it is also a literary example where fabula dominates sjuzet.  His mentality and knowledge about life is preconditioned by everything in the historical stage of the Chin (Qin) dynasty before the male protagonist General Meng is resurrected into the modern world. His remembrance and subconscious rooted in the ancient past controls his behavior after he meets the girls in 1930’s and 1970’s, both of whom resemble his lover in the Chin (Qin) dynasty of 210 B.C. Therefore, the fabula determines his faith in love and his loyalty to the superior, which was popular two thousand years ago. This precondition overwhelmingly dominates his awkward lifestyle in the modern times. The development of sjuzet, symbolized by his interaction with his desired objects (namely his lovers in modern times) follows the fabula. Meng, the protagonist,  not only jumps through time,  but is also a passive “agent” who keeps the old ideology of his age and displays the merits of the ancient historical period.

Laughing Wolf reveals how the signposts of time can prevent active travel between locations, and how fabula and sjuzet can entangled with one another. According to the explicit records of time in the novel, the girl and her captor’s trip begins in 1959 and ends in 2000. However,  from the beginning to the end, their physical ages never change. Meanwhile, the news clippings which disturbingly ooze throughout the fictional plots are all marked with times from 1945-1949. Without these temporal markers, the sjuzet seems identical to the fabula and the characters move continuously forward.  However, distinctions of time actually become stagnant with these deliberate textual markers. The protagonists who do not age, as well as the haunting news clippings point to aspects of the fabula, and are also devices of the sjuzet. It is hard to tell, then, which plots are raw material or artistic arrangements.  Both the fabula and szujet are interchangeable and therefore questionable.  In this novel, time in the actual plot is solidified by  peoples’ static mental experience of evolution and the development of history.

The ghost of the husband in “Incident at Sokolniki” arranges to travel to the past, and in doing so, he shows that sjuzet is hierarchically superior to fabula.  The ghost attempts to restore his past relationship with Lida in order to improve his life in the other world. In this pattern of time travel, there are two sets of fabula and sjuzet. The presentation of Lida’s normal life as a wife in the beginning of the text constitute the first set while the ghost’s encounter in the other world and his seeking for Lida form the second set. The sjuzets in those two sets have overlapped and create suspense in the story when the ghost pretends he is the living husband. However, until the last moment, when the ghost of the husband thanks Lida for burying him in her dream, the meaningfulness of the husband’s strange return and the final significance of the whole incident are revealed. As in Jonathan Culler’s example of Oedipus story, (“Fabula and Sjuzhet In the Analysis of Narrative: Some American Discussions”, 29-31) the final revelation functions as a determinative force to show why the storytelling technique, namely the “sjuzet,” is responsible for the more  interesting aspects of the narrative. Actually, it has also been suggested that the two sets of the fabula and sjuzet are very popular in detective stories to attract readers (Holquist 75-101).

As I have argued above, time travel fiction can fulfill the expectations readers attach to the genre of historical fiction and also reveal some intriguing structural arrangements. However, I do not wholeheartedly agree with Terry Eagleton that the defamiliaration represented by structures of time travel only twists language artistically and inflicts a “linguistic violence” (6) onto texts. Time travel is not just a showy contraption which superficially attracts readers. To a certain extent, time travel texts, especially the three texts I have analyzed, manifest some fundamental changes of human perceptions of history, past, and memory in the modern and postmodern period.  So how does the time travel theme in historical fiction manage to reflect this transitional historical consciousness? How do these three works suggest a new trend in the writing of historical fiction?

Firstly, time travel in historical fictions implies fragmented national or collective past identities. Lilian Lee sees the long history of China, where her cultural roots lie, through three crucial moments in two thousand years;  Tsushima Yuko never expected that the Japanese people could step out of the haze of postwar trauma or embrace a brighter future; Ludmilla Petrushevskaya mourns the irretrievable happy life of a couple by hopelessly resurrecting the past. History is no longer an integral and supposedly linear object and humans cannot believe that they are progressively and continuously moving forward. History is constructed by the loops, lingering and jumping of human emotions generated from individual experiences. In most  circumstances, human emotions are ambivalent rather than clear-cut, as Hegel’s hypothesis of  progressive history suggests. Human emotions are not congruent to the the development of certain historical events. These three writers of historical fiction have focused on fragmented personal encounters in their national history rather than dedicating their works to great figures or great feats connected with a grand narrative of their national past.

Second, works of time travel fiction pose a subversive gesture to the conventional writings of historical fiction and historiography. “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” crosses through more than two thousand years and aggravates  Chinese censors; Laughing Wolf invents a new form of novel full of pastiche and cosplay; and even with its explicit fantastic features and superstitious plot, in the “Incident at Sokolniki,” the dissident Ludmilla Petrushevskaya more than once emphasizes “I think of myself as a documentary writer.”(Schwartz 2) These three authoresses show us that no matter what length the fiction is or what period a text focuses on, historical fiction is a carnival inviting all kinds of literary features such as parody, heteroglossic voices and so on. As long as the fiction can effectively portray characters in a specific time, historical fiction can happily incorporate various literary techniques including time travel. The fact that various time travel literature and movies are thriving in the cultural industries of Asia and Hollywood  illustrates that time travel fiction reflects a deconstruction of postmodernity. Time travel fiction challenges the hierarchical realism and celebrates David Harvey’s “time and space compression.”

Last but not least, time travel fiction redefines truth, which the genre of historical fiction perennially attempts to pursue. Aristotlean philosophers seek “truth” for human life.  But since Nietzsche, thinkers have started to questions the notion of truth which has been rationalized by the Enlightenment. Perhaps we can never reach the rational truth because human intelligence can never reach the ultimate end of the universe. The only reliable truth might be in the emotions  people sense in everyday life. Nicola Chiaromonte points out that there are limitations  on historiography and fiction with respect to truth and reality: “What was left in the end was, on the one hand, the history of historians, either unreal or mythical, and, on the other, reality itself, history as it is actually experienced by the individual and the community. Between the two was an unbridgeable chasm, as between fiction and truth” (31). However, time travel may reflect man’s psychological movement in his original state by debunking the contrived formula of writing linear historical fiction and by challenging the coherence of linear time and human emotional experience. Perhaps the time travel theme just demonstrates that the historical “affect,” namely, the emotions and feelings evoked by certain historical circumstances which can be empathized with by readers living in other historical periods, is the ultimate truth.

T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, “Only through time, time is conquered.” Historical fiction mixes literature’s ambition to conquer time with man’s consciousness of the lapse of time, which is also the reason why historical fiction has been popular throughout worldwide literature. In 1955, Georg Lukacs suggested that “the historical and formal relationship changes a great deal in modern times.”(“From the Historical Novel” 219) Two hundred years ago, the transition from historical dramas to historical novels demonstrated the changes that Lukacs astutely observed. Currently, time travel themes copiously occupy popular literature and other forms of cultural industry. Time travel is a literary invention that may not seem incompatible with the current stage of scientific knowledge and conventional human perception of concrete reality. Moreover, the genre celebrates the imaginative power of literature, a power that deserves to be preserved and protected because it is a source of generating knowledge and mining unexplored human potential.

Works Cited

Allinson, Gary. Japan’s Postwar History. Ithacha: Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print.

Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009. Print.

Chiaromonte, Nicola. The Paradox of History: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak and Others. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. Print.

Clute, John and John Grant. Encyclopedia of Fantasy. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1999. Web.

Culler, Jonathan. “Fabula and Sjuzhet in the Analysis of Narrative: Some American Discussions.” Poetics Today 1.3 (1980): 27-37. Print.

—. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1981. Print.

—. “Toward a Theory of Non-Genre Literature.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 51-56. Print.

de Groot, Jerome. The Historical Novel. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Jacques Derrida. “Living On.” Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2004. 62-142. Print.

Dick, Kirby and Amy Ziering Kofman. Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Donn, Don and Lin Donn. Ancient China. Culver City: Good Year Books, 2003. Print.

Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996. Print.

Fagan, Madeleine, Ludovic Glorieux, Indira Hasimbegovic, and Marie Suetsugu, eds. Derrida: Negotiating the Legacy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Preface to Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

Holquist, Michael. “Puzzle and Mystery, the Narrative Poles of Knowing: Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977. 75-101. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. United Kingdom: Merlin Press, 1962. Print.

—. “From The Historical Novel.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael

McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 219-264. Print.

Maxwell, Richard. The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.

Nahin, Paul. Time Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Print.

