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MLN 121.5 (2007) 1072-1082

Writing the Feminine:
Catherine Colomb
Beryl Schlossman
Carnegie Mellon University

Balsamique (du latin balsamum "suc du baumier, baume."). . . . il se dit au figuré de ce qui calme, apaise, et, dans le style soutenu, d'un air chargé du parfum des plantes.

[Balsamic (from the Latin balsamum "resin from the balsam tree, balm."). . . . the word is used as a figure for that which calms, soothes, and in formal style, to describe air filled with the perfume of plants.]

—Le Robert, dictionnaire historique de la langue française

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard l'incendie,
N'ont pas encore brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas! n'est pas assez hardie . . .
. . .

—Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!

[If rape, poison, dagger and arson,
Have not yet embroidered their humorous drawings
On the banal canvas of our meager destiny,
It is because our soul, alas! is not bold enough . . .
. . . [End Page 1072]
Hypocritical reader, – my likeness, – my brother!]

—Charles Baudelaire, "Au Lecteur"
* * *

From the camera obscura to contemporary photography, cinema, theater arts, and video, the visible is shaped by projections of images on a surface or screen.1 When vision is mediated by language, disciplines that include paleography and psychoanalysis theorize the projection of images in manuscripts, dreams, and palimpsests. Through visibility, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty connects modern thought to Renaissance ideas of magic: "It is the object that shows itself (outside and inside), here and there; what the object gives is not this opacity, but form 'with its seal intact' which, via the body, enters the picture."2 The phenomenological probing of Merleau-Ponty's "absolute visible" leads the philosopher toward a paradoxical formulation—a virginal penetration of form. The screen is a ground and a vehicle for the image: it sets the stage for the conjuring act of vision. Imbued with an erotic and magical power, vision allows the subject to apprehend what Merleau-Ponty names the flesh of the world.

The idea of screening gender implicitly posits several kinds of screens: surfaces that reflect gender configurations, and others, blank or opaque, that cut off the possibility of seeing. These screens relegate vision and reflection to another space, to the invisible or to the other world. Around the world, exclusions continue to rule the feminine, isolated and rendered taboo under burkas and veils, at the back of the bus. The second sex is submerged under layers of text, law, and fabric. It is an object of intimate and forbidden vision, subject (and subjected) to silence before men and gods. The repressed returns in images and figures; sometimes it appears as the image of a screen.

Images of eroticism sustain sexual difference on the screen, opaque as Night; on Baudelaire's balconies, in the alcoves where lovers meet, lyric poetry recalls a past illusion and infuses it with new life. The unconscious opens the subject of past pleasure to a new image; love returns in memory. The erotically colored screen enters other genres in Baudelaire. In a note on comic theater and fiction, he explores the idea of a theatrical improvisation (a projected "canvas" or a sketch that is not elaborated as a complete text): "Concevoir un canevas pour une bouffonerie lyrique ou féerique, pour une pantomime, et traduire cela en un roman sérieux" ["Conceive a canvas for lyrical or [End Page 1073] magical buffoonery, for a pantomime, and translate it into a serious novel"].3 Baudelaire imagines a commedia dell'arte "canvas," a sketch for a pantomime, based on a projection of thoughts, secrets, and memories of the past: "Emu au contact de ces voluptés qui ressemblaient à des souvenirs, attendri par la pensée d'un passé mal rempli de tant de fautes, de tant de querelles, de tant de choses à se cacher mutuellement, il se mit à pleurer" ["Moved by these voluptuous pleasures that resembled memories, touched by the thought of a past badly filled with so many sins, so many quarrels, so many things that...


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