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STENDHAL: THE OEDIPAL PALIMPSEST
I often feel it to be so; who can see himself? It's less than three years since I discovered the reason why.
STENDHAL, The Life of Henry Brulard
The Name of the Mother in The Life of Henry Brulard
Stendhal's oedipal struggle might be seen as the novelist's most typical representation of the double postulation of authority and subversion. For Stendhal, to use a pseudonym was to engage in an act of protest. In The Living Eye, Jean Starobinski showed that the young Henri Beyle concocted the most extraordinary reasons for denying any connection with the Beyle family:
A common illusion is to believe that our destinies and truths are inscribed in our names. To some extent Stendhal succumbed to this illusion. If he refused the name Beyle, it was because it signified a predestined fate of which he wanted no part. His name bound him to France, to Grenoble, to the bourgeois class, and to his father's world of hoarding and sordid calculation. By choosing a new name he gave himself not only a new face, a new rank in society with the noble particule de, new nationalities. Only in Italy, moreover, was happiness free to flourish, and in his young imagination young Henri Beyle established a whole genealogy for himself on his mother's side.
If the name is truly an identity, then repudiation of the patronymic is a substitute for parricide. It is the most discreet form of murder in effigy. To kill the father means also to supplant him; the filial challenge occurs with the paternal relationship and is sustained only by upholding the authority that its values come to threaten. The rejection of the name transmitted by his father is also a strategy aimed at retrieving the memory of his dead mother. Stendhal's love for his mother offers countless scenarios of the great oedipal passion tearing apart and yet resuscitating the maternal figure. Henri still contains the mother's name Henriette and systematically displaces the name of the father to the name of the mother: "for I considered myself a Gagnon and I never thought of the Beyles except with a distaste which I still feel in 1835" (car je me regardais comme Gagnon et je ne pensais jamais aux Beyle qu'avec une répugnance qui dure encore en 1835). The strong identification with the mother subverts the patronymic while bringing Stendhal's forbidden passion back through the names of his heroines. Stendhal's oedipal confession looms high in Vie de Henry Brulard (1836) and constitutes the horizon against which I want to examine the pattern Stendhal follows to retrieve the figure of the mother. Armance (1827), Le Rouge et le noir (1830), and Les Cenci (1837) describe the return to the maternal and its tragic ending. But at the start of the oedipal complex, the death of the mother is immediately recalled in Stendhal's memoirs. In Armance, Le Rouge et le noir, and Les Cenci, Stendhal performs his restorative work by giving tragic variants of his oedipal complex. I will examine how, in each of these three texts, Stendhal's maternal fictions originate from his oedipal confession in Vie de Henry Brulard and the ontological questioning it inspired.
Writing one's autobiography is, according to Stendhal, not only difficult but unavoidably incomplete, since one cannot say: "I was born/I died." Brulard's questions—"What sort of man have I been? Have I been a wit? Have I had any sort of talent?" (Qu'ai-je donc été? Ai-je été un homme d'esprit? Ai-je eu du talent pour quelque chose?) (Henry Brulard, 2-3/7)—are necessarily unanswerable. Failing a reply, he can only try to destroy the spell, to elude "the dazzling" character of such questions: "This is the only way I can hope to reach the truth about a subject which I cannot discuss with anyone" (C'est ma seule ressource pour arriver au vrai dans un sujet sur lequel je ne puis converser avec personne) (Henry Brulard, 12/19). Stendhal's story of his life becomes, of course, enmeshed with immortality and the pleasure of writing:
So my confessions will have ceased to exist thirty years after being printed if the I's and me's prove too boring for their readers; nevertheless I shall have the pleasure of writing them and of searching my conscience thoroughly.
Mes confessions n'existeront done plus trente ans après avoir été imprimées, si les Je et les Moi assomment trop les lecteurs; et toutefois j'aurais eu le plaisir de les écrire, et de faire à fond mon examen de conscience. (Henry Brulard, 5/10)
One wonders why Brulard, an unsuccessful lover, "an utter ignoramus," as Mr. Daru used to call Stendhal, is restlessly in quest of himself. The structure of Stendhal's desire for literary immortality, which Louis Marin describes as "auto(biothanato)graphy" from the Greek bios (life) and thanatos (death), also describes the fascination experienced by Stendhal in saying: "I was told that I died at ... in...." The Stendhalian "I died" is the "original 'gaze' of autobiothanatography when the subject appropriates and identifies himself from the unspeakable double border of his birth and death." But what exactly happened in this merging of birth and death? In which unnameable passion is Stendhal locked?
