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The Deferral of Textual Authority in La Relhdeuse

Carol Sherman
University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill
Narratological approaches to the novel often deal with narration in
a closely dermed sense, that is, as the complex of signs the text bears of
the act of creation itself, of a generating agent, and of the temporal and
spatial loci from which the discourse supposedly emanates. Narratology
can seek to examine both the quantity of reminders that the text is being
produced and the kind of attention that is drawn to the signs of its production. The commonest tradition of readerly expectation requires that signs
inspire confidence, that they be a voice emanating from authority and consistentlyassuring the coherence and verisimilitudeof its creation or transmission. Even when this voice acquires a personality and is playful, even when
it teases the reader by addressing her directly-Thackeray, Fielding, Diderot's
narrator in Jacques Ie fataUste-it continues to provide coherence by constituting itself for the receiver; and during vast portions of the text the latter can direct her attention to events and commentary instead of being obliged to readjust the placement of her confidence and to think on the mysteries
of creation itself. Transparence in the work thus permits a certain opacity
in the reader, and there is little doubt that this is still our most familiar
habit. Neither is there any doubt that in essays written on literature in this
century, belief in textual transparency and readerly opacity has aroused the
suspicion and condemnation of such authors as Sartre, Barthes, and Sarraute. The objections have been variously political, moral, or esthetic; and
today it is clear that we can begin to combine them with broader
epistemological issues underlying our reflections on art.
The work I shall describe and cite in this regard is a so-called Dovel
written in France by Denis Diderot in the 1760's. In it a young woman,
Christian but without calling, forced to take the veil, writes of her life in
three different convents and of her efforts to be allowed to return to the
outside world. For various reasons, much interest has been shown in ii in
recent years: the film made in 1966 was forbidden by de Gaulle, debated
upon in the National Assembly, and shown as France's entry in the Cannes Film Festival. Much could also be written about its value as informa57

tion on the collusion of Church and government, then and now, and of
its interest to those studying the psychology of transcendent states of mind,
erotic as well as mystical.
What I shall assert about it here is that it is an exemplary case of the
postponement of narrative certitude--the most complex in Diderot's work,
itself a model of such disruption-and that it can thus serve as a demonstration of what many critics conscious of changes in our epistemological
assumptions now see as inherent in any act of representation, that each participates in an infinite regress of signifiers and avoids closure. The history
of this text's composition and distribution is quirky, and one might ask
what general use it can have for the study of "normal" or ordinary works
of art. I would answer that ordinary works do not exist and that in most
of the signs we call art the phenomenon is observable to some degree. There
are several on-going debates into which these observations can be placed.
One might be expressed as the conflict between "art as monolith"--some
things are art, some are not--and its opposite, "anything made is art,
anything on a page is literature." Often accompanying the monolithic,
monumental view of art, in literary studies, at least, is the belief in textual
identity, textual boundaries, coherence, and unity. These are the concepts
put into question by post-structuralism and by Diderot's literary practice.
La Religieuse givesthe opportunity for an acute-case look at a problematic
common to present-day speculation on art and our reactions to it.
The production of Diderot's texts is intenselyforegrounded by discourse
that comments on the production of other discourse. A more traditional
way of saying this is that the narrative voicesare constantly breaking frame.
The expression is only one of the many spatial metaphors we use when talking about narrative: some others are levels, linearity, foregrounding, vertical and horizontal axes. Since Kant, philosophers have usually assumed
that a temporal dimension is implied by spatial changes and vice versa: the
narrative instance supposes both a place and a time. In theory and in our
novel, there would be two of these kinds of instances: those that can be
seen as outside the story itself, assuming for the moment that we know what
"the story itself" is, the places designated as prior to its creation and which
thus insist on its occasional and relative nature; and another kind, those
designated or created in the labeled text as it manifests multiple imbricated
or nested frames. In the first case contact is made with spaces and times
existing outside the circumscribed text; and in the second, the loci of production succeed each other within the text's ostensible borders.
I shall treat first the historical spaces occupied by the tale and the forms
of postponement taken in its genesis. The main portion of the story as we
know it was written in the 1760's. The fIrst public notice of its existence
appeared about ten years later in 1770 in Melchior Grimm's handwritten

