SOURCE: Brossard, Nicole. “Poetic Politics.” In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein, pp. 73-82. New York: Roof Books, 1990.
[In the following essay, Brossard outlines her views on writing, desire, language, and reality, considering the political element of each.]
I have divided my presentation into two parts. The first part has to do with the body of writing, its motivations, its energies. The second part has to do with the references and values that surround us and the kinds of linguistic reaction they call for when we disagree with them. I say when we disagree with them because I don't believe that one becomes a writer to reinforce common values or common perspectives on reality.
I would like, in this talk, to make space for questions regarding different rituals, different approaches, different postures that we take in language in order to exist, fulfill our needs to express, communicate, or to challenge language itself: hoping that by playing with language it will reveal unknown dimensions of reality. I have been writing for more than 20 years. I have written poetry, novels, texts, essays. Today, I am still fascinated by the act of writing, the processes, the trouble, the pain, and the joy that we go through in order to put in words what we feel, what we recall vaguely but which insists on being recalled, what we envision whether it is full-length images or enigmatic flashes running through our brain like a storm of truth.
Those who are familiar with my work will know that one of most recurrent words in my texts is body (corps). This word is usually accompanied by the words writing (écriture) and text (texte). The expression Le Cortex exubérant summarizes my obsession with body, text, and writing. For me the body is a metaphor of energy, intensity, desire, pleasure, memory, and awareness. The body interests me in its circulation of energy and the way it provides, through our senses, for a network of associations out of which we create our mental environment, out of which we imagine far beyond what we in fact see, feel, hear or taste. It is through this network of associations that we claim new sensations, that we dream backward in accelerated or slow motion, that we zoom in on sexual fantasies, that we discover unexpected angles of thought.
I have always said that writing is energy taking shape in language. Sexual, libidinal, mental, and spiritual energies give to us the irresistible need to declare things, to make new propositions, to look for solutions which can unknot social patterns of violence and death, to explore unknown territories of the mind, to search for each of our identities, to fill the gap between real and unreal. In other words, energy motivates us to write but it also needs to find its motive to be able to do this. Energy has to go out and has to come in. The body is its channel. But the body claims to be more than a channel: it thinks of strategies to regularize the flow of energy. The body alone cannot process all energy, it needs language to process energy into social meaning. Among the uses that we make of language, there is a privileged one called creative writing. It is in this sense that I say that writing is shaping figures and meanings within the merry-go-round of energy that traverses us. Filtered by language, this energy finds a rhythm, becomes a voice, transforms itself into images and metaphors. Energy that is...
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too low keeps you silent, energy that is too high makes noise instead of meaning—even though silence and noise can eventually by interpreted as an historical momentum.
Sexual, libidinal, mental, and spiritual energies provided with a motive or an object of desire, or both, engage us in a creative dimension. When these energies synchronize they offer a privileged moment to a writer. Most of the time we call this “inspiration.” These energies can also work alone or in combination. Sexual energy produces a multiplicity of images and scenarios. Libidinal energy creates projects and goals. Mental energy provides for sharpness and for abstraction. Spiritual energy links us to a global environment. Yet all these energies can stagnate or make you mad if they don't meet their object of desire, or organize themselves in such a way that they can at least dream of—or figure out—their object of desire.
Now let me make a distinction between the motive and the object of desire. The motive is something that whatever the situation eternally returns in the work of an artist. The motive is roots, flesh and skin. It is incontrovertible. It is inscribed in us as a first and ultimate memory. It is carnal knowledge. All good writers have a strong motive. The motive is most of the time hidden in the core of a work, hidden but recurrent as a theme. It seems to me that motive (a good reason and a pattern) is a personal, existential question that makes one endlessly repeat: why or how come? It is a three-dimensional question caused by a synergetic moment, this moment being either traumatic or ecstatic. With the synergetic moment gone, we are left with this three-dimensional question, a question to which we can only respond with a two-dimensional answer—that is, a partial answer that obliges us to repeat the question and to try other answers. We answer in two dimensions because we think in a chronological way, one word at the time, one word after the other, while the body experiences life synchronously. Writing, we have to make choices, to separate things. Naming is separation, it portions out reality. Dreams are 3-dimensional but we forget about them or cannot understand them.
As for the object of desire, it is probably always the same one mediated by different people we fall in love with, by books we cannot recover from, by situations to which we respond passionately. For me, a good writer or a good painter always repeats the same motive, the same question, the same statement in all her or his works. Think of Kandinsky, Rothko, Betty Goodwin. Great artists are always driven by a motive while fairly good creators have to rely on their objects of desire: if the object isn't there, then nothing happens but sweat.
It is well known that people give and take energy from one another; that blame, insult, humiliation take away energy; that praise, love, and respect multiply energy. The principle is very simple. But it gets complicated when it applies to the way men and women are positioned in regard to language's patriarchal values. We cannot avoid questioning this cultural field of language, which both provides us with energy or deprives us of it. What I call the cultural field of language is made of male sexual and psychic energies transformed through centuries of written fiction into standards for imagination, frames of references, patterns of analysis, networks of meaning, rhetorics of body and soul. Digging in that field can be, for a creative woman, a mental health hazard.
This second part is more personal. What I propose to discuss is a kind of trajectory in my writing. I would like to show how my politics of poetic form—my Poetic Politics—have been shaped within a sociocultural environment as well as through private life. But I would also like to talk in general terms of the behaviors that we encounter in writing while we make space for ourselves as well as for ideas that we value and themes that we privilege.
Since in principle language belongs to everyone, we are entitled to reappropriate it by taking the initiative to intervene when it gives the impression of closing itself off, and when our desire clashes with common usage. Very young, I perceived language as an obstacle, as a mask, narrow-spirited like a repetitive task of boredom and of lies. Only poetic language found mercy in my eyes. It is in this sense that my practice of writing became at once a practice of intervention and of exploration—a ludic experience. Very early I had a relationship to the language of transgression and of subversion. I wanted strong sensations: I wanted to unmask lies, hypocrisy, and banality. I had the feeling that if language was an obstacle, it was also the place where everything happens, where everything is possible. That I still believe.
I have often said that I don't write to express myself but that I write to understand reality, the way we process reality into fiction, the way we process feeling, emotion and sensation into ideas and landscapes of thought. After all, the difference between a writer and a non-writer is that the writer processes life through written language and by doing so has access and gives access to unexpected, unsuspected angles of reality—which we commonly called fiction.
What about expressions like strong sensations, transgression, subversion, and ludic experience? Let's start with “strong sensations” and “ludic experience.” What do these expressions oppose? For me, they oppose boredom and daily routine; in a word: linearity. Behind that there is obviously a statement something like: “I am not satisfied with what society offers me as a future or imposes on me in the present because if I was to follow its directives, it would mean that I would have to lead a boring, middlebrow, puritan life.” This means that I value research, intelligence, and pleasure. It also means that I cannot function with cliches and standard values that somehow seem to narrow the possibilities of life: life of the mind as well as life of the emotion. Indeed, our emotional and our critical spirits are more and more eroded.
To be more concrete, let's say that I started to write, in the early 60s in a Quebec, which was at a turning point of our history, a period that we have called the “quiet revolution.” Yes, everything was being questioned: education as well as social, political, religious, and cultural life. To my generation, the dream of an independent, French, socialist, secular Quebec provided for audacities, transgressions, and a quest for collective identity. But underneath these changes was essentially the question of identity. Who were we? Who are we? We have a Canadian passport but our soul and tradition are not Canadian, we speak French but we are not French, we are North American but we are not American. As a young person and as a young writer there were three kinds of institutions that had a sour taste to me:
First: The Catholic Church because it had a strong influence in almost every field of Quebec society and mainly because of its control on education and sexual life (marriage, contraception, abortion, homosexuality).
Second: The Canadian Confederation and all its British and Canadian symbols. I resent profoundly how as French Canadian we were despised and discriminated against by Anglo Canadian politics. I have always made the language issue a personal thing. Today I am still vividly hurt when someone who is living or has been living in Montreal for many years addresses me in English.
Third: The literary establishment. When you write you write with and against literature. You write out of inspiration from writers and books, but you also write against mediocrity and the cliches the literary establishment promotes. Maybe it has been unfair to some writers of the generation that preceded mine, but I was fed up with poems talking about landscapes, snow, mountains, and the tormented rhetoric of love and solitude. At the same time, I felt deeply for Quebec literature which the generation of La Barre du Jour and Les Herbes rouges were about to rediscover and to renew at the same time.
So all together those three realities set up for me a social and literary field that I could oppose and later on transgress and subvert. Very early my poetry was abstract, syntactically nonconventional; desire with its erotic drives had a great part in it. Part of what I was writing was consciously political, at least at the level of intention. Let's say that my “basic intention” was to make trouble, to be a troublemaker in regard to language but also with values of my own embodied by a writing practice that was ludic (playing with words), experimental (trying to understand processes of writing), and exploratory (searching). You see, it brings us back to my values: exploration (which provides for renewal of information and knowledge), intelligence (which provides the ability to process things), and pleasure (which provides for energy and desire).
So from 1965 to 1973, I can say that I would see myself as a poet—an avant-garde poet, a formalist poet. Being a woman was not at stake, didn't seem to be a problem. Of course it was not a problem because in some way I was not identifying with femininity nor with other women, with whom I felt I had nothing to share. I could understand and talk about alienation, oppression, domination, exploitation only when applied to me as a Quebecer. I was a Quebecer, an intellectual, a poet, a revolutionary. Those were my identities. They were all positive and somehow they were valued in those years of cultural changes and counterculture. So in some way by transgressing I was still on the good side.
But in 1974, I became a mother and about the same time fell in love with another woman. Suddenly, I was living the most common experience in a woman's life which is motherhood and at the same time I was living the most marginal experience in a woman's life which is lesbianism. Motherhood made life absolutely concrete (two bodies to wash, to clean, to move, to think of) and lesbianism made my life absolute fiction in a patriarchal heterosexual world. Motherhood shaped my solidarity with women and gave me a feminist consciousness as lesbianism opened new mental space to explore.
All this to say that my body was getting new ideas, new feelings, new emotions. From then on my writing started to change. It became more fluid, though still abstract and still obsessed with language, transgression, and subversion; but this time I had “carnal knowledge” of what I was investing in words. My frame of references started to change and new words (words that I had never used) started to invest my work: vertigo, cliff, amazon, sleep, memory, skin. I started to use new metaphors to understand things: the spiral, the hologram, metaphors which would help me to drift away from a linear and binary approach. Questions started to flow about identity, imagination, history, and more and more questions came about language and the incredible fraud I was discovering in the accumulated layers of lies told about women through centuries of the male version of reality. Which is to say that I also had to deal with contradictions, paradoxes, double binding, tautology in order to understand what I would call “the father knows best” business. Patriarchy being a highly sophisticated machine, it takes time and energy to understand how it works.
Now I would like to try to answer more precisely the questions raised in this series of lectures on “The Politics of Poetic Form.” While writing this essay, I found myself saying: “It is not in the writing that a poetic text is political, it is in the reading that it becomes political.” I knew something was true and wrong at the same time with this statement and therefore I decided to divide it in two affirmative statements which are:
A. It is in the writing that a text shows its politics.
B. It is in the reading that a text has a political aura.
I believe that a text gives subliminal information on how it wants to be read. Its structure is itself a statement, no matter what the text says. Of course, what the texts says is important but it is like body language. Body language tells more about yourself and how you want to relate with someone than does your words. I would like to point out three aspects in which a text shows politics: its perspective, its themes, its style.
The perspective. What I call the perspective is an angle from which we orient the reading of a text before it is even read. This can be done by quotations beginning or inserted in the text, for example from Virginia Woolf, Marx, Martin Luther King, etc. This can also be done by dedication of a poem to someone whose name will ring a political bell. For example, dedicating your poem to Che Guevara, to Valerie Solanas, to Paul Rose, or to even to Ben Johnson. The third way is to title your poem or your book in such a way that it will suggest some political metaphors. For example: Chili's Bones Flowers,Clitoris at Sunset,The Color Purple (in which we read subliminally “people of color”) or Give Em Enough Rope (which can be understood “give them enough rope to hang themselves” or “give him enough rope to do want he wants”). Quotations, dedications, and titles provide for immediate references or statement. They tell a state of mind, they point out literary, cultural, or political networks.
