- Duras’s Césarée and the Subject of Love
Tomber amoureux: toutes les images de la chute: aux mains des ennemis, dans la maladie (tomber malade), épilepsie (haut mal); fauter (chute morale), tomber aux pieds, aux genoux. … Chute blessure, c’est à dire béance, centrale, radicale.—Roland Barthes, “Problèmes de l’énonciation: le discours amoureux”
Toute l’invention consiste à faire quelque chose de rien.—Jean Racine, préface to Bérénice
Marguerite Duras’s oeuvre incessantly dealt with the problems of love, desire, and the limits of language, where language constitutes the symbolic order that underlies a social link. Love as a mode of relation to the other beyond language is impossible, and this impossibility is exactly its distinctive trait for Duras. For instance, in La couleur des mots (The [End Page 167] color of words), a set of 1983 interviews in which she discusses her films, the author defines love as “the unlivable of life” (2001, 65).1 If her postwar contemporaries speaking from a post-Freudian, semiological perspective also addressed these problems in the light of the impossible, the theory of love that can be extracted from Duras’s trajectory from prose to cinema remains the most rigorous and radical. This is because love here is a concept inextricable from the literary/cinematic dimension in which it is deployed, leading Duras to make a statement such as, “I’m not sure love is a feeling. Sometimes I think that to love is to see” (1987a). Moreover, love is at once the force that shapes the act of writing and the experience that Duras’s oeuvre, across text and image, strives to transmit.
Her stance raises a set of questions into which the 1978 short film Césarée gives exceptional insight: how exactly does the writer propose a singular theory of love indissociable from the stuff of its articulation, and from a paradoxical experience of “the unlivable of life”?2 How might love in its impossible status operate, and if love involves reading, writing, and seeing, what is its effect upon its reading/writing/viewing subjects? Césarée at once offers a series of images, a text that Duras in voice-over recites throughout the film’s duration, and, significantly, an interpretation of “l’amour la plus tendre et la plus malheureuse” (the most tender, ill-starred love): Jean Racine’s 1670 tragedy Bérénice.3 Bérénice decides to survive the unbearable separation from her Roman lover Titus, asking him and Antiochus, Titus’s friend who also pursues her, to also live on without her as she returns to Caesarea, her city ravaged by the Romans. This mandate, pronounced by the female lover in the final scene of definitive separation, is fundamental to Duras’s idea of love. In the wake of Bérénice’s devastating return to Caesarea, Duras designates this painfully empty space as the field of love as such. Taking Racine’s feminine use of the noun amour literally,4 Duras approaches the problem of impossible love from a feminine angle; its relevance will be foregrounded in this essay through a dialogue with Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, insofar as the latter two viewed a devenir-femme (becoming-woman) as the first and necessary step to untangle what they called immanent desire from signification, while the psychoanalyst discussed feminine jouissance, where words fail, in connection with love and writing. Duras agrees with these authors,5 yet she [End Page 168] goes further by turning this a-signifying dimension into a literary and cinematic experience of love that transforms its subject.
Since her 1950 novel Un barrage contre le Pacifique (The Sea Wall), Duras’s texts and films insistently return to the scene of a territory ruined by an exponential agent of destruction: the Pacific Ocean (Un barrage,6 L’amant), an atomic bomb (Hiroshima mon amour), a fire (L’amour), the sea (Césarée). The territory’s memory and any possible functional, survival-oriented construction or practice are thus annihilated. This setting conveys écrire (writing) as a process that erodes the surface it marks...