“Notice of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television on the Publication of Keeping

Records of Making TV Series in March 2011.” “国家广播电影电视总局:“广电总局关于2011年3月全国拍摄制作电视剧备案公示的通知” The State Administration of Radio Film and Television of China. Web.

Petrushevskaya, Ludmilla. “Incident at Sokolniki.” There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Trans. Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. 12-14. Print.

Schneider, Susan. Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2009. Print.

Schwartz, Alexandra. “Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.” The Nation 21 Dec. 2009. Web.

“Time Travel Drama Doesn’t Respect History and the Four classical Novels should be Forbidden to be made into TV Series again.” “广电总局:”穿越剧不尊重历史 禁四大名著翻拍” The State Administration of Radio Film and Television of China. Web.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol’niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part II: Death in Natural Circumstances.” Folklore 111:2 (2000). 255-281. Print. Wood, Frances. China’s First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Print.

Yuko, Tsushima. Laughing Wolf. Trans. Dennis Washburn. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 2011. Print.


[i].  I am responsible for the English translation’s of the Chinese text.

[ii].  Given the fact that science fiction in which characters can travel to and from the future has never reached the mainstream, according to broadcast records around 2011 in the Chinese media, it is understandable that the government does not treat time travel fiction as a sub-genre of science fiction.

[iii].  See Schneider and Nahin.

[iv].  According to the definition of fantasy in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.

[v].  “Chronotope” is a term initiated by Bakhtin to describe time and space as a whole presented in literature (425), but he never gives a concrete definition in his works.  In “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope.” Bakhtin scholars Cary Morson and Michael Hoquest define it as “literally, ‘time and space.’ A unit of analysis for studying language according to the ratio and characteristics of the temporal and spatial categories represented.”

[vi].  Osaragi Jiro is a Japanese writer famous for her historical fiction.

[vii]. See Yuko.

[viii].  See Petrushevskaya.

[ix].  See Wood 49.

[x].  For example, after 1974 when China and Japan signed the “Agreement regarding Air Transportation between China and Japan” and Vice Prime Minister Wang Zhen officially visited Tokyo and Osaka by airplane announcing the first reciprocal air exchanges. See

[xi].  According to the translator Professor Dennis Washburn, those news clippings are excerpts from actual newspapers printed from 1945-1947.

[xii].  See Dower and Allinson.

[xiii].  “Particular history” is defined by Maxwell as: “the life of a town, a country, or especially a renowned figure, often reproducing original documents too specialized for the purposes of general or universal history” (13).

[xiv].  See Warner 255-281.

[xv].  See Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction.

National Allegory and the Parallax View in Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s Maṣīr Ṣurṣār

by Robert Farley

Egyptian playwright Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s 1966 play Maṣīr Ṣurṣār (Fate of a Cockroach) has been widely understood by most critics to be a juxtaposition of two separate plays, one centered around a miniature cockroach kingdom, and the other a human married couple’s apartment. This paper challenges this separation by emphasizing the relationship between these seemingly distinct worlds and by investigating their subtle relationship through interactions, interpretations, and linguistic and symbolic continuities. Furthermore, this paper argues on a theoretical level that this structural phenomenon provides an innovative way to allegorize the nation through its presentation of two private narratives with the singular referent of the Egyptian national narrative. Because the two distinct narratives remain irreconcilable but coexistent, the notion of parallax—as a merely apparent shift in the object caused by a change in the observer’s perspective—provides a useful frame to understand a more complex and tenuous relationship of the private and the national in the national allegory.

“Come along – wake up! It’s time for work.”[2] Echoing the ethos of the Nasserist regime (1952-1970), the King Cockroach’s imperative opens Maṣīr Ṣurṣār by rallying us to emerge from our slumber to “work,” to engage as laborers in Egypt’s production-based materialist economy well underway by the play’s publication in 1966. The play undoubtedly operates as a national allegory, wherein the smaller private narrative of the work represents the larger national story. But what happens to this relationship between private and national when a work consists of two entirely separate narratives as does Maṣīr Ṣurṣār? Indeed, the play can be and has been read as two plays put together, with the first act occurring within the world of cockroaches and the remainder taking place in the human realm.[3] It would be necessary in this case to understand how two private stories might work both individually and together to convey the national story of Egypt. Parallax, as an apparent shift of an object caused by a change in the observer’s perspective, provides a useful frame with which to understand the way two private stories relate to the national. Through Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, I interrogate the possibilities of a parallactic link between the private and the national in national allegory and the capacities of this link to portray the inescapable tension between the nationalist rhetoric of the state and the popular nationalism of the multitude. Meanwhile, I elaborate a dialectical method for reading through national allegory which will draw out the political and poetic implications of the parallactic link.

Linking the Private Story and the National Story

It would first be useful to present one of the foremost influential works on the subject of national allegory. In his seminal article, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Frederic Jameson implores us to read all ‘third-world’ literature as national allegory. He polemically states that, “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (69). While his sweeping claim was the point of much criticism, national allegory still provides a useful framework for interrogating the relationship between politics and literature. As a play from the ‘third world’, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār falls under the conditions set forth by Jameson’s claim. In what follows I will use national allegory as the starting point for my analysis; although, I will depart from it only periodically in order to open up a deeper interpretation which can, upon returning to it, contribute to a stronger overall national allegorical reading.

The most important concept within Jameson’s argument is the special relationship between the literal text and the referent external to the text. Gil Hochberg successfully teases out the link between the ‘national story’ and ‘private story’ in Jameson’s conception of national allegory. She locates the crux of Jameson’s argument to be the contrast between the radical split between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ in western culture and its connection in nonwestern cultures: “Jameson describes the national allegory as a link between two separate stories, or to be more precise, as a link between two stories perceived in ‘western eyes’ as separate: the ‘private story’ and the ‘national story’” (35). It is exactly this link between the private and the national that is here subject to interrogation, namely in the event—as is the case with Maṣīr Ṣurṣār—where the existence of a singular private story is at best questionable.

Maṣīr Ṣurṣār consists of two entirely separate private stories: one belonging to the cockroaches of the first act, the other belonging to the humans of the second and third. The first act features the self-appointed administration of a cockroach society inhabiting an apartment bathroom; the King, Queen, Vizier, Scientist, and Priest debate primarily about the ongoing ant problem that has recently claimed the Vizier’s son as its latest victim. The act ends after the King, led on by the Scientist, finds himself stranded in the lake/bathtub. The second act shifts gears to the human world, that of the apartment inhabitants: ‘Ādil, his wife Sāmya, and the ‘cook’ Umm ‘Aṭiyya (who is actually a maid). ‘Ādil wakes up to find a cockroach (the King from the first act) in the bathtub hopelessly struggling to climb out. Because of his obsession with the cockroach, ‘Ādil constantly thwarts attempts by Sāmya to kill it. She calls in the Doctor to try to cure ‘Ādil of what she considers a psychological problem. Throughout the bickering, the group is eventually distracted enough to ignore Umm ‘Aṭiyya’s entering the bathroom to clean, which results in the death and subsequent wiping away of the cockroach.

Two Worlds, Two Narratives

The Cockroach as an Allegory of the State

To truly understand how disparate these two worlds are portrayed in the play, we can look at the primary basis of what constitutes a ‘world’ according to Heidegger. A world is constitutive of those relationships and ‘ontic objects’ into which a person is ‘thrown,’ only to appropriate them by perceiving them in terms of his or her own existence and utilizing it for self-realization (Habib 715). The drastic difference between the first and second parts consist of an entirely new set of characters as well as a shift in language to refer to those ‘ontic’, material objects in the apartment. The courtyard of the first act is the bathroom floor of the second and third; likewise, the lake in which the King falls is also the bathtub where a cockroach is found. Thus the two worlds of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār involve two independent sets of relationships as well as sets of perceptions of ‘ontic objects’, and it is these worlds that constitute two different private stories that comprise the national allegory.

The first act opens with the King’s aforementioned imperative to get up and work, which leads to his squabble with the Queen. As story continues, the Vizier, the Scientist, and the Priest arrive in sequence to contribute to a discussion revolving around the ant problem. Their petty bickering and absurd logic lends a comedic element that serves simultaneously as a pointed condemnation of the post-1952 regime, its projects and failures. Perhaps the most poignant moment featuring this critical satire comes shortly after the King, Queen, and Vizier come to the conclusion that the cockroaches can better forestall the ants by mimicking them in their ability to organize in columns, the Scientist enters to contribute his observations regarding past instances of cockroach mobilization:

Scientist: Yes, I once saw – a very long time ago, in the early days of my youth – several cockroaches gathered together at night in the kitchen round a piece of tomato.