Themes. There are themes that are bound to have if not ideological at least a troubling effect: Sexuality, eroticism, homosexuality, lesbianism—something is always at stake with eroticism because it deals with limits, moral, and the unavowable. Language—writing about language, pointing out how language works or giving feedback on how what is being read has been written can also imply politics of awareness because it takes away the “referential illusion” of the reader.
Postures. Disqualifying symbols of authority by uncovering the lies and the contradictions on which they have been constituted—God, Pope, President, Man, or little man (as in husband, lover, or father). Valuing marginal experiences—valuing people who are inferiorized, for example valuing women as subjects.
Style. Shaking the syntax, breaking grammatical law, not respecting punctuation, visually designing the text, using the white space, typesetting as you choose, using rhythms to create sounds: All of these have a profound effect on readers, offering a new perspective on reality through a global formal approach as did for example the impressionists, the cubists, and the expressionists, in painting and as did, in literature, the surrealists, le nouveau roman, the post-moderns. Among writers we can name Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Monique Wittig for The Lesbian Body.
So by changing the perspective, the themes, or the style, somehow you deceive the conformist reader in her or his moral or aesthetic expectations and you annoy her or him by breaking the habits of reading. At the same time, you provide for a new space of emotion and you make space for new materials to be taken into account about life and its meaning; you also offer the non-conformist reader a space for a new experience—travelling through meaning while simultaneously producing meaning.
These interventions send a message in which the poet says: I don't agree with prevalent moral or aesthetic values. I am not respecting the status quo. There is more to life than what we are thought to believe, there is more to language than what we are used to expecting.
While the statement “It is in the writing that a text shows its politics” repels or seduces the reader (most of the time belonging to the dominant culture), the second statement “It is in the reading that a text becomes political” calls for a process of identification from the reader belonging to a minority or treated as such.
I believe that a lot of writers belonging to minorities whether sexual, racial, or cultural, or writers who belong to groups who live or have lived under colonization, oppression, exploitation, or a dictatorship, are bound to have a highly loaded personal memory out of which they express themselves as individuals. But inevitably their personal story converges with the one of thousands who have felt and lived the same experience. Memory, identity, and solidarity are at stake when reading is taken as political; just as transgression, subversion, and exploration are at stake when writing is taken as political.
Anyone who encounters insult and hatred because of her or his differences from a powerful group is bound, soon or later, to echo a we through the use of I and to draw the line between us and them, we and they.
WE triggers emotions based on solidarity, memory, identification, complicity, proudness, or sadness.
THEY triggers emotions based on anger and revolt. Hatred also: THEY cuts the relation.
YOU (in the plural vous) triggers accusations, blame, reproach. It maintains the relation because it is a direct address. You calls for negotiation just as they calls for struggle.
We all have a I/We story and a We/They story. If you belong to a dominant group, they is either laughable, insignificant, or used as a scapegoat. If you belong to an oppressed group, they is targeted as enemy because they have proven to be a real threat or danger to your collectivity or your group. As an example, I could draw a personal chart which would read like this:
|I/we a writer||you non-writers||politically non-pertinent|
|I/we poets||you prose writers||politically non-pertinent|
|I/we women||you men||politically pertinent|
|I/we feminists||you sexists||politically pertinent|
|I/we lesbians||you heterosexuals||politically pertinent|
|I/we Quebecers||you Canadians||politically pertinent|
People from groups who have been politically, economically, and culturally silenced or censored have expectations that one of them will speak about them and for them. Women have those expectations, feminists, lesbians, Indians, blacks, Chicanos have those expectations. Those readers want so much to hear or see things about themselves that they can even overestimate the political involvement of a writer. That is why writers from those groups are often asked the question: Are you a political writer? Etes-vous un écrivain engagé? A question that embarrasses them and which they will be tempted to avoid by saying that they write what they write because they are creative. Which is true, but not as simple as it seems. For example, while writing a feminist article, I questioned myself wondering who is writing my text: the poet, the feminist or the lesbian. I came up with this answer: The feminist is moral, responsible, fair, humanist, has solidarity. The lesbian is audacious, radical, takes risks, strictly focuses on women. The creative person has imagination and is able to process ambivalent emotion and contradictions as well as transforming anger, ecstasy, desire, pain, and so on, into social meaning.
So altogether, I would say that one's Poetic Politics shapes itself within the weaving movement of personal motive with energy, identity, knowledge, and the ability to process emotions, ideas, sensations into a meaningful response to the world. As for myself, my poetic is essentially to make space for the unthought. As a woman, I am left with a language that has either erased or marginalized women as subjects. Therefore in my poetic I perform what is necessary to make space for women's subjectivity and plurally, to make space for a positive image of women. This task engages me to question language—symbolic and imaginary, from all angles and dimensions.
In conclusion, I would like to say that a good part of my life has gone into writing and it probably will continue to be like that. In the desire and the necessity to reinvent language, there is certainly an intention for happiness, a utopian thrust, a serious responsibility. It is because I feel both profoundly in me that I continue my course of writing. Voyage without end, writing is what always comes back to seek me out in order to distance death and stupidity, lies and violence. Writing never lets me forget that if life has a meaning, somewhere it is in what we invent with our lives, with the aura of streams of words that, within us, form sequences of truth. There is a price for consciousness, for transgression. Sooner or later, the body of writing pays for its untamed desire of beauty and knowledge. I have always thought that the word beauty is related to the word desire. There are words, which, like the body, are irreducible: To write I am a woman is full of consequences.
Poetry: For me poetry is the highest probability of desire and thought synchronized in a meaningful voice. Poetry is a formal and semantic intuition that is brought forth by our desire, this desire not knowing the laws that motivate it.
Text: The text is a thoughtful reflexive approach of the processes of writing and reading. When we play the text against the poem, it is as if we would like to tame the irrational of the poem. A text can be written without “inspiration”, without a story. To write a text, you only need a “motive” to trigger the pleasure of writing and to perform or to explore in language.
Now I would like to establish the rapport—the connection—I have with poetry, prose, writing, and language. This I can say now, but even five years ago I would have been unable to identify this rapport.
A) My rapport with poetry has to do with the voice finding its way at the very moment of synchronization of thought and emotion. It is the rapport of intelligence in the sense of comprehension (to take with one self).
B) My rapport with prose and novels resembles my rapport with reality as it is in daily life. I find prose and daily life so boring that I can only exist in these two realities by making ruptures in the sentence or in the discourse, by seeking surprises and discoveries, by expending meaning. Writing prose, I need to explode the narrative, the anecdotal, the linearity of time, the normal mumbling of characters. That is why my novels are anti-novels that challenge traditional novels.
C) My rapport with writing has to do with desire and energy. This rapport is essentially ludic and about exploration. The body and the act of the eyes are mainly involved.
D) My rapport with language is a matter of perspective on patriarchal knowledge and on its symbolic hierarchal/dualist field. It calls for vision rather than for subversion. It calls for awareness, concentration, sharpness. Vision goes beyond transgression because it brings forth new material.
Nicole Brossard 1943-
Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, director, editor, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Brossard's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 115.
One of the most outspoken and innovative figures of late-twentieth-century Québécois literature, Brossard is an experimental and avant-garde writer, numbered among the foremost representatives of literary modernité, and regarded as a leading theoretician of écriture au féminin—women's writing—in French-speaking Canada. Openly and unapologetically political, Brossard's writing stresses her radical feminist beliefs, embracing her lesbianism and offering a literary celebration of the woman's body while promoting a sustained attack against the traditional orthodoxies of the dominant, patriarchal language, social systems, and cultural values. Additionally, Brossard's strong reaction against conventional views of poetry and fiction as mimetic representations of objective reality has become a central and defining theme in her writing—which values transgression and forbidden feminine desire—viewing these as integral elements in the creation of a radical, utopian, modern, and woman-centered vision of literature and society.
Brossard was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1943. Educated at the Collège Marguerite-Bourgeois in her youth, she later attended the Université de Montréal, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in literature in 1965. That same year, Brossard published her first collection of verse, Aube à la saison, in the volume Trois—which included poetry by Michel Beaulieu and Micheline de Jordy—and co-founded the literary journal La Barre du jour, which published poetry by the significant figures of the avant-garde poetry scene in Quebec, including Brossard's own experimental verse. Brossard continued her education into the late 1960s and early 1970s, obtaining pedagogical certification and teaching briefly at secondary schools before opting to devote her full attention to a literary career. The birth of her daughter Julie and a new awareness of her lesbianism in the early 1970s shaped Brossard's emerging literary identity and helped to define the political motivations that would characterize her subsequent career as a writer and activist. She began to publish a steady stream of poetry and prose, which expanded upon the ideas suggested in her novel Un livre (1970; A Book) and her poetry collection Le Centre blanc (1970). In 1976 she co-created the radical feminist magazine Les Têtes de Pioche. By this time, Brossard had joined a community of avant-garde feminist writers and activists in Quebec, which included Marthe Blackburn, Marie-Claire Blais, Odette Gagnon, Luce Guilbeault, Pol Pelletier, and France Théoret. Among the products of this artistic collective was the theatrical production La Nef des sorcières (1976; A Clash of Symbols), for which Brossard contributed “L'Écrivain,” a monologue on the creative process of the writer. In 1977 she co-directed the documentary film Quelques féministes américaines (Some American Feminists) with Luce Guilbeault and Margaret Wescott. Later that year, Brossard was elected to the first executive board of the Union des Écrivains Québécois, a literary organization designed to define and protect the ethical and economic rights of its constituents. She subsequently served as the group's vice-president between 1983 and 1985. Meanwhile, Brossard continued her increasingly prolific literary output in the 1980s with such novels as Picture Theory (1982) and Le Désert mauve (1987; Mauve Desert). By the 1990s, Brossard had become an icon of the radical, urban feminist movement in Quebec, and continued to write, edit, and speak about such issues as postmodern literature, semiotic theory, and the awakening of feminine consciousness and lesbian desire.
Among Brossard's early collections of poetry, Aube à la saison and Mordre en sa chair (1966) are thought to reflect the influence of contemporary poets Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, Alain Grandbois, and Anne Hébert, although they also demonstrate Brossard's movement away from the landscape focus then prevalent among Québécois writers. Her third volume, L'Écho bouge beau (1968), exhibits a more assured and individual control of poetic language, introducing many of the erotic and body-centered themes that Brossard has subsequently explored throughout her literary oeuvre. The collection also demonstrates her developing interest in semiotics and linguistic signification associated with such French poststructuralist theorists as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Beginning with L'Écho bouge beau, Brossard also began a process of experimentalism in her writing, seeking to divorce her work from the misrepresentation of dominant ideologies, particularly those linked with patriarchy and its manifestations in language. In her subsequent poetic works, including Suite logique (1970), Le Centre blanc, and Mécanique jongleuse (1973; Daydream Mechanics), Brossard continued to expand and develop this effort. Le Centre blanc endeavors to displace the conventional ordering of syntactic elements such as subject, verb, and predicate in order to multiply and expand the range of signification and meaning in poetic language. Additionally, these works demonstrate Brossard's interest in the seductive and desire-laden dimensions of writing, as well as its subversive potential. Installations: Avec et sans pronoms (1989) and the prose poem La Nuit verte du Parc Labyrinthe (1992; Green Night of Labyrinth Park) offer thorough examinations of language, sexuality, subjectivity, and representation and uses such themes to suggest multivalent layers of meaning.