Correspondance Utteraire distributed to royal subscribers throughout
Europe; the mention did not, however, include the tale itself but was only
a preface, called such by Grimm, who seems to have been its author. Its
appearance without the thing prefaced gives it a curious indexical function:
it points to an absence. This preface relates the story of the novel's invention in 1760, the secret of how and why the fIctitious character of the nun
Suzanne came to be created. It recounts how a group of the Marquis de
Crosmare's friends, wishing to secure his return to Paris, concocted letters
to him, signing them with the name of a nun who wanted to be free and
who implored his help. The "Preface du precedent ouvrage" thus presents
letters between the real Marquis and an invented "Suzanne," between him
and Mme Madin, also real, although not involved except as a letter-drop,
the woman purportedly caring for Suzanne near Paris. It was not until ten
years later, in 1780, that the tale itself fInally appeared in the Correspondance. This time it joined its preface, but the preface was printed on pages
coming after it. The tale was followed by a Preface-Annexe that included
most of the material of the earlier preface (1770)as well as further explanation. The term preface-annex is clearly oxymoronic since instead of presenting what it talks about, it refers back to it and forms an addition or supplement. This supplementarity is of a sort to ruin the empirical authority
of the text preceding it. By empirical authority, I do not mean its power
to make us believeit is true as a genuine historical document, although that
is clearly one of the strategies of the novel itself, but its power to win the
reader over and interest her in its coherenceand plausibility. The supplementarity of the preface undermines the novel's purity as fiction, for it says
that the latter is the bastard result of invention and of historical examples.
What is more, the preface's integrity as documentation of the genesis of
the novel is violated also, for it has changed in content since it fIrst appeared; and the letters it contains are there offered as the occasion of the
work's creation, a work that in fact preceded it.
There are yet other violations of authority. In spite of the lack of a
simple and single genesis, the account could have nonetheless a certain
authority; but in another act of sabotage, Grimm goes on at the end of
the Preface-Annexeto sap that also. He makes this kind of historical deferral
explicit when in a coda, or annex to the annex, he makes remarks that promise to tell at last the preface's purpose. The preface is now framed by
Grimm's commentary, apreface-annex of the preface-annex; and it ends
in a volte-face:
S'il se trouve quelques contradictions legeresentre ce recit
et les memoires, c'est que la plupart des lettres sont
posterieures au roman, et l'on conviendra que s'il yeut


jamais une preface utile, c'est ceUequ'on vient de lire, et
que c'est peut-etre la seule dont il fallait renvoyer la lecture It la fin de l'ouvrage.(La ReUgieuse)[paris: Hennann,
1975], pp. 66-67)

Grimm thus states that the letters come after the novel; yet upon preparing
the whole package for further distribution, Diderot went back to Grimm's
version of the hoax-the letters-and altered certain details in order to make
them correspond to the novel. For example, sometime between 1770 and
1780,because the novel describesSuzanne's brothers-in-law as livingin Corbeil and Paris, their counterparts in the letters had to be moved from Albi
and Castries. Conversely and perversely, Diderot later changed his novel
to incorporate a piece of the preface: he took a passage from Suzanne's
first letter, her request for some kind of a job in service, and made of it
part of the ending to her account of her life, the novel.
I approach the end of this first half of my examples, the historical ones,
by pointing to yet another postcriptum to the postscripta forming the annexed preface. This one is perhaps the most audacious and poses quite explicitly the problem I am examining. The last paragraph of the preface is
separated from the rest and is entitled "Question aux gens de lettres":
M. Diderot, apres avoir passe des matineesa composer des
lettres bien ecrites, bien pensees, bien pathetiques, bien
romanesques, employait des journees a les gater, en supprimant, sur les conseils de sa femme et de ses associc~sen
sceleratesse, tout ce qu'eUes avaient de saillant, d'exagere,
de contraire a I'extreme simplicite et
la derniere
vraisemblance; en sorte que si I'on eut ramasse dans la rue
les premieres, on eut dit: Cela est beau, fort beau... et que
si I'on eut ramasseles dernieres, on eut dit: Cela est bien
vrai... QueUessont les bonnes? Sont-ce cellesqui auraient
peut-etre obtenu I' admiration? Ou cellesqui devaient,certainement produire I'illusion? (pp. 67-68)

