To exemplify the postmodern era, one must rely on intuition. There are no postmodern norms by which to measure an artist’s achievement, even to the extent that we may speak of the modern style as, at its lowest denominator, the visible perturbation of classical conventions, the masterpieces of which have by now acquired canonical status. Nonetheless, I think the unique stylistic perfection of Marguerite Duras’ Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein and its uncompromising vision of the relation between female and male desire justify its exemplary place in our historical series. Duras wrote many novels before and after Lol, but I think it fair to say that none come close to its power.
Moderato Cantabile (1958), Dix heures et demie du soir en été (1960), and Le ravissement (1964) constitute three moments in the development of a vision of feminine desire that is also the “ultimate” liberation of the female role, not through acquiring parity with the masculine, which would be but an accession to the frustrations of postwar worldliness, but by asserting what we might call its trans-biological essence. These three works take Duras from the frustrated feminism of a latter-day Eliot heroine, through a Woolf-like authorial triumph, to a vision of feminine-passive mastery. The fascination with female insanity, which in Breton’s Nadja can still be called “sexist,” leads to a revelation of the structural power of the victimary locus in the triangle of desire in the “post-historical,” eternally bourgeois world.
Anne, the heroine of Moderato Cantabile, Duras’ best-known novel, is a frustrated bourgeoise who befriends a working-class man and becomes fascinated by a spectacle of passion she witnesses with him: a man murdering his wife or mistress. We are here in a familiar world of female resentment and envy; the title refers ironically to a piece Anne’s son rebelliously refuses to play correctly at his piano lesson, and by extension to the “moderate” bourgeois world that stifles the heroine. This familiar resentful interpretation of the woman’s role is transcended in a strikingly “dialectical” fashion in Dix heures et demie. Here Maria, the protagonist, is traveling through Spain with her husband and a young woman who is about to become his mistress. In a town where they spend the night, Maria befriends a local man wanted for killing his wife and her lover, and helps him escape, but on leaving the town the next day, she learns that in despair he has killed himself in the field where she left him. In contrast, at the moment when her husband consummates his affair with the young woman, Maria imagines and describes them together, quite clearly taking on an “authorial” role. In this work, feminine consciousness has overcome envy of male action and jealousy of male desire to dominate the world as literary consciousness. The occupation of the weak vertex of the love triangle, that of the cuckolded spouse, is proposed as the origin of this consciousness; this exclusively feminine position is unavailable to the young Spaniard, a victim of the macho role that obliges him to avenge the infidelity.
Lol is narrated by a doctor who does not immediately reveal his identity; at first he describes his fascinated observation of Lol’s strange way of walking through the town as if on a mysterious quest. He learns that as a young woman, she had been engaged to be married, but that at a ball, her fiancé abandoned her, bewitched by a sorceress-like older woman. What is unexpected, as we learn later, is that at the ball Lol remained attached to the vision of betrayal that she continued to observe with rapt attention: her fiancé dancing with the other woman. Only when she was forced to separate herself from them did she fall into depression. Years later, married and to all outward appearances recovered, in her walks through the town, rather than her lost lover, it is the couple that she seeks to retrieve. Thus once she has seduced the doctor-narrator, the lover of her best friend Tatiana—she had seen them together—into becoming her own lover, what she really desires is that he continue to make love to Tatiana, to whom she does not reveal her fantasy, but under Lol’s observation and in the context of her desire. The book closes with Lol falling asleep on the lawn before the window of the hotel room in which she has obliged her lover and her unknowing friend to pursue their relationship.
Rather than like Woolf (and by extension, Maria), subordinating the world of desire to the totalizing lyrical vision of the author, Duras presents hers in the objective language of the vanquished male figure. Lol’s power is not merely symbolic, but objective, as is made clear by the author’s choice of her quite lucid lover as narrator. What Lol’s ordeal has made her realize is that the weak position in the triangle is the source of its stability, an intuition accessible only to her intrinsically feminine self-dispossession. Whatever we desire in the marketplace is measured by the value accorded to it by the desire of others. Lol’s usurpation of the role of the Girardian “mediator” makes it the lived equivalent of the anonymous marketplace itself, in which each individual ego plays only an incremental role, as a single grain of sand might embody the heap in Zeno’s paradox. Lol’s role of the other of desire is that of its victim who is also its creator, a feminine Christ for whom her lover Jacques serves an evangelist, one whose victimary reign offers a vision of the “end of history” that is disturbing yet utterly peaceful. As an apocalypse extended indefinitely into the future, which the term postmodern most deeply implies, Lol’s sleep of triumphant passivity is surely preferable to the Holocausts, tsunamis, Islamic conquests, and asteroid impacts that people our darker fancies. (Readers interested in a longer if older analysis are referred to my article, “The Last French Novels,” Romanic Review 83, 4 [Nov. 1992]: 501-16, where Lol is coupled with Robbe-Grillet’s La jalousie as the French novel’s final his-and-hers—a prophetic claim, given the decline of the French-French novel at UCLA and elsewhere to the benefit of “Francophone” literature.)
What insights into the nature of modernity and the liberal-democratic polity that for better or worse accompanies it are gained by this feminine approach to modern esthetics?