Brossard's narrative texts, which often feature a mélange of poetry and prose, generally dismiss traditional plotting and schemes of characterization. Un livre focuses on a small group of acquaintances and lovers whose movements, actions, and gestures form the structural center of the work and contribute to its themes of liberation, autonomy, and simultaneity. Brossard's second novel, French Kiss: étreinte/exploration (1974; French Kiss; or, A Pang's Progress), shows more of a concern with the emotions and physical sensations of the main characters, rather than conforming to traditional notions of plot or narrative. The novel follows Marielle and four other underground revolutionaries who create a short-lived utopian community, successfully staving off outside reality and Montreal's authorities before their experiment is destroyed by police intervention. Evidencing the influence of the French nouveau roman and other experimental fiction of the twentieth century, French Kiss subverts traditional modes of psychological characterization, instead offering a deep focus on the characters's movements, smell, texture, skin, and hair. Brossard's lesbian-feminist viewpoint and its consequent critique of patriarchal society is the driving force behind L'Amèr ou, le chapitre effrité: fiction théorétique (1977; These Our Mothers; or, the Disintegrating Chapter), a work that probes the psycho-social dynamics of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Another defining element of Brossard's prose is its focus on sexuality, particularly in the novels Amantes (1980; Lovhers) and Le Sens apparent (1980; Surfaces of Sense). Lovhers ostensibly takes place at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City, though the work itself is more specifically a mixture of erotic poetry and utopian prose focused on the lesbian body. Drawing upon technology for its central image, Picture Theory—the term is borrowed from the theoretical work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—nevertheless critiques and transgresses notions of linear, scientific logic. Its central focus is the daily repression and potential liberation of feminine desire, which Brossard visualizes in the symbolic contexts of the hologram—a construct that employs laser light to create a seemingly animate, three-dimensional image in space. Brossard uses this image as an abstracted reference to the mystery of the feminine and of a woman's limitless potential for interpretation. In a departure from Montreal, the setting of most of her fiction, Brossard favors the symbolically suggestive desert of the American Southwest in her postmodern novel Le Désert mauve, a text that plays with categories of writing, reading, and translation. Its first portion recounts the adventures of an alienated and rebellious fifteen-year-old girl, Mélanie Kerouac, detailing her high-speed drives through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. In the novel's second section, Mélanie's narrative is transformed into a book written by an author named Laure Angstelle. In the third and final section of the volume, a woman named Maude Laures discovers Angstelle's long forgotten work and decides to translate and rework the story under the title Mauve, l'horizon. More fictionally accessible than Brossard's earlier novels, Baroque d'aube (1995; Baroque at Dawn) explores the theme of feminine imaginative desire as it follows the efforts of three women—a writer, a photographer, and an oceanographer—to understand and interpret the creative process.
Since the early 1970s, Brossard has been widely recognized as a principal figure among North American feminist intellectuals and writers. Her unique poetic voice, radical politics, and provocative interpretation of lesbian poetics have positioned Brossard as a central figure in the avant-garde movement in late-twentieth-century Québécois literature. While some commentators have criticized her fiction for its experimental and non-traditional treatment of plot and character as well as its heavily meta-literary content, many contemporary critics have praised Brossard's writing as demanding, multifaceted, and richly suggestive. Amid those undisturbed by Brossard's open challenge to existing social, cultural, literary, and political institutions, her creative and theoretical work has been regarded as among the most esteemed in contemporary Francophone literature.
SOURCE: Gould, Karen. “Nicole Brossard: Beyond Modernity or Writing in the Third Dimension.” In Writing in the Feminine: Feminism and Experimental Writing in Quebec, pp. 52-107. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Gould evaluates Brossard's poetry volumes Suite logique and Le Centre blanc, and particularly her novel Un livre, as key texts in the formulation of a new, experimental literary modernity in Quebec.]
To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Political liberation of sexuality: this is a double transgression, of politics by the sexual, and conversely. But this is nothing at all: let us now imagine reintroducing into the politico-sexual field thus discovered, recognized, traversed, and liberated … a touch of sentimentality: would that not be the ultimate transgression? For, after all, that would be love: which would return: but in another place.
Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
Women whirling in be-ing shift the center of gravity.
Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology
The writing of Nicole Brossard lies at a unique historical and cultural juncture between a literature of modernity that has consciously broken with the past and an experimental women's writing that has added a gender specificity and an unavoidably political dimension to some of the more radical practices of textual modernity in Quebec. The link between Brossard's work and modernity has been the subject of much recent critical commentary. Among Quebec intellectuals (whether feminists or not), Brossard and modernité—that “radical impulse”1 to sever with tradition and become résolument moderne—have often been uttered in the same breath. Brossard herself has distinguished between Rimbaud's etiquette, “Il faut être absolument moderne” (“One must be absolutely modern”), which she reads as the urgent modernist necessity to risk all, including sanity, and the more contemporary version, “Il faut être résolument moderne” (resolutely modern), which shifts the writer's focus away from the exploration of intensely personal experience and toward the vigorous pursuit of new avenues in textual production.2 For Brossard, this resolve to be modern was initially conceived as a political and literary stance of defiance, an open challenge to the ideological forces that had helped shape and perpetuate social norms and conventional literary forms in Quebec.
Although currently regarded as one of the leading theoreticians of écriture au féminin, Nicole Brossard was one of the emerging voices of modernity in Quebec literature during the late 1960s. … Her early works (1964-73) clearly exemplified modernity's ostensibly gender-neutral preoccupations with rupture, deconstruction, and transgression, notions that have forged much of the direction of literary experimentation in Quebec since the late 1960s. However, with the move toward a self-consciously gender-marked writing in the mid-1970s, Brossard's forward-looking gaze has lost all vestiges of neutrality, having entered the realms of the forbidden and the repressed with the particular knowledge, force, and pleasure of her own experience as a woman.
More so than any other writer in Quebec, Brossard has attentively mapped the crucial points of intersection and divergence between literary modernity and contemporary feminist practices of writing and reading. Indeed, the theoretical aspects of her work provide the pivotal link between the projects of modernité and radical feminism in the francophone province. Brossard's early poetry and theoretical efforts to chart the direction of Quebec's avant-garde during the late 1960s had already given her a solid literary reputation long before her move toward the experimental forms of gender-marked writing that began to surface in 1974. Moreover, it is likely that at least some of the critical attention accorded her more recent feminist-inspired texts is due in part to her prior work and association with the project of literary modernity in Quebec. Brossard's ability to theorize on the connections and distinctions between a writing of modernity and a more emphatically women-centered writing as well as her own success in spanning these two cultural currents in Quebec are impressive indicators of the centrality of her work in contemporary Quebec literature and are also of considerable consequence for the project of feminist writing elsewhere and for recent American discussions of feminism and postmodernism in particular.
With the publication in 1970 of two volumes of poetry, Suite logique (Logical Consequences/Succession) and Le Centre blanc (The White Center), along with a first novel bearing the insistently auto-referential title of Un livre (A Book), Nicole Brossard confirmed her compelling presence on the modern stage of Quebec letters. In these relatively early writings, Brossard formulated as well as conveyed the new mood of experimental writing in Quebec—what has been described by many contemporary critics and writers alike as an emerging “crisis” of confidence in the representational powers of language and a mounting mistrust regarding the organic wholeness, the ostensibly unified sign system, and the presumed signification or predetermined meaning of the literary text. Quebec critic and poet Philippe Haeck, whose own poetry has been influenced by both Brossard's early formalism and subsequent body writing, credits her with circulating two key ideas in the work of her initial formalist period, “the death of the author and the death of meaning.”3
The texts Brossard published in 1970 also echoed an increasing weariness on the part of a number of Quebec intellectuals with the nationalist themes and overtly political forms of nationalist writings that had dominated the literary scene in Quebec during the early 1960s. The appearance of important experimental works by Brossard and others at La Barre du jour called attention to the gap between the revolutionary themes of Quebec's nationalistic literature of the 1960s and the revolutionary nature of experimentations in form that were beginning to take place in some of the formal constructions of the avant-garde. Determinedly modern in her outlook, Brossard challenged the prevailing belief in representational literature, in the ability of words to name effectively the sociopolitical reality of Quebec or, for that matter, any other social reality.
Brossard's writing practice in Un livre called into question the very notion of the “real” in a way that both delighted and shocked her reading public. As Quebec critic and writer Claude Beausoleil has noted, the appearance of Un livre was a major literary event and a sign that the Quebec novel had lost its endearing innocence and had finally “come of age.”4 Brossard's first novel is marked with all of the textual self-consciousness, implied narrative distance, and heightened incredulity regarding language that this new age seemed to elicit. For Brossard and her contemporaries, Nathalie Sarraute's “age of suspicion” was perhaps dawning a little later in Quebec, but it was dawning nevertheless.5 By 1970, there seemed little chance of turning back.
Even prior to the appearance of Un livre and Le Centre blanc, Nicole Brossard had already asserted substantial influence on the development of the notion of modernité in Quebec through her editorial work and writing for the avant-garde review, La Barre du jour (1965-77). … Brossard's emphasis at La Barre du jour on the materiality of language brought with it a new sense of how words, linguistic structures, and literary forms may be viewed as sociocultural constructions rather than as fixed objects of predetermined meaning. As was the case for a number of intellectuals in her generation, Brossard's theoretical positions during her formative years with La Barre du jour were nurtured by the formal experimentation of new novelists such as Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Butor, and Duras in France and by Aquin and others in Quebec as well as by the new criticism in France of Barthes, Ricardou, and the Marxist formalist review Tel Quel. The structuralist and formalist preoccupations of many of these writers called attention to the act of writing as process rather than as mimetic enterprise moving inevitably toward closure. By exposing the complex interplay of syntax, grammar, and formal structures that provide the actual matter for the text's own genesis, their writings underscored the auto-referential and internal generating properties of the text.
The impact of Brossard's initial concerns with the nature of textual production and with language as a forever new space of ecstatic, if nevertheless solitary invention, can in fact still be traced in even her most radically women-centered writing. In Picture Theory for example, which she published in 1982, we find repeated evidence of Brossard's earlier transgressive efforts to reverse the linear logic of mastery, undermine anticipated structures of meaning, confront the void or dense “whiteness,” as she initially termed it, of unnarratability, and demonstrate how the text works—how it proceeds, falters, is condensed, and overflows the recognizable semantic field. From formalism to radical feminism, Brossard's extreme literary self-consciousness and fundamental questioning of virtually every aspect of the writing process have never really ceased, even though the act of writing itself has also become a way of exploring feminist consciousness, as well as a way of articulating her own desire for other women and for other ways of organizing reality. “What form can a contemporary thought best take that would give words another cast of mind, for the body has its reasons,” writes Brossard in Picture Theory. “How does she keep her distance with words without by the same token relinquishing her place, without reaching the point of neutralizing herself in the text, without losing sight of an image of self liberated at last from negativity, without neglecting what reflects it (women and the sense of honor, as Adrienne Rich would put it) and also what always transforms it and reveals its meaning.”6
With its emphases on undermining traditional writing conventions and on dismantling the authority of the author and the word, literary modernity in Quebec gave Brossard a crucial theoretical basis from which to explore and develop a new theory and practice of women's writing.
LE CENTRE BLANC OR WRITING FROM THE ZERO POINT
In an interview with some of the writers and editors working at La Nouvelle Barre du jour in the 1980s, Hugues Corriveau cites the 1972-73 Montreal seminars of Hélène Cixous as the birthplace of modernity in Quebec. He also notes two other works of major significance for Quebec's literary modernity: Brossard's Le Centre blanc and Un livre.7Le Centre blanc was certainly a key text for Brossard in her own development as a poet, and as the title suggests, its publication immediately placed her work in the resolutely modern camp of Blanchot's “writing without writing,” what he describes in the works of Mallarmé, Beckett, and others as the movement of writing away from literature as convention and ideological practice, toward the point of its absence, the point as it were where literature observes its own dissolution or erasure and ultimately “disappears.”8 Brossard has explained her incorporation of Blanchot's neutral literary space in the following manner:
Blanchot was very important for me. What was involved in the question of neutrality was the white space, which was linked to the question of ecstasy, to the present, the place where the “I” is dispersed to make room for the science of being, its contemplation. Neutrality also meant putting a halt to lyricism and to romanticism, to inspiration, in the ways in which I of course understood these words. Needless to say, neutrality was undoubtedly a fine displacement allowing me to forget that I was a woman, that is to say that I belonged to that category of non-thinkers. Feminist consciousness would de-neutralize me, by that I mean it would allow for an integrative formal presence rather than a formalist presence, so to speak.9
Brossard's notion of a centre blanc as a space of absolute nakedness, ecstasy, and concentrated meanings functions as a unifying concept in much of her early poetry. Already in 1968 in L'Echo bouge beau (The Echo Moves Beautiful), there is constant visual attention to whiteness, blackness, nudity, emptiness, and shadows. While the exterior world is characterized as a space of solitude and contradiction, “nu désolé et aspire quand même”10 (“naked desolate yet still aspiring”), Brossard's poetic eye moves nostalgically inward in the hopes of regeneration, intoxication, and some kind of elevation. Her voice draws us toward the mysterious center of ourselves, to words seemingly still in formation, tremulous words that reach for the obscure origins of desire and indulgence: “sans mémoire deviner au zéro dans le blanc / faire le chiffre le mot extrême” (109) (“without memory imagine the zero in white / figure the extreme word”).
