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“A Severe and Militant Charity” Sanford S. Ames W HY SHOULD the tenth nouvelle of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron have been singled out by both Lucien Febvre and Jacques Lacan as exemplary?1What does the sixteenth-century Marguerite have in common with a twentieth-century one, Duras? The starting point for these speculations is an intriguing reference to M ar­ guerite de Navarre in Lacan’s “ Hommage fait a Marguerite Duras du ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” in which he implies the women share the same “ severe and militant charity,” one without great hopes.2 Some of Michel de Certeau’s general reflections on the writing of history and also on the mystical fable provide a critical context in which to appreciate this rapprochement,3 De Certeau charts an inflation of love and its myths accompanying the critical examination and reform of religion. The spread of printing and the Reformation, while enabling lay readings of religious tracts and of the Bible itself, tended to make faith a matter of individual, silent reading. It was thus distanced from an immediacy and directness of speech as revealed truth. For de Certeau, the slow retreat of God as sole object of devotion left a ghost of something lost, which con­ tributed to the longings of mystical love. This absence was, as well, an effect of writing, of that which offered the present trace of absent divine presence or of a missing, adored body. In the same vein, the silent dis­ placements of printing made visible to a wide audience the arbitrary nature of the sign, which could be used to lie as well as to tell the truth. Writing called attention to missing confirmation, that of love searching for a way to secure meaning to/in the very body itself. It is a terrible awareness of this pre-existing lack, even in the most vehement affirma­ tion, which makes for such stern solicitude on the part of the ladies in question. The riddle of love, of why one and not another, is carried by inter­ changeable letters which seem to become, to display, contingent encoun­ ter turning into necessity, love’s trope: relation where none existed. It was, of course, the genius of courtly love to have invented obstacles, a deferment of embrace through a mimicry of feudal service. Woman became the place onto which lack, magnified by writing, was projected. Absence and inaccessibility are thus there at the beginning of a text as the VOL. XXVIII, No. 2 89 L ’E s p r it C r é a t e u r “ no place” of the other, the absence of the loved one. What is hidden and what is shown, a being touched by desire, becomes a quicksand, an instability, the place of connections and reversals ignored within the purity of speech: the printed page. Surrender to incompleteness, to the other’s desire, is the gift of Marguerite de Navarre, of Duras and of Lacan, who would know the impossible place of this letting go. What one can be for the other is a “ reading” one carries and ignores, as letters do meaning. It is this other­ ness for others, one we cannot know, which sunders us and makes love possible. Both Marguerites write of the violence people in love do to themselves. They share an implacable “ telling,” which, in the marching progression of letters, or the exfoliation of a daisy to establish certainty or reciprocated affection, leaves the mystery of its onset and/or arrest intact. De Certeau, in his emphasis on the ambiguity of presence and absence in writing, joins Lacan, for whom otherness is there in the struc­ ture of desire, as coming from the Other and sustaining the object which causes it: “ Tant de considérations sociologiques qui se réfèrent aux variations d’un temps à l’autre de la peine de vivre, sont de peu auprès de la relation de la structure qu’à être de l’Autre le désir soutient à l’objet qui le cause,” Lacan wrote in his “ Hommage” (p. 99). Lacan reminds us of the way in which Jacques Hold and Tatiana Karl act out the exclusion of Loi in their...


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