- Jane Austen’s happy endings do not contradict the less happy ones of Stendhal or Flaubert—nor the generally happy ones of Scott and Dickens. But they allow us to understand that, as in the classical and neo-classical eras, the early bourgeois society of the nineteenth century had its islands of legitimacy. What is new about market society is the explicitness of its mechanism for assigning value, its intrinsic sensitivity to social utility—which is not the equivalent of moral value, as the wealth amassed by drug lords and countless other unworthies illustrates. Secular bourgeois society is “more mimetic” than the old ritual order; it generates resentment that stimulates economic creativity as well as political activism. But there is nothing new and surely nothing sacred about resentment, and the fantasy of a social order that eliminates it once and for all, although a backhanded tribute to the society that inspires this illusion, is also a danger to it. Women can resent their limited roles in Austen’s world, but they can also accept them as something other than irrational impositions. The fact that women bear children and men do not is accompanied in this world by the apparently less scandalous fact that a reasonably civilized life required having servants. (Whence the record-breaking fascination with the downstairs-rich Downton Abbey, watched after clearing the dinner table and starting up the dishwasher.)
- Woolf’s vision of England between the wars—her novels were written between 1914 and 1941, the year of her suicide (and my birth)—is marked by the dissolution of the bourgeois sense of purposeful achievement associated with male careers and female marriages. In her mature novels, the “stream of consciousness” technique makes the narrative voice less a reporter of events than a totalizer of lives that we know only in fragments. The contrast between the shell-shocked Septimus’ suicide and the symbolic tolling of Big Ben that punctuates the hours in Mrs. Dalloway’s haphazard unification of English society—a theme lyrically rhythmed by the ocean in the story of six intertwined lives (and one lost) in The Waves, that returns in a minor key in the final Pargiter family party scene of The Years, and is gently satirized in the provincial setting of Between the Acts—demonstrates that the war has drained from the rest of life and turned to mockery the individual sense of tragic destiny. Normal lives, illustrious or banal, can be appreciated only as parts of a whole intuited by the novelist.
Mrs. Dalloway takes place all in one day, like Ulysses, with which it is often compared, but Woolf’s day is not mapped onto an archetypal quest narrative. Both novels end with the closure provided by a woman’s beauty, but whereas Molly’s soliloquy rewards the reader of masculine adventure with woman’s eternal otherness (“Penelope” ironically recalling an adulterous sexual experience), Clarissa Dalloway, along with her newly beautiful adolescent daughter, is simply “there” (“For there she was”). That this “feminist” ending, however, is not the ultimate epiphany is made clear by Woolf’s authorial assassination of two very similar figures, the beautiful Mrs. Ramsey and her lovely daughter Pru in To the Lighthouse, to the benefit of unbeautiful Lily Briscoe’s understated esthetic triumph. And in The Waves, as later in The Years, there is no triumphant image at all; it is the author’s prose-poetic rhythming of a set of lives and eras that is itself the triumph. Finally, in Between the Acts, the “end of history” that “we” are is literally reflected by the authorial figure of Miss La Trobe, concluding a series of gently satiric historical sketches that, in the same vein as the description of the rural setting, show that “we” are the products of a past made up of national myths that embody in their familiar silliness the unity of English language and history. Woolf’s last avatar of the “end of history” is not a revelatory figure, not the lovely Mrs. Dalloway or the painting of Lily Briscoe, just the mirror image of ourselves, as the concluding post-pageant return to normal makes clear. The final lesson of feminine modernism is an affirmation of life—one that seems aware of the challenge of coming war—that moves toward death with both order and randomness, divorced from either tragic or comic closure.
- In what way then is Lol’s triumph “postmodern”? Austen, following in the footsteps of her predecessors, showed that the conditions of bourgeois society allowed a feminine consciousness to create its own happy ending. Woolf saw that in the modern era, the author’s vision, having paid for its transhistoricity by abjuring personal drama, could persuade the reader that all our lives come together in an open end-of-history. Duras, having lived through WWII, which Woolf’s suicide deliberately avoided, could no longer be content to represent the world as a lyric totality. She had to provide a feminine model of behavior, even if fully accessible only to one insane enough to live it “unconsciously.”
If modernism seeks to acquire for the conscious the content of the unconscious, the postmodern practices this acquisition in reverse. Lol’s triumph is not a personal victory but an autosacrificial restoration of peace. She falls asleep in a world that no longer needs her wakefulness because it has been taught to obey her non-acquisitive model of desire, which need never lose its meaning because its meaning is always outside it. The male narrator attains the means to continue to function in the world under the aegis of a hidden goddess, in flesh and blood, yet as transcendent as the God of the Jansenists. We might contrast this with the masculine postmodern where, in the absence of this ultimately maternal protection, desire is either clownishly degraded as in Beckett or sadomasochistic as in Robbe-Grillet.
How do we find the end of history in a history that refuses to end? Could it be that the feminine perspective, biologically more invested in continuity, can serve as a corrective to the that of the sex whose violence was what culture was originarily invented to defer? The postmodern era is, simply, the present divested of its apocalyptic illusions. The modernists were the last generation who could plausibly see themselves as “the last generation.” Fukuyama, a bit naively, expresses this apocalyptic—and ultimately boring—self-perception.
If we begin like the characters at the end of Between the Acts, living in a history whose continuity with its past can provide only the courage to live in the present—a courage much needed in 1941—postmodern culture must answer the question of how we are to make our home in an interminable, “non-foundational” system of exchange. Duras’ answer, a more radical version of the one she gave in her screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour, is that in the postwar, post-Holocaust world, the endless circulation of desire takes place, not to achieve victory over a rival, but in compensation for the irretrievable loss of Being that makes human language and desire possible. It is womanhood, doubled by its own mute authorial consciousness—Lol is no ethereal being, but a wife and mother, the ultimate seductress whom only another woman can comprehend—who offers us the figure of this Being as the abandoned Other of desire.