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Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust

Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust

3.6 3
by Michael Lucey, Michele Aina Barale (Editor), Jonathan Goldberg (Editor), Michael Moon (Editor), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Editor)

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Never Say I reveals the centrality of representations of sexuality, and particularly same-sex sexual relations, to the evolution of literary prose forms in twentieth-century France. Rethinking the social and literary innovation of works by Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Colette, Michael Lucey considers these writers’ production of a first-person


Never Say I reveals the centrality of representations of sexuality, and particularly same-sex sexual relations, to the evolution of literary prose forms in twentieth-century France. Rethinking the social and literary innovation of works by Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Colette, Michael Lucey considers these writers’ production of a first-person voice in which matters related to same-sex sexuality could be spoken of. He shows how their writings and careers took on political and social import in part through the contribution they made to the representation of social groups that were only slowly coming to be publicly recognized. Proust, Gide, and Colette helped create persons and characters, points of view, and narrative practices from which to speak and write about, for, or as people attracted to those of the same sex.

Considering novels along with journalism, theatrical performances, correspondences, and face-to-face encounters, Lucey focuses on the interlocking social and formal dimensions of using the first person. He argues for understanding the first person not just as a grammatical category but also as a collectively produced social artifact, demonstrating that Proust’s, Gide’s, and Colette’s use of the first person involved a social process of assuming the authority to speak about certain issues, or on behalf of certain people. Lucey reveals these three writers as both practitioners and theorists of the first person; he traces how, when they figured themselves or other first persons in certain statements regarding same-sex identity, they self-consciously called attention to the creative effort involved in doing so.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A breakthrough book. Never Say I isn’t just an ‘important contribution,’ as people say. It is a necessary one, disturbing many simplistic assumptions about the writing of same-sex subjectivity in modern France.”—Ross Chambers, author of The Writing of Melancholy: Modes of Opposition in Early French Modernism

“In this abundantly helpful work, Michael Lucey retrieves a vital moment in modern culture when saying ‘I’ required not only a certain courage but also a certain art.”—D. A. Miller

Modern Philology - Lawrence R. Schehr
Never Say I is a clear, cogent literary history of the articulation of the discourses and representations of same-sex desire and homosexuality in early twentieth-century French literature, and it is an important addition to our understanding of the literature and culture of the period.”
GLQ - David Namie
“Michael Lucey constructs a deft and innovative model for thinking about the problems Colette, André Gide, Marcel Proust, and others faced as they struggled to articulate a first person that might aptly speak about — and, just as often, speak for — same-sex sexualities in a fraught linguistic, literary, social, and political arena. . . . This notion of the I as a figure—rather than as a subject—is one of the most important and exciting contributions Never Say I makes. . . . Lucey’s formulation of the I as a figure allows us to see how each I can indeed be read, so long as it is read with care and attention to the fields within which it occurs. And it allows us to see more clearly the sophistication and simultaneous earnestness and playfulness with which these novelists, theorists of the self, handled the critical task of learning to articulate a queer first person.”
Patricia Tilburg
“Though the book’s title highlights the role of Gide, Proust, and Colette in this process, Lucey’s study offers much more than a rereading of these three well-studied figures and their work. Instead, he not only investigates the “position-taking” that came to characterize their literary output but also seeks to understand these positions in the context of an intimate web of writers, critics, and others in the cultural elite in France in this period.”

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Duke University Press Books
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Series Q
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New Edition
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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Never Say I

Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3897-0

Chapter One

Gide, Bourget, and Proust Talking

The learning of exemplars is part of the process of constituting a community.- MARY DOUGLAS, "Rightness of Categories" Identification rests upon organization into entities and kinds. The response to the question "Same or not the same?" must always be "Same what?" Different soandsos may be the same such-and-such: what we point to or indicate, verbally or otherwise, may be different events but the same object, different towns but the same state, different members but the same club or different clubs but the same members, different innings but the same ball game.-NELSON GOODMAN, Ways of Worldmaking

In his essay "Social Space and the Genesis of 'Classes,'" Pierre Bourdieu writes of what he refers to as "the power of naming," a power one strives for in "the symbolic struggle for the production of common sense or, more precisely, for the monopoly of legitimate naming as the official-i.e. explicit and public-imposition of the legitimate vision of the social world." In this struggle, Bourdieu tells us, "agents bring into play the symbolic capital that they have acquired in previous struggles, inparticular all the power that they possess over the instituted taxonomies, those inscribed in people's minds or in the objective world, such as qualifications [titres]." In France (as elsewhere), the period from roughly the 1870s to the 1940s can be seen as a reasonably fierce episode in the ongoing social and taxonomic struggle over the modalities of reference that would be permissible as regards same-sex sexualities. How these sexualities could be named and perceived was at stake, as was how the sexualities would be conceptualized-by means of what categories and social divisions. That everybody one might today identify as belonging to the category of "homosexual" would end up in the same category was not a foregone conclusion, and many of the people remembered as major participants in bringing into being a discourse on homosexuality did not themselves understand that category in the way it is frequently understood today. Indeed, many of them had no interest in the establishment of the category with which we now work. I propose here to look at some of the evidence of this social struggle of denomination, which is also a struggle for access to self-expression and self-representation, by way of an examination of two episodes described in André Gide's Journal, one from 1915 and the other from 1921.

