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Haunted by the Echoes of Desire. On the Voice(s) of Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras

L’ivresse de sortir de soi,
de glisser dans le vide,
de se disperser dans la pensée de l’eau,
lui faisait oublier tout malaise.

— Maurice Blanchot, Thomas l’Obscur

pour Sara, petite bijou

0. La Voix Inhumain

Above all else, and in this case ‘the else’ is definitely a lot, Marguerite Duras is a voice. Often staccato, sometimes enchanting but never ceasing to illuminate the page or screen by its sheer presence. The problem with Duras’s voice is how often it has been used to make statements that claim to profess meaningful insights into what the French so gladly like to call la condition humaine. It is precisely this French predilection for overtly meaningful and philosophical bon mots that tends to bury what is really important: the voice itself. As no other writer I know of (and even her films are manifestations of that writing), Duras excelled in seemingly off-the-cuff sentences about everything and anything, in doing so always walking the almost indiscernible line between the brilliant and the banal.

But, as with most people who will talk about anything imaginable, what really lies at the center of Duras’s prolific and disparate output is the fact she has nothing to say because she cannot say what she would want to. The big theme of Duras’s life’s work—as epitomized by the voice that speaks from within us, through us—is the ways in which (our) desire makes us strangers to ourselves.

India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

I. Trauma, Mon Amour

There exists something as the typical Durassian anti-heroine. The voices channeled by the writer, the voices that channel themselves through her, are time after time made understandable for readers and viewers alike through the female characters that often function as a stand-in for their creator. In the book publication of the scenario for Hiroshima mon amour (1959), the modern classic by Alain Resnais for which he had asked Duras to write a screenplay making this her first venture into the cinematic realm she would later make one of her homes, there is a description of Elle (played by Emmanuelle Riva) that has already in it the essence of the tragedies she would put her later heroines through with every single book and film:

What happened in her life for her to be like this, so free and hunted down at once, so honest and dishonest at once, so ambiguous and so clear? So hungry to live fleeting love affairs? So cowardly before love?

Time and time again we see the Durassian women struggle with the plights of their desires. Most of the time the social environments they inhabit are those of wealth and economic security—the French upper class in Moderato Cantabile (1958) (the novel that made her famous and was later adapted for the screen by none less than Peter Brook), the colonial elite in the Calcutta of French Indochine in India Song (1975)where the drama of their boring, banal lives as wives to their (be it literally or figuratively) absent husbands, is ripped apart by the tragedy of something bigger—both in scale and metaphysically—bursting through the seams of the fancy scenographies against which they had up until now wasted away their lives. This something bigger more often than not comes from within the woman herself, a memory, a trauma, something she could not forget but did not want to remember and did not want to forget but could not remember.

“The past is never dead. It is not even past,” as we have come to know. And the past refusing to become past is an apt definition of what we call trauma if we understand trauma to be an event that punctures one’s sense of time—and thus identity—as something coherent. This does not necessarily need to be an event of horror or pain, it can also be the event (in French évènement) par excellence; that what we talk about when we talk about love. But it is the kind of event that defines a person by undoing them, showing us a truth about ourselves we do not want to see. (“You have seen nothing …”)

“I am simply limiting myself here to noting the impossibility in which I am able to give an understandable account of what happened in Lahore.” scripsit Le Vice-Consul (1966).

The kind of truth that attests to a personal Hiroshima, a Buchenwald of the self (as painstakingly noted down against all odds in La Douleur, published in 1985), the kind of event wherein desire manifests itself as the great unraveling of everything we like to (need to) pretend about ourselves. Desire as disruption.

II. Primal Scene …

I felt there was a sense of it “always being too late” in the world of Duras. The tragedy has already happened and all that is left for us is to carry on until its echoes knock us down again. Then I opened my thumbed edition of L’Amant (1984) and read its first page after what must have been years. I found this sentence:

Very early in my life it was too late.

Throughout her works Duras creates her personal echo chamber, a mirror palace in which everything is repeated and resumed, all memories reworked and rehearsed into new constellations. If there are narratives in her novels and films and plays, they relate to each other as tributaries crossing and spilling over into each other on the way to—what else?—the great sea, while the sound of its waves crashing on the beach never ceases.

The meaning of one sentence will therefore not be limited to the context in which it is presented to us. The meaning of a sentence, this sentence in particular, reverberates back into the past and forth into the future as in the musical compositions a lot of her works allude to. The etymology of this “it having been too late” might lie in the writer’s biography but its implications reach throughout her whole way of thinking, all of her writing and living, infecting every corner of her existence like a malicious cancer. All this becomes visible for us in the way Duras, as she even started calling herself, arbitrarily shifting from first to third person, deteriorated before our very eyes. Hiding in plain sight behind her many television interviews and eulogies masquerading as hagiographies while she was still alive.

But if very early on it was too late; where exactly did it go wrong?

Shattered across the novels and the plays and the films are the pieces of evidence that attest to something of a lived truth, were it not for the fact a lot of the evidence seems to contradict itself: not in whether something happened in that early childhood or not, but in the specifics of what exactly happened and how it transpired all those years ago in a far away country. Being her biggest success in terms of sales and in winning her the notorious Prix Goncourt, L’Amant lays claim to some ultimate version of the facts that had however already been dealt with in a lot of other writings like Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950) and her first novel Les Impudents (1943)besides being distributed, mirrored and masked through the lives of a lot of her other heroines. We can see its echoes through the Nevers story in Hiroshima … and in the background stories of the ambassador wives that are mostly only alluded to in the novels and films that make up her Indian (Indochinese) Cycle. Whatever the disparateness of this intricate nerve system of correspondent transfigurations of the core material, a few elements can be distilled from all of this. Some ‘facts’ that directly or indirectly shift into focus in every new iteration, supposedly getting their final fixation in L’Amant.

