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Duras and Platonic Love: The Erotics of Substitution

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 83-104 | 10.1353/com.2013.0016

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Indeed since Eros is always [the desire of the good], would Eros be the name of the zeal and the intensity of those pursuing the good in a certain manner? What does this activity happen to be? Can you say?


But, Diotima, I would not be in awe of your wisdom and would not put myself to school with you, if I understood these things.


Well, I'll tell you, then. For Eros is the desire to give birth in beauty, both in body and soul.


What you are saying, I replied, demands skill in prophecy (manteias), and I don't understand.

(Symposium 206b1-8)

When it rained those around her knew that Lol watched for brief breaks in the clouds from behind her bedroom windows. I believe that she must have found there, in the monotony of the rain, that elsewhere—uniform, pale, and sublime—more beloved by her soul than any other moment in her present life, the elsewhere that she had sought since her return to S. Tahla.

Marguerite Duras is a novelist of erotic obsession. Love in her work is seldom idealized, often a compulsion, closely associated with death and mourning. From the opening shot of Hiroshima Mon Amour, where the intertwined limbs of lovers recall twisted corpses, to Moderato Cantabile, where Anne Desbarèsdes and Chauvin reconstruct the murder of a young woman by her presumed lover, to the mournful, often wordless eroticism of Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein and Le vice-consul, all the way to the young girl prostituted by her mother in L'amant, Eros is a constant theme in Duras and one seemingly far away from the ideal realm of spiritual love to which the name Platonic is given. Certainly, Duras would have scoffed at the label Platonist. He is her antagonist.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine two writers who have more powerfully written about erotic attraction than Plato and Duras. This paper will argue that, despite the obvious dissimilarities of gender, genre, time, and erotic orientation, these writers' depictions of Eros have more in common than is generally believed. First, the Symposium, Plato's main dialogue concerning Eros, is a good deal less "Platonic" than it seems. While there is a tradition of reading that puts special emphasis on its idealist elements, and that tradition was well ensconced in France at the time Duras began writing, the text itself is more equivocal. Second, Duras, like Plato, posits the erotic as a realm of transcendence, although as we shall see, she does so from a self-consciously feminine point of view. Each sees the erotic as a vehicle of passage beyond the confines of the immediate, as a moment that points beyond the transactions, substitutions, and exchanges that make up daily life, and indeed beyond what Freud would call the "pleasure principle." But third, for each of them that moment of transcendence is always provisional at best. It never completely leaves behind the compromises of the immediate. In Diotima's sublime speech from the Symposium, the ideal of beauty is only perceptible through the flesh and blood encounter with the beautiful boy, while a drunken Alcibiades propped up by flute girls constitutes its coda. Likewise, the Durassian moment of erotic transcendence, when the banalities of what seems a shoddy and compromised existence are shunted aside by the power of desire, is never separable from that which it seeks to escape: even in Hiroshima, Elle can never elude her collaborationist past; the Vice Consul must return from his erotically charged trip to the Ganges Delta to learn his fate after randomly firing on the lepers of Lahore; in the end, Lol V. Stein resumes her position outside the hotel where Jacques Hold and Tatiana Karl stage their erotic rendez-vous. Perhaps, Plato and Duras have more in common than we might think.

In a more extended sense, however, what we shall argue is that the arc stretching from the Symposium to Duras describes a fundamental structure of desire as it is understood in the West. Eros is not just the drive for orgasmic pleasure (which requires no other). It is not simply...

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