On Zidane’s (and Europe’s) Melancholy: An Essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Melancholy of Zidane

George Fragopoulos

We should begin with the loss, the irretrievable, the unnamable, the ghost, the empty core that makes and unmakes the melancholic.  But how does one constitute or reconstitute that which is, for the most part, inherently absent?  What can one speak of when one has nothing to speak of?  And what might these questions suggest about Zinedine Zidane, immortal footballer, metaphor for Europe’s current identity crises, and subject of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Melancholy of Zidane, a prose piece appearing for the first time in English translation-by  in Dalkey’s recent anthology of European Fiction?  The central questions of this piece are two-fold: first and foremost: what makes Zidane a melancholic? (Although, as will also be argued, it is perhaps impossible to answer this question with anything resembling an answer.)  And secondly, and perhaps more importantly: why Zidane?


First to the question of melancholy and the connections that bind Toussaint’s The Melancholy of Zidane to Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “Mourning and Melancholia.”  How does Freud define melancholia?  And how does it manifest itself?  As Pamela Thurschwell has written “The . . . [Freudian] theory of [melancholy] suggests a world where people are literally filled up or taken over by the past.  The melancholic introjects the psyche of the other and unconsciously attempts to live out his life as that other person in order to make up for the damage that he imagines having done to the object.  As a theory, melancholia resembles a ghost story, in which the ghost of the dead past actually invades the self.”  What might make Zinedine Zidane’s final match and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s story about that match ghost stories?  What are these moments haunted by?  And what is the lost object that Zidane mourns over?

The most obvious loss, although others can also be pointed to, would be the one encompassed in Zidane’s mortality as a footballer, if only for the simple reason that the 2006 World Cup final signaled the end of his days from the field.  (To quickly recount the facts of that night: Zidane was last seen leaving the World Cup final after drawing a red card in extra time— what Toussaint poetically calls “the black card of melancholy”—for head-butting one of Italy’s players, Marco Materazzi.  The “attack” came after exchanging words with the Italian player.  The French would go on to lose the game, in penalty kicks no less, and the world was left to wonder, of course, how differently things would have been had Zidane been there to partake in the deciding tie-breaker.  Toussaint’s story, in all its brevity, covers these facts and few others.  The story is remarkably austere, and, in that sense, is typical of Toussaint’s other works.)  For Toussaint, this troubled departure is symptomatic of Zidane’s general troubles with what the Belgian author labels “endings” and “exits”:  “Zidane has always had trouble with endings: he is familiar with false exits (against Greece) and missed exists (against South Korea) both.  It’s always been impossible for him to bring his career to a close, least of all to do so beautifully, for to end beautifully is nonetheless to end, to seal one’s legend: to raise the World Cup is to accept one’s death, whereas running one’s proper exit leaves prospects open, unknown, alive.”  So, for Toussaint, Zidane’s story is haunted by the very ghost of the footballer himself: he is a man who is haunted by his own sense of who or what he was.


For both Freud and Toussaint the contours of melancholia are difficult ones to trace or locate: “Zidane’s act” was “invisible, incomprehensible” and “all the more spectacular for not having taken place.”  Freud says of the distinction between melancholy and mourning: “melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.”  But Zidane’s object-loss is never actually named, and we are only left to guess at what it might have been.  (As a brief aside, but perhaps a rather crucial one: should we even hazard such a guess?  Can we ever be in a position to “answer” the question of what has been lost, even if we provide ourselves with a kind of critical protection by suggesting, with genuine sincerity and not in the spirit of sophistry, that there is more than one answer, more than one loss that Zidane is suffering from?)  Freud suggests that the melancholic may know what he has lost and yet does not know what has been lost within himself.   Would we be in bad faith to suggest that one can locate or name a single or obvious loss for Zidane?  The fact that Toussaint refuses to label Zidane’s Melancholy when it comes to the question of genre is symptomatic, I would like to suggest, of how melancholy works, since it cannot be represented directly or concretely; both avoid the prison house of definition.  In an interview with HTML Giant, Toussaint says of Zidane’s Melancholy:  “It is a very short text.  A sort of interrogation about a literary genre.  It is at the same time nonfiction, an essay, poetry, something like psychoanalysis, something like literary criticism.  Everything inside.  Not a novel.  It’s not even a short story.  It’s everything.”  Freud: “Melancholia, whose definition fluctuates even in descriptive psychiatry, takes on various clinical forms the grouping together of which into a single unity does not seem to be established with certainty . . .” Genre, therefore, as a clinical form of description.  It—melancholia or Zidane’s particular case of melancholy—is everything, in the same sense that that which afflicts the melancholic is both nothing (a ghost) and everything (the very condition of not being able to name one’s loss).  The story is “everything inside” because that is where, ironically enough, the unlocatable resides: buried deep within the self, the unconscious, call it what you will.  Freud locates the difference between mourning and melancholia in this very difficulty of naming what it is that afflicts the melancholic since melancholy is categorized as that which remains hidden from the consciousness.  Melancholia, therefore, is an “object-loss” but one that is opaque, nebulous, uncertain, as is Zidane and as the idea of Europe is as well.


Toussaint intimates that Zidane’s melancholy may arise from a certain degree of displacement, opening as he does with the footballer looking to an unforgiving and alien Berlin sky:  “Zidane watched the Berlin sky, not thinking of anything, a white sky flecked with gray clouds lined with blue, one of those windy skies, immense and changing, of the Flemish painters.  Zidane watched the Berlin sky over the Olympic stadium on the evening of the 9th of July 2006, and felt the sensation, with poignant intensity, of being there, simply there, in Berlin’s Olympic stadium, at this precise moment in time, on the evening of the World Cup final.”  The French footballer of Algerian parents beneath a German sky that resembles a Flemish painting: a knotty nexus of disparate points and places.  But I would like to suggest that Zidane’s melancholy, at least in part, does not arise from a feeling of displacement, but, rather of the complete opposite: of a complete and utter belonging.