The lack of differentiation between life and death recalls the death of Stendhal's mother, Henriette Gagnon, in childbirth: "Please be kind enough to remember that I lost her in childbed when I was barely seven" (Qu'on daigne se rappeler que je la perdis par une couche quand à peine j'avais sept ans) (Henry Brulard, 22/29). The loss of the mother is irrevocably linked to Stendhal's oedipal desire. Stendhal's memoirs would then simply express the passion of a man who seeks in writing the power which might shelter him from the anguish he felt at his mother's death. The creation of Henry Brulard then becomes the strongest expression of his dread, for it is precisely the avowal of Brulard's oedipal desire which puts his memoirs at risk: "But I have too long deferred telling something which must be told, one of the two or three things perhaps which will make me throw these memoirs in the fire. My mother, Mme Henriette Gagnon, was a charming woman and I was in love with my mother" (Mais je diffère depuis longtemps un récit nécessaire, un des deux ou trois peut-être qui me feront jeter ces mémoires au feu. Ma mère, madame Henriette Gagnon, était une femme charmante et j'étais amoureux de ma mère) (Henry Brulard, 21/28). Brulard (from brûler, to burn) indicates that something within the name is "burning" (brûlant), that something unspeakable risks destroying the speaker's proper identity. By distancing himself from Brulard, Stendhal can thus undertake the task of analyzing his oedipal complex based on his recollections: "I wanted to cover my mother with kisses, and without any clothes on. She loved me passionately and often kissed me. I abhorred my father when he came to interrupt our kisses" (Je voulais couvrir ma mère de baisers et qu'il n'y eût pas de vêtements. Elle m'aimait à la passion et m'embrassait souvent. J'abhorais mon père quand il venait interrompre nos baisers) (Henry Brulard, 22/29). If incest was never committed, Stendhal's imaginary scenarios still consisted of elaborating his oedipal fantasms and acting them out in all his novels. Previous to his mother's death, Stendhal recalls another memory which is not without Freudian implications: "One evening, when for some reason I had been put to bed on the floor of her room on a mattress, she leaped over my mattress, lively and light-footed as a doe, to reach her own bed more quickly" (Un soir, comme par quelque hasard on m'avait mis coucher dans sa chambre par terre, sur un matelas, cette femme vive et légère comme une biche sauta pardessus mon matelas pour atteindre plus vite son lit) (Henry Brulard, 23/31). What Stendhal as a child actually saw is silenced by the next sentence: "Her room remained closed for ten years after her death" (Sa chambre est restée fermée dix ans après sa mort) (Henry Brulard, 23/31). This dramatic interruption, which marks a gap in the narrative, signals the link between Stendhal's oedipal complex and death.
Is it in fact, as Freud argues in his essay "Medusa's Head" (1922), the sight of the mother's genitals which provokes "the horror of castration"? Freud's interpretation suggests that to decapitate is to castrate: "The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something. It occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother." Although we do not actually know what Stendhal saw when Henriette leaped over his mattress, we can argue that the child's first sight of a woman's genitals took place then. The lack of details, which might be due to the considerable period which separates Henriette Gagnon's death in 1790 from the time Stendhal begins his memoirs in 1835, might also indicate that something is occulted in Stendhal's silence. In linking the myth of the Medusa's head to the castration complex, Freud establishes the equivalence between the fear of losing one's sight (being turned to stone) and that of losing one's sex. For Stendhal, the castration complex, and more specifically man's impotence, constitute his first attempt at understanding sexuality in the pathological manifestations of its absence.
If the Medusa's head takes the place of a representation of the female genitals in mythological themes, Stendhal's representation of the castration scene will take place in the aftermath of the mother's demise. The sight of Henriette leaping above his head is instantly followed by her disappearance. Stendhal's creativity seems to repeat this primary scenario. The desire for the mother is cut short by her death. This unresolved oedipal complex is accompanied by incredible separation anxiety. I have called this particular Stendhalian structure the "oedipal palimpsest." The privileged, if short-lived, relation between Stendhal and his mother makes him also dependent on a primary event or text. The precursor text thus becomes the primary source of inspiration for Stendhal. It textually replays the oedipal drama Stendhal wants to protect himself against. Stendhal's fiction is based on repetition within difference; Armance (1827) repeats Olivier (1825), by Henri de Latouche, while creating its own Active space. The return to "the mother text" is the condition of Stendhal's writing and repeats itself throughout his work: Le Rouge et le noir (1830) was first suggested to Stendhal by the criminal case of Antoine Berthet in La Chronique des tribunaux. Later on, Stendhal claimed that he translated Chroniques italiennes (1837—39) from old Italian manuscripts. These few examples show Stendhal's need for an originary text which he then appropriates. In short, the precursor text is used as the reading that allows Stendhal to replay Actively in his writing his separation anxiety. The oedipal desire is thus the trope which at its best defines Stendhal's creative work.
