Beyond the mask : Guy de Maupassant in Algeria

Du Toit, Catherine (Peter Lang, 2003-07)

Article

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The enlightened foreigner who travels to a distant land wears two masks : the mask woven of pre-conceptions when he considers the ‘other’ he encounters and a second, a mirror-mask in which he sees in the ‘other’ only his own image, his personal convictions persuading him that we are all alike. Guy de Maupassant wears this double mask when he travels to the recently colonized Algeria in 1870. He documents his perceptions in a travel journal and in the form of reports sent to Parisian newspapers. These collected essays were republished as «Au Soleil» (In the Sun). In his reports, Maupassant sharply criticizes the harsh actions and methods of the French colonizers. At the same time, however, he cannot distance himself from the very conceptions of European superiority, used by the colonial powers to justify colonization. On the other hand, Maupassant as a modern, intelligent and liberal young author, seems to believe in the sameness of human culture and nature. All ‘otherness’ is absorbed into likeness and his approach to the other is one of assimilation. This approach inevitably leads to comparison and since his frame of reference does not extend beyond his own culture, the ‘other’ is judged inferior as soon as he falls short of this limited measuring stick. In our relations with the ‘other’ – whether this ‘other’ be from a different continent, race or gender group – nothing much has changed over the past century. The key concern remains : how to lay down the various masks that prevent us from seeing the other as a whole and wholly different being that we can relate to precisely because this otherness is and remains beyond our comprehension and control.

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