Out of place : exilic absence in the writing and photography of Hugo, Zola, and Loti



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Out of Place examines the lesser-known photography of three canonical authors, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Pierre Loti, during their respective exiles from France, whether involuntary, self-imposed, or self-constructed. By reading the photographs taken of and by these authors in dialogue with their writing, including journal entries, correspondence, fiction, and theoretical writings, I explore the motif of exile which encompasses themes equally characteristic of the then nascent medium: loss, absence, and nostalgia. I argue that photography lent itself well in expressing and mediating the disjunctions of exile and offered an ideal medium for these writer-photographers to construct their artistic selfhood via images of marginalization and absence. Locating exile as a metaphor for creative genius and the exile as an avatar of artistic identity within Romantic-era representations, I look at how this metaphor evolves across different artistic movements and mediums as it shifts from a metaphor to a reality and becomes a trope for representation vis-à-vis questions of impermanence and distance. While prior scholarship has primarly considered exile in terms of the alienating effects of modern culture fostered by a climate of urbanization and capitalism, I study artists who experienced geographic dislocation at critical moments in nineteenth-century France’s history and who represented their placelessness through the lens of photography. Drawing upon the work of Walter Benjamin, Geoffrey Batchen, Eduardo Cadava, and Richard Terdiman, among others, I show that exilic absence mirrors the spectral qualities of photography and its disconcerting crisis of history and memory that brings the past, the elsewhere, and the self within reach, while at the same time, forcing the viewer to realize his/her distance from these ideals. Through the motif of exile, and the affinities it shares with photography, Hugo, Zola, and Loti explore representation as absence made present, providing a crucial lens for re-framing these writers’ aesthetics of representation, and more largely, the complex relationship between literature and photography during this time. This interdisciplinary study thus challenges established notions about the relationship between these two mediums as either rivals or allies in the quest for realist aesthetics and instead shows how the camera served as a tool for artistic self-expression and self-representation for these displaced authors.