- Laure's War:Selfhood and Sacrifice in Colette Peignot
Le sacré—c'est ce pour quoi j'aurais donné ma vieColette Peignot
Despite the publication of her writings some 35 years ago, woman author and political activist Colette Peignot (1903-1938)—also known as Laure, "la sainte de l'abîme"1—remains an obscure figure of the French avant-garde. The reasons for this are many; among them was her early death from tuberculosis at 35 and her relatively scant number of publications. Indeed, the greater part of her work might never have seen the light of day had it not been for her more visible friends, many of whom were among the most prominent French intellectuals of the inter-war period. In addition to Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, who prepared her writings for posthumous publication, she was friend to philosopher-activist Simone Weil and intimate with Boris Souvarine of Le Cercle communiste democratique. Like them, she was politically engaged in the tumultuous interwar years, rejecting republicanism, Catholicism, fascism, and Stalinist Russia. In response to the growing fascist threat in the early 30s, she embraced Trotskyism and turned to anti-Stalinist Russia for political cause and inspiration, befriending these progressive contemporaries and sharing their political engagement. Her fervent dedication to the worker's cause motivated her to learn Russian, visit the U.S.S.R., join Souvarine's anti-Stalinist group, and write for many preeminent leftist journals, including Le Travailleur communiste syndical et coopératif, La Critique sociale (in which Bataille published his famous "La Notion de dépense") and, later, Bataille's own political journal [End Page 17] Contre-attaque. Her fidelities to the politics of the French left would wane in the mid-1930s, however, when she would embrace an even more radical, if not entirely unwieldy position strongly influenced by her friends—principally Bataille—and her reading of William Blake, D.A.F. de Sade, and Friedrich Nietzsche. To be sure, she was not alone in this departure from normative politics; 1930s France fomented with diffuse and complex political attitudes of all kinds. The Spanish Civil War and the failure of the Front populaire in 1937 further intensified this trend. Figures like Louis Aragon called for the "crusade of poetry and art" while others like Georges Bernanos championed a gallic antifascist Catholicism. Disenchanted with the failures of both the Right and Left, many like Laure sought out a radically new politics beyond both sides of the political spectrum.
Perhaps the earliest traces of this transformation are to be found in her highly revealing self-chosen pseudonym, "Claude d'Araxe," which derives from a memorable phrase taken from the Virgil's Aneid, Book VIII, later placed atop a private letter to paramour Bataille: "Pontem indignatus Araxes" ("Araxes, indignant of bridges"). The Araxes, dividing Iran and Turkey on the one side and the former Soviet Union on the other, is a legendarily rapid and vehement river, one that historically confounded all attempts to build a bridge over it.2 That Laure used this as a pseudonym in her political writings no doubt recalls the country that she admired, but it also illustrates a general virulence, rebelliousness, and recalcitrance, an obstinate refusal of all things stagnant, a denial of established limits, and an impassioned assent to transgress them. Her contempt for fixity—l'emmerdement d'être fixé as she once termed it—is ironically quite fixed throughout her writing, actions, and thought from this period. Her politics were by no means exempt from this contempt; ultimately, they adhered neither to an orthodox Marxism nor to the more coherent agenda of Souvarine and le Cercle communiste démocratique. If her early political revolt first found its home in the more established communist movement, it would later resist this very movement, taking the form not of organized coalition or political essay, but of poetry, aphorism, and fragmentary flights of the pen. These fervent yet ultimately unallied political beliefs made her a remarkable albeit enigmatic figure to her fellow leftist contemporaries. In her private journal, for example, she wrote the following, privately addressing the enamored activist [End Page 18] Jean Bernier: "Ma vie inconsistante, ne servant...