Queen: Tomato?

Scientist: Yes.

King: An extraordinary idea – this matter of a tomato!

Vizier: We begin from here.

Queen:  And you say that science cannot solve the problem?

Scientist: What has science to do with this? That was no more than a general observation .

King: This is the modesty of a true Scientist. The idea is, however, useful. If we were able to get a piece of tomato, then a number of cockroaches would gather together round it.

Scientist: The real problem is how to get hold of a piece of tomato.

King: How is it, therefore, that we do sometimes get a hold of a piece?

Scientist: By chance.

Queen: And when does sheer chance occur?

Scientist: That is something one cannot predict.

King: You have therefore arrived at solving one problem by presenting us with another.

Queen: Suggest for us something other than tomatoes.

Scientist: Any other type of food puts us in the same position, for though we can find food we are unable to make a particular sort of food available.[4]

The choppy dialogue, the tomato obsession, and most importantly, the logic of deferment (of “solving one problem by presenting us with another”) all serve to articulate the lengths to which the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) under Nasser had degenerated into an absurd bureaucracy unable to come to terms with its own shortcomings. The tomato here comes to represent a number of failures. The material failure to produce food is a direct indictment of the agrarian reforms carried out shortly after the July coup, wherein land was reallocated in a seemingly socialist measure and much of it underproduced or went unused. The intellectual inability to move from the material tomato to the concept of food or any other motivations for mobilization demonstrates a failure to move from material specificities to conceptual universals. The tomato then functions as a symbolic exemplar of the multiplicity of layers of political critique featured in the first act.

The group continues to debate the ant problem while often going off on tangents and returning to the discussion until the Scientist ultimately distracts the King by enticing his interest in the lake. Looking for anything “more useful than talk about fairy tales and fanciful projects,”[5] the King disregards the question at hand of the ants and embarks with the Scientist to go see the lake, into which the King falls at the end of the act and eventually dies at the end of the play. The lake distraction is ostensibly referring to Nasser’s large-scaled Aswan High Dam project; the lake itself in the play could very well be a direct analogy to the state-owned Lake Nasser reservoir into which the water surplus was redirected after the dam’s construction. Seen in this light, al-Ḥakīm’s critique introduces what he sees as yet another failure of the post-1952 government in its distracting itself with various projects of industrialization at the expense of more pressing and critical issues.

However, to achieve the full effect of the political edge of this first act involves exploring interpretations beyond the immediate meanings provided by national allegory, which means we must temporarily bracket the allegorical reading. Obviously, interpreting anthropomorphized cockroaches outside the logics of the allegory relegates us to a realm beyond that of realism. Tsvetan Todorov allots three categorical possibilities with which a text designates such elements: marvelous, uncanny, and fantastic. The marvelous consists in comprehending the anthropomorphized cockroaches as such, that is, unnatural or supernatural. The uncanny appropriates the supernatural as a component of the natural, often by some kind of perceptual error (e.g. considering the cockroaches an illusion). Between these two, the fantastic rests upon a hesitation between rationalizing the supernatural as such (marvelous) or as something natural (uncanny) (Todorov 25). The first act of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār does not lend any such rationalization in either direction, and in this way it can be located in the hesitation of the fantastic. This is, of course, only if we maintain this line of thought of the allegory in absentia, which is the precondition for the taxonomy elaborated here.

Now, a fusion of the allegorical and the literal reading can open up new questions of the text, because we are now able to allegorize the hesitation inherent in the fantastic. Although Todorov would disagree in the contradiction, I would like to attempt a kind of synthesis of the political allegory and the fantastic by allowing for both the literal and the allegorical meanings to exist at once. The tension between the literal and allegorical meanings in relation to the fantastic is elaborated here:

If what we read describes a supernatural event, yet we take the words not in their literal meaning but in another sense which refers to nothing supernatural, there is no longer any space in which the fantastic can exist. There exists then a scale of literary sub-genres, between the fantastic (which belongs to that type of text which must be read literally) and pure allegory (which retains only the second, allegorical meaning): a scale constituted in terms of two factors, the explicit character of the indication and the disappearance of the first meaning. (Todorov 63-4)

Although the coexistence of the literal and allegorical meanings compromise the Todorovian sense of the fantastic (for he seems to only allow a kind of spectrum where one exists at the expense of the other), it is entirely possible for the fantastic itself to serve as an allegory. The conception of the fantastic, as teetering on the border of uncanny and marvelous, is essentially a hesitation with regards to the laws of possibility. This hesitation read in light of the various failures of the RCC allegorizes its experimental undertakings to nationalize Egypt. The hesitation is indicative of a new regime attempting to find its footing, lacking confidence but appearing otherwise. Conclusively, we have arrived at the private story of the cockroaches in the first act of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār allegorizing the state’s articulation of post-1952 Egyptian nationalism, which contrasts heavily with the popular nationalism of the multitudes evident in the realm of the human.

The Human as an Allegory for the Multitude

The latter two acts of the play shift gears entirely from the world of cockroaches to that of  humans. The second act opens similarly to the first, focusing on the couple ‘Ādil and Sāmya waking up to begin their day. Contrasting the imperative in the first, the second act begins with the interrogative from the wife: “You’re up, ‘Ādil?” ‘Ādil continues on to explain how he awakens by himself without the use of an alarm clock.[6] The dialogue between the married couple consists of constant reiterations like this of ‘Ādil’s independence from external objects and even his relationship with Sāmya. From the very beginning, ‘Ādil exudes an ethos of rebellion on the domestic plane; he even repeatedly affirms Sāmya’s explicit question as to whether he is rebelling when he prevents her from entering the bathroom: “Have you raised the flag of rebellion?”[7] His affirmation of his independence borders on ridiculous, but allegorized on the national level, ‘Ādil represents the resistance characteristic of popular decolonization movements, characteristic more of the 1919 revolution than the 1952 coup. The absurdity of the context of ‘Ādil’s insurgency begs the reader to interpret Maṣīr Ṣurṣār through the lens of national allegory.

As we did with the first act, a temporary bracketing of the national allegory can uncover new meanings behind the text. Revisiting Heidegger’s philosophy, ‘Ādil’s resistance can also be read as an endeavor toward self-actualization; his involvement with his world consists of disregarding the everyday by neglecting work and hygiene, in order to focus on the cockroach. He spends the majority of scenes two and three contemplating the cockroach, while intermittently staving off threats from Sāmya to kill it. His identification and obsession with the cockroach presents us with a kind of portrait of a philosopher quietly ruminating on the meaning of life, battling those material factors that come to him more as nuisances than anything else. When ultimately the cockroach is killed and wiped away, ‘Ādil confronts his own finitude, which for Heidegger is the key to the human attaining knowledge of itself as a whole, a “being-towards-death” (Habib 716). Here then we may uncover a hidden message of hope within the text. While the death of the cockroach forces ‘Ādil to confront his ephemerality, he is now able at the end of the play to acknowledge a responsibility to actively construct his self in relation to his world. In this way and in the private space of his apartment bathroom, ‘Ādil journeys towards the shedding of his inauthentic existence.

Returning to the national allegorical reading in light of ‘Ādil’s philosophical undertaking, we can allegorize the private search for authenticity on a national level. Certainly there exists in any decolonizing movement the task of the nation, especially of writers, to find an authentic voice outside the bounds of colonial rule. Among other things, they are faced with a series of choices to make about their practices; questions arise regarding the use of forms, genres, styles, and language associated with the colonizer. At this level it is possible to read ‘Ādil’s hopeful ending—his angst qua opportunity for authenticity—as a promising message for the Egyptian people at the time: that its then-current angst would lead to its coming into being.

The Parallax View

Now that we have established two entirely separate private stories with individual links to the national, we can interrogate the parallactic link between the private and the national. It is important at this juncture to present a major text concerned with parallax. In his book The Parallax View (2006), Slovoj Zizek elaborates on Kojin Karatani’s notion of parallax as a metaphor:

The standard definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” due to the fact that the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or—to put it in Lacanese—the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot,” that which is “in the object more than the object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze (17).

The difference between the two perspectives involved in parallax is so great that the object in view seems to have changed or shifted to the point of resembling something utterly ‘ontologically’ dissimilar. Viewing the relationship between private and national stories through the parallactic frame allows us to see the two private narratives in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār as two ‘observational positions’ wherein the allegorical referent, or object, is the national story. Understood in this way, the shift from the private story of cockroaches to the private story of humans between the first two acts is not a shift within the national narrative, but rather a repositioning of perspective in relation to it.