In Suite logique and Le Centre blanc, the exploration of a language of neutrality and excess is intensified. Brossard conveys an increased bareness of vision here as she strips away the last traces of realistic description and empties her poems of conventional punctuation and syntax. The key verb in both texts is, in fact, dénuder with its sense of stripping, of laying bare, and, of course, of uncovering: “dénuder le sens sa non-évidence” (194) (“strip/uncover meaning its unclearness”). While commonly anticipated meanings are neutralized, formal structures are repeatedly fractured or erased altogether. In place of continuity, solidity, and certainty, we confront a discourse of instability and rebellious doubt in which “l'exil s'impose radical / la certitude n'est que vérifiable / en ce moment la démesure renverse” (155) (“exile is radically imposed / certainty is only verifiable / at this time excess overthrows”). For Brossard, these calculated efforts to destabilize meaning and identity are both destructive and fascinating; indeed, she marvels at the ruins:
rien ne se confirme c'est ce qui ruine ruine et merveille du pareil au même l'éclosion se fait mal laissant croire qu'un jour elle se fera divine éclosion de rien pourtant
nothing is confirmed that is what ruins ruins and marvels all the same the opening hurts letting us believe that one day it will make itself divine the opening of nothing however
Brossard's approach to language at this point is not only to strip it bare but to split it open as well, to hollow it out and thereby create a space of entry into meanings that are as yet uncharted, undetermined. She beckons us to press inside these spatial openings without conventional preconceptions, to move and become excited by them: “les ouvertures font bondir et trembler” (“the openings make us leap and tremble”). Quebec critic Pierre Nepveu has argued that for Brossard and for those affiliated with La Barre du jour during the late 1960s, to be modern meant to “look lucidly into the hole” and to refuse to fill it with anything in particular. In so doing, he argues, they sought to reject the lure of myth, ideology, and nostalgia.11
In Le Centre blanc, however, this hole in the writing of modernity is not entirely empty. On the one hand, Brossard describes it as an interior magnet, a space where everything converges: “choses devinées lentement éprouvées de l'intérieur qui convergent” (185) (“conjectured things experienced from the inside which converge”). It is a space of extreme contradiction as well where desire and lack of desire, pleasure and pain, ecstasy and death, movement and calm coexist and intermingle in the color white—the only color to contain all the visible rays of the spectrum. Le centre blanc is the place in which Brossard's poetic voice maintains its “pure vigilance,” an internal space of concentrated attention to the infinite and contradictory possibilities of language itself.
Prior to 1970 Brossard's literary inspiration appears to be uniformly grounded in the internal, in the depths of her own interior consciousness, a direction that in many ways seems to contradict the more outward-looking and politically motivated perspectives of her more recent women-centered texts. Yet the inward movement of her early poetry also reflects a refusal of imposed values from the outside, a literary posture central to the project of a thoroughly modern writing in Quebec, but not without a certain influence on feminists searching for other ways to write self-consciously as women. Le Centre blanc reads as an affirmatively modern quest for those inner sources of contemplation and energy that bring words into writing autrement—a key word that both French and Quebec feminists have invested with new meaning in recent years: “Je écrire (autrement) fissure renouveau aboli refaire or ce mutisme comblé verbal autrement”12 (“I write [otherwise] fissure renewal abolished recommence now this silence overwhelmed verbal otherwise”).
Although physicality is evoked only in the most abstract of terms rather than particularized in any way as female, Brossard already understands in Le Centre blanc that writing is both a form of seduction and a powerful release of desire. Thus she revels in her interior descent into whiteness, which she characterizes as the primary source of her own physical and intellectual vitality. The orgasm her writing unleashes during this insistently modern descent is autoerotic in nature, even though also portrayed at a careful distance:
rien le moment venu se fondre à la source de sa propre vitalité s'isoler l'impression l'action d'être hors de soi figée paisible un aboutissement immobile à l'accueil des forces inaccessible de toute part blanche seule la croissance interne s'accomplissant ou l'irradiation la joie diffusant hors d'atteinte si intensément là cet état et d'abriter pendant un temps d'arrêt extase ou sourire
nothing at the right moment melt into the source of one's own vitality isolate oneself the impression the action of being outside oneself stiff peaceful a result unmoved by the greeting of forces inaccessible from all sides white alone the internal growth taking place or the irradiation the joy becoming diffuse out of reach so intensely there this state and to screen during an interim ecstasy or a smile
With Le Centre blanc and Suite logique, Brossard brings our attention to the functioning of language, to its initial formlessness, to the “doubt” of modernity that results in a displacement of words and meanings outside the realm of the expected, and to a discourse of desire that remains excessively abstract yet undeniably subversive. The notion of the unrepresentable is perceptible throughout this early poetry and its increasingly experimental form refuses to allow us the accustomed conventional pleasures of reading. Brossard has said that her move from poetry to prose in the early 1970s was the result of a need to “intervene more directly in everyday scenes” and the result also of a desire to look at herself from a greater distance.13 As we shall see in Un livre,French Kiss, and L'Amèr ou le chapitre effrité, this new interest in prose is also indicative of a growing fascination with the problematic place of language in society, with the relationships Brossard was beginning to discern between fiction, theory, and everyday life, between gender and urbanity, between politics and writing.
Thus, while not without contradictions for the subsequent project of writing through a feminist consciousness, the move to inscribe modernity in Quebec, as Brossard herself had originally promoted it, would bring language to the foreground without attaching it to a specific political agenda per se the way nationalist writers had frequently done. Rather, Brossard viewed language as a site of rupture and continually new beginnings and as a source of abstract pleasure in the infinite possibilities of creativity itself—even if the traces of gender were to a large extent obfuscated and even if the text did not appear to be historically grounded. The demandingly modern ethic to “inaugurate” rather than to “repeat,” which Quebec critic Suzanne Lamy aptly associated with the most innovative examples of écriture au féminin, certainly has its roots in the deconstructive moves and radically experimental positions that Brossard and others wanted modernity to assume in Quebec.14 From the outset, then, Brossard's emphasis on theorizing about her own personal writing practice prepared the way in Quebec for the subsequent integration of various theoretical discourses within feminism into women's writing. Ultimately, the literary project of modernité provided Brossard with much of the theoretical grounding for her subsequent experimentation with écriture au féminin and, perhaps more importantly, strengthened her affinity for the unexpected, the unexplored, and the vitally new.
FILLING IN THE GAPS: READING UN LIVRE
Although Un livre reads in many ways like a prototype for the Quebec nouveau roman, the issues of modernity that Brossard underscores so vigorously in this text have left their unmistakable traces on her subsequent and more markedly feminist work as well. In Amantes (1980) and Picture Theory (1982), for example, we still find the rejection of realism and traditional notions of characterization, an emphasis on exploring the nature and limits of textuality and its relationship to the real, and numerous reflections on the process of writing. Moreover, opposition to the laws of tradition (especially patriarchal tradition) continues to be expressed through the dislocation of conventional language and through efforts to suspend meaning as a way of bringing attention to the gaps or fissures in the narrative construction. All of these textual strategies are already dynamically at work in Un livre although they have not yet been incorporated into Brossard's rigorous feminist designs for a writing of difference. While decidedly modern in its discourse on the text and the invention of its own internal codes, many of the raw materials of Un livre thus reveal themselves to be the rudiments for a writing of the future as well.
Brossard's perspectives on the positions the Quebec woman writer occupies in language and in society differ significantly over the decade and more that separates Un livre from Amantes and Picture Theory. In more recent years, and particularly since the appearance of Amantes in 1980, her own relationships to language and to the act of writing itself have undergone dramatic, if not altogether unanticipated changes. In line with an ever-increasing commitment to feminist politics and a lesbian identity, Brossard's language has become emphatically gender-marked, intensely physical, and more radically expectant. By 1980, the space between fiction and reality, between the female writer and her words, is no longer the seemingly immeasurable gulf found in Un livre. Instead, we find a “marée spirale amoureuse”15 (“loving spiral tide”), a passionate and integrative space in which fiction and everyday life, sexuality and discourse, literary theory and literary practice continually converge in a whirling spiral, through what Quebec writer and critic Louise Dupré has appropriately termed “a practice of excess.”16
From the very beginning, Un livre demands multiple readings. On the level of what we might loosely refer to as plot, the text offers a discontinuous series of poses, gestures, and events from the lives of two female characters, O. R. and Dominique C., and three males, Dominique, Henri, and Mathieu. We learn little about these characters individually, with the exception of O. R. and Henri. Their respective activities as writer and political activist, however nominally described, are directly linked to the book's major themes. The five characters come together as lovers and friends in various configurations and with varying degrees of freedom and initiative. But Brossard's narrator is quick to relegate them to a secondary role in the unfolding narrative process:
Des personnages dans le texte, mais qui passent en second lieu. Qui sont là à titre de prétexte pour que le texte puisse continuer sans autre but que celui de raconter sa génèse au fur et à mesure que la vie apparaît. Etrange narration mais plausible.17
Characters who are in the text, but who remain backstage. Who are there as a pretext for the text to continue with no other goal than to keep telling of its own genesis as life gradually takes form. Strange but plausible narration.18
On the level of form, Brossard's first attempt at fiction produces a discourse that is both self-reflexive and self-directing. Using a remarkably restrained number of words, images, and themes, the novel progresses from one page to the next and from one word to the next through the active, almost self-indulgent contemplation of its own formal genesis. This narrative movement, however, is not necessarily linear or chronological. Scenes, phrases, words, are continually repeated, reviewed, and redistributed throughout the text. Indeed, the text appears to fetishize itself with the continual marking of its own progression or lack thereof. We find no noticeable movement toward epiphany or resolution in Un livre since, as one character puts it, “words and days look alike” (6). In an exemplary modern fashion, Brossard demystifies not only the characters in Un livre but, in a broader context, both her literary predecessors and her own fictional project as well:
L'exécution d'un texte.
Très peu différent de ceux qui précèdent mais unique, sans pareil. Le texte d'une seule page, inscrit dans la continuité d'un mode de composition qui en rappelle d'autres, qui en prépare d'autres.
La mise à mort d'une chose au profit d'une autre. Le texte devant l'insolite du texte. Des mots qui s'expliquent les uns par rapport aux autres aux dépens des personnages, ébauches d'hommes et de femmes faites pour demeurer telles.
The production of a text.
Not much different from existing ones, but unique, unmatched. A single page of text. Written in the continuity of a mode of composition resembling others in the past, suggesting others to come.
The cancellation of one thing for the benefit of another. The text confronting the text's precipitousness. Words which take their meaning from other words at the expense of the characters, sketches of men and women made to remain as such.
Brossard's writing here is terse, even dry. Sentences frequently lack verbs, and there is extensive use of the present participle. Such syntactic strategies result in a necessarily immediate temporal mode and heighten our sense of simultaneous impressions and occurrences:
O. R. et Dominique à cinq heures. Vers le métro. Sous la pluie. La foule compacte. Envahissante. L'odeur des vêtements humides. Le regard inquiet (seulement inquiet) de Dominique.
O. R. and Dominique at five o'clock. Towards the métro. In the rain. The crowd compact. Crushing. The smell of wet clothes. Dominique looking uneasy (only uneasy).
Clearly, Un livre reads like a prototype for a new novel, a text whose primary subject is itself. A book about a book in the process of being written as we read it. This is, of course, a fictionalized genesis, since the entire book is already written before we actually begin to turn its pages—a fact the narrator rather cleverly notes when she acknowledges that the act of reading is the only “real” event of the novel. But this too has been fictionalized since the act of reading itself also functions as a thematic generator for the text's own internal development: “Le seul [événement] qui soit actuel est cette lecture en train de se faire, la seule chose réelle, qui fasse bouger imperceptiblement quelques muscles et qui rende conscient de sa respiration” (15) (“All that is happening is this reading being done, the only real thing, causing a few muscles to move imperceptibly and making one conscious of his [or her] own breathing” ).
