Return to Equinoxes, Issue 1 : Printemps/Eté 2003
Article ©2004, Kathryn Chenoweth
Société Marguerite Duras
Imagine yourself on a marsh in southern Cambodia, walking, gazing toward the horizon, trying to get lost. Because you are young and pregnant, your mother has driven you away: "Si tu reviens, a dit la mère, je mettrai du poison dans ton riz pour te tuer"1. You look toward the horizon: a thin line of blue spotted with palm trees, separating the sky from the bog you have found yourself in. Your stomach turns with hunger as your unborn child screams silently inside you. You hear your mother's shriek, echoing all the way to the horizon: Va-t'en! Leave, lose yourself, never come home.
Marguerite Duras's 1966 novel Le Vice-consul begins with a narrative written by the character Peter Morgan, an Englishman living in India. The woman he writes of, the supposed Cambodian, is a mad beggar who wanders Calcutta in the night, repeatedly uttering a sound that he interprets as the word 'Battambang.' Around this word Peter Morgan constructs a history and an identity; his fascinated gaze creates a character from that which, in others, inspires fear and disgust. The beggar woman sings, shrieks, laughs raucously and says 'Battambang,' but she has given up identity and subjectivity, insofar as they are constructed and construed in relation to a system of discourse. He thus narrates an absence, a renunciation of language, and thereby reinserts her into the symbolic order she has abandoned. He translates her scabby, hairless scalp and wild stare into a text, reestablishing some relationship to the symbolic by writing her repudiation of it. He uses language to make sense and compel identity, when confronted with a nonsensical existence, a subjectivity which skirts the edges of humanity. He watches her from a distance as she wades in the Ganges and sleeps with the lepers, whose own bodies manifest the mingling of human and non-human, living and dead.
In her essay Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva describes the abject as that which challenges the borders that structure identity. The abject is, according to Kristeva's thesis, a more fundamental force in the constitution of language than the boundaries that make for stable discourses and selves. Kristeva argues that the abject is what initially, in terms of psychological development, propels us toward language, toward the frontiers of discourse and subjectivity. She says that the abject is "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite"2. When we encounter the abject, we feel nausea, fear, disgust - a reaction to that which is fundamentally and disturbingly in-between, calling into question such fundamental oppositions as self and other, and the borders of my body. These delimitations, argues Kristeva, are the necessary foundations of social and linguistic order. They arise in order to contain the abject: the murky, ambiguous, liminal space that for Kristeva is originally associated with the mother's body. We each, according to Kristeva, enter into the social and linguistic worlds, moving toward our own individual subjectivity, away from the mother who has become a threatening entity, a horrifying and consuming corpse, by rejecting her, ab-jecting her; that is to say, by drawing clear boundary lines, expelling ourselves from her and her from us. Yet this process is never complete, Kristeva suggests, and the abject ceaselessly confronts and undermines the attempts of our discursive border-creations to form clear definitions and stable identities. The formation and maintenance of our own subjectivity continues to be haunted by this monster - the body of the mother, the dissolution of the self.
In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva gives a somewhat different account of very similar tensions of discourse. She argues that discourse operates as a dialectic relationship between what she calls its semiotic and symbolic elements. The semiotic is essentially that part of language which signifies without symbolizing: gesture, rhythm, intonation, and breath. Song and scream are semiotic. The other partner in this linguistic duet is the symbolic, which for Kristeva indicates what is ordered and regulated, syntactic, and is the regulating mechanism of the Lacanian symbolic order. Together, the semiotic and symbolic create meaning in discourse, but the symbolic dominates and is the representative of a fixed social order. Kristeva reminds us, however, that language is always part song, part scream, hidden under the order of our syntax and elevated vocabularies. Meaning is only possible when a dialectic relationship exists between the two.
The horizon the beggar woman sees in the distance is discourse: the thin line between sea and sky, or between semiotic and symbolic, or between the fearful mother's body in which we would suffocate and the ideal of our own subjectivity. Language is the thin and wavering line separating those respective fields of blue; discourse is the spotted palms of meaning we grasp in order to keep afloat.