I want to restrict my analysis to the points of Zizek’s text relevant to the subject at hand. One: the gap between the two observational positions is irreconcilable. And two: the political deployment of the parallax gap (he also discusses philosophical and scientific modes) consists of “the social antagonism which allows for no common ground between the conflicting agents” (Zizek 10). In what follows, I will evaluate the way al-Ḥakīm’s play manages the parallax gap between the two perspectives of cockroach and human.

Evaluating the relationship between the two ‘private stories’ in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār (the parallax gap) will further develop the parallactic link in national allegory; this entails an interpretation from each perspective of the other. From the cockroach perspective, the humans are understood as multiple and separate sublime forces that resemble those of nature. For example, when the Scientist is explaining the disastrous occurrences when many cockroaches are assembled in the same place, he points toward supernatural forces: “This has today been confirmed from a scientific point of view. If a number of cockroaches gather together in one place, and there is a bright, dazzling light, mountains that have neither pinnacles nor peaks move and trample upon our troop, utterly squashing them. At other times there teems down a choking rain that destroys every one of us.”[8] He later debates the Priest as to whether these phenomena are natural events understood by scientific fact or the gods’ “miracle[s] from the skies.”[9] Whether they are explained by the cockroaches through science or religion, it is clear to the reader that the trampling mountains are the people that live in the apartment (‘Ādil, Sāmya, Umm ‘Aṭiyya) and the ‘choking rain’ is insecticide. The cockroaches deify and fear the humans, even praying to them. The first interaction of the two private stories in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār occurs from the perspective of the cockroach world and exhibits a hierarchical relationship mimicking that of man and the divine. Thus, the allegory of the cockroach world standing in for the state’s articulation of nationalism seems to be from this perspective subject the human world, standing in for popular nationalism. Al-Ḥakīm here insists in the power of the multitudes over the government. However, to get a deeper understanding of the parallax gap between the two private stories entails evaluating both perspectives, and so we move on to the humans.

From the ‘Ādil’s perspective, the cockroach is a point of contemplation and obsession as we saw above. Additionally, ‘Ādil holds it in a much higher regard than he does people, as a hero even. While convincing the Doctor that he has not gone mad, ‘Ādil describes the cockroach with a sense of distant admiration:

Doctor (pointing at the cockroach in the bath): That?

‘Ādil: Yes, that hero.

Doctor: Hero?

‘Ādil: Indeed a hero. Imagine yourself in a deep well with walls of smooth marble and that you found it impossible to get out despite having made exhausting efforts to do so, what would you do?

Doctor: I’d give up of course.

‘Ādil: But it hasn’t given up.

Doctor: By no means – I see it repeating its attempts dozens of times.

‘Ādil: Even hundreds. Since early morning I’ve been occupied in counting up the number of times.

Doctor: Is that what you were engaged in since this morning?

‘Ādil: Yes, I wanted to know when its struggle would come to an end.

Doctor (looking into the bath with real interest): As of now it looks as if it will not give up yet.

‘Ādil: Indeed. We’re tired from watching but it’s not tired from trying.

Doctor (continuing to watch it): What hope has it of escaping?

‘Ādil: No hope of course.

Doctor: Unless you were to intervene and save it.

‘Ādil: And I will not intervene.

Doctor: Why not, seeing that you admire it?

‘Ādil: I must leave it to its fate.[10]

‘Ādil is concerned with the cockroach, but he keeps his distance. He chooses not to intervene in its fate and yet admires its persistence. His feeling for the cockroach is ultimately ambivalence. Furthermore, the disconnect between the two occurs on the level of language,  made explicit later on when the Doctor explains that the cockroach could very well be screaming, but it is so tiny that it is impossible for the human ear to detect his voice. This ambivalence from the human perspective operating along the parallax gap allegorizes the multitudes’ reluctance to action even when the promising Nasserist regime of the 1952 coup had degenerated into hopeless. On the other hand, the distance between them begs the question if there is any possibility that the gap could be resolved.

The vast difference in these viewpoints’ perceptions of each other demonstrate the irreducible parallax gap between the two ‘private stories’. The cockroaches and humans in al-Ḥakīm’s play—allegorizing the state and the people—are living the political parallax gap, the “social antagonism that allows for no common ground.” In fact, the play dramatizes this irreconcilability in the ultimate interaction between the cockroach and human worlds, when the cook Umm ‘Aṭiyya kills the King by simply performing her duties around the house. She not only kills, but wipes the cockroach out of existence. The King was not simply ‘trampled by the mountains’ nor did he fall victim to the ‘choking rain’. Rather he was erased from history without a trace. For al-Ḥakīm, such is the fate of Nasser’s dictatorship. The only way to ‘reconcile’ the parallax gap is through its utter eradication: via the erasure of the cockroach’s/state’s observational position. Furthermore, this resolution comes from the only laborer in household, Umm ‘Aṭiyya. Thus the actual work erases the utterance, “Come along – wake up! It’s time for work,” signaling a triumph of the real material labor over the flat rhetorics of the worker-savior in the state’s articulation of nationalism.

Now, it is possible to forego all of the preceding analysis and allegorize Maṣīr Ṣurṣār‘s disruption and lack of unity as simply a representation of the abrupt and sweeping changes resulting from the 1952 revolution. But to do so would be to ignore essential meanings within the text. Politically, it would trivialize the irreconcilable social antagonism drawn out by parallax to simply a shift in the national story; it would maintain a monolithic view of the ‘national story’. Poetically, it would reduce the play to an unremarkable dramatization of the shift rather than an articulation of the complexities and difficulties of merely an apparent change. Furthermore for critics, it would involve a focus so heavily drawn to the form of the transition that it would be ignoring the substance surrounding it, resulting in a kind of buffet-style interpretation where national allegory is only applicable to convenient elements.

Al-Ḥakīm even warns us of the dangers of slipping into interpreting the parallactic link between the private and national as simply a shift in the national story. First, to do so would to presume that instead of two private stories of the cockroach and human, there is only one that experiences a shift itself. In this view, the story of the humans is merely a continuation of the cockroach story of the first act. To combat this slippery misconception, al-Ḥakīm dedicates a portion of the dialogue in the third act to distinguish that ‘Ādil is in fact not the cockroach as the Doctor’s psychiatric diagnosis proclaims (166-7). He warns of the dangers of creating a simple equation that the cockroach is the human. Instead, he maintains the cockroach-human distinction to preserve the parallax gap between them.

In light of the parallax view, the abrupt shift in the reader’s perspective between the first two acts of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār is not a shift in the private story of national allegory, but indeed an entirely different private story. Together, these two stories are linked parallactically to the external referent of the national story. Politically, al-Ḥakīm is demonstrating the importance of recognizing the existence of multiple perspectives: in this case, the state’s version of nationalism in an antagonistic relationship to the nationalist ethos of the people. Poetically, he provides an entirely different approach to writing the nation. Paul Starkey mistakenly understands al-Ḥakīm’s play as, “remarkable for little other than for being one of the most blatant examples of the tendency to a lack of unity in al-Ḥakīm’s plays” (215). But his writing off the play as a simple example of artistic preference reflects an unwillingness to interrogate this lack of unity in any kind of critical way. By doing so here, I have shown not only the artistic prowess of al-Ḥakīm to express the complexities of the Egyptian nation under Nasser in the year prior to the Naksa. but also the versatility and depth of reading through the lens of national allegory.