Like the daily reality outside the text, words themselves are problematic in Un livre, rendering the writer's role in society more contradictory and at the same time, Brossard suggests, more honest. Yet Un livre does call attention to certain politically charged circumstances and culturally specific themes in the narrative. This is accomplished, however, through opaque references and ellipses rather than through direct elaboration. In fact, Brossard's narrator repeatedly speaks to us (vous) while drawing our eyes to what is being left out:
Le texte et les espaces. Car les mots ne peuvent tout combler pour vous: O. R., Dominique, Mathieu, Dominique C., Henri, vous, les autres.
The text and the spaces. For the words cannot sum up everything for you: O. R., Dominique, Mathieu, Dominique C., Henri, you, the others.
Between the words and the lines, we are told, the blank spaces reveal more of the essential text than the words themselves could ever do. This narrative clue appears worth pursuing. For the gaps in Brossard's text constitute an invisible subtext of considerable, if undetermined, significance. As investigative readers, we want to know what is being left out here and, more importantly, why these narrative holes remain. Brossard's enigmatic tone provokes us to ask questions such as these and to formulate our own readings in response. The implied subtext of Un livre evokes at least three fundamental concerns that emerge in various shapes in Brossard's later theoretical fiction and poetry as well: the frustrated aspirations of the body politic, the liberating power of the female body, and the essential identification of the woman writer with a female character who also writes. Over the twelve years that separate Un livre from Amantes and Picture Theory, these particular preoccupations will become more visibly present.
Although schematic at best, references to the political climate in Quebec in 1970 are not infrequent in this novel. A bomb goes off at midnight, for instance, and Mathieu smiles. Is this complicity or merely a nod of approval? Numerous other bombings are also mentioned. The summer heat is oppressive. People fill the streets at night, and eventually, a discernible crowd assembles. In fact, the crowd becomes a kind of sixth character in Un livre from which the five fictional characters originally emerge and to which they also presumably return beyond the space of the text. Moreover, this crowd has a definite political character. It forms along la rue Saint-Hubert, an area known for its firm support of the Parti Québécois in the early 1970s. The formation of the crowd is therefore indicative of some alternate vision of society. And in fact, the five characters wait for and mingle with the crowd much the way they wait for and arrange to meet with one other. This insistence on waiting and meeting becomes the textual evidence of a political collectivity that calls for change well beyond the boundaries of the text. Moreover, these comings and goings in Brossard's narrative suggest that her characters are themselves interchangeable with others—part of the larger crowd.
A change in the order of things is also alluded to within the confines of the text as the five characters anxiously watch election results that will not satisfy their hopes. But the political present “outside the text” is once again relegated to silence until we read of Henri's arrest and provisional release in September. His political incarceration operates as a form of textual prelude to the mass arrests of writers and activists that we know took place in Montreal under the War Measures Act of October 1970. This attempt by Trudeau's federal government to intimidate the nationalist left in Quebec occurred in response to prior political bombings, to the kidnappings of James Cross and Pierre Laporte in particular, and to the general social unrest of the period. As a gesture of support for the hundreds of activists and intellectuals who were arbitrarily rounded up and incarcerated without bail or legal representation for as long as three months, Brossard and Roger Soublière organized a conference to protest the reactionary nature of these arrests. While none of this autobiographical information nor the specific political events leading up to and during the enactment of the War Measures Act are evoked in anyway, the explosive and repressive climate of the period is clearly established. Brossard's highlighting of the date reminds us of the reality behind the reality of fiction.
As a novel about its own genesis, Un livre may well be as ordinary as any other, a point the narrator reiterates on several occasions. There is, however, nothing ordinary about the political subtext of this narrative: the real battle over Quebec identity in 1970 that is taking place outside on the streets. And Henri is, in many ways, the key to this political subtext. His words are not given in the text itself, we are told, because they speak directly to the political turbulence of the real world outside and carry with them the full weight of political commitment. Yet despite their intentional omission, the political nature of Henri's words is described, and we are left to imagine them carrying more force than those encountered anywhere else in the text.
Les mots d'Henri.
Peu nombreux, mais lourds de conséquences. Parce que politiques. Des mots à la portée de tous. Clairs et précis. Qui révèlent l'escroquerie, qui font réagir le meilleur et le pire. Henri au-delà des mots problématiques. En ce sens, engagé dans l'histoire, dans la trajectoire des gestes démesurés.
Des mots qui n'ont rien à voir avec ce texte: des mots nécessaires, des prérequis qui demandent à être continuellement répétés.
Few, but full of consequence. Because political. Words within everyone's reach. Clear and precise. Exposing corruption, provoking reactions for better or worse. Henri beyond problematical words. In this sense, engaged in history, in the trajectory of inordinate actions.
Words which have nothing to do with this text: necessary words, prerequisites which need continually to be repeated.
Henri's words are anything but poetic, anything but the stuff of fiction. Yet in their textual absence, his words are even more strangely present—an ironic political twist for Brossard's feminist readers, given the insignificance and virtual disappearance of male words in her later works. The apparent contradiction in Un livre between the language of fiction and the language of politics is itself a strikingly modern consideration. Henri's discourse of violent political action and radical social change is both indispensable to and necessarily outside of the realm of the describable in Brossard's fictional construction. Yet while Henri's discourse speaks about revolution and radical change in society and outside the text, the exploratory nature of Brossard's own words in Un livre is no doubt more subversive and revolutionary in terms of the construction of an alternate discourse than the words of the activist himself. It is worth mentioning that the lines drawn here between the revolutionary in literature and the revolutionary in politics are notably more restrictive than the relationships Brossard establishes between politics and literature in her more recent feminist-inspired writing.
The coming of age of women's sexual independence and explicit desire for pleasure is another thematic component in Brossard's political subtext that leaves its occasional traces throughout the narrative. Primarily associated with O. R., women's sexuality in Un livre is beautiful, “scandalous,” and continually in search of new modes of expression. And, like Henri's subversive discourse and political acts, O. R.'s naked body is both provocative and unnarratable:
O. R., à cinq heures de l'après-midi, devant une tasse de café. Les mains autour. Présente. Nue. La chaleur écrasante. Décrire: peut-être, mais O. R. n'en sortirait pas vivante. Plutôt morte (pareille à autre chose).
O. R., at five o'clock in the afternoon, with a cup of tea. Her hands around it. Attentive. Naked. Crushing heat. Description: perhaps, but O. R. would not emerge from it alive. Dead rather (like something else).
Ironically, her glimpsed nudity on the balcony on a hot summer day provokes numerous words of approval or condemnation from passersby, “trop belle, laide, vulgaire, putain” (“too pretty, ugly, vulgar, whorish”), but the words themselves only accumulate—they signify nothing. O. R.'s nakedness, which the narrator later associates with “le scandale de la liberté” (“the scandal of freedom”), is in effect assigned both meaning and power as a result of its untranslatable force in reality. It also becomes clear that, although brief in its description, the open-ended, unrestricted nature of sexuality in Un livre can be read as another legitimate form of revolt, another effort to formulate a future of radical difference and euphoric freedom.
O. R.'s body in the act of love is the symbolic key to a sexual polyvalence that erupts with considerable force amid an otherwise relatively neutral narration. She is alternately viewed in the intimate company of Dominique, Dominique and Mathieu, her female friend Dominique C., or Henri and Dominique C. As such, she becomes the pivotal sexual presence, the only sexualized body whose physicality inspires all of the other characters and both sexes. Moreover, in these few short passages of explicit sexual intimacy, Brossard's text comes closest to evoking the kind of language of desire so prevalent in a text such as Amantes.
Finally, Brossard's novel presents us with a narrative persona who is visibly engaged in the act of writing and in the contemplation of herself in the process of writing the book that Un livre will ostensibly become. Indeed, the woman writer in Brossard's text is a subject-in-process, searching for herself in and through writing. And while avoiding any use of the first person pronoun, Brossard continually reminds us of her own creative presence as the writer of the text by situating her search for words and for herself in the present tense:
Ecrire le passage présent. Un passage qui s'ouvre sur nulle autre chose qu'une attitude de la main et de l'oeil vis-à-vis du papier. Le passage des mots désirés aux mots écrits. Un geste qui attire l'attention et qui la concentre à l'intérieur de quelques phrases, espérant par là, quelques dimensions inédites pour le regard.
To write the present passage. A passage which opens on nothing but the relative positions of a hand and eye and some paper. The passage from desired words to written words. A gesture which draws attention and concentrates it within a few sentences, hoping thus to attain various new dimensions in seeing.
This emphasis on the woman writer's presence is also reinforced by the figure of O. R. herself who appears to duplicate many of the poses, reflections, and applied understanding of the writer of Un livre. Although all of the characters appear excessively attentive to language—whether personal, political, or literary, O. R. is nevertheless the only character who writes. O. R. writes words on a page late at night, searches for words in the dictionary, writes an open letter whose subject is open letters for the newspapers and, likewise, an anonymous letter whose subject is anonymous letters. O. R.'s writing is clearly self-referential as well as undecipherable according to the conventional rules of grammar. More fascinating still in terms of its thematic duplication, a crucial discursive transformation takes place when, for a moment, O. R. imaginatively becomes a reader of the text rather than a character in it. Like Brossard's own narrative voice, O. R.-as-reader brings pleasure and knowledge to the text of her own making through the intensity of her reader's gaze:
A supposer ainsi, O. R. devient lectrice et ne se cache plus sous l'apparence d'un personnage. O. R. face aux mots, appliquée devant la page comme si elle tenait elle-même le stylo qui prolonge indéfiniment les phrases et qui les enligne sur des perspectives différentes à chaque fois que la chair pense son plaisir et le formule ainsi, de manière à ce que, tout autour, les choses restent en suspens.
Supposing that O. R. also becomes a reader and is no longer hidden in the guise of a character. O. R. with the page before her, diligently confronting the words as if she herself held the pen that indefinitely lengthens the sentences and arranges them in different perspectives each time the flesh conceives of its pleasure and thus formulates it, with the result that, all around, things remain suspended.
As well as any in her work, the passage above highlights Brossard's thoroughly modern attention to the internal dynamics of writing. At the same time, it establishes a visionary fusion of the woman writer-reader-character, for O. R. is precisely the kind of reader Brossard has become and wants for her texts, particularly the more recent ones: a reader who actively writes the text through what can only be called an intense physical involvement, “lire comme s'il s'agissait d'écrire au fur et à mesure que les mots dessinés par un autre avancent sous le regard” (II) (“reading as though you were writing another's words as they appear and move through your vision” [II]). Brossard's ideal reader in Un livre is one who takes pleasure in the text at that moment when, as Barthes poetically characterized it, the body “pursues its own ideas.”19 Yet like Brossard, O. R. continues to acknowledge the inescapable distance between the words and her reader's gaze, between O. R. as reader and the fictional character of her own text. Her initials have become the enigmatic code for that distance: “O. R.: la distance qui sépare ses initiales de son personnage, son personnage d'elle-même. O. R. lectrice” (74) (“O. R.: the distance separating her initials from her character, her character from herself. O. R. the reader” ).
Thus, at the center of Un livre and of Brossard's entire literary project lies the woman writer—at work in fiction and reality—whether as narrator or as fictional character or both. What Louise Forsyth has noted as Brossard's splitting or dédoublement of the woman writer into both artist and the artist observed in the 1976 production of La Nef des sorcières20 can, as we have seen, be traced back to Un livre. Admittedly, this dédoublement is even more striking in recent texts such as Amantes,Le Sens apparent and Picture Theory, due to the heightened erotic quality and lesbian positioning of these works. While Brossard's exploration in Un livre does not insist upon gender specificity as such, however, the initial elements are already in place for further contemplation of the woman-writer-as-she-writes—a woman who will eventually explore her difference through the words she writes for other women.
I borrow the term from Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 147.
For her thoughts on the innovations and traps of modernité, see Nicole Brossard, “L'Epreuve de la modernité ou / et les preuves de modernité,” La Nouvelle Barre du jour 90-91 (1980): 57-63.