Over the course of her journey from 'Battambang' to Calcutta, as narrated by Peter Morgan, the Cambodian beggar woman deteriorates. Her hair falls out, her head becomes a sun-baked crust. She wanders further and further from her native land, pushing on until no one can understand her language, until she can no longer understand it herself. She eats scraps of rotting mango, fish, green rice, and mud. She sleeps in the mud, coating herself in it. Her body and language become it. The abject emerges as that which confounds the distinction between human and non-human, between flesh and earth, organic and inorganic matter - the body as mud.
The beggar woman, an inhabitant of borders, blurs the boundaries of the semiotic and symbolic, those dialectic components of discourse. 'Battambang' : the word she cries, over and over, the word that the colonizer Peter Morgan interprets as the name of her home. Battambang! He gives it a spelling, situates it in a narrative, and uses it as the starting point for the construction of an entire identity. Battambang! But is it a word at all? Is it a place, the key term in a system of meaning, imbedded in the realm of the symbolic? Or is it, more than anything else, a cry, a semiotic outpouring, a mashing of lips, a striking of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, a feeling in the back of the throat? Battambang! Like a child banging on the saucepan in the kitchen, the little girl squealing with delight or with fear, the daughter who screams because she doesn't want to leave yet, shrieking, heedless to the world. Battambang, it shows us the thin skin, the hazy line that separates the semiotic from the symbolic. That this sound inspires Peter Morgan's narrative of the beggar woman at once recalls and reinforces the idea that the semiotic serves as the necessary starting point for discourse, that it gives rise to the symbolic which cannot ever entirely detach itself from the naked cry with which we all initially express ourselves. When any word, any name, loses its reference, it reverts to this semiotic call.
Kristeva stresses in Powers of Horror that much of the "horror" associated with the abject is the ambiguity about whether the loathsome thing is external or internal. Is it it or is it me? Out there or in here? As I have alluded to, Kristeva argues that posing this question in infancy is what drives us toward speech, what compels us toward a more clearly delineated, linguistic and social space. It is the very absence of borders, the feeling of stickiness, murkiness, blurriness between ourselves and our mother, that make us seek out the symbolic structure that offers us a sense of definition. We define ourselves against that loathsome body that terrifies us, and it is thus this fear, this horror, that is our very foundation.
Based on Duras's text, I see two possible - and possibly coinciding - responses to the abject. When challenged with the radical otherness of that person, that thing that makes us wonder who and what we are because it resides so very close to some crucial limit, we will either incorporate or reject, assimilate or violently cast off. We will, in other words, do whatever is necessary to eliminate the self/other ambiguity that the abject stirs up in us, whatever will constitute or reconstitute our borders. Peter Morgan's response to the beggar woman he sees wandering the streets of Calcutta is an elated incorporation, an ecstatic appropriation through observation and writing. "Je m'exalte sur la douleur des Indes," he says3. Confronted with a liminal identity, radically other, he absorbs her into his discursive universe. The placement of Peter Morgan's narrative at the very beginning of Duras's novel suggests that this movement toward incorporation through writing is the necessary starting point of any discourse, echoing Kristeva's suggestion that confrontation with the abject is what initially drives us towards language, what inaugurates our sense of self, the "I" of subjectivity; the "I" exists because we are afraid.
At the end of Duras's novel comes the other type of encounter with the abject: flight, rejection. Charles Rossett, another member of the British colonial authority, confronts the beggar woman at her most monstrous while wandering islands far from Calcutta at night. He tries to give her money, he tries to speak to her, but her response is only a noise that "sounds like Battambang." She laughs, a piercing, raw laugh that terrifies him and causes him to turn and run. He hears her pounding footsteps behind him, like an animal's, writes Duras. In the end he is saved when he penetrates the gates of the Prince of Wales hotel, past the gate into the garden of palm trees. The image recalls the distant horizon of Peter Morgan's narrative - the thin line of blue spotted with palms, the horizon of discourse, the overlap of semiotic and symbolic - the at once stable and precarious zone of meaning. As he stands panting inside the gate, Charles Rossett is haunted by a fear of impending madness, convinced that he has been infected by the gaze and raucous laugh of the beggar woman: "La folie, je ne la supporte pas… le regard des fous, je ne le supporte pas… tout mais la folie"4.
