To Paint Like a Child
By Veronica Percia
Rey Chow asks in her “The Dream of a Butterfly”, “What could be said about the relations between East and West, woman and man, that is perhaps alternative to the relations they are assumed…to have?”(Chow, 1996). It is perhaps important for each of us to attempt to answer this question whenever we find the opportunity in the name of widening and heightening our understanding of human relations. There is inherent in this attempt the sense of progress.
Marguerite Duras’s The Lover presents the opportunity to evaluate the “sexual and racial identifications” and relations of power in a “cross-cultural exchange” in a manner that is not mired in the binary thinking typical of Orientalist discourse, but rather in a way that attempts to address the power structured, sexual relationship between a fifteen year old white girl (Duras), and her much older Chinese lover, in terms of the “variable positionality of the subject(s), whose reality consists in a constant shifting between modes of dominance and submission”(Chow). Drawn to each other out of a shared sense of oppression within French colonial society, Duras in terms of her gender and the Lover in terms of his race, these two identities unite under the singular concept of “gender and orientalism”, as two inextricably linked and similar issues which share the same problems and challenges that are presented by the restrictions of binary thought. The relationship between Duras and the Lover can be viewed as a series of dynamic (versus stagnant) power relations in terms of race, age, and sex, whereby “positions of dominance and submission, of male and female, of aggressor and victim, are infinitely substitutable and interchangeable”(Chow). Perhaps most interesting, complex, and important to explore is how this relationship serves as an initiation of sorts for the little white girl/Duras into adulthood. This process is marked by her development and conception of a personal identity in terms of fantasy. That is, fantasy, as in “a kind of structuring and setting”, a “field of relations” which is “an inherent part of our consciousness” that determines our identity in terms of the dynamic power relations between ourselves and others(Chow). This highly personal novel begs to be evaluated in this way for its richness in material for offering up a deeper understanding of how and why relationships between East and West, child and adult, and male and female are not merely matters of dominance and submission, but rather of dynamic structures of power which weave in and out of these positions.
“To seduce is to appear weak. To seduce is to render weak. We seduce with our weakness, never with strong signs or powers”(Chow). It might be appropriate, first, to identify the fundamental weaknesses that draw Duras and the Lover together. Duras is intrinsically aware of her own powers of seduction from her very first meeting with the Chinese man. She tells us that “the image starts long before he’s come up to the white child by the rails, it starts when he got out of the black car, when he began to approach her, and she knew, knew he was afraid. From the first moment she knows more or less, knows he’s at her mercy”(Duras, 1985). It is clear that there is an element of race infusing fear into the Chinese man, in essence setting up a power structure whereby the little white girl is dominant: “There’s the difference of race, he’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he’s trembling”(Duras). However, what attracts and seduces the Lover to the little white girl seems not to be this power of hers, but rather a weakness.
The text is careful to highlight the Lover’s initial fixation over the little white girl’s hat. It is in fact, the first mention of his taking notice of her. “He looks at the girl in the man’s fedora…He says the hat suits her, suits her extremely well, that it’s very…original…a man’s hat, and why not?” Duras tells us earlier that she is never without the hat, “this hat that all itself makes me whole, I wear it all the time.” The symbolic nature of the man’s fedora is notable. “It’s not the shoes…that make the girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed,” she says. “No, it’s the fact that she’s wearing a man’s flat-brimmed hat, a brownish-pink fedora with a broad black ribbon. The crucial ambiguity of the image lies in the hat…No woman, no girl wore a man‘s fedora in that colony then”(Duras). Viewed as a symbol of Duras’s desperate resistance to societal norms of femininity and propriety in French colonial Vietnam, the Lover’s attraction to the hat coincides with his attraction to her essential point of weakness: her great fear of falling into the doom of powerlessness and tameness of that which she understands to be the fate of the female in French colonial society. “Her hat, masculine in nature, adds power to her appearance, a power culturally associated with masculinity. Her hat, combined with her young and unformed body, also creates an androgynous and contradictory appearance. She is aware of the control she possesses over her body and image. Changing her identity begins with changing her clothes”(Vickroy, 2003).
Duras’s accounts of women in the colonies serve to express her deep anxiety about the fate of women, and therefore herself, in adulthood: “I already know a thing or two,” she says. “Some of them go mad. Some are deserted for a young maid who keeps her mouth shut. Ditched. You can hear the word hit them, hear the sound of the blow. Some kill themselves. This self betrayal of women always struck me as a mistake, an error.” This eventuality is clearly an acute fear for Duras.