Haeck, La Table d'écriture, 165.
See Claude Beausoleil's “Présentation critique,” Un livre, by Nicole Brossard (Montreal: Quinze, 1980).
See Nathalie Sarraute, L'Ere du soupçon (Paris: Gallimard, 1956).
Nicole Brossard, Picture Theory (Montreal: Nouvelle Optique, 1985), 51. Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.
See “La NBJ: le lieu du risque” (interview with Hugues Corriveau, Louise Cotnoir, Lise Guèvremont), Voix et images 10.2 (1985): 104.
Maurice Blanchot, Le Livre à venir (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 303. Blanchot's influence was extensive among Quebec's literary avant-garde during the 1960s.
Brossard, “Ce que pouvait être, ici, une avant-garde,” 80.
Nicole Brossard, Le Centre blanc (Montreal: L'Hexagone, 1978), 89. This edition includes Brossard's major volumes of poetry published from 1965 to 1975. All further references to poems originally published in separate editions of L'Echo bouge beau,Suite logique, and Le Centre blanc will be to this edition and will be included in the text.
Nepveu, “BJ/NBJ: difficile modernité,” 163. This essay indicates the extent to which Nepveu is ill at ease with the amount of critical attention already devoted to Brossard and others affiliated with the literature of la modernité and la nouvelle écriture. He characterizes most readings of Brossard's work as “euphoric and romantic” (161).
Brossard, Double Impression, 32.
André Roy, “La Fiction vive: entretien avec Nicole Brossard sur sa prose,” Journal of Canadian Fiction 25-26 (1979): 31.
Suzanne Lamy, d'elles (Montreal: L'Hexagone, 1979), 56.
Nicole Brossard, Amantes (Montreal: Quinze, 1980), 29. Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.
Louise Dupré, “Les Utopies du réel,” La Nouvelle Barre du jour 118-19 (1980): 86.
Nicole Brossard, Un livre (Montreal: Quinze, 1980), 21. Un livre was first published in Montreal in 1970 by Editions du Jour. Subsequent references to the 1980 edition will appear parenthetically in the text.
Nicole Brossard, A Book, trans. Larry Shouldice (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1976), 21. Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 17. Brossard herself cites this passage from Barthes: “Le plaisir du texte, c'est ce moment où mon corps va suivre ses propres idées—car mon corps n'a pas les mêmes idées que moi,” in Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973), 30. See Brossard, “L'Avenir de la littérature québécoise,” 391.
Louise Forsyth, “Regards, Reflets, Reflux, Réflections: exploration de l'oeuvre de Nicole Brossard,” La Nouvelle Barre du jour 118-19 (1982): 221. Forsyth observes: “In order to celebrate her solidarity with other women more effectively, she watches herself write” (22).
Aube à la saison (poetry) 1965
Mordre en sa chair (poetry) 1966
L'Écho bouge beau (poetry) 1968
Le Centre blanc (poetry) 1970
Suite logique (poetry) 1970
Un livre [A Book] (novel) 1970
Narrateur et personnages (radio play) 1971
Mécanique jongleuse [Daydream Mechanics] (poetry) 1973
Sold-out: étreinte/illustration [Turn of a Pang] (novel) 1973
French Kiss: étreinte/exploration [French Kiss; or, A Pang's Progress] (novel) 1974
Mécanique jongleuse suivi de masculin grammaticale (poetry) 1974
La Partie pour le tout (poetry) 1975
*La Nef des sorcières [A Clash of Symbols; with Marthe Blackburn, Marie-Claire Blais, Odette Gagnon, Luce Guilbeault, Pol Pelletier, and France Théoret] (play) 1976
L'Amèr ou, le chapitre effrité: fiction théorétique [These Our Mothers; or, the Disintegrating Chapter] (novel) 1977
Quelques féministes américaines [Some American Feminists; director; with Luce Guilbeault and Margaret Wescott] (documentary film) 1977
D'Arcs de cycle la dérive (poetry) 1979
The Story So Far 6/Les Stratégies du réel [editor] (prose) 1979
Amantes [Lovhers] (novel) 1980
Le Sens apparent [Surfaces of Sense] (novel) 1980
Picture Theory (novel) 1982
Double Impression: poèmes et textes 1967-1984 (poetry) 1984
Journal intime; ou, Voilà donc un manuscrit (journal) 1984
Domaine d'écriture (poetry) 1985
L'Aviva (poetry) 1985
La Falaise (radio play) 1985
La Lettre aérienne [The Aerial Letter] (essays) 1985
Mauve [with Daphne Marlatt] (poetry) 1985
Character/Jeu de lettres [with Daphne Marlatt] (poetry) 1986
Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (radio play) 1986
Correspondence [with Michèle Causse] (radio play) 1987
Le Désert mauve [Mauve Desert] (novel) 1987
Sous la langue/Under Tongue (poetry) 1987
À tout regard [with Daphne Marlatt] (poetry) 1989
Installations: Avec et sans pronoms (poetry) 1989
La Subjectivité des lionnes (poetry) 1990
Typhon Dru (poetry) 1990
Anthologie de la poésie des femmes au Québec (1677-1988) [editor; with Lisette Girouard] (poetry) 1991
Langues obscures (poetry) 1992
La Nuit verte du Parc Labyrinthe [Green Night of Labyrinth Park] (poetry) 1992
Baroque d'aube [Baroque at Dawn] (novel) 1995
Vertige de l'avant-scène (poetry) 1997
Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain [She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel] (poetry) 1998
Au présent des veines (poetry) 1999
Musée de l'os et de l'eau (poetry) 1999
Hier: Roman (novel) 2001
*Brossard contributed the monologue “L'Écrivain” (“The Writer”) to this collaborative drama.
SOURCE: Bishop, Neil B. “Installations.” Canadian Literature, no. 135 (winter 1992): 158-60.
[In the following review, Bishop offers a positive assessment of Installations, calling the work “a joy.”]
It is paradoxical but stimulating to read these two books [Installations and Corps de glorie] together. The authors seem to share little either as poets or individuals, with the exception of Montreal (and while Brossard is a long-time Montrealer, [Juan] Garcia lived there only from 1957 to 1967, although he has continued to publish there since). And although metaphysical preoccupations are present in some of Brossard's large body of work, they are not nearly as religiously-oriented as in Garcia's poems, where references to a monotheistic religion and mystical elements often clearly related to Christianity are thematically predominant. Stylistically also, the two books diverge so markedly as to signify profound ideological differences.
While Nicole Brossard's work is well-known among Anglophone Canadian literature aficionados, Juan Garcia's probably is not. Some English-Canadian readers will be intrigued to know how this immigrant writer from Morocco achieved such prestige in Quebec as to have this retrospective and quasi-complete collection of his work (1963-1988) published by one of Montreal's leading publishers. While it would be tempting to answer “the quality of his poetry,” that answer would fall short. Garcia's work shows certain characteristics—its religious preoccupations, the stylistic conservatism of many (though not all) pieces—which have ensured its acceptance by influential members of the Quebec literary establishment. More important still has been the way Garcia's poetry and life have fitted in with the myth of the “poète maudit à la québécoise.” His publisher, Editions de l'Hexagone, has exploited and reinforced this mythical status, by emphasizing that Garcia not only stayed in a monastery but also has spent a good deal of time in a psychiatric hospital where he wrote “la plupart de ses poèmes qui seront publiés dans des revues québécoises.” Garcia has thus been able to appear as a new Nelligan in terms both of certain thematic and stylistic features (religion, the personal past, death; innumerable aquatic images, extensive use of rhyme and of regular line length, especially the alexandrin), and of his biography (the shared psychiatric hospital experience). Garcia's status as “poète maudit à la québécoise” is further reinforced by certain thematic similarities with the work of Saint-Denys Garneau, notably the theme of metaphysical uncertainty and resulting anguish, and also the theme of dichotomy and opposition between flesh and soul, the former being perceived, in much of Garcia's work as in much of Saint Denys Garneau's, as thwarting the poet's spiritual quest.
But while there are some fine poems in this volume, especially those of Alchimie du corps (1967) so warmly and rightly praised in Jacques Brault's moving and beautiful essay, “Juan Garcia, voyageur de nuit” (1971), many are weak (and some of them make quite superfluous the publisher's emphasis that these texts were written by a mentally distressed individual; such persons can write admirable poetry, and some of Garcia's post-1967 poems are excellent, but many others are slight indeed). It would have been fairer to Garcia to publish a less complete, more selective, edition of his poetry—and to let the poems speak for themselves.
Installations is excellent Brossard. The general tone of the volume is set by the epigraph from Clarice Lispector: “Je suis douce mais ma fonction de vivre est féroce.” Less ferocious, however, than energetic, as suggested in this marvellous line from “Acte sexuel”: “un oui à l'infini qui va son energie.” As the title of this poem suggests, Lispector's “fonction de vivre” often takes the form, in Installations, of eroticism; this book makes use of Lispector's “douce,” too, for the subject persona knows how to be gentle with/to herself, as in a hotel where, she says, “je m'étends et prépare de longs touchers.” Writing, language, the body and various facets of feminism, always major themes in Brossard, are not neglected here and are inter-related, as in “Réplique,” where the “e muet mutant” of Brossard's justly celebrated 1975 essay becomes, when “tu étires la voix / au fond de la gorge une syllable / calme et somptueusement valable.” Or again, as in “Installation”: desire, the female body, mobility and the semiotic,
je m'installe dans mon corps de manière à pouvoir bouger quand une femme me fait signe.
Feminism goes hand in hand with linguistic transgression in “Chapitre,” in which the masculine noun “ventre” is followed by the feminine adjective “réelle” (Brossard's italics), thus emphasizing the central importance of the female “ventre” in Brossard's universe, a feminine and feminist one. What is most interesting is the tone of euphoric contemplation (as in “calme et somptueusement”) with which these themes are treated. “Contemplation” does not contradict the energy that animates this volume, for Installations is radiant with a sort of dynamic serenity. Some sad moments do surface, particularly in the poem “Pays” which, far from celebrating Québec as did so many “poèmes du pays” of the sixties, observes that
au québec […] mourir est bien facile, très souvent on retrouve une femme blessée au niveau du bonheur.
“Mourir” can be tragically “facile” in Quebec as elsewhere: all a woman need do is go to an engineering school or for a jog. Whence, no doubt, the androphobia of “Partie des fesses,” although Brossard does here specify that she is attacking a collective “homme,” which allows one to hypothesize that she may be able to view some individual men positively. But the main theme of Installations is happiness, that of a female subject settling into happiness who well might be talking about herself when she describes a woman who is “insatiable / heureuse et infiniment amazone.”
These short, carefully constructed poems are jewels. Installations is a joy.
SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 1 (spring 1992): 158.
[In the following review, Malin comments favorably on Brossard's “subversive, otherworldly” novel Mauve Desert, admiring its play with perception, language, and reality.]
The epigraph to this wonderfully constructed novel [Mauve Desert] is by Calvino: “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.” The epigraph suggests that reading is an “adventure”—an approach to some final meaning. But it also implies that this adventure is somehow dangerous—there may not, after all, be a complete disclosure, an ultimate truth. The epigraph hints at uncertainty, misdirection, indirection.
When we first read the novel we don't know how to summarize and interpret it. The novel consists of at least three parts—Mélanie travels across the desert to escape her mother and the ordinary life in the motel in which they live. There is a sudden change. We are given part of another novel in which another heroine, Maude Laures, also seeks adventure and knowledge. Maude is a reader of Mélanie's life story. In effect, the two women merge, so that we are not completely sure who is author and character. Does Mélanie create Maude or vice versa? And, to complicate matters, we are given an apparent translation by Maude of Mélanie's journey.
The three sections are, at first, discrete and separate, but then they seem to merge into the very novel we are reading. We note the paradoxes and we recognize that Brossard consciously twists us; she destabilizes our perceptions so that we wonder about the very nature of perception. What is the relationship of words to life? What exactly is the nature of creation? Do we create the novel as we read it? Perhaps the oddest pages of the novel are those which contain shadowy pictures of objects—pictures which are almost out of focus. We are not sure of their relationship to the text. We assume that they also suggest that any representation of matter is uncertain. And then we remember this remarkable passage about “suspected presence”: “It can for a second be mistaken for image or mirage, an illusion as can occur when from moment to moment altostratus formations alter the depth of field and the color all around.”
