Alienation, the Body, and Society: A Review of Panics by Barbara Molinard

Alienation, the Body, and Society: A Review of Panics by Barbara Molinard

Celeste Pepitone-Nahas

Under Review:
Panics. Barbara Molinard, translated by Emma Ramadan. Feminist Press, September 2022.

Alienation is the central theme of Barbara Molinard’s short story collection, Panics. Written in 1969, it is now appearing in English for the first time, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan. Molinard wrote throughout her life, but would destroy her own work compulsively, tearing the pages into quadrants and then burning them. It took the consistent urging of her husband, filmmaker Patrice Molinard, and her good friend Marguerite Duras to finally convince Barbara to release some of her pages—a thin group of radical, intoxicating, and anxiety-provoking stories that represent a lifetime of attempts otherwise turned to ash.

According to Duras, Molinard fought to “escape from the enemy, from the murderer who, every day, inspected her desk and assassinated everything.” The enemy, of course, was Molinard herself. The book includes “maybe a hundredth” of what Molinard wrote over eight years of constant effort. Duras’s preface mimics Molinard’s style in her occasional use of all capital letters, and raises a tempting question: did Molinard harbor a desire to “SEPARATE” from her work and publish, or, as Duras says, did she and Patrice knowingly commit a “violence” on the troubled writer in begging her to give up these pages? This tension reflects the central conflict of Molinard’s narrators: while they seek true connection—either to others, the world around them, or to themselves—they end up disturbingly alone.

When writing about her decision to translate this text, originally titled Veins and published by the Éditions Mercure de France, Emma Ramadan describes how she knew the book “would be eerie, unsettling, utterly exacting in its expression of the alienation of womanhood, motherhood, wifehood.” Although it is not always women who suffer in Barbara’s stories, it is the entangled relationships between men and women that most often create problems and most often conclude with the alienation or destruction of women. In one story, a woman encounters a headless man and falls madly in love with him. After they sleep together on the hay floor of a barn, she wakes up and sees that he has grown a human head. This change terrifies her; the woman feels betrayed in a hostile world, and she commits suicide. Over and over again, Molinard’s characters make similar bids for connection. As they fail, her book paints a bleak picture of the inevitability of alienation.

Molinard’s narrators are not only at odds with others, but must also fight against the changing realities of their minds. Thinking “too much” becomes the consistent culprit leading them to destruction, an experience Molinard was familiar with—she shines best in her descriptions of raw panic. “My brain spreads before me like an immense labyrinth; a frightened thought rushes in every direction, evading me,” says one narrator. The brain is not to be trusted, but neither is the body. Characters relate how panic feels in their arms and legs, in their fingertips, faces, and beating hearts. In the near-titular fragment titled “PANIC”, Molinard presents a compelling description of extreme anxiety: “I feel it rising in me,” she writes, “It creeps up and I know that any effort to stop it would be useless…It will dig hollows in me and I will lose my reason in them.” Here, an absence of situational context makes the writing feel essayistic; it is an entry-point into the writer’s mind.

For Marx, alienation was the natural result of the worker being separated from the means of production. Molinard plays with this idea, creating situations in which work is the only form of solace. In “The Bed”, the narrator is disturbed by three gentlemen who build a coffin around him. Watching them saw the planks, he thinks: “I’m beginning to think that these gentlemen live only to work and that without it, they would have no reason TO BE.” In “The Severed Hand,” a man named Hector gets his hand literally cut off by a pharmacist. After grotesque, near-slapstick violence, Hector meets his friend Alfred and helps him shell some beans. This work has an “extremely nurturing effect” on the ravaged Hector, who shells beans with one hand while his stump continues to bleed. In a capitalistic society where no one can be trusted, the only way to reduce anxiety is to occupy one’s every waking—and dying—minute with work. Lacking productive labor, the free mind collapses in on itself. 

At the same time, ultimate freedom—bodily and mental autonomy—dissatisfy and provoke panic in Molinard’s characters. In one story, a patient being dismembered faces their situation with an eerie calm. When at last they are freed from torture, the solitude they face—the world open like a blank canvas ahead of them—is more terrifying than their previous ordeal.

In surrealist writer and author Leonara Carington’s 1972 autobiographical novel Down Below, Carrington outlines her time in a Spanish mental asylum, writing in a calm, sometimes catatonic voice about horrific torture she faced, visions she saw, and philosophizing about symbols and seeing in general. At one point, Carrington concludes that “to possess a telescope without its other essential half—the microscope—seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension.” To me, Panics is a world created from and within the darkest incomprehension. What Molinard does best is thrust her readers into a close-up state of sheer panic, as though we are looking at a microscopic plate, or under a microscope ourselves.

As presented in these fictions—a small fraction of what she created—Molinard’s philosophic take on human connection is bleak but honest. This collection adds to a tradition of writers such as Carrington and Kafka who question the gap between self and other, and who poke at the reality of emotional distances that can never be fully breached. Where Molinard breaks new ground is her sharing of interiorities of “darkest incomprehension”—states of emotion other writers approach but do not touch. The book is propelled forward by the force of  psychological trauma and never-ending anxiety, and when the reader finishes, they are likely to feel rather unstable. Perhaps to counter this forward momentum and give the reader some rest, the editor included images of Molinard’s black and white abstract paintings between each story. The paintings are the stories slowed down. Here, shapes and lines repeat and form patterns like the mind stopping and starting, obsessing, and unable to break free. They reflect a similar fear as the stories themselves: that other people are to be feared, or, worse, that we cannot trust ourselves.

Celeste Pepitone-Nahas is a writer and musician from Portland, Oregon. Her current research interests include early 20th century piano music, from impressionism to neoclassicism, and the Central European interwar avant-garde. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA in English from Williams College. She is the recipient of the MFA Alumni Prize for a Novel-in-Progress and a Fulbright teaching fellowship. She lives in the Czech Republic. You can find her on Instagram.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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