Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Narcissism of Difference

It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression.  They do not feel comfortable without it.  The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. 
Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents
I first came to France to live in 1989 after I had completed my studies at university.  Like many other migrants I was not sure I would stay but it seemed a fine adventure and I was young and in love, the family was more than welcoming and I thought the country was beautiful.  The differences between my vision of France and the reality became apparent quite quickly and the awareness of just how hard it was going to be to make a life here was almost overwhelming.  Finding a job was difficult since my French was poor and my credentials frequently misinterpreted.  Obtaining my residency card meant going to a clinic that resembled a factory processing cattle for a medical exam - the sheer humiliation of being part of a human assembly line waiting to be x-rayed and being asked very personal questions by the immigration officials.  And then there was the sense that my entire world had turned upside down and I could no longer do anything right. Life seemed to be an endless series of encounters where I was 
corrected or admonished for using the wrong words, not doing the proper thing or simply not understanding fast enough for the people around me. In this sea of uncertainty I clung to what I was, an American, with all the desperation of the survivor of a shipwreck clinging to a lifeboat.

Over the years, I did integrate. My French improved. I learned what to do and what not to do to such an extent that it became natural. I learned firsthand the power of culture to mold and shape us - even the way I thought changed and I reveled in the ability to switch from one language to another, from one set of cultural practices to another, with relative ease.  And that was when my motives for proclaiming my American identity changed.  It became less a lifeboat and more a statement of independence and an expression of difference:  a way of remaining a "neutral observer," someone in this society and culture but not of it.  I have genuinely enjoyed my status as "Exotic Beast" for many years.  Americans are a very small minority here in France and we enjoy a relatively high status.  It was a very comfortable place to be as it allowed me to proclaim love and admiration for this country while retaining the right to 
criticize it and comment on it as an outsider, a position which essentially absolved me from any responsibility for changing it or caring for it too deeply.

Re-reading Freud's words today I can re-interpret my actions as a kind of aggression against the world in which I live. And I had to ask myself, is this really what I want? To be be forever separate and turn that one part of my identity against a people who have educated my children, cared for me when I was ill, taught me their language, and given me opportunities to live and prosper and raise my children?

Amin Maalouf says that everyone from time to time should perform an "examen d'identité" (an examination of identity) similar to an examination of conscience. This exercise is useful, he believes, not in order to find the one true identity that defines us but with an entirely different objective:

Je fouille ma mémoire pour débusquer le plus grand nombre d'éléments de mon identité, je les rassemble, je les aligne, je n'en renie aucun.
I search my memory to flush out the maximum number of elements of my identity, I put them together, I align them, and I deny none of them.
Chacune de mes appartenances me relie à un grand nombre de personnes; cependant, plus les appartenances que je prends en compte sont nombreuses, plus mon identité s'avère spécifique.
Each one of my adherences connects me to a large number of people;  however, the more groups I belong to, the more my identity proves to be specific.
Grâce a chacune de mes appartenances, prise séparément, j'ai une certaine parenté avec un grand nombre de mes semblables;  grâce aux memes critères, pris tous ensemble, j'ai mon identité propre, qui ne se confond avec aucune autre.
Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me;  thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other.
Ainsi, en considérant séparément ces deux éléments de mon identité, je me sens proche, soit par la langue soit par la réligion, d'une bonne moitié de l'humanité.
And so, when I consider separately these two elements of my identity, I feel close to, either by language or religion, to nearly half of humanity.
When I performed this exercise and I added together all the identities that make me what I am right here and now (American, Roman Catholic, French resident, Francophone, Anglophone, mother, aunt, sister, child, cousin, friend, writer, musician) I realized that not one ever takes precedence over any other. None are, shall we say, "predatory" in the sense that they require the extinction of others to live in me.  I am all those things and all these things can co-exist serenely in the same body and mind.  And, thanks to them, I can parse all these identities at any given moment to find a common link with the people I meet, the people I live with and the people I love. 