We can imagine an order to this creation in real historical time. It would

be a couple of letters, the novel, more letters, preface, alterations to novel
and to letters, more preface, the two postscripts to the preface. Readers
in 1780followed another order: novel, preface, letters, postcripts. In most
modern editions, we read Suzanne's story and then the "facts," the "true
story" of how it came to be written, that is, the machinery of the practical
joke. When we read the letters we enter the fictional world of Mme MadinSuzanne, fictions made by the real friends of Croismare. Then we read real
letters of the Marquis, answers he wrote while presumably believing the

Another example of these historical substitutions of authority is supplied by Vivienne Mylne's study of the inconsistencies in the documentary
preface itself. According to Mylne the recital of the trick that gave birth
tQ the memoir-novel is itself perhaps a trick. That the tale had its origin
in a hoax is not really certain, she suggests, and Grimm-Diderot's affirmation to that effect may also be one. They trick us and the subscribers of
the Correspondance by claiming that the fiction began in some kind of
reality--reality in which a fiction was elaborated--and then they show that
"reality" or frame of one fiction (letters) and from which another fiction
(the novel) came is itself a fiction. ("Truth and Illusion in the 'P-A' to D's
La ReUgieuse, " MLR 57 [1962], 350-356.)
A further historical postscript: the most recent edition of La ReUgieuse,
the Hermann edition of Diderot's complete works, performs yet another
operation. Its editors decided to allow us to read the book "nonnally" and
so have for the first time printed Grimm's preface in front of the tale.
Paradoxes continue, however, because its title, "Preface du precedent
ouvrage," has been retained-except that now there is obviouslyno preceding
work, for the tale now follows its preface. The new order is therefore
preface-Ietters-postscripts-novel. This whole case is a parable for the
measurement of kinds of belief most or many.readers will lend to any recital
of events, to any collection of documents presenting a supposed sequence
of events, and it shows the valiant efforts they will make to find order and
meaning. If temporal connectives are not given, readers will seek to supply
them, finding or inventing a series of and tben's, trying to discover or make
a story.
This desire is perhaps most concretely illustrated by two examples of
critics who seem to have absolutely assimilated in memory the novel with
its prefaces. (Let us recall that the memoir/journal/letter is, with a twosentence exception, transcribed by a narrator who says Je even unto the
end of the novel.) Roland Champagne, in a recently published article, says,
"Suzanne fell from the wall upon escaping and this produced an injury
that led to her untimely death before the Marquis could intervene." The
death is announced to the Marquis by Mme Madin in one of the letters
of the preface: feeling the Marquis was making serious alterations in his
life in order to help Suzanne, the tricksters killed her off. (Words Disguising Desire: Serial Discourse and the Dual Character of Suzanne Simonin,"
KRQ 28 [1981], 341-350.) Arthur Wilson describing the novel in his
biography of Diderot says, "Eventually she dies from the ill effects of this
accident. And this is the book." (Diderot [New York: Oxford University
Press, 1972],p. 385.) Both critics have melded document and novel, as the
phrase "eventually she dies" shows; and the phrase "before the Marquis
could intervene" puts the fictive protagonist and the Marquis in a real rela-