I propose to read Stendhal's first novel, Armance, ou quelques scènes d'un salon de Paris en 1827, in parallel with The Life of Henry Brulard. In Armance, Stendhal problematized the hero's impotence, while Brulard confessed that he was not honored with most women's favours. When Brulard declared that "the usual condition of my life has been that of an unhappy lover" (l'état habituel de ma vie a été celui d'amant malheureux) (Henry Brulard, 10/16), the statement could also be applied to Octave, the hero of Armance. In Stendhal: Fiction and the Theme of Freedom, Victor Brombert gives us the literary origin of Armance: Latouche's Olivier is babilan (impotent) and must annul his marriage; his story is repeated in the character of Octave in Stendhal's Armance. The passage from the masculine name Olivier to the feminine Armance shows that the title has been surreptitiously changed and indicates that the shift from Olivier to Armance is a ruse destined to occult Octave. In Armance, the Stendhalian discursive space refers immediately to another discourse already said and known, which saves Stendhal the embarrassing task of "explaining" Octave's impotence Superimposing Octave upon Olivier is like a textual reduplication which illuminates what is not said in Armance. Can we then go so far as to say that Stendhal's oedipal structure and Henry Brulard's oedipal desire constitute the figure of the forbidden in the guise of impotence?
When Brulard declares, "I have too delicate a skin, a woman's skin (later on I always had blisters after holding my sword for an hour), the least thing takes the skin off my fingers, which are very well shaped; in a word the surface of my body is like a woman's" (J'ai la peau beaucoup trop fine, une peau de femme [plus tard j'avais toujours des ampoules après avoir tenu mon sabre pendant une heure], je m'écorche les doigts, que j'ai fort bien, pour un rien, en un mot la superficie de mon corps est de femme) (Henry Brulard, 122-23/147-48), one wonders if this is not Stendhal's way of identifying himself with the maternal body. In Armance, Octave is described as having features as delicate as a woman's; his physical ambiguities discreetly imply that Octave is not completely a man. One might also recall that in Le Rouge et le noir, Madame de Rênal's first glance at Julien mistook him for a girl. The enigma of the feminized Stendhalian hero triggered Julia Kristeva's amazing statement: "The Stendhalian lover is secretly a lesbian." Although Kristeva does not explicitly develop what she means in saying that Stendhal is "secretly a lesbian," she implies that the social code, in Stendhal's world, is based on female homosexuality. I think that Stendhal's total identification with the dead mother caused him to undergo a complete breakdown of gender identity. Stendhal's "secret lesbianism" is still another scenario taking Stendhal one step further away from the paternal model of identification. Besides, it allows Stendhal to create a kind of sexuality ideally cerebral and aesthetic. The Stendhalian babilan who is necessarily heading for sexual fiascos is the trope around which Stendhal organized Armance, his first novel. Thus, Armance is constructed around several maternal identifications which allow Octave momentarily to escape his impotence while denying sexuality. In Stendhal's life, the mother's loss is always experienced as incomprehensible; her death must be repeated throughout his fiction because it has never been fully accepted: "But it seemed to me that I was going to see her the next day; I did not understand death" is followed by "Thus, forty-five years ago, I lost the being I loved best in the whole world" (Mais il me semblait que je la reverrais le lendemain, je ne comprenais pas la mort. Ainsi il y a quarante-cinq ans que j'ai perdu ce que j'aimais le plus au monde) (Henry Brulard, 22/29). The death of the mother is so powerfully inscribed in the Stendhalian imagination that autobiography and fiction are like a palimpsest endlessly rewriting and erasing her demise: the deaths of Lucrecia and Beatrice Cenci, Madame de Rênal, la Sanseverina, and Clélia are all miming the tragic loss of the mother while fictitiously resurrecting her at the same time. In the wake of Kristeva's work on Stendhal, we might wonder who is put to death: "With those dead women, there may be above all a specifically Stendhalian manner of idealizing the loved one as she loses her characteristic of being an other—an other sex—and unites with the lover's desired power." In Henry Brulard, the dead mother is celebrated by Stendhal as Beatrice was celebrated by Dante; the juxtaposition between the mother's death and her reading Dante's Divine Comedy brings back the memory of the dead mother:
Her features expressed nobility and utter serenity; she was very lively, preferring to run about and do things for herself rather than give orders to her three maids, and she was fond of reading Dante's Divine Comedy in the original. Long afterwards I found five or six copies in different editions in her room, which has remained shut up since her death.
Elle avait une noblesse et une sérénité parfaite dans les traits; très vive, aimant mieux courir et faire elle-même que de commander à ses trois servantes et enfin lisant souvent dans l'original la Divine Comédie de Dante dont j'ai trouvé bien plus tard cinq à six exemplaires d'éditions différentes dans son appartement resté fermé depuis sa mort. (Henry Brulard, 22/29)
The mother's liveliness and her love for The Divine Comedy seem to be enclosed in her room, immortalizing her absence in the presencing of her favorite reading. Furthermore, Starobinski argues that Stendhal established an Italian genealogy for himself on his mother's side: "He settles his memory of her in the warm and sensuous Lombard countryside." Beatrice is therefore the Italian model to which Henriette is compared. One should notice here that Stendhal chose to describe Henriette as a young woman rather than as his mother. One should note also that this feminine figure, too, is that of a dead woman. The memory of the mother is called into being and at the same time withheld, kept out of reach.
Excerpted from Maternal Fictions by Maryline Lukacher. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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