The people we will encounter in these episodes occupy a kind of middle ground regarding social acts of denomination. In "Social Space and the Genesis of 'Classes,'" Bourdieu mentions first of all, "the world of particular perspectives, of individual agents who, on the basis of their particular point of view, their particular position, produce namings-of themselves and others-that are particular and self-interested (nicknames, insults, or even accusations, indictments, slanders, etc.), and all the more powerless to gain recognition, and thus to exert a truly symbolic effect, the less their authors are authorized, either personally ... or institutionally ... and the more directly they are concerned to gain recognition for the point of view that they are seeking to impose" (239). The three particular individuals we will mainly be considering here, André Gide, Paul Bourget, and Marcel Proust, captured in two scenes of private conversation, each represent varied sets of interest, and varying degrees of authority. The scenes we will be considering are not ones in which they try to exercise any kind of symbolic authority on a macrosocial level, but this does not mean we will not be able to extract from these scenes information about the large social processes that form the context for their exchanges.

To "the world of particular perspectives" Bourdieu opposes "the authorized point of view of an agent who is personally authorized, such as a great critic or a prestigious preface-writer or established author (Zola's 'J'accuse'), and above all the legitimate point of view of the authorized spokesperson, the delegate of the state" (239). In certain other contexts, Bourget (1852-1935), around the moment of his conversation with Gide in 1915, might justifiably have laid claim to some kind of title to authority. He had been elected to the Académie Française in 1894, and was well known for novels that invariably set out to diagnose the moral perils and perversions of the modern world and to advocate for the salutary influence of religious faith. He would be instrumental in launching the careers of writers such as Maurice Barrès and François Mauriac and would count among his admirers writers such as Francis Carco, a minor literary figure who holds a significant place in the French tradition of writing about same-sex sexualities. In 1915 Proust could not quite yet be thought to possess any convincing claim to enduring literary authority; Gide was further along the path to becoming a celebrated author but would solidly achieve that status only in the 1920s. Yet both authors were in the process of writing works meant to produce a recognizable claim to authority, in particular via their representations and discussions of same-sex sexuality. One of the interesting aspects of the two private scenes I want to examine here, then, is that they bring together writers fully engaged elsewhere in the struggle to gain or to maintain literary authority as a way of speaking to social issues, and in both of these private scenes there is a palpable sense of the struggle to maintain a sense of self, a sense of "face" that might guarantee or sustain that ascription of authority. It is the pragmatic uses being made by Gide, Proust, and Bourget of the ritual context of face-to-face interaction, in particular in regards to social identity markers tied to sexuality, that I propose to consider here.

Gide, Bourget, and Wharton

André Gide describes his conversation with Paul Bourget in his journal entry for November 26, 1915. He is spending a few days touring together with the American novelist Edith Wharton in the south of France, taking a break from the work they were both doing for the Foyer Franco-Belge during World War I. Wharton had met Bourget in 1893 when he was visiting the United States and had kept up a friendship with him ever since. It is she who takes Gide to see the older novelist. Gide writes:

I have made the acquaintance of Paul Bourget. He received me most cordially at Costebelle, at his estate named Le Plantier, to which Mrs. Wharton had taken me. He felt a great need to captivate someone he knows to represent another generation, another side of the fence, another point of view. The introduction took place in the garden. (2:110) [J'ai fait la connaissance de Paul Bourget. Il m'a reçu avec la plus grande amabilité à Costebelle, dans sa propriété du Plantier, où m'introduit Mrs. Wharton. Grand besoin de séduire celui qu'il sait d'une autre génération, d'un autre camp, d'un autre bord. C'est dans le jardin qu'eut lieu la présentation. (907)]

Bourget has an agenda for this meeting with the younger writer. (Gide is 46, Bourget 63; Gide has recently published The Vatican Cellars (Les Caves du Vatican-also titled Lafcadio's Adventures in translation), his latest hesitant step toward the writing with the explicit reference to homosexuality that will characterize his publications in the 1920s: The Counterfeiters, If It Die ..., Corydon.) Bourget wants to question Gide about Gide's book from 1902, The Immoralist. That book, along with his 1897 volume, The Fruits of the Earth, referred to same-sex sexual relations in ways that seemed direct to some and indirect to others.