Becoming French would change absolutely nothing in terms of my material well-being.  As a legal resident I already have access to healthcare, to a French pension, to fulfilling work.  My children are already French so that decision is a fait accompli.  The only things I cannot do here as a resident are vote and work in the public service sector.   I have read Patrick Weil's work carefully and I understand and support the fundamental principles of the French Republic which he writes about so eloquently.  I have read the Charte that I will be asked to sign if my request is received favorably and there is nothing in it I do not adhere to.  This is not a hasty decision - on the contrary, it has taken me nearly 20 years of reflection to arrive here.  And, finally, the French nation is not asking me to renounce or deny any other part of my identity. French citizenship is not at all "predatory" and does not require that I erase my other identities, be they religious, linguistic or family, in order to hold exclusive allegiance in my person.  All I am being asked to do is open my heart and mind and make an equal space for a French one.

It is in that spirit that I am making my request for citizenship.   I want to confirm publicly what I feel in common with 65 million other French people in the world and not spend the rest of my life as a narcissist of difference, proclaiming one part of my identity, when what I really want is to express my gratitude and my profound attachment to this country.

7 comments:

Laura Rebessi said...

Hi Victoria,

I´m a Brazilian living in France for 3 years, and I profoundly share the feelings you write about on this post.
Where did you find this quotation of Amin Maalouf? I would really like to read the rest. :)
Merci
Laura

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Laura, I's so glad you found something in my piece that spoke to you. It's very comforting to hear that my experiences resonate with other people. Feels much less lonely. :-)

The quotations are from Maalouf's work Les Identités meurtrières which I think was translated into English as In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.

All the best,

Victoria

Laura Rebessi said...

Thanks! Je l´ai déjà trouvé et mis dans ma liste de livres a lire prochainement! Je suis ton blog désormais, on reste en contact! :)

Anonymous said...


Wonderful post. I can relate to the humbling experience of having to submit to medical exams and the whole regime. I don't know about France, but Canada also required me to march into my local cop shop and have my prints taken so I could then send them to the FBI, who in turn would certify to CIC that I wasn't a bank robber or a terrorist or whatnot.

I never felt all that attached to America growing up and never fit in well, so I didn't delay obtaining naturalization and relinquishing US citizenship. Nobody told me to, but I found I wasn't really to fully assimilate without letting go of the past. Feels wonderful.


Salut,

Michael Putman

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks so much for stopping by and reading and for leaving your comment.

That whole experience of going through a country's immigration process is something that really binds ALL migrants together. I've been told a time or two, "But surely there is a different (special) process for the average person from a developed country?"

Nope. :-)

Congratulations on becoming a Canadian. Such a wonderful country - so wonderful that I sent my children there. And I do see what you mean about the liberating act of relinquishing that prior citizenship. Something for me and others to think about.

Victoria

Alia Chandler said...

Hello Victoria -- Found your site from a comment you made on Dr. Bramhall's blog. I've only just left the USA and landed in Morocco (for now at least) but I can definitely relate to both of your processes regarding landing in and assimilating a new country, people, language and culture. A complete mix of excitement, adventure and frustration. My husband is also American but lived outside the US for 40 years before we met In Oregon 10 years ago. So he is wonderful in helping me to adjust but I have never felt so dependent on him for navigating me through my days. He speaks enough French to communicate with most Moroccans. The exciting thing for me now (and my ticket to feeling more secure and independent) is that we are both learning Arabic and I find that I have a real facility for the language (although my mouth muscles don't always cooperate.) So I keep telling myself that this will greatly assist me with my integration process. The Moroccan people are gracious, generous and light up completely anytime you speak even one word of their language, so the appreciative feedback is highly motivating, unlike your experience of being criticized and corrected when you first arrived in France. At least I do not have to work, as I am retired. But that is another whole aspect of this, as pulling up stakes and moving to a country that has been demonized by your own at the ripe age of nearly 66 is no small feat. But we're doing fine. Thanks for sharing your process. The piece from Maalouf was very helpful as well. Blessings, Alia

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Alia, Oh are you a lucky woman. Morocco is a wonderful country and I loved it almost as much as I loved India. If you are in Casablanca, I really recommend a visit to the Hassan II mosque http://thefranco-americanflophouse.blogspot.fr/2011/01/flophouse-in-morocco-mosque.html
Your description of the Moroccans is what I experienced there. People were very kind and patient which I deeply appreciated. I asked a lot of questions and no one ever made me feel like a fool for asking. :-)
Good for you for tackling arabic. The language is really the first step toward finding your feet (and not feeling dependent - an emotion I can really relate to).
Please come back and let me know how it's going. I'd love to hear more.

All the best,

Victoria