And this answers one of the most pivotal questions of Toussaint’s piece: why Zidane?  The author provided an answer in an interview that appeared in the Chinese edition of Zidane’s Melancholy, and which is reproduced, in part, in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction 2010, where the Toussaint’s Zidane prose-piece appears.  To an interviewer’s question of why Zidane as a subject, Toussaint replied: “I think that an author has a responsibility to examine the contemporary world.  And, in today’s world, football has acquired enormous significance . . . I think it’s a writer’s duty to take an interest in things that influence the contemporary world . . . And then, in taking a topic that is not, apparently, literary, I’m turning Zidane into a sort of modern icon.  To my mind it’s something akin to Andy Warhol’s approach thirty years ago, when he created pictures of Mao Zedong, Marilyn Monroe, or Jackie Kennedy . . ..” These are answers of a sort, but I would also like to suggest that Zidane’s melancholy is Europe’s as well, and that, much like the footballer, Europe finds itself, especially today, questioning who and what it is and what it means, in this age when the European Union was meant to assuage such concerns, to be a European.  Zidane, therefore, is the perfect subject for such a piece as Toussaint’s because of his fame and accessibility, aspects of his being that make him who and what he is: a spectacle.

The anonymous narrator of Zidane’s Melancholy, a figure that we are only introduced to halfway through the story, and about whom we find out absolutely nothing, can help to further interrogate this very question of European identity.  The narrator says,  “Zidane’s melancholy is my melancholy, I know it, I’ve nourished it and I feel it,” and,  “I didn’t understand what was happening, no one in the stadium understood what was happening . . ..”  When it is finally revealed to us that we are in fact within the mind—“all inside,” in other words— of a someone, an anonymous someone, in the middle of that Berlin stadium, only then are we made truly aware of the gaze of the fan—and, perhaps, that of the common European.[i] Zidane is, of course, only Zidane in the eyes of those who watch him, for anyone who exists on that stage is simply a spectacle for the multitudes.  At that moment identity and personhood have disappeared; what we have left is not a person, but a metaphor for something much larger, much grander, all of which makes Toussaint’s claim of “turning” Zidane into a cultural icon rather spurious; Zidane was already a modern cultural icon long before Toussaint decided to represent him as such on the page.  Toussaint’s narrator again:  “I looked from left to right, then, through my binoculars, I instinctively singled out Zidane, one’s eyes always find Zidane . . .” As such, Zidane’s melancholy, or at least one explanation for it, can be found here, in the very power of the fan’s gaze.  Zidane’s melancholy and that of the anonymous fan is to be found in the very tangible sense of belonging to a place, a somewhere, a Europe (but not the Europe, for such a place does not exist, for every ideological assumption must be constantly renewed and refashioned).  The gaze of the fan makes all involved aware—to an extent—of who and what they are on the stage of the spectacle (this may be the singular brilliance of the recent documentary on Zidane as well, a film situated entirely around Zidane’s movements and actions through the entirety of one 90-minute match; we the viewers are asked to consider Zidane not as a subject devoid of an audience, but rather, on the contrary, as someone constituted through our own very own gaze).

Zidane’s melancholy, therefore, is not about displacement; far from it.  It arises, in part, because of his utter belonging to a time and place, the realization that one cannot escape the gaze of the world which has situated him there, right there, on that football field, under the world’s eyes, never to be anything other than a self seen through the lens of an other.

And that is what Zidane’s flaccid, impotent attack against Marco Materazzi—Zidane’s final action in his final world cup— is representative of: an apathy towards any sense of belonging, towards any sense of being situated rightly and totally within any context, let alone one that has further asked us to question who and what we belong to (can this be a positive thing, can it possibly engender something “liberatory”?)  And I take this to be one of the greatest lessons Toussaint is trying to impart to his readers: that there is no greater melancholy than the one that arises from the realization of “being there,” and of “truly belonging.”

George Fragopoulos is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He has published reviews, essays and translations with The Quarterly Conversation, Words Without Borders and The Critical Flame.

[i] It is worth noting that Toussaint’s prose piece appears in an anthology of European fiction and that the collection, at least according to the preface written by Zadie Smith, does represent a certain degree of a European identity: “It seems old fashioned to speak of a “Continental” or specifically “European” style, and yet if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?”  Perhaps.  But it is also interesting that the collection is littered with references and figures that contradict—thankfully!—the belief in “a kind” of European character: consider the appearance of Haruki Murakami in Christine Montalbetti’s Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami) or the very fact that Victor Pelevin, a Russian author, is represented in the collection as well, an interesting inclusion if one considers Russia’s ambivalent place in the eyes of the “West.”  Further questions arise: why include a Russian author like Pelevin and not a Turkish author, especially in light of the large and ongoing debate in and outside of that country in regards to its possible inclusion into the European union?  Will the next anthology include such countries that further problematize the idea of Europe?  What countries were considered for inclusion in this anthology and were left out?  Some clarification on such questions would have gone a long way in giving us a far more complex, thoughtfully produced anthology.  (It should also be noted that I welcome confounding such categories, especially when they are one’s that are situated around deconstructing notions that constitute national identity, and only wish that the collection did a better job of addressing such loaded issues.)

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