Of the people who considered The Immoralist to be a text explicitly about same-sex inclinations, one was Rachilde in the review of the book she published in the Mercure de France in July 1902. She did not take the protagonist of The Immoralist, Michel, to be essentially drawn to same-sex relations: "He sets snares in the woods of Sodom. But he is only a poacher, and only dares follow the cruel Eros who is a hunter of males at night." Rachilde here refers to the scenes in the novel in which Michel, fascinated by the masculine beauty of one of the workers on his country estate, prowls the estate with him in the dark, poaching o of his own lands. In general, Rachilde's opinion of Gide's book seems to have been that it is not entirely successful precisely because Gide avoids taking on same-sex erotic tendencies directly, the way other writers of the time (say Georges Eekhoud) were doing. He hedges his bets by portraying Michel as a "pseudo-poitrinaire," someone who may or may not truly have tuberculosis. Rachilde suggests that people afflicted with tuberculosis are well known for giving way to any and all forms of carnal excess. Michel is thus, in her eyes, an exceptional case of same-sex tendencies and not a typical one. As she puts it:

Written with the charming scruple that it is dealing with a clinical case and not the real sources of desire, the book sheds no light on the normal immoralism of man. For a doctor, what we will refer to as a "uranist" is someone who is sick. For a poet of as much delicacy as the creator of Michel, such a person is, well, a convalescent. There is a difference, and we are obliged to be content with what we get, hoping for the day when fine poets will be cured of their dilettantism, which itself is a bit abnormal. [Écrit avec le joli scrupule de traiter un cas de clinique et non pas les sources même du désir, il n'éclaire pas l'immoralisme normal de l'homme. Pour un médecin un ... uraniste est un malade. Pour un poète aussi délicat que le créateur de Michel, c'est un ... convalescent ... Il y a une nuance et nous devons nous en contenter, en espérant mieux le jour où les bons poètes se guériront de leur toujours trop anormal dilettantisme. (184, ellipses in original)]

The wickedness of Rachilde's gesture here is to suggest that Gide's abnormal dilettantism, from which he needs to be cured in order to become a truly interesting writer, is part of what identifies him as afflicted by the very condition (uranism) that doctors consider to be an illness. Rachilde's own opinion whether or not that condition is best thought of as an illness remains dilettantishly vague.

It is almost impossible to imagine that Bourget had not read Rachilde's 1902 review of The Immoralist. It appeared in the column in the Mercure de France in which she regularly reviewed a group of novels, the first two or three getting extensive commentary, the last five or six a sentence or two. To The Immoralist she granted the honor of being the first book reviewed in the July 1902 column. The book that was reviewed second, and quite unfavorably, was Bourget's L'Etape (The Phase of Development), a "social" novel that conjoined, as was usual for Bourget, a hostility toward democracy and social mobility with an expression of the admirable forms of stability to be found in a return to the Catholic faith. Rachilde called it both "a well constructed book" and "a book of bad faith due to excessive craft" (184).

Of the many kinds of "social problems" that were of interest to Bourget were those presented by nonnormative sexualities. The durable curiosity Bourget shows for Gide's 1902 novel when they meet in 1915 is evidence enough of this. But it is a subject to which Bourget turns only, as Gide puts it, "after Mrs. Wharton had left us for a moment to go and see Mme Bourget, who was kept in her room by a slight indisposition" [après que Mrs. Wharton nous eut laissés quelques instants pour aller voir Mme Bourget qu'une indisposition retenait dans sa chambre]:

"Now that we are alone, tell me, Monsieur Gide, whether or not your immoralist is a pederast." And, as I seem somewhat stunned, he reinforces his question: "I mean: a practicing pederast?" "He is probably more likely an unconscious homosexual," I replied as if I hardly knew myself; and I added: "I believe there are many such." At first I thought that he had taken this way of showing me that he had read my book; but he especially wanted to develop his theories: "There are," he began, "two classes of perversion: those that fall under the head of sadism and those that belong to masochism. To achieve sexual pleasure both the sadist and the masochist turn to cruelty; but one, and so on ... while the other," and so on ... "Do you class homosexuals under one or the other of these perversions?" I asked just to have something to say. "Of course," he replied, "for, as Régis points out ..." But at this moment Mrs. Wharton returned and I never learned whether, according to him, the homosexual fell under the head of sadism or of masochism. I was sorry that he turned the conversation into another channel; it would have amused me to have Mrs. Wharton's opinion, if indeed she might have had one. (2:110-11) [<> Et, comme je reste un peu interloqué, il insiste: >, répondis-je, comme si je n'en savais guère trop rien moi-même; et j'ajoutai: <> Je pensais d'abord qu'il voulait ainsi me montrer qu'il avait lu mon livre; mais il tenait surtout à m'exposer ses théories: <> Mais, à ce moment, Mrs. Wharton rentra et je ne pus connaître, si selon lui, l'homosexuel se rattachait au masochisme ou au sadisme. Je regrettai qu'il détournât alors la conversation; il m'eût amusé de connaître l'avis de Mrs. Wharton, si tant est qu'elle en eût un. (907-8)]

The scene and its description are rich in material for analysis. I would like to turn in a moment to the ritual aspects of the scene and to the way it both indexes and instantiates larger forms of social contention related to the representation of same-sex sexualities, but before doing so, there are two different but related questions I wish to address, that of synonymy and that of practicing.


Excerpted from Never Say I by MICHAEL LUCEY Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Lucey is Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of French at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Misfit of the Family: Balzac and the Social Forms of Sexuality and translator of Didier Eribon’s Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing! Please continue!