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History of the concept of Intertextuality. With an example of a North African novel

by Dr. Asma Hilali

Some thinkers have expressed the phenomenon of intertextuality without actually naming it as such. Among them: Montaigne, (1533-1592) «Its more a question of interpreting the interpretations than really interpreting things … » Essais, Livre 3, chapitre XIII, 1950 [Essays, Book 3, chapter 12]. La Bruyère (1645-1696) « Everything has been said, and we are much too late; thinking men have been around for more than seven thousand years… all we do is glean from the ancient masters and those [supposedly] qualified among the modern. » « Des ouvrages de l’esprit [Works of the Mind]», Les caractères ou les mœurs de ce siècle, [The personalities or customs of this century] Paris, 1951. In 1967, Julia Kristiva (an interpretor of Bakhtin’s ideas) uses the term inter-textuality in an article devoted to Bakhtin while asserting the filiation between Bakhtin’s dialogism and intertextuality. The Latin prefix, “inter” establishes the idea of a relationship between texts: « The status of the word is defined horizontally: the word in the text at the same time belongs to the writer as well as the reader; vertically: the word in the text is oriented to the anterior or synchronic literary corpus.» Kristiva, Séméiotiké, Recherche pour une sémanalyse, Paris, 1969. [Research paper on semanalyse = an analysis of semiotics]. Kristiva differs from Bakhtin by seeking to focus on the text in its structural aspect and by considering both the author and reader as a text. She is also at variants with Bakhtin by calling upon poetic texts in intertextuality. (Bakhtin considers poetry to be less intertextual than the novel). Roland Barthes employs the term in the 1970s and clearly establishes himself in Kristiva’s lineage. In The pleasure of the text (1973), he writes “Text means material. While until now we have always considered this [textual] fabric [or tapestry] to be a product, a ready-made veil behind which meaning exists more or less hidden, the meaning (or truth) we now stress in this fabric - the generating idea that the text conveys - is formed by means of a never-ending interweaving.” For Barthes, intertextuality is a concept that enables one to understand literature but it does not constitute a scientific instrument that serves to discover the original text. Barthes takes up Bakhtin’s idea of plurality: a plurality of meaning and of authors. However, he is mainly interested in the act of reading and thus places himself in an aesthetic of the reception. He advocates the importance of a new epistemological field of study, namely « Reading » and denounces the power of the author and what he may have wished to say. In Lector in fabula ou la coopération interprétative dans les textes narratifs, 1979 [ interpretative collaboration in narrative texts], Umberto Eco argues that there is collaboration between the author and the reader in the creation of meaning. He subscribes to Bakhtin’s interpretation of intertextuality in the wider sense of the term, as in the intersection of many kinds of signs: « Reading is an active cooperation that invites the reader to find in the text what the text does not say but just supposes promises, implies. The reader has to full the blanks in the text and to rely it to the intertextuality from which [the text] is born and in which [the text] merges. » (p.5). Eco outlines the large aspect of intertextuality. That means the connection between multiple codes. Eco is interested not only by the narrative texts but also by the artistic works.

From their various perspectives, structuralist, pragmatic, these authors evoke common issues: 1- the rejection of traditional criticism and a tendency to view matters from a psychological perspective; an approach that bases literary criticism on an author’s biography and argues in favor of only one possible reading or meaning of a work : a single truth that stems from an interpretation of the work as the author desires; 2- the evaluation of important problems like the rewriting, the topoi or commonplaces.

Example of a North African novel
Assia Djebar (1936)

The example I wish to cite is the case of North African francophone writers. Most of them belong to the community of Arab Muslims in North Africa. This community is involved in the national protest campaign against the French colonization. As francophones they write directly in French and have a large public including the French. But the choice of the French language for novels written mostly by Arab North Africans provokes some hostility. French is perceived as the language of the other, the colonizer and a competing force versus the Arabic language. Francophone literature appears after the Second World War and awakens national consciousness against the French colonization. Assia Djebar (born in 1936) belongs to the second generation of francophone authors. In my intervention, I will evoke some aspects of intertextuality as apparent in two novels of Assia Djebar : “The impatients” (Les impatiens), 1958; “Algerian women”, (Femmes d’Alger), 1982-1985. I will try to show in what way the experience of writing is an intertextual experience. By intertextuality I mean the various types of connections between two or more texts or codes. My contribution does not relate to literature only. I will attempt to demonstrate how various artistic works, essentially two paintings by the artists Eugene Delacroix and Pablo Picasso play a part of the experience of writing.