When dealing with the liminal, as Kristeva's discussion of the abject suggests, the difference between incorporation and rejection is blurred. Peter Morgan assimilates the beggar woman by incorporating her in discourse, but also keeps her at a distance through observation and transcription. He admits to his friends that he needs to know, to experience the madness of the beggar woman in order to write her story, and in doing so, he blends his own memories with his observations of her in constructing his narrative. Though Charles Rossett takes flight, he feels a sense of madness creeping up on him in the end, as if her uncertain subjectivity has mingled with his own; it is as if he has literally incorporated her, taken her into his body and his mind, brought her with him inside the gate. In the encounter with the abject, incorporation is always already rejection, and rejection is always already incorporation. And the borders of bodies, languages and identities form, dissolve, reform, and dissolve again.
Charles Rossett's terrifying meeting with the beggar woman concludes Duras's novel, suggesting that the abject ultimately brings about the fall of the symbolic edifice whose construction it initially provoked. The figure of the wandering, terrifying beggar woman is not limited to the textual boundaries of Le Vice-consul, however. She first appears in an earlier Duras novel, Barrage contre le Pacifique, and reappears in later works. Duras's writing is an effort to confront, to assimilate the beggar woman, to illuminate her darkness; and yet she will ultimately pull the text down with her into the very darkness whose threat the writing sought to assuage. She will open and close the boundaries of the text. As we write, we will create borders, blur them, and restructure them once again in a ceaseless effort to confront her and construct our own identities. Kristeva's discussion of the abject recalls the extent to which the abject - that which breaks down our language, frightening and silencing us - is also at the very foundation of the symbolic order. We only constitute ourselves as subjects, as an "I" in language, because there is something behind us that haunts us, threatening to silence our speech, to annihilate us. There is no movement toward discourse without this ambiguous and terrifying semiotic, abject in the back of our minds. "My head is full of vertigo and shrieks," Duras wrote. "Full of wind. And so sometimes I write"5. Discourse is always already liminal - it is that ever-receding line formed at the intersection between sea and sky.
Marguerite Duras was born in Vietnam, at that time French Indochine. Though her parents were French, she grew up essentially as a Vietnamese child, speaking the Vietnamese language, playing with Vietnamese children. French, she has insisted, was effectively a foreign language and culture to her. In keeping with Lacan's thinking, we each enter our own cultures and languages similarly foreign and uninitiated, and our relationship to the "I" that we speak is always necessarily distant, an identification through alienation, as Lacan suggests in his "Mirror Stage" essay. Duras's experience of entering her "own" culture as a foreign one renders explicit this fundamental and persistent dynamic.
Both Duras and Kristeva understand discourse as heterogeneous, as an ever-shifting mapping of overlapping fields - the semiotic and symbolic, the native tongue and the foreign, sea and sky. We articulate ourselves, we maintain ourselves, in a precarious liminal space; and our relationship to language, as to ourselves, is always dual. As Derrida has written, language is at once poison and cure, death and survival (cf. Disséminations). The works of Duras and Kristeva imply that an encounter with that haunting, abject other may be required in order for us to recognize the ambiguity of our own relationship to language. What follows is a certain understanding of our own self-strangeness, our own heterogeneity as subjects of language; the awareness of ourselves as inhabited by the other, the mother, the not-"I." That line on the horizon provides sense of memory, identity, history; it structures yesterday and tomorrow, the contours of the self. Yet it also ravages us, breaking us apart before piecing us back together. Without this hazy, weary horizon, without the thin blue lines that structure this page, we risk fading away; but even now it fades, and comes back into view.
1 Duras, Marguerite. Le Vice-consul. (Paris : Editions Gallimard, 1966) 10.
2 Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 4.
3 Le Vice-consul 157.
4 Le Vice-consul 206.
5 Adler, Laure. Marguerite Duras: A Life. Trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen. (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000). 26.
Marguerite Duras. Le Vice-consul. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966.
Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
-----. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Laure Adler. Marguerite Duras: A Life. Trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen. Chicago : University of Chicago, 2000.