Mauve Desert is an interpretation of misinterpretation, a text of countertexts, a brilliant presence of absence. It is suspect, subversive, otherworldly.
Brossard, Nicole. “Interview with Nicole Brossard on Picture Theory.” Canadian Fiction Magazine, no. 47 (1983): 122-35.
Brossard discusses the form and major themes of Picture Theory and the novel's relationship to her entire body of work.
Brossard, Nicole, and Daphne Marlatt. “Only a Body to Measure Reality By: Writing the In-Between.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31, no. 2 (1996): 5-17.
Brossard and Marlatt discuss their thoughts and observations on the centrality of the body in relation to their writing.
Diehl-Jones, Charlene. Review of Green Night of Labyrinth Park, by Nicole Brossard. Books in Canada 22, no. 5 (summer 1993): 38-40.
Diehl-Jones lauds Brossard's fascination with subjectivity and sensitivity to language in the poetry of Green Night of Labyrinth Park.
Godard, Barbara. “Producing Visibility for Lesbians: Nicole Brossard's Quantum Poetics.” English Studies in Canada 21, no. 2 (June 1995): 125-37.
Godard considers Brossard's application of quantum theory to her discussion of visualization and lesbian poetics in Picture Theory.
Huffer, Lynne. “From Lesbos to Montreal: Nicole Brossard's Urban Fictions.” Yale French Studies, no. 90 (1996): 95-114.
Huffer explores Brossard's writing in French Kiss, Amantes, The Aerial Letter, and other works as they define a prototype of the urban, radical feminist.
Kaganoff, Peggy. Review of Picture Theory, by Nicole Brossard. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 17 (12 April 1991): 53.
Kaganoff faults Brossard's forays into feminist theorizing and anti-narrative in the poetry and prose of Picture Theory, calling the work flat, fragmentary, and narcissistic.
Parker, Alice A. Review of Picture Theory and Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard. Belles Lettres 9, no. 3 (spring 1994): 6-7, 9.
Parker presents a thematic summary of Brossard's literary works and approvingly evaluates her ambitious, postmodern novels, Mauve Desert and Picture Theory.
Prieto, René. “In-Fringe: The Role of French Criticism in the Fiction of Nicole Brossard and Severo Sarduy.” In Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, pp. 266-81. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Prieto compares the influence of James Joyce and contemporary French critical theory—from such writers as Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes—on Brossard and the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy.
Siemerling, Winfried. “The Visibility of the Utopian Form in the Work of Nicole Brossard.” In Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard, pp. 173-204. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
Siemerling examines the utopian method of Brossard's fiction—particularly of her novel Picture Theory—within the framework of a full-length, poststructuralist and feminist analysis of visibility and otherness.
Review of Mauve Desert, by Nicole Brossard. University of Toronto Quarterly 62, no. 1 (fall 1992): 109-10.
The critic comments specifically on the status of translation in Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood's English rendering of Le Désert mauve in relation to the thematic focus on author, translator, and text in Brossard's original version of the novel.
Verwaayan, Kimberly. “Region/Body: In? Of? And? Or? (Alter/Native) Separatism in the Politics of Nicole Brossard.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 61 (spring 1997): 1-16.
Verwaayan highlights the theme of separatism and an analogous commitment to Quebec nationalism in the writings of Brossard.
Additional coverage of Brossard's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 122; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 16; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 115; Contemporary Women Poets; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53; Feminist Writers; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 2; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3.
SOURCE: Brossard, Nicole, and Janice Williamson. “Nicole Brossard: ‘Before I became a feminist, I suppose I was an angel, a poet, a revolutionary. …’” In Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers, by Janice Williamson, pp. 59-72. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
[In the following interview, Brossard discusses her feminism and political motivation in relation to her literary works.]
[Williamson]: Would you reflect on a comment you made during a 1975 Quebec conference on women and writing? You said, ‘For that which speaks wants at the same time to condemn the law that calls for its repression, that which is forbidden desires and that which desires writes propelled by the very law it transgresses.’ What do you mean by transgression and desire?
[Brossard]: The notion of transgression has always been important in my writing. In books, mainly those published in the seventies, transgressing meant taking risks, making trouble in language and the bourgeois mentality, going over the limits of what is expected in a poem or a novel. Very often, I made a connection between transgression and desire because you transgress the permissible social space in order to make space for your desire. Transgression is defiance and can also be read as an attempt at renewal. If we talk in terms of feminist transgression, it is more complicated because the goal is not to make trouble for the sake of it, but to change the law and the authority to which it refers. Therefore transgression might not be enough. If we accept that transgression marginalizes those who do it, then we must ask the question: since the feminine is already marginalized in a patriarchal society, how can we transgress the law without marginalizing ourselves more? Personally, I can say that writing a feminist consciousness—which means somehow having to sort out and rethink values, patterns of behaviour, identities, fiction and reality—brought me to shift from the word ‘transgression’ to the word ‘vision.’
You talk of accomplices in your project of feminist ‘vision.’ Elizabeth Meese claims that because of women's marginalized relation to discourse, all women who write are in a sense ‘feminist.’ Does this perspective tend to elide the differences between women and the discursive privileges certain women enjoy?
I don't think so. I wish that discursive analysis would not be considered a privilege. I believe that a feminist is a woman who can claim this title for herself because she is convinced within and beyond her own personal experience that this reality has to be changed in order for women to be able to breathe without further fear and humiliation. There is a difference between a woman complaining about woman's destiny in a man's world and a woman fighting for a change of values in mentality and the laws as a result of her understanding of patriarchal tricks and lies. I also believe that a feminist consciousness changes your perspective on reality and therefore your relation to people, to social attitudes, to morality, to art and language.
Would you describe the development of your own feminist consciousness?
Before I became a feminist, I suppose I was an angel, a poet, a revolutionary, which I still am [laugh], but I was definitely not identifying with women. In fact, I became a feminist when I became a mother. Almost at the same time I fell in love with another woman. Suddenly I was living the most common experience in a woman's life, motherhood, and at the same time, I was living the most marginal experience in a woman's life, lesbianism. Motherhood made life absolutely concrete for me, and lesbianism made my life absolute fiction in a patriarchal heterosexual world. Motherhood shaped my solidarity with women and gave me a feminist consciousness just as lesbianism gave me new ideas about almost everything and opened new spaces for me to explore. I read feminist and lesbian books. I surrounded myself with other women for the pleasure of being together but also to share some projects like the feminist magazine Les Têtes de pioche, the film Some American Feminists, and the collective play La Nef des sorcières. Lesbianism has affected my writing in the sense that it raised new questions, clarified others. It definitely changed my rapport d'adresse. It multiplied my senses, energized my body in a new way. It offered me new metaphors; for example, the spiral and the hologram. In other words, lesbianism gave me new feelings and new ideas about life, love, power, memory, identity. It gave another rhythm to my voice and therefore to my sentences. It stimulated me to look for the missing link between what we call fiction and reality.
Your writing and language are anything but ‘the expected.’ There is a very dramatic moment when you write in L'Amèr ou, ‘I have murdered the womb and I am writing it.’ It's a passage of great violence, which is shocking to the reader.
It certainly is. Here you have the kind of sentence that comes out when you don't yet understand how you have been cheated. Without doubt, that phrase says that to a certain degree maternity makes women infirm. In writing that sentence, I wanted to signify how maternity in a patriarchal society makes women extremely vulnerable. The day I gave birth I became mortal and understood that it was necessary for me to stay alive in order to care for this new life. I don't know if I still agree with that sentence. It is a sentence of despair, but at the same time it communicates the information that the subject of the verb resists producing children for patriarchy. The sentence resists clichés about the docile patriarchal mother.
You write about your disinterest in modes of ‘authentic’ self-expression.
Well, I write because I believe that there are things which can only be said or conceived because of what we encounter in the process of writing, in the act of writing. I write to discover things which cannot be thought in the natural stream of thinking or in speech. I don't write what I know; I write what through language I process of my emotions, sensations, ideas, knowledge. I would rather believe more in an authentic voice than in an authentic self-expression. In life I am authentic in my self-expression. In writing I search for my voice in the ‘authenticity’ of words.
In your Journal intime, you define the journal form as ‘propaganda of the everyday.’ Traditionally the journal has been a significant privatized writing practice for many women.
Yes, well, I know I can be harsh on prose, the novel, anecdotes, journal intime. I mean the novel in general. I don't like novels because I associate them with anecdotes. I know this is unfair and that it is a very personal point of view. Yet I like my resistance to narrative prose because it has permitted me to question the novel from different angles. It is certain that there is a women's tradition in the use of journal intime, letters, and autobiography and even of novels if we think of it. In fact, it is interesting to notice that it is women who very often wrote influential novels like Gone with the Wind,The Tale of Genji [Murasaki Shibiku], La Sage de Gösta Berling [Selma Lagerlöf], Frankenstein,La Princesse de Clèves. Women are great tellers. But to come back to the journal intime, let's say that the more women's values and experience are socialized, the more they will be displaced into ‘fiction.’ If we come to think of it, journals and letters have been expressing the underground of reality. Your question reminds me of what Gertrude Stein says in the Autobiography of Everyone. She says that in the nineteenth century, men, when they were writing, were inventing all sorts of other men. On the other hand, women were unable to invent other women but were always creating women in their image. I think this is a great way to mock the idea of a hierarchy of inventiveness between men and women.
You quote Monique Wittig advising us that we must invent what we don't remember. Is this the impetus for your lesbian love poems Lovhers, the suppressed history of lesbian writing?
Lovhers is a work of love inspired by one woman and conveying the continent of women. When I wrote that book, I invested words in a different way—words like ‘memory,’ ‘sleep,’ ‘vertigo.’ Lesbian love brought in a new set of feelings and knowledge which expanded words in a different way. Love has a very interesting effect on your minds. It makes us travel in our past, present, and future. That is why very often people have the impression that they have always known the loved one. Love brings, along with pleasure, a capacity to see reality in three dimensions; it brings details to our attention. In our excitement and enthusiasm we create new metaphors. I like Wittig's sentence because in fact lesbian love calls for a re-membering—the way Mary Daly uses the word—which can only be achieved by the way we invent what we know from an ancient memory which tells us about the ever so good feeling of that woman's soft keen skin.
Memory as a strategy of writing is central to Elly Danica's ‘autofiction’ Don't: A Woman's Word. You were sent the text in manuscript form when you participated in the West Word women writers' retreat. How does memory as recovery relate to memory as environment and invention? What was your experience of working with Elly on the manuscript?
In 1988, at the Third International Book Fair, I gave a presentation in which I said that without an inner narrative [un récit intérieur], without a narrative lighting [un éclairage sur les événements que donne tout récit], memory is an eater of destiny. In other words, if you don't narrate the story of your life to yourself, this story might eat you from the inside. All the time I was preparing that paper, I thought of Elly Danica's book since after reading her manuscript, it became clear to me how much women's memory is occupied by males through the marks of terror and violence they have left on women's body and soul. The younger you are when men's terrorism destroys your integrity, the longer it takes you to clear your territory. When men introduce themselves in our life through physical or verbal violence, they literally break our inner clock; they stop our life, stealing both our time and energy. Narrative is a key element to bridge memory and the present. Narrative is a way to put our inner clock back to the present, and that is why a lot of women use it even in their poetic texts.
You create character out of the urban environment in French Kiss where the bodies of cars are fleshy. ‘Georgraphy’ spatializes character. What is the significance of the city and the body in your work?
Especially in French Kiss, there is a metaphoric network among the city, the body, the streets, the veins. The city has a nervous and erotic system just as the tongue and language are movement in the kissing or speaking mouth. The pleasure given by city life is associated with the pleasure given by the complexity of language.
I was interested in how you remapped the city so that it was no longer a space of male aggression where women are at risk on the streets. Instead of a place of potential violence and agoraphobia, it is playful, joyous, and explosively pleasurable.