tion with each other.
In the ways I have enumerated, the mass of broken frames, loosely
gathered and historically labeled as text, points to its own functioning, exposing and proffering its multiple author-ities. It thus violates both of the
categories normally considered to be opposites: that of the document or
commentary, supposed to emanate from an authentic voice, supposed to
be true; and that of the novel, supposed to be arranged, that is, artistic,
that is untrue, but captivating nonetheless. Seekingan example of something
potentially similar to the memoir-journal of Suzanne, we might think of
the Diary of Anne Frank, supposedly authentic, and written in naive
language--not arranged. In its history, prefaces have been annexed to it also,
although to a lesser degree; and it has been subject to questions about its
truth, its verisimilitude, its possible status as hoax: that is, as something
arranged. Further, it has itself been re-framed in fiction; a new origin is
recounted inside a novel by Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer (1979).
The engineers of La ReUgieusehave deliberately exposed its machinery.
They have done so in something that offers itself as document also, as
documentation of creation; but the critics' study of the latter, as we have
briefly seen above, actually exposes itself as undifferentiated from the socalled fiction for which it claims to account. All this perhaps shows that
Diderot's and Grimm's activity and questions bear not on the topic of truth
and iIIusion--which would be banal--but upon something like the relation
between and among different kinds of illusion, where the term becomes
unnecessary because it is no longer distinguished from anything. Their comments bear witness to the profound sense that there is no clear way of determining the limits of art. Instead of falling back on the old "la vida es sueno
y los suenos suenos son," we might invoke Elizabeth Bowen's remark that
begins with a similarly cliched observation but which has the advantage of
incorporating a small surprise: ".. .and it is by art that we live, if we do."
I cite these maxims as a short parenthesis, in order to mention some of the
grandes verites that we often mock. They do touch the broadest issue I am
trying to evoke: the ways in which literature erases its own boundaries and
denies its specificity.
Agreed, we might say, the text's historical borders are smeared, but
if we remain inside the memoir-diary-letter itself, will the critic not find
a satisfying coherence? If we agree to restrict our demands to a contained
fragment or framed portion of the historical pieces, will we not be rewarded with inviolate authority? The answer must again be no; and now I offer
a few examples of the frequent intratextual breaking of frames and their
substitution for ont another. The nature of Suzanne's authority changes
also, in that a definitive authorial voice constantly escapes us.
The voice of the protagonist begins what turns out to be a frame presen-

ting itself as interior monologue designatinga written text to come and referring to the Marquis in the third person: "La reponse de Monsieur de
Croismare, s'iI m'en fait une, me fournira les premieres lignes de ce fecit."
The deictic ce points, one supposes, to what is to follow and emanates from
a moment and a space other than that of the locus of the discourse that
does follow. When one reflects on the logic of her saying that the answer
to what is to come will be the first part of a text yet unwritten but which
is nonetheless supposed to elicit a response, another time and space become
possible. The sentence attains a logic if one sees it as a note for the eventual framing of a Uvre venir. Ce recit would not designate the recital of
the events already lived and yet to be told but would point instead to the
eventual framing of that recital for another public, one that would thus
be privy to the events and to the effect they would have already produced
on their first recipient. One resolution the reader might make is to consider
the words on the page as notes taken or plans made for memoirs, as she
calls them a few lines later--another work, but not this one.
Two pages later, the. voice of the protagonist moves between one we
suppose is producing memoirs (cet ecrit) of events entirely past and now
being recollected and one that appears at the same time to be cutting them
up into fragments, since they are imagined as sent to the Marquis in letters, thus disjunctive and contiguous. This impression is gained because
Croismare is now addressed in the second person (vos reponses), and his
answers are seen as plural or multiple: "Vous brulerez cet ecrit, et je vous
promets de bniler vos reponses." This portion of the text pursues the constitution of a persistentlyforegrounded narrative instance, punctuating itself
with phrases at the same time oral and epistolary like "vous l'avouerai-je,
Monsieur?" and "Imaginez, Monsieur, qu'iI y avait des jours ou je soupirais
apres l'instant de me sacrifier."
Near the end of the narrative attributable to the protagonist, another
voice intervenes: "lei les memoires de la soeur Suzanne sont interrompus."
These words again seem to constitute annotation for a text to come; they
speak of a return to the space and time of the protagonist by calling some
of what follows fragments and others reclames, marks on a page showing
where one must take up again writing or reading:

Ici les memoires de la soeur Suzanne sont interrompus, ce

qui suit ne sont plus que les reclames de ce qu'elle se promettait apparemment d'employer dans Iereste de son recit.
II parmt que sa superieure devint folie, et que c'est
etat malheureux qu'iI faut rapporter les fragments que je
vais transcrire. (p. 275)



