Voices from the outside: Homeric exiles in twentieth-century French writing

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Burke, Catherine
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University College Cork
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This thesis explores the twentieth-century trope of the outsider but from a modern and Homeric perspective. The corpus of artists under review each develop a symbiotic relationship with Homer and his epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is an encounter that repositions the outsider, shifting our gaze from the pitiable, shunned ‘étranger’ to the creative, empowered, and vocal other. The position of the exile is recast as a Homeric exile of possibility. I begin the discussion with Marcel Proust, one of the cornerstones of French literary and cultural history. Through his masterful work A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust fashions a French epic deeply indebted to Homer, exploiting the figure of the Homeric bard to craft his modern response to the contemporary notion of the twentieth-century French outsider. The second chapter follows on from this, with Jean Giono and Naissance de l’Odyssée building on this idea of the storyteller and in particular the self-referential and metanarrative nature of the role, and how this impacts upon and advances the French Homeric exile. The result is an intricate exploration of the relationship with literary predecessors, one that oscillates from parasitism to symbiosis, with the identity of the artist moulded by the encounter. The third chapter moves to a comparative study of two French women, Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff and their respective engagement with Homer’s Iliad. This chapter explores a notable development in the Homeric reconfiguration of the twentieth-century modern French exile. The chapter provides evidence of female artists engaging with Homer, where the female response is not determined by gender and where the playfulness discernible in the previous artists is in stark contrast to the grim and gritty Homeric rewritings of these women. Both Weil and Bespaloff are at pains to reveal that the creative and powerful position of the reconfigured outsider is one hard fought. Chapter Four deals with the inimitable Claude Cahun, an artist who embodies the twentieth-century French Homeric outsider. In both her visual artwork and her literary work Héroïnes, Cahun represents a significant iteration of the French Homeric outsider. Throughout her work, she explores many of the themes of the thesis, interrogating the nature of art and the artist, the fluidity of the self, the metamorphosis of the artist, the performative aspect of identity and the role of the other. Chapter Five brings us to Monique Wittig, one of the most influential voices in the feminist movement in France. Her Homeric reworking of the Iliad, Les Guérillères, is in marked contrast to that of Weil and Bespaloff. Wittig wears her gender very much on her sleeve: this is a feminist revision of the Homeric Iliad and stamps a female voice on the figure of the Homeric exile in twentieth-century France. The thesis ends with a conclusion that ties the disparate strands together in a coherent illustration of the twentieth-century French encounter with Homer. The encounter is an intertextual exchange that saw the emergence of a distinct Homeric voice of exile, one that articulated a unique moment in France’s cultural history. From this fertile engagement avenues of possibility spring forth for the future Homer, the quintessential voice of exile.
Homer , Marcel Proust , Jean Giono , Simone Weil , Rachel Bespaloff , Claude Cahun , Monique Wittig , Iliad , Odyssey , Outsider
Burke, C. B. 20209. Voices from the outside: Homeric exiles in twentieth-century French writing. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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