Arabic Appendix

(١) الملك: قومى استيقظى! … حان وقت العمل … (الحكيم ١)


العالم : نعم … رأيت مرة … منذ زمن طويل جدًا … في مطلع شبابى … بضعة صراصير اجتمعت ليلا في مطبخ حول قطعة من الطماطم …

الملكة : الطماطم؟ …

العالم : نعم …

الملك : فكرة مدهشة … مسألة الطماطم هذه! …

الوزير : من هنا نبدأ …

الملكة : وتقول إن العلم لا يستطيع حل المشكلة! …

العالم : وما دخل العلم هنا؟! … هذه ليست أكثر من مجرد ملاحظة عادية …

الملك : هذا من تواضع العلماء … ولكن الفكرة على كل حال مفيدة … إذا استطعنا أن نأني بقطعة طماطم فإنه سيجتمع حولها عدد من الصراصير …

العالم : المشكلة الحقيقية هى كيف نعثر على قطعة الطماطم؟ …

الملك : وكيف إذن نعثر عليها أحينًا؟ …

العالم : مالمصادفة …

الملكة : ومتى تأتى المصادفة؟ …

العالم : هذا شيء لا يمكن التنبؤ به …

الملك : أنت إذن جئت تحل لنا المشكلة بمشكلة …

الملكة : ابحث لنا عن شىء آخر غير الطماطم …

العالم : أى نوع آخر من الطعام يضعنا في نفس الوضع لأننا نجد الطعام … فلكننا لا نستطيع أن نوجده … (الحكيم ٢٣-٢٥)

(٣) الملك: . . . إن هذا على الاقل شيء أفيد من الكلام في موضوعات خرافية ومشروعات وهمية! . . . (الحكيم ٥٣)


سامية : »ملتفتة إلى زوجها« استيقظت يا عادل؟ …

عادل : طبعا …

سامية : هل رن جرس المنبه؟ …

عادل : لا طبعا … قمت من تلقاء نفسى كالعادة …  . . . (الحكيم ٦٥-٦٦)

(٥) سامية: رفعت راية العصيان؟! …

(٦) العالم: أصبح هذا مؤكدًا اليوم من الوجهة العلمية … إذا اجتمع عدد من الصراصير في مكان، وكان وهح الضوء ساطعًا، فسعان ما تتحرك جبال ليس لها قمم ولارءوس، فتدوس جماعتنا وتسحقها سحقا … وفى أحيان أخرى ينهمر علينا رشاش مطر خانق يبيدنا عن آخرنا … (الحكيم ٢٧)

(٧) معجزة من السماء (الحكيم ٦١)


الدكتور: »يشير إلى الصرصار في الحوض« هذا؟! …

عادل : نعم … هذا لابطل …

الدكتور: بطل؟! …

عادل : بالتأكيد بطل … تخيل نفسك في بئر عميقة … جدرانها من المرمر الأملس … وأستحال عليك الخروج معد محاولات مضنية … ماذا تفعل؟! …

الدكتور: أيأس طبعًا …

عادل : انه هو لم ييأس …

الدكتور: حقا … أراه يكرر المحاولة عشرات المرات …

عادل : بل مئات المرات … لقد جعلت همى منذ الصباح أن أحصى العدد …

الدكتور: أكنت مشغولا بذلك منذ الصباح؟! …

عادل : نعم … أردت أن أعرف منى ينهى كفاحه! …

الدكتور: »ناظرًا ياهتمام حقيقي« حتى الآن يبدو عليه أنه لن ينتهى قريبا …

عادل : فعلا … تعبنا نحن من المشادة، ولم يتعب هو من المحاولة …

الدكتور: »متابعا النظر« أى أمل له في النجاة؟! …

عادل : لا أمل طبعا …

الدكتور: إلا إذا تدخلت أنت وأنقذته …

عادل : وأنا لن أتدخل …

الدكتور: ولم لا؟! … ما دمت معجبا به …

عادل : يجب أن أتركه لمصيره … (الحكيم ١٧٢-١٧٣)


Works Cited

Al-Hakīm, Tawfīq. Fate of a Cockroach and Other Plays. Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1980. Print.

—. Masir Sorsar. Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1966. Print.

Badawi, M. M. “A Passion for Experimentation: The Novels and Plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim.” Third World Quarterly 10.2 (1988): 949-60. Print.

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hocberg, Gil. “National Allegories and the Emergence of the Female Voice in Moufida Tlali’s Les silences du palais.” Third Text 14.50 (Spring 2000): 33-44. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88. Print.

Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Analysis of Tawfiq al-Hakim. Ithaca: Ithaca Press, 1988. Print.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006. Print.


[1] All English citations from Masir Sursar reference the published Denys Johnson-Davies

English edition, however I have made some modifications to preserve certain nuances in the Arabic. Citatio indicate the Arabic edition, followed by the Johnson-Davies translation,

and the appropriate reference to the Arabic original available in the Appendix. I have used

the following editions: Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār. (Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1966) and Fate of a Cockroach and other plays, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1980). Arabic transliterations are based on the IJMES guide to transliterating Arabic.

[2] Al-Ḥakīm, Masir Sursar, 1; Fate of a Cockroach, 2; Appendix, 1.

[3] M. M. Badawi says, “The Fate of a Cockroach is a strange work, consisting of two plays which are meant to be juxtaposed; the grotesque political world of the first play—a fable marked by the savagery of its political satire—provides the context for the absurd human relations of the second play” (Badawi 958). Paul Starkey says, “the work can almost be regarded as two plays stitched together” (Starkey 215).

[4] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 23-5; Fate of a Cockroach, 11-2 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 2. I opt for  “Scientist” and “Vizier” over Johnson-Davies’s “Savant” and “Minister,” respectively.

[5] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 53; Fate of a Cockroach, 22; Appendix, 3.

[6] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 66-7; Fate of a Cockroach, 27; Appendix, 4.

[7] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 68; Fate of a Cockroach, 28 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 5. I have replaced Johnson-Davies’s more natural “You’re rebelling?” with “Have you raised the flag of rebellion?” to accentuate the nationalist inclinations of ‘Ādil’s diction.

 [8] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 27; Fate of a Cockroach, 12-3; Appendix, 6.

 [9] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 61; Fate of a Cockroach, 25; Appendix, 7.

 [10] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 172-3; Fate of a Cockroach, 68; Appendix, 8.


Burning the Gold: Subversion and Performative Gender in Notre-dame-des-fleurs and Nightwood

by Rebekkah Dilts

“One must have gone a long way in order to finally leave behind our need to veil, or lie, or gild. Leaving behind the need to gild: this would be the passion according to Rembrandt. In his very beautiful texts on Rembrandt, Genet says…that the trajectory of Rembrandt’s work began by gilding, by covering over with gold, and then by burning the gold, consuming it, to attain the gold-ash with which the last paintings are painted. It is only at the end of a superhuman-going-to-the-depths-of-the-fathoming-of-life-and-back that one will be able to cease gilding everything. And then one can begin to adore.”
Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays

Born to a young prostitute in 1910, writer Jean Genet was given up for adoption and subsequently led a life of continual petty crime even after receiving literary success. His novels and plays, several of which he wrote while in jail, feature thieves, prostitutes, transvestites, the most deviant or subversive members of French society. In particular his novel Notre-dame-des fleurs was censored as pornographic upon initial publication, its explicit homosexuality only further contributed to Genet’s controversial status and reputation (Farmer). Yet his passionate and poetic evocation of the grotesque and degenerate riveted the literary world, captivating even the elite French intellectuals of the 40s and 50s; Jean-Paul Sartre was one of Genet’s biggest supporters, even petitioning the government for his release from prison, claiming Genet’s work was of indispensible significance to French culture (Gaitet).

Hélène Cixous, quoted above, references Genet frequently throughout the scope of her writing, Genet’s having proven, perhaps unexpectedly, deeply influential for feminist and lesbian theory in particular, regardless of the fact that his texts rarely feature prominent female characters or lesbian relationships. The reason behind Genet’s far-reaching influence is one many writers and critics have pondered, and while this paper will not focus on that specific question, Cixous’ quote, I believe, perfectly reveals Genet’s project, perhaps giving insight into the uniquely impactful quality of his writing. In his novel Notre-dame-des-fleurs, Genet most evocatively “burns the gold” and writes with its “ash,” depicting a world of degrading luxury and corrupt religion where socially deviant characters thrive. Genet simultaneously repels and attracts readers, his gold ash outlining murderers, pimps, and thieves as performers of the glorious and abhorrent. Notre-dame-des-fleurs thus reveals what exists under the “gild,” that which society has tried to cover over and attempted to hide from its sight.