We thus learn that the words of Suzanne are delivered, transcribed to us
by a voice we have not heard or did not know we were hearing. The ten
pages of so-called transcription that follow mix what may be historical present (entre) with a present of the narrative instance (suis): "J'entre au service d'une blanchisseuse chez laquelle je suis actuellement." I enter could
be the result of note-taking for future composition, but am presently draws
it all back into a narrative instance, the moment of utterance. The narrator
seems to plan a fiction and to live it as truth at the same time. In another
mixture, a preterite (devint) combines with what can be a historical present
(se promene). Suzanne speaks of her superior: "Bientot elledevint serieuse;
eUe ne dit plus que oui ou non, elle se promene seule."
In another of the reclames, both the present and the future mark the
narrative instance and clearly create the impression of notes for the text
to come: "C'est ici que je peindrai ma scene dans Ie fiacre." The use of
the tenses of discours (Benveniste)contrasts with the proportions among the
tenses that bear most of the tale preceding, that is, the preterite and imperfect (histoire) and the relatively rare cases of historical present, both of
which are interrupted from time to time by the moments of discours,
remarks that Suzanne JIlakes directly to Croismare, some of which I have
just quoted.
This new space at the end, notes for a text to come, is also defmed
by the movement from reclame to a kind of reliving represented by uses
of a historical present that can be said to imitate a past moment of discourse;
a last example is "Ma fuite est projetee. Je me rends dans Iejardin..." which
permits an ambiguity in reception, for it can also be read as a return to
those odd instants when the principal text seemed to be a journal (day-today record) instead of a long letter composed after her escape.
Finally, the large fragment we call La Religieuse has its very own
postscript, and it creates yet another space and time. It resemblesthe beginning frame in which Suzanne is a memorialist whose memoir will be one
large letter instead of many: she now says again "Ia reponse de M. de
Croismare," as opposed to the several responses to many individual letters. In it her voice, instead of the editorial voice, first looks at the work
that precedes; then it points to it by questioning the techniques she used
to try to persuade the Marquis of her need for help. Furthermore, he is
referred to again as he and not as you, which produces another implied
reader of this portion. Suzanne portrays herself as her own re-reader as well.
Ces Memoires, que j'ecrivais a la hate, je viens de les retire
a tete reposee, et je me suis aper~ue que sans en avoir eu
Ie moindre projet, je m'etais montree Ii chaque ligne aussi
malheureuse la verite que je l'etai.s, mais beaucoup plus

admirable que je ne Ie suis. [...] En verite, it [IeMarquis]

aurait bien tort de m'imputer personellement un instinct
propre Ii tout mon sexe. Je suis une femme, peut-etre un
peu coquette, que sais-je? Mais c'est naturellement et sans
artifice. (p. 288)
She has read her own book. Like Quixote reading the Quixote or Hamlet
watching Hamlet, as Borges has remarked, Suzanne the fictional character
has become a reader; and readers might therefore be transmuted into fictional characters. Furthermore, the questions she asks, "Have I not shown
myself as more admirable than I really am?" marks a conspicuous separation of res and verba and also undermines the authority of the entire tale;
for if there are several ways of saying and if she can hesitate among them,
what assurance has the reader of the (monolithic) truth of what has just
been presented? This kind of reflection is in the same relation to the text
it follows as Grimm's and Diderot's "Question aux gens de lettres" is in
relation to the preface, letters, and commentary that precede it. The entire
phenomenon insistently poses the questions of the limits or boundaries between literary and non-literary time and space and ends by subverting the
opposition itself.
These are some of the results that narratological concerns can yield.
By its zig-zaggingbetween creative loci, La Religieusecalls up a vocabulary
of annotation, citation, and fragmentation, all cases of supplementarity
that manifest discontinuity and change. It transgresses laws of textual identityand generic purity. Every narrative instance is the frame of another,
proffering it and undermining itself as a result. This art resembles life in
its postponement of any final meaning given by authority. We could think
it resembles the life of the blind Saunderson, in the Lettre sur les aveugles:
his life, he says--and I say art as well--is only "un long desir et...une privation continuelle."