Marguerite Duras’s creative corpus includes an unknown quantity of dimestore fiction published during the Occupation and more than ninety novels, stories, plays, and films. The great majority of those texts address issues of sexuality and desire. Duras returns insistently to the scene of desire, studying it close up, slowing it down, repeating and transforming its details, its lighting, its rhythm, and the sequence of its unfolding. She textualizes incest in La vie tranquille, Un barrage contre le Pacifique, Navire night, La pluie d’été, Agatha, L’Amant, L’Amant de la Chine du nord and lesbian desire in works such as Un barrage contre le Pacifique, “Théodora,” Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, India Song, La femme du Gange, L’Amant, and “Dialogue avec une Carmélite.” If she subtly infers unarticulated male homoerotic desire in 1970s texts with redoubled male figures (such as Détuire dit-elle), as James C. Williams contends (18), she explicitly addresses male homosexuality in La maladie de la mort and Yeux bleus cheveux noirs. But throughout her career, Duras remained primarily concerned with relations between the sexes and most especially with female characters and feminine desire. She valorized female characters, increasingly brought them to the textual fore, and examined their erotic relations and the unsatisfied longings, impossible communication, and unbridgeable separations she associated with those relations. Duras’s preference for heterosexual relations at their most extreme provoked one critic to recall her use of the term “impossible” love (Frost, 131) and another to conclude that in her work “the most sexually desirable of other bodies is that very body with which, for reasons of cultural custom, social, or personal circumstances, or even sexual orientation, no relationship is possible” (Hill, 139). Many forms of difference separate Duras’s characters from one another, including those related to gender, class, race, and ethnicity (Un barrage contre le Pacifique, Moderato cantabile, L’Amant, L’Amant de la Chine du Nord), national identity, colonial divisions, and political allegiances (Hiroshima mon amour, L’Amant, L’Amant de la Chine du Nord, La Douleur’s “Ter le milicien” and “Albert des Capitales”), mental states, and sexual orientation.
In 1940s-1950s texts such as La vie tranquille, Les impudents, “Le Boa,” and Un barrage contre le Pacifique, Duras presents adolescent heroines approaching heterosexual initiation with a ‘cautionary’ erotic scene revealing the inequalities and violence of normative bourgeois patriarchal heterosexual relations. Theses scenes are commonly placed outside the reader’s direct gaze by means of figural or allusive rendering or, more commonly, by their placement before or after the time of the main narrative. In “Le Boa,” Duras give the cautionary erotic scene a humorous and ironic spin by figuring it in the barely veiled form of violent weekly relations between an emphatically phallic boa and its ever-expanding roster of sacrificial chicks. Every Sunday, colonial zoo keepers bring a live chick to the boa’s cage, where it regularly finishes ingesting its chick before the girl arrives for her weekly outing. She sees only the aftermath of the murder, in which the boa sits, ensconced in the chick’s tepid down, still trembling with pleasure and digesting its meal. Duras’s narrator categorizes this murder as an “impeccable crime,” for it leaves no trace, no blood, no sign of remorse.
Duras further unveils the violence and power relations structuring bourgeois heteroerotic relations in Un barrage contre le Pacifique, whose young heroine is so enthralled in a filmic scene of heterosexual love that she continues to watch, as if past the end of the film, as the erotic scene devolves into violent destruction:
Their mouths approached one another, with the slowness of a nightmare. Once they are close enough to touch, their bodies are cut off. Then, in their decapitated heads, you see what you wouldn’t know how to see, their lips face-to-face, open halfway, open still more, their jaws fall apart like in death and in a brusque and fatal relaxation of their heads, their lips join like octopuses, crush each other, try in the deliriousness of the starving, to eat, to make each other disappear in a reciprocal absorption (189).
This scene permits the girl to recognize that equality in heterosexual relations is an “impossible and absurd ideal to which the structure of the organs clearly does not lend itself” (189), and that, given current relations of power, it is this film’s beautiful courtesan who will be consumed.