(Although, it must be said, the most artistically crafted version of the events, might not be the most trustworthy.)

These elements are:

The Mother; a difficult woman, a widow, someone who has to raise three children in a colony where she does not fit in with the indigenous people because she is a colonizer and cannot aspire to be part of the colonial elite because of her poverty. She uses her savings to buy a piece of land that turns out to be worthless and, in doing so, puts the family in constant fear of debt collectors. Sometimes she is described as being mentally unstable, other times just as a conniving bitch.

Two Brothers; the older one, aggressive, dangerous, a brute and the favorite of the mother. The younger one; a bit delicate, special, “behind” as they used to call it. Together with Marguerite, scared of the older one. Together with Marguerite in a sort of incestuous relationship.

The Lover; according to some versions Chinese, according to others ‘only’ Vietnamese. Rich. In the earliest iterations described and brought to screen as boorish, stupid, only interesting because of his money. Only from The Lover onwards is he reworked as a gentleman and the only love the young protagonist has ever known. In later works the Mother interferes with the relationship to get money from the man her daughter loves, in the earlier version the Mother simply prostitutes her daughter to the rich man.

The Ambassador’s Wife; a much lesser-known image of this childhood of dust and rain and dirt. A woman of great beauty. In a black (the Lover’s?) car. The possibilities of erotic power, female “power”. Rumor has it she was transferred with her husband to this district because one of her lovers had committed suicide after she broke off their affair. “I remember this release of emotion that was produced in my child’s body: that of getting access to a form of knowledge that was still forbidden to me.”(La Vie matérielle (1987)) Innocence lost. Colonial ennui.

These elements, these characters take part in the ever so slightly changing constellations through which the protagonists get to know themselves or, more correctly, find out how little they are willing to know about themselves.

III. … Primordial Sea

When considering this cocktail, we must also keep in mind the decor against which the alchemist processes it entails take place; the Indochinese climate with its unbearably hot and unimaginably rainy seasons. (No oeuvre might be as drenched in the vocabulary and taxonomy of the seasons as Duras’s, with its mentioning of the passing of autumn, winter, spring and summer, summer, eternal summer… like a recitation.)

If Duras keeps on mining her primal scene, she even does so in a characteristic primal scenography. Her oeuvre is one almost completely devoid of action; all characters pinned down by a seemingly permanent stasis. The action has, as we’ve seen, already transpired. Beaten down by the heat, or locked up inside because of the rain, all we can do is wait for the echoes of the past to resurface. In the meantime, what we can do is talk, mostly about others, never about what really matters, because thereof we cannot say anything. because thereof one must be silent.

The voice-overs that dominate the Durassian cinematic universe show much clearer than the novels or plays how the voices in this cosmology have sang themselves loose from the reality in which they originated and to which they should refer. The protagonists, if they speak, can barely utter a word that makes sense of their situation; in a literal way, give meaning to the position this woman is in.

Because no matter their quite possibly groundbreaking emotional depth, depth being the correct word for characters so constantly spiraling downward, on the surface—and mirror palaces tend to have a lot of that—these women remain but an image to their surroundings. Beautiful canvasses onto which a man (or nation) can project himself to see his own image doubled in size.

The greatest example of these images is the ambassador’s wife in India Song, arguably Duras’s most successful film both artistically and in terms of critical acclaim. In India Song, image and sound, image and voice, are separated and juxtaposed. In the opening scenes we hear the back story of the ambassador’s wife told by two children in voice over, gossiping about events as described above, but beyond that all we get to know about this woman is what her surroundings are willing to tell us about her. And tell her about her. As in Moderato Cantabile, what makes up the identity of this woman is the way she illustratively enacts her role as wife of the ambassador. She is supposed to have no desire to speak of, and if she had, she would not be able to speak of it. Meanwhile, she is incapable of speaking about the situation she finds herself in, as it is as alien to her as the whole colonial project is to the Orientalist landscape in which it landed as an ominous UFO.

Twice speechless. Not capable of speaking an unspeakable truth and unwilling to talk to sustain the lies she is living. An image she created to defend herself against what is out there, in accordance with the impeccable homes and mansions against the backdrop of which these ladies always aimlessly wander, constructed and furnished as a shelter against what looms outside in the wastelands of our remembered pasts. This outside that is made audible in the incessant blabbering of the voices in the heat of noon or the dark of night or, most prominently, at dusk in those fragile leaden moments when light and dark wrestle tenderly in the crepuscule, in this incessant noise that ebbs and flows continuously, crashing on the shores of our feeble existence, washing away all our defenses.

What is at stake in the work and life of Duras is the dissolution of this image by the image itself. The women she constructs through the voices outside of them, will destroy (, she said,) themselves through the voice inside of them that speaks of nothing, the void inside. It is the void we become when overtaken by desire, this willingness to subjugate oneself to something bigger than our existence. The want to give up everything, to become amorphous. No longer bound by the plights and responsibilities of an identity. A million ways to define the act of writing. The writer as the alcoholic. Hoping to save that which she destroys. Giving herself over to what they will later call her voice, her tone where “everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.”

In the end all that remains, is the sea.

All quotations translated from French by the author of this article.