While attached to a very different literary movement and project, American author Djuna Barnes’s Modernist novel Nightwood bears fascinating similarities to Notre-dame des-fleurs. Barnes, herself a controversial figure, did not enjoy the same level of regard within the literary community as Genet. The question of why is another in itself. Because of Barnes’s unconventional style and gender as a female in the male-dominated Modernist writing circle, Nightwood did not easily find publication and was refused completely by American publishers. With T.S. Eliot’s support, Barnes finally published the novel in London in 1936. While it went on to receive literary success in both the U.K. and in the U.S., Nightwood has never been taught with the same frequency or held in the same regard as the work of Eliot or other Modernists (Faltejskova 14). As critic Susanna Martins writes of Nightwood in her essay, “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire in Nightwood,” the novel “has alternately been read as a celebration of homosexuality and as a homophobic portrayal of a failed lesbian relationship” (109). The ambiguity of identity, sexual and otherwise, is precisely what has rendered the book both difficult and rich for interpretation. Martins continues:

[T]he question of identification itself–how identity is enabled, constrained and foreclosed–is central to Nightwood. Religious, scientific, political, psychoanalytic, and social discourses are portrayed in their capacity to create certain subject positions and exclude others; every category, every naming of an identity, not only produces what it claims to represent, but also carries with it constraints and judgment. (110)

Barnes’ portrayal of “how identity is enabled” upholds decay and degradation, heresy and anti-Semitism, depicting sexual relationships that were at the time deemed socially deviant. As Martins affirms, Barnes and her characters “name these categories” without attaching themselves to any singular identity, floating instead like formless specters through Barnes’ world of the night.

Despite their stylistic and linguistic differences, Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, the latter of which was published in Paris less than a decade after Nightwood, both seek to reveal different possibilities for sexual, religious, and socially deviant identification. The texts explore social performativity, something in both novels specifically connected to society’s dependence on art and ornament in constructing identity and sexuality. Barnes and Genet both reveal this performativity as connected to the pageant and ritual of Catholicism in Modern France. Ultimately, Notre-dame-des-fleurs and Nightwood use the degradation and negation of their characters as individuals in society to reveal new aesthetic spaces and sexual identities.

To begin an examination of sexual identification in these novels is to explore the mutual depiction of the characters’ homosexuality, which, as acknowledged above, has been one of both texts’ greatest sources of literary controversy and impact. Neither novel presents homosexual identification as a binary choice, or as the recognition of one’s essential sexual self. Instead, sexual orientation is portrayed as a fluid, self-consciously constructed process that refuses stability. As Martins writes,

[F]or Barnes, being a lesbian is something entirely different from, or more than, the simple fact of women loving women; being a “lesbian” means entering into a realm of discourse that is largely out of one’s individual control but that nevertheless produces and orders one’s identity. For gender theorist Butler, “To be” lesbian seems to be more than a simple injunction to become who or what [she] already [is]. (3)

Sexual identification in Nightwood and in Notre-dame-des-fleurs is not a “simple injunction” as Martins affirms, but a site of potential construction that offers possibility outside of heteronormative categories of gender. This is precisely why transvestism appears in both novels: the characters’ conscious ability to “perform” their gender is one of the texts’ strongest dialectic points of subversion.

Matthew O’Connor is Nightwood’s most over-determined character; he performs as a doctor, a scientist, a woman, and a Catholic devotee, all of which he performs badly, in grotesque but revelatory exaggerations and aphorisms. When the character Nora finds him in bed wearing a dress, “heavily rouged and his lashes painted,” she wonders,

[i]s not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream has not worn it–infants, angels, priests, the dead; why should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress? She thought: “He dresses to lie beside himself, who is so constructed that love, for him, can be only something special; in a room that giving back evidence of his occupancy, is as mauled as the last agony. (86)

O’Connor’s transvestism is thus not formulated from identification with his essential self, but rather from a performance, one which, according to Nora, nearly every body, at every stage of life, has carried out. Here, a strong connection to Judith Butler’s theories of performative gender can be drawn, most specifically those she outlines in her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”:

Gender attributes…are not expressive but performative…these attributes effectively constitute[ing] the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is quite crucial, for if gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex, a true or abiding masculinity or femininity, are also constituted as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed. (520)

According to Butler, O’Connor’s performance could never have resulted from a self-produced fantasy, but only directly out of bodies whose sustained social performances—infants, priests, the dead—have been rendered essential. Nora’s equation of the Doctor’s right to perform as a woman in the context of the figures and categories she mentions unveil their inherent performativity, even though they are the ones Butler identifies as hiding the performativity of gender, their function “as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed.” This is thus a performance O’Connor has learned and, in Nora’s eyes, is one in which he has every right to engage. Since his body is not one that is typically assigned to such a performance, however, it appears grotesque, a subversion.

I think it is important to note that Butler views gender performance as intrinsically tied to phenomenology, “that which appears.” Subversive gender actions allow for a different kind of appearing, the possibility of transcendence via their subversion:

[I]f the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style. (521)

In addition to O’Connor, nearly every character in Barnes’ novel participates in a “breaking or subversive repetition” of standard, biological or socially accepted categories of gender. The character Robin Vote, in fact, refuses gendered behavior that is easily identifiable. As Monika Faltejskova argues in her book, Barnes creates in her portrayals of Robin and O’Connor a “third sex, a gender category enabled by the breakdown of the relation of determinacy between biological sex and gender” (Faltejskova 150). Not only does Robin engage in sexual relationships with both men and women, she literally moves through, “appears” in the world as neither:

Her movements were slightly headlong and sideways; slow, clumsy and yet graceful…She wore no hat and her pale head, with its short hair growing flat on the forehead made still narrower by the hanging curls almost on a level with the finely arched eyebrows, gave her the look of cherubs in Renaissance theatres…Thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of will; to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details. (45)

Robin performs both grace and clumsiness in simultaneous movement, her physicality inducing “a sensation” as opposed to a memory, memory being the recollection of something identifiable and familiar.

While Robin’s performance resists discernible categorization, the characters in Notre-dame-des-fleurs rely upon determinacy for their sexual performances, Genet overproducing them with an excess of masculine and feminine gestures. While at a café, the drag queen Divine, born Lou Culafroy, is described as decadently dressed and drinking her tea with a stylized gesture:

Elle était vêtue ce soir-là d’une chemisette de soie champagne, d’un pantalon bleu vole à un matelot, et chausée de sandales de cuir. A l’un quelconque de ces doigts, mais plutôt à l’auriculaire, une pierre comme un ulcère la gangrenait. Le thé apporté, elle le but comme chez elle, par toutes petites gorgées (pigeonne), posant et reposant la tasse son auriculaire dressé. (39)

That evening she was wearing a champagne silk short-sleeved blouse, a pair of blue trousers stolen from a sailor, and leather sandals. On one of her fingers, preferably on the pinkie, an ulcer-like stone gangrened her. When the tea was brought, she drank it as if she were at home, in tiny little sips (a pigeon), putting down and lifting her cup with her pinkie in the air. (72)

Divine is wearing both a woman’s blouse and a man’s pants, manipulating her cup with such exaggerated gestures s/he attracts the attention of the entire café. Her integration of male and female performance is thus how she constructs her identity as Divine, a drag queen. Certainly, the drag queen can also be seen as a kind of “third sex,” neither male nor female but as a combination of both genders. However, Robin’s embodiment of a “third sex” in Nightwood is that of an indeterminate and unknowable composition; in Notre-dame-des-fleurs, the over-identification of masculinity and femininity is what creates a subversive performance. Pascale Gaitet argues in her essay, “The Politics of Camp in Our Lady of the Flowers” that “[fe]mininty performed on a body initially inscribed as male is not in any way devalued because of the artifice on which it relies” (45). Here, Gaitet points to the importance of objects and materiality in constructing Genet’s subversive gender performance. The ability to perform gender differently requires self-conscious study, observation and practice, “the repetition of stylized acts,” to again invoke Butler. These acts, however, are connected to the performer’s engagement with artifice, material objects:

Divine s’entraîna au luxe. Elle acheta des bagages de cuir et d’acier saturés de musc. Sept ou huit fois par jour, elle prenait le train, montait dans le wagon-salon, faisait entasser les bagages dans les filets, s’installait sur les coussins…et se faisait conduire à un grand hotel, où elle restait le temps d’une installation discrete et somptueuse. Elle a fait ce ménage de star une semaine entire, maintenant elle sait marcher sur les tapis, parler aux laquais, meubles de luxe. Elle a apprivoisé les charmes et pose le luxe sur terre. (Genet 79)

Divine trained herself in luxury. She bought leather and steel luggage saturated with musk. Seven or eight times a day, she would take the train, enter the Pullman car, have her bags stacked in the baggage racks, settle down on the cushions…and have herself driven to a fine hotel, she would remain long enough to install herself discretely and luxuriously. She played this game of being a star for a whole week, and now she knows how to walk on carpets and talk to flunkeys, who are luxury furnishings. She has domesticated the charms and brought luxury down to earth. (100)

Divine’s ability to construct her performance results from her ability to both utilize and move amidst objects of luxury: “[w]hat she seeks are the gestures of luxury, gestures are performed among things of luxury–not the things themselves” (Gaitet 40). Yet, the “things themselves” are essential to these performances. The use of materiality in gender performance admittedly appears in Nightwood as well, although not to inscribe gender. Robin, because of her refusal of an identifiable gender, must be compared and composed of objects in order for her to appear at all; when the character Felix meets Robin for the first time, “he felt he was looking upon a figurehead in a museum” (41) and once Robin is “[r]emoved from her setting–the plants that had surrounded her, the melancholy red velvet of the chairs and the curtains…she carried the quality of the ‘way back’ as animals do” (44). When material props and clues are not available to her or to those around her, Robin thus begins to lose even her human identity.