This begs, then, the question of what fundamental weakness of the Lover there is to seduce the little white girl. The Lover, bound by terms of race, is vulnerable to societal norms as well, completely powerless in his relationship with his father and with the larger society, to access fully his desires - in this case a relationship with a fifteen year old white girl. We are given the general understanding from Duras herself that his inability to fully access her, but his desire to, and therefore his ignorance of her in her entirety, is his fundamental weakness. It is what seduces her: “Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn’t understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness. And that he can never move fast enough to catch her…Because of his ignorance she suddenly knows: she was attracted to him already on the ferry.”
“What seduces, in other words, is not the truth of the other - what he or she really is - but the artifact, the mutual complicity in the weaving of a lure, which works as a snare over the field of encounter, ensuring that the parties meet at the same times that they miss each other, in a kind of rhythmic dance”(Chow). What then, is left to be determined is the “lure” which draws these two together, which “weaves” about and ensures that Duras and the Lover will always operate on this stage of fantasy with shifting modes of dominance and submission. If we operate under the Lacanian assumption that the lure is the “lack of coincidence between the eye and the gaze”(Chow), then it can be determined that the lure in this case is that of the penetration of the virgin, or the attainment of the off limits; the “excavation of the dark continent”(Shohat). This Orientalist notion, drawn from Ella Shoat’s “Tropes of Empire”, deals with the traditionally white, Western, masculine power of “conquering the desolation”, exploring, penetrating, and mastering uncharted territory. Duras’s entry into the taboo world of interracial sexual relations with her much older Lover entices her with a similar sense of control gained from the exploration into an uncultivated realm as does the Lover’s sexual relationship with a virgin-child white girl. Duras revels in her positioning both as object and subject in this power relation - a concept to be discussed further in terms of her relationship with Helene Lagonelle and the burgeoning of her identity and stage of fantasy. But first it is important to specifically identify in full the instability of dominant and submissive roles between Duras and the Lover in terms of race, age, and sex. This instability allows for a truly complex relationship, with neither an obvious subject nor an obvious object at any point in time.
It is tempting to want to set up the relationship between these two people in terms of
dominance and submission according to race, age, and sex. She is white, her age is threatening, but she is a female; He is male, rich and more experienced, but socially inferior in race. However, this power structure barely brushes the surface of the actual depth of variability in power relations between Duras and the Lover.
In terms of race, the white girl and her family are placed in colonial society, hierarchically, above the Chinese lover. “Whenever I mention my brother’s name he’s overcome by fear,” Duras tells us of the Lover. “My brothers never will say a word to him, it’s as if he were invisible to them, as if for them he weren’t solid enough to be perceived, seen or heard.” The little white girl remains unattainable; he is constrained by French colonial societal norms and by those of his own society: His father “won’t let his son marry the little white whore from Sadec.”
However, race also works to subjugate Duras’s sense of power. “He adores me”, she says, “but it’s taken for granted that I don’t love him…This is because he’s a Chinese, because he’s not a white man…I myself never speak to him in their presence. When my family’s there I’m never supposed to address a single word to him…In my elder brother’s presence he ceases to be my lover…My desire obeys my elder brother, rejects my lover…when it concerns my lover I’m powerless against myself.” Duras’s positionality as the white girl renders her powerless to express herself in the face of the racial norms of family and society. This scene is perhaps her most vulnerable moment. She is as barred from full access to the Chinese man from Cholon on account of race as he is from the little white girl. In addition, it is this very inability to cross racial barriers that intensifies the lure of the infiltration of the inviolable. Duras is, then, the object of the Lover’s desire on account of race, as much as she is the subject, objectifying him in the same way. This social reality, then, constructs and intensifies the lure for both Duras and the Lover, leaving them each as both object and subject, equally dependent upon the social construction of race to maintain the lure of accessing the unattainable. The dynamic power structure created by race, though a fundamentally binary concept in of itself, disallows for stable object- or subjectivity, dominance or submissiveness.
The power dynamics involved in the age difference between Duras and the Lover help to clarify this point. “He’s twelve years older than I and this scares him” ; “He’s also afraid not because I’m white, but because I’m so young, so young he could go to prison if we were found out…I laugh at his fear.” Evident in nearly every scene together is Duras’s emotional blank slate, her youthful indifference as that which makes him suffer: it allows her the emotional upper hand. Her vulnerability lies, instead in her relationship with her family, specifically with her mother. Duras’s sexual relationship with the Lover is the canvas upon which she works out her familial insecurities: “From the first time Duras meets her lover ‘she knew: she's excluded from the family for the first time and forever’ (35). And yet she knows that, ‘I'm still part of the family, it's there I live, to the exclusion of everywhere else’ (75).” This association of her sexual relationship with her family life is a clear symptom of her adolescence: a preoccupation that trumps her concern for feelings between herself and the Lover.
However, her lack of fear and emotional detachment due to her age is matched only by her vulnerability to the Lover’s influence. He seems to recognize their mutual vulnerability, thus his calling her “my child”: a complexly interdependent relationship of ownership on the one hand, and complete susceptibility to her wishes on the other. It is her age which is both empowering and renders her completely subject. It is her virgin-child status that is, as is the case in seduction, her weakness and therefore that which seduces the Lover and generates the lure.
