115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Perspective-Taking and the Experimental Autobiography: Djebar and Robbe-Grillet through Other Eyes

Michaela Hulstyn, Reed College

This paper takes a comparative approach in order to identify the ways in which personhood is established – either negatively (by inference and suggestion) or positively (by propositional content) – in Djebar and Robbe-Grillet's experimental autobiographies. 

Proposal: 

This paper takes a comparative approach in order to identify the ways in which personhood is established – either negatively (by inference and suggestion) or positively (by propositional content) – in experimental Francophone autobiographies. On the one hand, personhood is established negatively in a work such as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Le miroir qui revient. In his work, Robbe-Grillet famously builds his narrative personas via traces of personhood, such as the inference of a watchful eye or a shadow that suggests an outside perspective. In such a genre, which experiments with the erasure of human agency and the focus on the life of inanimate spaces and objects, perspective is all that remains of the person. Surprisingly, perspective is also at the center of another experimental genre, postcolonial autobiographical fiction, which establishes personhood positively in works such as Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia. Djebar is highly invested in the ethical project of representing subjects that were absent from historical and literary accounts of violent colonial practices and discourses. In L’Amour, la fantasia, she inserts the voices of Algerian women into an account of the French 1830 conquest. By interweaving the perspectives that were erased from public memory with her own personal history, Djebar attempts to write tout contre (“right up against”) these women. Strangely, perspective appears to be a sign of the successful erasure of the person in Robbe-Grillet and the mark of the person’s survival in Djebar. This unexpected overlap between two experimental genres – one that eschews any traditional notion of character development in order to deliver a sense of the randomness of experience, and the other that deliberately invests in the representation of marginalized persons as an ethical imperative – suggests that perspective is the unalienable aspect of personhood, in literature as in life.

The core of this paper will be the comparative investigation of the way in which perspective is built textually in Le miroir and L’Amour. This comparative analysis will lead to an examination of the role that perspective plays in experimental fiction, especially within literary movements that seem to espouse antithetical objectives, such as in the two cases cited here. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the concept of perspective-taking in cognitive psychology in light of current research on Theory of Mind (e.g. Gopnik, Baron-Cohen). It will propose reading experimental literature as a means of disrupting our methods of engaging with the perspectives of others, which can become at best, stale (Robbe-Grillet), and at worst, dehumanizing (Djebar).

Topic Area: