goto Appendx main menu Three Boys and Their
Growing-Up Performances :
Benton Komins
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Paris 1978: Tupik's Reading Acts 

Situation is everything in Michel Tournier's "Tupik." All actions and reflections revolve around the story's little-boy protagonist. (The short story itself can be read as an excursion into his environmentally determined imaginative universe.) 

The boy has no other name than the strange nickname "Tupik." "Tu piques!"8  ["You prick!"]9: The story begins with the boy's two-word exclamation of physical discomfort. He struggles to escape from his father's caress: the burning sensation of the man's beard on the boy's cheek produce the effect that "his expressions of tenderness resembled punishments" (p. 69).  How does this lead to the naming of the boy?  The father addresses his son as, "Tupik, my little hedgehog" (p. 69).  The worst "affectionate" punishment of all is this act of naming.  Ironically enough, the hero names himself through his own exclamation of disgust.  The father affectionately Appendx 3 page break 31 | 32appropriates his son's remark, indicating that Tupik will someday "piquer" too.  (We might wonder if the "father-analyst" is now ensuring corrective success through tender play.)   In a corroborating remark, Tupik's mother states: "But you know, baby hedgehogs don't have spines . . . It's only later when they become big, when they become men" (p. 70).  Tupik's fear of becoming a "bristly" man motivates the action in the story.  This horror is the generating force behind Tupik's acts of reading: he reads to escape from the bristly fate that his parents sketch for him. 

Tupik lives with his family in a beautiful large apartment, firmly ensconced in bourgeois affluence.  Little about the apartment's opulent decor interests him, except for an old painting of the Last Judgment that is hidden in the back hallway.  This demode treasure, which his parents banish to the "service area" of the apartment, fully captivates the boy.  He begins to construct an alternative story to the fate of "bristliness" through the character groupings on the canvas.  Within the context of the painting's figurations, the linking of damnation to what Tupik conceives of as masculine and salvation to what he conceives of as feminine function as points of departure for a misunderstanding of physical maturation. 

    Now what struck the child the most was the anatomy of each.  For while the damned, with brown skin and black hair, exhibited formidable muscles in their nudity, the elect, pale and thin, hid their frail and delicate limbs under white tunics. (p. 71) 
At this early point in the story, Tournier makes clear Tupik's conception of a fallen masculinity.  Through the depiction of the characters in his private artwork, Tupik begins to read masculinity—most specifically the dark muscular physique of both the damned and his father—as a state that needs to be transcended.  In Tupik's ideational system, the delicate paleness of the chosen and the softness of his mother become the "states" that are sought.  The boy reads sexual difference as ethical, even "spiritual" difference.  Tupik's interpretive acquisition of the painting begins to question constructions of sexual identity and gender. 

With the exception of the Last Judgment, the boy's reading takes place in the gardens at Desbordes-Valmore square. Like the read "elect femininity" of his painting, it is not coincidental that Tournier names Tupik's haven for the nineteenth-century poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.10   The boy's daily visits to the gardens with his nanny are filled with awe and surprise.  Seen through Tupik's eyes, unlike the Appendx 3 page break 32 | 33 "abstract" lessons at school that have no connection to the story of life, the wonderful gardens have connections to "real" things. 

    Everything that he learned at school stayed abstract for him, and without connection with things. The knowledge floated there above life without ever mixing with it. On the contrary he moved forward in the square, eyes round and fingers wide open, it was an initiatory place, full of surprises and threats. (p. 72) 
The labyrinth of Desbordes-Valmore directly initiates Tupik into the gendered and sexed mysteries of life.  Like the doubly coded characters in the painting, the frozen gestures of the gardens' sculpted mythological figures and the idiosyncrasies of its habitues tell a story that is diametrically opposed to the horrific destiny of bristles assured by his parents. 

Of particular importance to Tupik's alternative story is the statue of Theseus (Thesee in French) and the Minotaur: "The young boy who was named Thesee should have been eaten by the monster.  But he had been stronger, and it is he who had killed the man-bull.  But why did he have a skirt and a girl's name?" (p. 73).  Is there something heroic about this young man's skirt and ostensibly feminine name?  Again the question of reading arises.  Tupik knows neither the costumes nor the proper names of the Greek mythic pantheon—within his contemporary French cultural and linguistic matrix, the short tunic and the diminutive ending on Thesee's name collectively indicate "girlishness."   This Thesee stands as a hero, like the chosen characters of the Last Judgment painting, his ethical superiority appears in the guise of the seemingly feminine.   Tupik resolves the mystery of the statue's skirt and name when he logically collapses them into the theme of his painting.  "At last Theseus's gesture had a precise sense.   It was the sex of the Minotaur that he aimed at with his sword" (p. 8).  The boy not only privileges signs of femininity, he understands castration as the redemptive act.  In Tupik's universe of ambiguous protagonists and castrated bull-men, a heroic boyhood no longer leads to an inevitable state of "manly" bristles. next page 

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