In so far as they effect revelation and cast change as possible, this early writing articulates an optimistic outlook on heterosexual erotic relations. They offer young females the possibility of recognizing the violence of heterosexual relations and of defining their roles in them differently. In contrast to Beauvoir’s contemporaneous claim that women have no organ suitable for use as an alter ego and thus cannot achieve full sexual subjectivity, Duras’s young heroines discover viable alter egos in their breasts, which she portrays as symbols of autonomy, transcendence, and power into which they project themselves and in relation to which they define their sexual identities. “Le Boa”’s heroine declares that “outside of the house, there was the boa, here, there were my breasts” (107), while Un Barrage’s female protagonist rides colonial city streets in a black limousine defining herself in relation to the “erection of her breasts, higher than everything standing in that city, over which they would prevail” (226). She goes on to orchestrate her own heterosexual initiation, choosing the man, the place, the time, and the dress. Rather that emerge as victim of this scene, she derives an ethical lesson from the blood and bodily fluids it commingles: “That in love, differences could abolish themselves to such an extent, she would never forget” (343).
From the late 1950s-1970s, Duras shifted her focus to slightly older women, the bourgeois fiancées, wives, and mothers she contends suffer the most of brutal patriarchal oppressions: “Damned and scorned” since the bourgeois revolution, they have been constrained to live “chez elles, imprisoned, satiated, in a concentration camp universe [and] a state of “infernal idleness […] I don’t know anything worse than that, even in misery. Women living in misery are happier than bourgeois women. Its an agent [facteur] of suicide” (Marguerite Duras à Montréal, 75). Her writing of this period is often considered her most political, as it articulates themes proximate to those being debated in feminist and psychoanalytic research. Throughout her career, Duras set erotic relations in relation to social, cultural, institutional, and historical contexts. In this period, she experiments with ways in which disturbing or dislocating normative erotic relations might deconstruct normative gender relations and social structures.
To that end, Duras captures bourgeois women as they are awakening from their infernal torpor and beginning to stir. She finds Moderato Cantabile’s Anne Desbaresdes as her son’s piano lesson (and her own state of torpor) is interrupted by a woman’s piercing scream. Desbaresdes rushes to a nearby cafe only to see, in its dimly lit recess, a woman lying dead on the floor with a man sprawled out on top of her. His face, expressionless except for the indelible mark of desire, is covered with blood from the dead woman’s mouth. As this scene closes, his mouth glues itself, once again, to hers. This violent scene mesmerizes Desbaresdes, as it does one of her husband’s employees, Chauvin, who also happened to witness it. The rest of this narrative traces their attempt to reconstruct this scene in dialogue, each of them playing the role of one of its protagonists. The novel and their efforts end on an allusive and ambiguous note, with the narrativization of the café murder: “I would wish you were dead,” he says, to which she responds, “It is done.”
Duras similarly captures the heroine of Le ravissement of Lol V. Stein as she begins to stir—but for the second time. Her first movement had occurred a decade earlier, at the S. Thala ball, where she was to announce her engagement to Michael Richardson. Before that announcement could be made, however, an older woman, Anne-Marie Stretter entered the room with an erotic charge of such magnitude that it wrenched desire out of normative bourgeois circuits. Captivated, Richardson moved with Stretter onto the dance floor as Lol V. Stein receded with her friend Tatiana Karl to assume a spectatorial position in to this erotic scene. Lesbian desire also circulated, as Karl caressed Stein’s hand, and Stein spoke of her need to invite Stretter to dance. For the remainder of the night, as desire circulated freely, Lol escaped and forgot the strictures of bourgeois desire, attaining as she did “the wisdom of the ages.” When at daybreak desire reintegrated normative erotic and social structures, Lol reentered her previous trance-like state. Ten years later, married with children, she had just remembered and re-found Tatiana and is beginning her attempt to remember the S. Thala ball and its erotic dynamics so as retrieve and extend its gains. To that end, she persuades Tatiana and her lover to continue their weekly trysts at a hotel as she watches from a rye field. She later takes Tatiana’s lover to S. Thala, visits the ballroom, recalls the ball’s events to him, accompanies him to a hotel room for sex, and, in its course, briefly re-accesses the state achieved at the S. Thala ball. Le ravissement articulates a diminishing faith in the revolutionary potential of sexuality and desire, or, perhaps, a recognition that any such gains are necessarily individual and ephemeral. Provoked spontaneously and accidentally, the S. Thala ball’s intense erotics yields the most dramatic and sustained disruption of bourgeois heteroerotic relations. Lol’s subsequent endeavor yields a short-lived leap outside, but also the possibility of continuing her attempt, uninterrupted. As this novel’s trio returns to its position in the hotel room and the rye field, Duras links their ongoing efforts to the longue durée of “God knows how many affairs like Lol V. Stein’s, affairs nipped in the bud, trampled upon, and . . . massacres, oh! you’ve no idea how many there are, how many bloodstained unrealised attempts are strewn along the horizon, piled up there.”