It becomes clear throughout the novel that the apparent power from indifference Duras maintains at the time of her relationship with the Lover is misleading. His role in initiating her into sexual maturity has immortalized him in the very writing of the novel: “He tells me I’ll remember this afternoon all my life, even when I’ve forgotten his face and name…I can still see the face and I do remember the name” ; “ I never fall asleep right away despite the new fatigues in my life. I think about the man from Cholon.” So it is in fact, age that serves to both allow her power of emotional detachment at the time of their relationship, and subject her almost entirely to the Lover’s influence as she shifts out of adolescence and into adulthood. “The memory of the affair, the image of the snapshot never taken, continues with Duras throughout her life, gaining strength and importance with time”(Vickroy). It is then impossible to determine either Duras or the Lover as the clear cut victim or aggressor on account of age. She, as the aggressor, demands him to “do as he usually does with the women he brings to his flat,” makes him suffer, wields the power; and yet she simultaneously falls victim to him as an immortalized influence over her identity: he as “her first lover and her first escape from the grasp of her family's emotional oppression.”
Any discussion of the power dynamics between man and woman, and hence between the Lover and Duras (though what is important to note is that she is not a “woman”, but rather a “girl”) begs to give way to considering these interchangeable positions of dominance and submission as set on a stage of fantasy, whereby identities are born. Even where the male is considered dominant, he depends entirely on the female for his sense of masculinity and power, in essence granting her a certain amount of power herself: she, the woman, is the counter-image upon which his identity as “man” relies completely - and vice versa.
But first, the dynamics in power in terms of gender between Duras and the Lover are worth evaluating. Scenes of sexual interaction between Duras and the Lover are fueled and moved along by a complex interplay of power between male and female. “He tells me….he knew right away…that I’d be like this after my first lover, that I’d love love, he says he knows I’ll deceive him and deceive all the men I’m ever with. He says as for him he’s been the cause of his own unhappiness. I’m please with all he’s foretold, and say so. He becomes rough, desperate, he throws himself on me, devours the childish breasts, shouts, insults. I close my eyes on the intense pleasure.” The Lover’s physical domination of Duras seems equally matched by her ability to first frustrate, and then draw pleasure from his domination of her. The power interplay between man and woman in scenes of sexual intercourse should not however, be evaluated in shallow, readily available terms. The male tendency, apparent in this scene as well as many others, to penetrate and master, comes in reaction to a sense of vulnerability to the lure of “the dark continent”, the female(Shohat). This scene is clearly not a mere submission of the female victim to the dominating aggression of male desire, but rather the even flow of power from one to the other and back again, constantly, consistently.
While the reader may be at liberty to identify the lure which operates to create tension within this novel between the Lover and Duras, the intensely personal point of view of Duras’s narrative makes it difficult to evaluate with any real depth the structure of fantasy and therefore the identity of the Lover. However, it offers a fruitful opportunity to chart the development of the little white girl’s identity through an evaluation of the concept of fantasy.
It is evident that, unlike in Chow’s investigation of the established identity of Gallimard, a discussion of Duras will involve the assessment of the infinitely more malleable and shifty consistency of a fifteen year old girl’s identity. “Throughout The Lover, Duras's voice is resolute and dynamic, spoken and silent, childlike and mature. Like the often contradictory and continually evolving voices of adolescence, Duras's voice reflects herself and the context from which she speaks. Typical of adolescence, this identity is mutable and unpredictable. Duras writes, ‘What I want to seem I do seem ... I can become anything anyone wants me to be. And believe it’”(Vickroy).
While Duras does seem to express, here, a certain intrinsic knowledge of how fantasy structures identity, it is an inevitability of human consciousness that her own conception of her identity as a woman in colonial society becomes dependent upon her conceived notions about her relationship with the Lover. It is through this sexual relationship with the Lover that Duras begins to develop her own identity, as the counter-image of him: not an Eastern man but a white Western woman. Most compelling, however, is Duras’s resistance to this binary formation of her identity.
She ruminates over what she now understands to be herself as a woman since her experiences with the Lover. She compares herself to another woman: “Both isolated. Alone, queenlike. Their disgrace a matter of course. Both are doomed to discredit because of the kind of body they have, caressed by lovers, kissed by their lips, consigned to the infamy of a pleasure unto death, as they both call it, unto the mysterious death of lovers without love.” This knowledge of the reality of the social construction of the woman propels Duras’s rebellion against the binary construction of her own identity. It is through Helene Lagonelle that this resistance becomes most evident.