The types of objects, as Gaitet insists in her essay, are of important significance to the construction of gender identity in Notre-dames-des-fleurs, as they are in Nightwood. The focus on objects of luxury for Divine illuminates a desire for ascension from her subversive status. However, by refusing to take or own an object, she instead becomes the object, performing it, pulling it into her identity, one for whom such objects and luxury were not intended. This, too, recalls Nora’s reaction to finding O’Connor in drag; she acknowledges that his performance resembles that of “infants, angels, priests, the dead,” bodies who in various ways all represent ascension or holiness.

It is thus in the space of French Catholicism that the characters in both novels subvert materials of ascension most profoundly as elements of their identities. Although Nightwood was written in English, like Notre-dame-des-fleurs, it is set in 1930s Paris, where Catholicism and France have had a tenuous relationship for the last several centuries. As in many Western European countries, religion and politics in France were completely intertwined during the Reformation. Following the French Revolution, however, there were attempts to establish a secular state, and traditional religious values were associated with the royalists who wanted to return to the ancien régime (Vilet). In 1905, after various compromises, a law formally separating Church and state was established (Vilet). The twenty or so years that led to the publications of Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs saw a rapid decline of religion’s popularity, the rise of Modernism and the birth of psychology contributing to the perception of religion as irrational and outdated, in contradiction to progress and the championing of the subject (Foucault 23).

It is particularly interesting that both Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, whose characters literally transgress most of the standards of behavior Catholicism seeks to establish, choose to make such extensive use of the symbols of religion. The material accouterments and ritual inherent in Catholicism are used by the characters to gain ascension, as was suggested earlier, while they simultaneously acknowledge their emptiness, the ultimate absence of God. The complexity of this invocation is perhaps why, although, religion is central to both Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, its role has eluded much of the scholarship on either text. The significance of French Catholicism in these narratives is part of a reaction to Modernism, an attempt to construct outside of potentially stifling new forms of categorization introduced by Modernism and the new science of psychology. On the level of aesthetics, Modernism, also sought to eliminate ornament, constricting the possibility for performance offered by decadent materiality. As Virginia Elkins writes specifically of Genet’s texts in her essay:

Modernity, divested of heaven, evolved different arrangements for positions of power, one of which amounts to an investiture of conspiracy. Genet depicts just such a conspiracy composed of decadent sacramentalism and ritual hierarchy. Simultaneously a parody of plenipotentiary Catholicism and a burlesque of bourgeois secularism…Genet reveal[s] the efficacy of religion long after the earth is loosed from heaven and bound only itself. (74)

Traditional Catholicism thus provided a clear alternative placement to Modernism in its sponsorship of performance and extensive use of ornament to execute its performances, the characters in both novels believing that religious performances still held possibilities for identities that, even if in parody, Modernity had removed in its categorization.

Theorist Peggy Phelan takes a slightly different look at performance than does Butler in emphasizing the significance of repetition and ritual. Hers is a perspective that illuminates the role of performativity in Catholicism for the characters in both Notre-dames-des-fleurs and in Nightwood. In her essay, “The Ontology of Performance,” Phelan writes that “[p]erformance in a strict ontological sense is non-reproductive,” that it “implicates the real through the presence of living bodies” (148). This non-reproductive performance:

shares a fundamental bond with ritual. Catholic mass…is the ritualized performative promise to remember and to rehearse for the Other’s death. The promise evoked by this performance is to learn to value what is lost, to learn not the meaning but the value of what cannot be reproduced or seen (again). It begins with the knowledge of its own failure, that it cannot be achieved. (152)

The repetitive failure of performance is a strong point of entrance into the significance of Catholicism in both texts; the identities performed by the characters, as has been established, are ones conscious of instability, ones that refuse a binary position, and both literally and figuratively embody impossibility. In this sense, their identities must be performed over and over because they will never become permanent, therefore necessitating repetition, ritual.

Barnes’ introduction of the character Guido in Nightwood immediately acknowledges his Jewish identity as one that offers only failure, one that cannot be performed: Guido “had lived as all Jews do…cut off from their people by accident or choice,” finding “that they must inhabit a world whose constituents, being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace” (5). Guido gravitates toward Catholicism instead, performing, as Phelan writes, that which cannot be achieved, since any identity would be unachievable: he has nowhere from which to learn the religious performance of Judaism. Like Robin and O’Connor, who must coerce their sexuality “to an imaginary populace,” Guido,

adopted the sign of the cross; he had said that he was an Austrian of an old, most amazing line, producing, to uphold his story, the most amazing and inaccurate proofs: a coat of arms that he had no right to and a list of progenitors (including their Christian names) who had never existed. (Barnes 6-7)

Again, this production demonstrates the significance of material objects in performance: Guido’s accumulation of “inaccurate proofs,” of a “coat of arms,” and a “list of progenitors” are all essential to creating his role. His Christianity is not an establishment of belief then, but rather a space that allows performative representation. The flagrant artificiality of the objects of his performance show his understanding of its failure and absurdity, the word “amazing” used repeatedly to describe both the Austrian line Guido invents and the inaccurate proofs. Guido, too, is aware of his “false” identity: he has “no right to [the] coat of arms” but uses it regardless.

Robin, who refuses identity more than any other character in Nightwood, still connects herself to the physical performance of Catholicism. She “[s]uddenly…tak[es] the Catholic vow,” drifting from church to church, her devotion interested in the church as an aesthetic place which allows and insists upon performance (50). Robin’s method of prayer thus does not seek a connection to God, but rather engages her in repetitive performance:

[s]he prayed, and her prayer was monstrous because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame–those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned…Leaning her childish face and full chin on the shelf of the prie-dieu, her eyes fixed, she laughed, out of some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour; as it ceased, she leaned still further forward in a swoon, waking and yet heavy like one in sleep. (51)

The action of Robin leaning her face “and full chin” on the pre-dieu makes her “swoon” and thus awaken. Again, her body’s performance comes from her engagement with an object, the pre-dieu. Robin’s inability or unwillingness to select a position in the binary between the “damnation” and “forgiveness” proposed by Catholicism mirrors her unwillingness to select a position on any binary system, most specifically that of her sexual identification. Her rejection of this duality, however, does not render religion ineffectual. It instead reinforces performance that can never be complete, ritual that operates based on the need to constantly reestablish opposition. Robin’s literally unorthodox approach to Catholicism ultimately accomplishes the deep release promised by prayer, the access of “some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour,” or, as Phelan suggests, “the value of what cannot be reproduced or seen.”

Although Catholicism is undeniably connected to performance in Notre-dame-des-fleurs, it occupies a more nuanced position in relation to identity than it does in Nightwood. While Nightwood acts as a total rejection of the past, all identity being composed from surface, objects, and materialism, Notre-dame-des-fleurs has a history, and its characters’ identities are profoundly influenced by theirs. It is also significant that the characters in Nightwood are all expatriates living in Paris, while those in Notre-dame-des-fleurs are native French, therefore having an intrinsic connection to their surroundings, Catholicism included. In this sense, Notre-dame-des-fleurs more holistically displays the influence of history on creating performance. Divine, therefore, does not exist in the novel without Culafroy, the man she was at birth. Throughout the novel, the narration oscillates constantly between Divine and his upbringing as Culafroy, revealing the pivotal moments that cultivated Divine’s future self, including his time spent as an altar boy. As Culafroy, Divine believed in the existence of God and that the performance of his gestures as altar boy indeed affected God. Culafroy loses his faith, then, precisely in his transgression of a holy performance:

Lou-Culafroy saisit les trois hosties et les laissa tomber sur le tapis. Elle descendirent en hésitant, planant comme des feuilles qui tombent par temps calme. Le silence se ruait sur l’enfant, le bousclait comme l’eût fait un tropeau de boxeurs, lui faisait toucher terre des épaules. Il laissa échapper le ciboire, qui, tombant sur la laine, donna un son creux. Et le miracle eut lieu. Il n’y eut pas de miracle. Dieu s’était dégonflé. Dieu était creux. Seulement un trou avec n’importe quoi autour. Une forme jolie, comme la tête en plâtre de Marie-Antoinette, comme les petits soldats, qui étaient des trous avec un peu de plomb mince autour. (184)

Lou-Culafroy seized the three hosts and let them fall to the carpet. They descended hesitantly, drifting like leaves that fall in calm weather. The silence that rushed at the child bowled him over like a team of boxers, pinned his shoulders to the floor. He let go of the ciborium, which made a hollow sound as it fell on the wool. And the miracle occurred. There was no miracle. God had been debunked. God was hollow. Just a hole with any old thing around it. A pretty shape, like the plaster head of Marie-Antoinette and the little soldiers, which were holes with a bit of thin lead around them. (173-174)

As with Robin’s “heretical” form of prayer, this incident does not dismiss the power of religion for Culafroy. The experience, in fact, can be viewed as Culafroy’s initial realization of the possibilities of subversive performance—his choice to drop the Eucharist is the subversion of a repetitive act. The fact that there was no miracle then is the miracle, according to Genet, a “divinely” different occurrence created by Culafroy’s performance. The power of silence in the passage also evokes a kind of “miracle” or divine moment in itself. The very absence of sound, with its connotation of total nothingness, has the power to “[rush] at the child” and “[bowl] him over…[pin] his shoulders to the floor.” Here again the existence of something powerful results from spaces of negation.

The placement of power in religious performance is thus a vital component of performance that has not yet been addressed. Following a description of Culafroy’s days as an altar boy, Genet calls attention to the power of the performer, that every discourse and structure attempts to exert control and order over who has a right to which performance:

Ainsi les actes n’ont-ils de valuer esthétique et morale que dans la mesure où ceux aui les accomplissent sont doués de puissance…Cette puissance nous est déléguée assez pour que nous la sentions en nous, et cela rend supportable le geste de nous baiser pour montrer en auto, parce qu’au moment où nous baissons une mémoire imperceptible de nous une star, ou un roi, ou un truand (mais c’est encore un roi), qui se baissait de la meme façon et que nous vîmes dans la rue ou à l’écran…Les prêtres qui recommencent les gestes symboliques se sentient pénétres de la vertu non du symbole, mais du premier executant; le prêtre qui enterra Divine en refaisant à la messe les gestes sournois de vols et effractions se parait des gestes, dépouilles opimes, d’un montre-en-l’air guillotiné. (181)

Thus, acts have esthetic and moral value only insofar as those who perform them are endowed with power…This power is delegated to us sufficiently for us to feel it within us, and this is what enables us to bear our having to lower our head in order to step into a car, because when we lower it an imperceptible memory turns us into a movie star, or a king, or a vagrant [but he’s another king] who lowered his head the same way [we saw him on the street or on the screen]…Priests who repeat symbolic gestures feel themselves imbued with the virtue not of the symbol but of the first executant; the priest who, at Divine’s funeral mass, imitated the sly gestures of burglary and theft, was adorning himself, with the gestures, spolia opmia [i.e. battle trophies taken in single combat], of a guillotined second-story man. (172)

This insistence is yet another form of subversion; every performance is imbued with the high and the low, the holy and the degraded, a recognition of performativity, then, that can “endow” one to disrupt a power structure, perform an identity not granted to them. As Elkins affirms,

Genet’s ‘notables’ are certainly not vicars of Christ…Instead, they are role models of the sublime whom anyone is invited to as the thought he/she were the bread self-administering the elevation of the Host. In this modern spiritual drama, sublime appearance performs the part of divinity, infallible perception performs the part of revelation, and sacramental mimesis performs the part of salvation.

In this sense, the “modern spiritual drama” of Catholicism can be transferred to any situation, its roles given to anybody, making every performance a potential elevation or violation: the criminal pushed into the back of a police car can become a movie star sliding into her limousine, the priest can be viewed as a thief for adopting Jesus’ gestures as his own, when they are, of course, only repetition of a performance created 2,000 years ago.

While the necessity of subversive performance and materiality in constructing gender and identity is evident in both Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, the question of where these performances and objects take us is more complex. Nightwood’s refusal of all depth, of anything essential, ultimately removes its characters from reality completely. The final scene of the novel results in Robin turning into a beast, “down she went, until her head swung against his; on all fours now dragging her knees. The veins stood out in her neck, under her ears, swelled in her arms…then she began to bark…barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching” (179). Certainly, this ending can be interpreted as the ultimate subversive ascension—Robin no longer must live in or be attached to the physical world, the beast being a degraded, untamed and mythic representation closest to the identity she has sought. Her transformation to beast, however, has left many readers with a sense of dissatisfaction, and regardless of personal reading preference, it is true that the conclusion is not one easily transferable to reality (Pochoda 179).

Yet, this sense of the mythic, of a self-conscious construction of the imaginary, exists in Notre-dame-des-fleurs as well; Divine and Culafroy are not “real.” The narrator, whom Genet identifies as himself, claims to be writing the story while in prison, and although deeming the text autobiographical is problematic, it is factually true that Genet indeed wrote the manuscript while in jail. The narrator tells the reader that the story of Divine and Culafroy came to him in his dreams, and from pictures he’s cut from magazines and pinned to the walls of his cell. He inserts interjections throughout his narration of Divine to remind the reader of the odor of piss that surrounds him while he writes, of the details of his criminal trial, of the crimes of his inmates. Notre-dame-des-fleurs is then the product of an imprisoned man’s imagination, the possibilities for performance not yet realized, and that can, perhaps, only come out of a body constrained. Genet begins the novel with Divine’s funeral, before she has even been introduced. As the novel closes, he describes her death in terms of subversion, her descent into “a vast physical peace…Filth, an almost liquid shit, spread out beneath her like a warm little lake, into which she gently, very gently—as the vessel of a hopeless emperor shrinks, still warm, into waters of Lake Nemi—was engulfed” (305). The close of Divine’s narrative transitions to the narrator’s anticipation of his criminal hearing. He has, however, already decided on his freedom:

Libre, c’est-à-dire exile parmi les vivants…J’ai envisage la condemnation la plus forte dont il puisse m’atteindre. Je m’y suis prepare soigneusement, car j’ai choisi mon horoscope…comme figure de la fatalité. Maintenant, que je sais lui obéir, mon chagrin est moins grand. Il est anéanti devant l’irrémdiable. (375)

Free in other words, exiled among the living…I have anticipated the stifflest possible sentence. I have prepared myself for it with great care, for I have chosen my horoscope…as a figure of fatality. Now that I can obey it, my grief is less great. It is annihilated in the face of the irremediable. (305)

His creation of Divine has literally offered the narrator the experience of the divine; the imagining of performance has allowed him to subvert his imprisoned fate into one of freedom.

The acceptance of fate, of “obeying” and performing the worldly because of belief in ultimate ascension defines salvation. The promise of Catholicism is, of course, redemption through the performance of Jesus, through the taking of his body literally into a devotee’s own. To perform Catholicism, then, will guarantee one’s “ascension” to heaven after death, the performance inherently requiring identification with a body that is not one’s own, and potentially not even one’s gender. In the Catholic Mass, the priest is following Jesus’ instructions to “do this in memory of me,” standing in the place of Christ and by virtue of this role has the power to forgive sin as Jesus did. This renders him, as Genet notes, “a burglar,” “a thief,” like the narrator himself and so many of the characters he invents.

“Such an aesthetic religion,” Elkins writes of Catholicism, “possesses all the qualifications necessary to succeed in a world where even the noumenal is phenomenalized and even the real is imaginary [because it] endows its believers with the power to rise from the living” (75). Robin achieves redemption in Nightwood by giving up on her soul and becoming a beast, while Divine/Culafroy gains power by breaking the taboos surrounding the holy sacrament—without any of the repercussions which he expects—and then taking the physical form of the source of sin in the world: the female. Their subversions all reveal precisely what Culafroy discovered when he dropped the Eucharist: silence, negative space that holds power. The emptiness within the hollow images, the gold ash left behind by the incinerated gilding, is like the silence that rushed at Culafroy, negation that is the ultimate source of power. In this negation, Notre-dame-des-fleurs and Nightwood indeed reach the “end of a superhuman-going-to-the-depths-of-the-fathoming-of-life-and-back,” refuse to gild, and then adore.


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