1- Inspiration:

First of all, let us examine the metamorphosis of a painting by Eugene Delacroix,“Women from Algeria in their apartment” : (I should point out that Delacroix painted the same work again in 1849; obviously then this work was a source of inspiration even for the author himself). Assia Djebar was truly inspired by this painting; she gives exactly the same title to her novel “Algerian women in their apartment” (Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement). She relates the story of the women painted by Delacroix. Three women are smoking a narghileh. The third one is in the foreground; she is lying on cushions. A black servant viewed in three-quarter profile moves apart the veil that hides the three women. The importance of the painting lies in the attitude of the women with regard to their bodies and environment. They appear as resigned prisoners of a closed space lit from a mysterious source. Delacroix depicts them at once present and hidden, enigmatic. Assia Djeba describes in her novel the women of Delacroix: “They are fewer sultans than prisoners. They don’t maintain with us, viewers, any link. They don’t accept our attention but they do not refuse it. They are strange but present in this atmosphere of confinement.”

This paradoxical rendering is a feature we encounter in Asssia Djeba’s writing. She is not only inspired by Delacroix but also by the reworking of Picasso, the Spanish painter and sculptor (1881-1973) of the same painting. Created at the beginning of the Algerian campaign against the colonization, in his version, Picasso imagines the liberation of the women painted by Delacroix. Our novelist perceives this liberation as a complex subject. She will subsequently seek to express this complexity in her novels.

2- Distance:

To say that the two paintings by Delacroix and Picasso are the “intertext” of the novels by Djebar seems to be a very simple statement. Needless to say, the matter is more complicated. The opposition between the two women’s status in the two works result from a historical process. The Algerian women evolved from prisoners (Delacroix) to contributors in the national resistance against the colonizers (Picasso). Assia Djebar does not only reflect the two paintings in her novels but expresses the tension between the two works. In other words, her novels are the second or the third reworking or - as we say in film jargon today - a “remake” of Delacroix.

Djebar institutes a distance between the two artistic works and her own text. In other words, there is somewhere an intertext that Djebar is revisiting: The distance vis-à-vis spaces and the discourses generated by them: In my example, I will evoke essentially the 2 nd novel (1958), The impatients. The novel centers upon a young woman who feels herself trapped in a family environment of domineering men and frustrated women. The novel seems in the first level a classic love story; two young persons are in love and try to escape to the social and familiar control. The first part of the novel is in Algiers, the second part is in Paris. We expect a usual, a common love story with classical elements (impossible love story in traditional context Algiers and the emancipation in Paris). But we discover progressively a special distribution of the discourses and the spaces.

In The Impatients we find two types of discourse: traditional and modern. The tension between the two discourses appears in the dialogue: Arabic dialect written in French mixed up between the two spaces. The events are maintained in the novel by this tension. The traditional space (Algiers during the sixteenth: the old port, the old city The hero (the young woman) adopts a modern discourse influenced by occidental values full of modern clichés (individuality, corporal freedom, independence…). The occidental space is Paris, for example “Jardin de Luxembourg”. The heroes maintain a relationship based on a traditional discourse and behavior. The dialogue is made by traditional clichés (Jealousy, suspicion, doubt, protectiveness, submission of the woman to the man).

In this novel, the dialogue is a kind of machine of resonance, echoing occidental values in Algiers and a traditional painting in Paris. The tension in the novel culminates in dramatic event (a crime). Assia Djebar convokes Delacroix and Picasso as a mirror of the women status between two opposite social roles, the submitted women “those who look down when they communicate”) and the emancipated ones “those who put bombs in the campaign against the colonization”. But she mixes up the two painting, Paris becomes the space of the confinement, Algiers becomes the space of the possible love story. The figure of the mirror does not mean the simple reflection but means the perception of our self from the perspective of the others. In other words, as a mirror Delacroix and Picasso make possible to perceive the Algerian women as a double personality. Is Delacroix and Picasso the origins of Djebar’s novels? Is the history of Algeria the intertext of Assia Djebar? I will not answer these questions but I will mention a statement of the author that underlines of the North African authors between two cultures and two languages, two texts. Assia Djebar said in one of her interviews: “J’ai voulu jeter un regard sur les miens. La position de Lila, à côté et en même temps dedans est témoin, c’est un peu moi.” “I tried to look at my people. The position of Lila (the hero), behind, and in the same time inside (the Algerian environment) is a kind of witness; I am in some way this witness.