France Théoret: Elegy for the Memory of Women

theory-croppedEach day I tell myself the story of my life. I know that this sentence is made up of heaviness, desire and truth, ambiguity in regard to writing. Feminism is a thing of yesterday, and so it is also a thing of today. Feminism speaks to the reality-ego.[1] Such a phrase fits only if I abandon it as it is to a timeless present. The present tense is real time and thus involves many variables. Still, thanks to my memory, I am able to live: each day I tell myself the story of my life.

Simone de Beauvoir tells her own life story in the volumes Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, and Force of Circumstance. After two thousand pages, she concludes with the words: “I was cheated.” To cheat means to deceive someone while stealing. The words are hard and pitiless. The monumental work that constitutes Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs is an undertaking born under the sign of hope and audacity. Reading those exemplary pages with their tale of clarity and passionate struggle, one would never be able to anticipate their final words. Nonetheless, these words are there for me to read where they have been placed, at the end, and it is from this position that they obtain their gravity of the real.

The ideal ego is believable. Whatever one might say, it exists. It will probably have been cheated, in other words tricked in regard to the adolescent dream. If I didn’t hate comparisons so much, I would write: my life is far from being exemplary if I compare it with that of Simone de Beauvoir. The language of comparison tears off a part of one’s being. In the distant and enduring horizon of childhood and adolescence, the yardstick of comparison was a powerful force in the emergence of my ideal ego. Comparison takes away a measure of vitality. No one can accept being less than…and, as far as being more than…the process is hardly more encouraging. In childhood and adolescence, that which is less and that which is more cease to exist. In this way, one can discover a whole new source of energy in an ideal version of the self. A negative force such as comparison tends to give birth to an ideal ego that is wholly ideal, completely detached from reality. So to not lose sight of reality, each day I tell myself the story of my life.

Of course, I distance myself from the phrase, “my life is far from being exemplary if I compare it with that of Simone de Beauvoir.” Yet the phrase is necessary and I write it down. I am fascinated by certain women who have lived before my time. What I know of them is germinal to my memory. More precisely, what I have learned from them, from Simone de Beauvoir in particular, has been etched into the foundations of my ideal ego. When I think about having marked out my perspective in this way, guided by an idea of a subjectivity that would be in control of itself and its reality, I can only experience a feeling of failure. I feel that I am in control of my subjectivity and my reality only relatively, in comparison to others. I have submitted to necessity. It is true that I have not surrendered to mere chance or to some kind of inevitable fate, enrolled thus, on this side of rigor, by necessity.

With the adverb “relatively,” I am inscribing a comparison. But the comparative term is more abstract because it involves a form of the absolute, the form that is etched into the foundations of my ideal ego. Had there been no distance between my ego and my ideal ego, I would never have had the energy necessary to act, so much did reality seem to be artificial. I remember a long period at the end of my adolescence, during which the future was a word terrifically devoid of images, in which desire no longer had any meaning and my nighttime dreams withered in the open spaces of madness. Nothing was right any more. You can’t tell yourself the story of your life when you’re nineteen years old. I was confronted with the idea of my ideal ego in the face of a reality over which I had no control, and from which a resistance born of narcissism made me turn away. Being and acting meant demeaning oneself. So much for the ethical perspective. This inability to act caused me to suffer. I despised this existential form of suffering. At the same time, I didn’t have a single word with which to understand it. It was political, but only in part. A political perspective only affects the reality ego, it has nothing to do with the ideal ego.

The ideal ego of which, at that time, I could only think in ideal terms had no basis in reality, that is to say, in action. What is more, neither any book nor any person had alerted me to the following truth: “Society has empowered me since the moment of my birth: it is within society and in my connection to it that I make decisions about myself.”[2]

I didn’t have a plan. Or more precisely, I had forgotten the plan that had come to me in a moment of illumination: to write. Childhood is the age of omnipotence. Writing is close to omnipotence.

I was tormented by anxiety, with only the vocabulary from my religious education to express it. But there wasn’t anyone I could talk to. I looked. As soon as I had a free moment, I looked for someone to talk to. That is to say, I kept myself going on my own with the help of a language filled with mystical fervor that took me even farther from reality. I developed two languages: the true language was for me alone, the everyday language for all the others. For a long time I had the feeling that there was another world out there, that people were hiding the truth from me, that the present reality was utterly trivial in comparison to what was being kept secret. “Life is elsewhere” is a dangerous formulation if one takes it literally.

I denied myself and I denied reality. Of course, I would have denied that I denied everything, since I didn’t have the first word to speak about how things should have been. I was only pretending to exist because I was inside the pretense. In other words, I thought that I was keeping myself in reserve for the moment when reality would become true. I only halfway paid attention to any situation because it never actually presented the truth. As long as reality never posed a real danger, I could easily do without it.

The ideal ego, since it is ideal precisely in its flight from reality, constructs irrational fictions. The ability to imagine the future was one of those pleasures to which I had no access. Since I couldn’t imagine the future, I became absent-minded. My absent-mindedness became oppressive, moving from nightmares to permanent daydreams about a secret world to which I had no access. I was in the grip of solipsism.


translated by Erica Weitzman

This excerpt from France Théoret’s “Elegy for the Memory of Women” in Theory, A Sunday is posted with permission from *belladonna. Watch for excerpts from Theory, A Sunday to come over the next six weeks and save the date, October 16th, for a celebration of Quebec Women’s Writing at Concordia University. More to come, and please, we welcome comments, discussions, elaborations and entanglements below.

[1] The following are partial descriptions of the ideal ego, the reality-ego and the ego-ideal according to Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis in their Language of Psychoanalysis:
– The ideal ego is used in heroic identification; it belongs to the register of the imaginary;
– The reality-ego distinguishes interior from exterior according to valid criteria;
– The ego-ideal is not defined as such. We say only that in the course of treatment the ideal ego develops and emerges as the irreducible forming-process of the ego-ideal.
In the technical sense, the word “irreducible” refers to that which cannot be reduced or simplified to anything else. The ideal ego has a certain relation to the ego-ideal. In addition, the ideal ego can be transformed into the ego-ideal once it undergoes reality-testing.

[2] Beauvoir, Simone de. La Force de l’âge. Paris: Editions Gallimard, coll. Folio, 1986. 629.