“She makes you want to kill her, she conjures up a marvelous dream of putting her to death with your own hands…I’d like to eat Helene Lagonelle’s breasts as he eats mine…I am worn out with desire for Helene Lagonelle.” Duras’s relationship with Helene Lagonelle, rather than being an expression of hetero or homosexuality, speaks more pointedly to Duras’s desire for the traditionally masculine power to sexually and emotionally “explore, penetrate, and master” the uncharted territory, the categorically virginal female, Helene Lagonelle: to attain this power only allotted to men (Shohat). “Duras's masculine desire projects itself upon the body of Helene Lagonelle through the male gaze. Marilyn Schuster concurs in this view; she writes, "[t]he desire for Helene is [...] a desire for control of the heterosexual erotic. Through Helene the narrator desires not a woman's body, but male desire; she [Duras] seeks to control the terms of her own pleasure’”(Vickroy).
It is thus the lure, the Orientalist concept of “excavating the dark continent”, that affects the formation of the little white girl’s concept of identity and reality, and structures her stage of fantasy. The reader is barred from knowing the reality of the Lover. What instead we understand of him comes from the gaze of a fifteen year old girl: “I tell him I like the idea of his having may women, the idea of me being one of them…I think, He’s used to it, this is his occupation in life, love, nothing else.” Duras’s Lover is, then, a position of power upon her stage of fantasy, a canvas upon which Duras herself develops her own identity: a relation that allows her to place herself in a position of power, or lack thereof, within society. It is the lure, the fantasy of the penetration of virgin land that establishes Duras’s own identity, both in rebellion and in submission to the social construction of herself as woman.
Chow reminds us of the importance of evaluating fantasy not as a construction that needs to be changed “because, by using other people as objects and things, fantasy dehumanizes them.” Rather, the concept of fantasy within The Lover, does not simply offer “a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, or of women by men, but rather raises questions about the fundamental misrecognition inherent to processes of identification”(Chow). What is most complex, then, is where on this scene of fantasy Duras’s burgeoning identity exists. She talks of what has been identified, now as the lure, which renders one “prey to the intoxicating passion of occupying that delightful territory, a child’s body, the bodies of those less strong, of conquered peoples”(Shohat). Any position in which Duras understands herself to be on this scene establishes her as both victim and aggressor simultaneously.
Like Gallimard in Chow’s “The Dream of the Butterfly”, Duras is both the dominant and the submissive, her identity rendering her both subject and object on her stage of fantasy, and due to the existence of her stage of fantasy: “If the gaze is that which is always somehow eluded in our relation to the world, then what Gallimard meets, in his own Butterfly image, in a manner that can no longer be eluded, is the gaze as it has all along looked at him”(Chow). However, Duras’s identity is not deconstructed as it is here in M. Butterfly, but rather, is brought into being. Both the death of her child and the burgeoning of her adult identity is consummated in the final moments of her narrative: “There wasn’t a breath of wind and the music spread all over the dark boat…And the girl started up as if to go and kill herself in her turn, throw herself in her turn into the sea, and afterwards she wept because she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.”
The very act of writing the novel crystallizes Duras’s relationship with the Lover as the fantasy upon which her identity depends. In reconstructing their relationship through writing, Duras’s own art depends upon the Lover as an Eastern man, accessing the off limits, the virgin child white girl. It is this relationship that allows her to conceive of herself with an identity, operating on a stage of fantasy, where her “reality consists in a constant shifting between modes of dominance and submission”(Chow).
Learning to Think Like a Child
What is left to ruminate over, after an evaluation of the dynamics of power relations between Duras and her Lover, are the realities of personal identity available for Duras despite her youthful rebellion against binary structures of sexual identity. It seems that Gallimard’s death of his sense of self in M. Butterfly, his identity’s utter dependence upon his scene of fantasy and lure of the submissive Oriental woman, can be a concept better understood by evaluating The Lover as a narrative describing the origins of such a construction of personal identity. An evaluation of the dynamic power relations within The Lover certainly serves to destabilize the identities of male and female, East and West, as merely dominant or submissive positionalities. However, as Chow insists, it is perhaps more important to ask what else there is to learn beyond destabilized identities themselves. Duras’s struggle is perhaps, to do just this, whether it be a conscious or subconscious endeavor. It is her adolescent instinct to resist an identity mired in the constrictions of binary thought, but her inevitable adult reality, on account of the structure of human consciousness, to eventually establish an identity based on a stage of fantasy made up of power relations.
Picasso told the world that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. His understanding of the constrictions of thought motivated his art to attempt to reach beyond human consciousness in order to achieve greater truth in expression. It is perhaps the great challenge, then, of restructuring the binary thinking that is an inherent part of our consciousness - to return, as Duras does in her art, to the malleability in identity of adolescence to best understand, and perhaps deconstruct and remake that which is the very foundation of human cognition in the name of a greater freedom of expression within the human experience.
© Veronica Percia