Duras took a break from writing in the 1970s, but her films of that decade address similar concerns. Nathalie Granger’s heroine embodies the purely negative politics of refusal that distinguish Duras’s political views from the feminist political agendas of that era, for instance, while India Song studies the erotic relations of one woman and two men in an explicitly colonial context and endows its heroine with the passivity Duras associated with women’s historical situation and political potential. In her 1970s interview with Xavière Gauthier, Les parleuses Duras clarified her views on numerous subjects crucial to understanding her textual erotics, including women and bourgeois patriarchy, feminine desire, homoerotic desire, and the relation of writing and politics.
By her 1980 return to prose writing, Duras had entered the period of her greatest political despair. She was convinced that Western hegemony was at its end, but that it had succeeded in installing so great a chasm between the West and the East that only a catastrophe could equalize things. Her writing of this era distinguishes itself from her pre-1980 work by its increased distance between protagonists, its invigorated attention to sadomasochism, and the increased explicitness, brutality, and violence in its erotic depictions, which combine with an increasingly minimalist style to propel scenes of dark and disturbing erotic relations directly center stage. The hope implicit in the 1940s-1950s work and the revolutionary or transformative aims implicit in the 1960s and 1970s now give way to hopelessness, despair, and an ultimately conservative stance on erotic relations. The transformative hope she once placed in women and homosexuals, based on their shared marginalization under bourgeois patriarchy and the complicity and revolutionary advantages she believed derive from such exclusion (see Les parleuses) now cede the place to negative assessments like the Les yeux verts piece on “Femmes et homosexualités,” which dismisses both militant feminism and homosexuality, or Outside’s “Dialogue avec une Carmélite,” which permits self-flagellation to replace lesbian desire as a means of sexual release.
The problems Duras now identifies with homosexuality are of a piece with her enthusiastic embrace of women as the only desiring sex and of heterosexuality as the only site structured by difference and thus the only place in which desire can arise (“Pour moi, le désir ne peut avoir lieu qu’entre le masculin et le féminin, entre des sexes différents” [Monde extérieur]). On this view, lesbian eroticism lacks the difference required for desire and male homosexuals, unable to enter into erotic relations with women, are equally exiled from desire, caught up in narcissistic, masturbatory, and sterile relations. Duras develops this account in her explicit writings with male homosexuality, in La maladie de la mort and its 1986 rewrite, Les yeux bleus cheveux noirs, which portray the contractual relations of a heterosexual woman with a man, readers are invited to recognize as gay and, in the later text, with two men, one straight and one homosexual. Both texts associate females with desire and life and gay men with bodily ignorance and death, and both establish heterosexual relations as the inevitable endgame of all erotic relations. They thus perform, as James Williams finds all of Duras’ experiments in erotic pleasure do, “a sublimatory, rhetorical appropriation of the Other as a defence against the threat of homosexual indifferentiation” (Williams, 158).
Despite Duras’ enthusiasm for heteroerotics, they scarcely fare better in this phase of her writing, associated as they are with violence, death, unachieved communication, and negative outcomes. She examines sadomasochism, as she had previously, but now she diverges more sharply from the western erotic tradition to examine the woman’s relation to that dynamic. In her scenario for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour she had explored heterosexual eroticism in relation to the social and historical contexts of the previous decade—fascism, collaboration, Franco-German relations, and the purges. Then, she had left the sexual relations between the Nazi soldier and the girl from Nevers off scene, showing instead him shot and dying as his love lay grieving across his body. Returning in the 1980s, the erotics of fascism, she eroticizes violence itself, including the violence of torture, and portrays a French woman’s libidinal attraction to a fascist male body in La Douleur’s “Ter le milicien” and “Albert des Capitales.
Similarly, while L’Homme assis dans le couloir, Les yeux bleus cheveux noirs, and La maladie de la mort all establish Duras as a writer of erotic fiction, one of them, L’Homme assis dans le couloir also forced the issue of her relation to pornography.
To briefly recall, this short text is entirely composed of a violent sex scene rendered without emotion, personalization, or temporal or spatial precisions. It features three characters— a detached narrator (who is perhaps female and who Duras elsewhere suggests may be herself), a man seated in a shadowy corridor, and a woman lying before him, on the ground, across a path, in the sun. She spreads her legs open to his gaze, then spreads open her labia as well. She cries out. Standing above her, he urinates on her body, beginning with her mouth and proceeding down to her vagina. He presses his foot on her body and uses it to roll her around in the dirt. He presses down harder still. As he retreats to the shadowy corridor, she continues crying out. She goes to kneel before him, performing oral sex until his pleasure turns to pain, and then licking his anal region. Turning her over, he penetrates her and articulates his desire to kill her. She says that she wants to be beaten; “qu’elle voudrait mourir.” ). Amid the ensuing cries, insults, and beatings, she says “oui, que c’est ca, oui” (thus reminding readers of Hiroshima mon amour’s famous refrain “Tu me tues, tu me fais du bien”). He continues insulting and beating her until, finally, her head flops about on her neck, her face becomes a “chose morte” (35), and the scene falls silent. He lies down on her body (in the manner of so many previous characters, including the boa, Hiroshima mon amour’s female lover, and the male in Moderato cantabile’s opening scene). Motionless, she is dead, or merely asleep.
Due to the international success of its film version, Duras is perhaps best known to many spectators as the author of L’Amant and, to many readers, as the author of its 1991 reworking, L’Amant de la Chine du Nord. These novels examine erotic relations with a long history in Duras’s corpus, including the lesbian desire of the young (semi-autobiographical) heroine for her classmate, Hélène Lagonelle, which receives an explicit and more violent retelling, as Hélène’s breasts elicit not only the girl’s erotic desire, but desire to kill. Both novels address her relations with her younger brother, which L’Amant de la Chine du Nord trace in detail and reveal as having been consummated. But most importantly, these novels also return to the erotic events Duras considers the origin of her writing: her erotic relationship with a man here revealed as radically separated from her by differences of class, race, age, and ethnicity. Here as elsewhere in her late writing, the fact that she is white and he is of Chinese origin, that she is from the lowest colon class and he from a well-placed Chinese family, that she is poor and he rich, that he is in his late twenties and she is in her mid-teens, that his religious and ethnic traditions foreclose the possibility of marriage, all of these differences augment their erotic desire and diminish the chance of communicating or of overcoming their multileveled separations, rendering their love both productive and “impossible.”
Born Marguerite Donnadieu, 4 April 1914 in Gia Dinh, Indochina (Vietnam). Attended Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat, Saigon. Moved to France, 1933. Faculté de droit; licence, mathematics and political science; Ecole libre des sciences politiques. Colonial Ministry, 1937-1940. Marries Robert Antelme, 1939. First child deceased at birth, 1942. Younger brother deceased, 1942. Member, Resistance group, Mouvement National des Prisonniers de Guerre et des Déportés September 1943. Antelme arrested and deported, June 1944-June 1945. Divorced, 1946. Son with Dionys Mascolo, 1947. Member, French Communist Party, 1944-1950. Anticolonial activism, 1950s-1962. Helped found Comité d’Action Etudiants-Ecrivains, May ‘68. Protests deaths of immigrant workers living in Foyer Franco-Africain, 1970. Relationship with young homosexual man, 1980-1996. Two alcoholic cures and a six-month coma, 1980s. Died Paris on March 3, 1996.
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French novelist, playwright and film-maker born in French Indochina (Vietnam) to a schoolteacher couple. Known outside France...