Cities are a reservoir of differences, contrasts, contradictions. They can be monstrous as well as sumptuous. Because of their eccentricities they keep you alert in thinking. They remind you of solitude and togetherness, of fun and suffering. They offer their past, present, and their future/no-future at the same time. They make you travel. I know that I travel in Montreal just as I would in a foreign city. I rediscover my city every time I go downtown. The city makes my senses work, it makes me wonder about human species. In fact, very often cities will reverberate your feelings: if you are scared, the city will seem more dangerous; if you feel good, the city will be gorgeous; if you feel bad the city will be hell. You say that cities are a space of male aggression against women, but isn't home also a place of male aggression?
You're right. The domestic can be dangerous. Your revision of the city tampers with the symbolic in a way which differs from other postmodern writers. Gail Scott writes about gender specific postmoderns. What is your sense of this specificity?
It seems to me that woman ‘derives,’ diverts, or shifts meaning in such a way that meaning can be curved and redirected towards her experience and to what matters. In other words, postmodern women writers seem to re-route words in such a way that words will provide new meaning rather than a jab in grammar or the syntax. Marcelle Desjardins, a Quebec woman poet of the sixties, writes in one of her poems: ‘do I say the truth or do I write a poem?’ I believe that this has been and is still at stake for a lot of women in their writing. To me this also explains why women will link narrative fragments, poetical prose, autobiographical passages, and poetry in the same piece of writing. Because women's experience is marginalized in life as well as in literature, women's subjectivity needs all genres at the same time. The way we re-route words to our own experience opens up entire zones of unknown and unspoken dimensions of reality. It seems that while women re-route language, men sink into a kind of ‘deroute.’ On the other hand, in recent Quebec poetry I can sense that the younger women seem to ‘neutralize’ their writing. No more anger, utopias, great passions, just a quiet tone to talk about love, childhood, the disaster at the end of the century. But we have to wait and see what happens in the next future of women's writing. In any case, this convinces me that the work accomplished by postmodern women's writing with a feminist consciousness is the most stimulating.
So young Quebec women write ‘neutralized’ texts.
Yes, most of them. For young women, feminism is taken for granted. They have managed their lives to be nice and cool and don't focus any more on the questions of feminist consciousness and the combat.
Is this a positive and inevitable progression? Or is it dangerous to not continually ask how we as women are positioned in this culture? Is this ‘quiet tone’ a refusal to take up the class interests of impoverished women?
It is dangerous in the sense that we lose our focus. In a certain way, it neutralizes us again. Since feminist subjectivity is already marginalized, it seems, unfortunately, that either we keep focused on the feminine subject, risking repetition—as if men never repeated themselves—or we neutralize ourselves into the poetic subject. While I say that, I am trying to understand this horrible double bind into which the feminine gender is enfermé. For example, I know that, as a writer, I cannot always use the word woman in a poem, but I also know that when, as a reader, I see the word woman in a poem, it does have a positive effect on me. I still believe that to write I am a woman is full of consequences. I also think that patriarchal meaning cannot stand the visibility of women as a radical subject. It's like parents who accept their daughter's lesbianism as long as she doesn't use the word lesbian. In women's writing we are asking, ‘What's reality,’ and ‘What's fiction?’ because the reality we live in is a fiction for women since we didn't participate in creating it. Reality has been created through men's fictions, through the imaginary men projected of themselves on reality. If women had built our cities, the architecture would be totally different, because we would have projected part of our bodies as men projected their penis in military arsenals and guns. We would have projected the shapes of our bodies, our minds, and our emotions in the way we light up our cities, in architecture and painting. The question for women in playing with language is really a matter of life and death. We're not just playing for fun in a kind of game. We're finding our own voice, exploring it, and making new sense where the general sense has lost its meaning and is no longer of use. If you want to grow, you've got to be at the origin of new meaning, somehow you have to honour your gender.
Some feminist critics have taken on the notion of authenticity in writing. Elaine Marks suggested in one essay that the more numerous the oppressions, the more ‘authentic’ the writing. Could you comment on this as a lesbian writer in Quebec?
A good writer can only be authentic in the way he or she uses language. The authenticity of a work of art is in the style, which is to say, no one other than this writer can write about the same subject in the same way. In painting, no one can draw a flower like Georgia O'Keefe. Usually the more numerous the oppressions, the more people are unable to talk about their oppression, not because of the social aspect of it, but because the suffering, the humiliation, and the negation have silenced them. I would also say that exploitation and domination call for revolt and that colonization calls for a quest of identity. You can be exploited but not colonized. You can be exploited and still be proud of what you are. But if you are colonized, you don't even know who you are because being colonized means adopting the dominant devalued perspective of yourself. Fighting exploitation is talking about the facts; finding out about your identity is talking about values, memory, and desire. Now it is certain that feminism has made space for women to testify about their lives. This is very important because previously the same testimonies have been denied their ‘authenticity.’ Furthermore, we now know that these testimonies have a political impact. In fact, one of the main achievements of feminism is that validating women's experience and subjectively has given women self-confidence in their own evaluation of reality as well as in their creativity. As a lesbian and a Québécoise, I belong to minorities, but I always write as if the world belonged to me, allowing my desire to shape around me the space I need to be what I am.
As you know there have been important discussions in the community of feminist writers about racism. How do you relate to these conversations?
Sexism and racism can be found in little details as well as in obvious aggression and rejection. I think that Black women have made their points in showing White feminists where the subtleties of racism are hiding in everyday life, spoken or written language. Now, in terms of writing, I don't believe in such a thing as being ‘politically correct.’ I say that my politics have brought me as far as I could dream, but being politically correct never improved my writing. Either you question reality, language, cliché, alterity, and difference, or you don't and simply rely on what people tell you to think. The same thing applies to me as a lesbian, a feminist, or a Québécoise. On the other hand, I believe strongly in being ‘politically connected,’ which means—sisterhood, solidarity.
You worked with other Quebec authors to develop a politicized analysis of aesthetics during what anglophone Canada called the FLQ crisis. You spoke of the necessity of changing discursive forms in order to communicate radical change.
I have always been fascinated by patterns of discursive relations developing between the dominator and the dominated. From the dominant group one can see a chain reaction that goes from ‘you're talking nonsense,’ to paternalistic listening, to guilt or irritability, then negotiation, then either acceptance, rejection, or neutralization of the dominated. From the dominated group: a burst of anger, followed by the shaping of an identity and solidarity, empowerment, then negotiation, then autonomy, resistance, or integration. Most of the time guns interrupt the process, and the discursive forms are simplified by a cycle of violence-revenge arguments. Most of the time dominator and dominated have their own culture, values, and traditions, but in the case of women opposing men's domination, we have to consider that, because women live in the same culture as those they oppose, most of the time they are already ‘integrated’ or ‘neutralized’ by institutions such as marriage or heterosexism. What interests me in those patterns is when the dominated responds to the dominator's ‘you're talking nonsense’ with ‘you're lying’ and from that moment starts to uncover the lies. Uncovering lies makes space for a new sense and thereby transforms meaning. This is where I believe radical change can occur because then one has to take into account that new meaning. The new meaning also starts to produce new metaphors which change the way we see things.
In feminist discourse the notion of ‘identity politics’ has been criticized as having authorized only White women to speak. Do the tensions which have developed between Quebec nationalism and the Native desire for sovereignty during the Meech Lake debates and the blockade at Oka suggest a problematic effect of privileging Quebec identity over other collective identities?
I sense that your question has two directions: one dealing with Native interest and another about why an independent Quebec. On the first subject, a recent survey [November 1990] shows that a majority of Quebeckers would support the political and legislative autonomy of Natives in Quebec. The second direction deals with nationalism and feminism, which is actually for me a great source of questioning. In a recent text I wrote: ‘The country which enters into us through the memory of arrogant winner and through the suffering of the losers is a country which divides us.’ Nationalism is like heterosexuality; it makes women stick to their men. Now in a feminist context, women have to stick together, don't they? But in what language, on the ground of what tradition, what history? In our attempts to change all patriarchal forms of domination over women, the only ground where I believe we can stick together is the ground of each of our herstories and of a mutual political validation. There is a lot we can teach each other if we don't start by promoting our mutual males' traditions.
In your work, you find risk and exploration pleasurable. Can you talk about your process of writing?
It is a difficult question. Risks, I take by exploring. I take risks by phrasing inner radical certitudes which can be offensive to common sense. But on a larger scale writing is full of risks because you don't know where it will take you. After all, we write with that fragile coherent system full of contradictions which we call the self. It is always frightening to think that a writer has no rest in dealing with a question such as the meaning of life. It is also difficult for me to answer your question because poetry calls for one process while prose as well as a ‘text’ calls for another process. Writing poetry, you need to hear an inner voice; writing a ‘text’ you simply need words + words; writing a novel you need time, patience, and a story. Sometimes I see words in a very material way (sounds, etymology, shape of letters), sometimes I see words through tears, sometimes they are flat, sometimes in 3-D. I have written texts in cold blood, others with a lot of tears, others out of pure sexual energy. Most of them with the dictionaries beside me, some of them on a café, most of them believing that they were worth sharing because something was happening in language.
Could you describe a politics of reading your texts?
When you read a book, it is always a very serious thing. A book should always bring you more consciousness about life and about yourself. It should make you ask questions. I write to explore, to understand more, and to discover. And I want the reader to do the same—to stop, to question, to explore with me while reading the text. If my writing is elliptical and full of rupture, it is not because I want to be nasty to the reader. It is my way of creating new spaces for new meaning which would not appear if I wrote in a linear way.
In making these new textual spaces for the reader's pleasure, how do you deal with criticism about inaccessibility or élitism?
I don't believe in élitist writing. When you read a book, you have the choice of whether to take it or leave it. If you take it, you have to be willing to do some work on your own part as a reader. You also have to develop a habit of reading. With experience you can read ‘difficult’ books more easily. Through le nouveau roman and postmodernism there has been a kind of education in reading. The more you are able to follow what the writer has been doing with language, the more you enjoy your reading, because you also are playing and recreating the game which gives you pleasure. The more a text has layers of reading, the more it is exciting. There are two kinds of pleasure in reading. One is the pleasure of recognizing. For example, if I write a novel in which the action takes place in cities which you, the reader, have lived in, it will give you a kind of pleasure to recognize those places. That pleasure reinforces your identification with characters and your interest in the story. The other kind of pleasure comes strictly from the writing itself. Because of the way language is being used, you have to wander between the meanings even though you may intuit what the sentence means. This is both intellectual and mental pleasure, while the first example is about emotional pleasure.
How do you distinguish between ‘mental’ and ‘intellectual’ inquiry?
For me, the mental recognizes shapes, patterns, abstraction, lines. The intellectual deals with value, knowledge, morals, discursive posture. The mental is visual—it intuits patterns; the intellectual is verbal—it searches meaning and ‘truth’ among words.
In Dorothy Hénault's NFB film on your writing in the Firewords trilogy, she develops an interesting reading of your work which emphasizes the intellectual and, except in one scene, tends to diminish the sensual, erotic, visceral quality of your writing.
It's hard for me to tell. I only know that I cannot think properly without emotions and that I would hate to be just a garden of emotions. The best moments of writing are when memory, emotions, desire, thought, sensations, and knowledge all synchronize in the act of writing. In Firewords I believe that Dorothy saw what she needed to see in my writing. This process is about reading. A reader always focuses on what she or he needs. This is usually the part that we underline as if the writing belongs to us from now on. It would be an interesting experience to give a book to one hundred readers, see all the passages they underline (take with them), and see what's left for the author, which indeed would be the part where the author's subjectivity did not encounter the reader's subjectivity.
Your work has been translated and made available to anglophone readers, and you have worked very closely with your translators. How does the translation process vary with each book?
First, I have to say that I have been very lucky in having as translators women like Barbara Godard, Patricia Claxton, Marlene Wildeman, and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood for two reasons: these women are familiar with my writing, and most of all they are creative in their way of approaching translation. Indeed, the translation process varies with each book. Translating French Kiss or Picture Theory calls for different approaches because of the writing. Mauve Desert calls for rhythm and sensuality; French Kiss obliges the translator to shift very quickly from one pun to another, etc. Personally, I have always been fascinated by translation, as I am usually writing about acts of passage, whether it is passage from fiction to reality, from reality to fiction, or from one language to another. I wrote Mauve Desert because it blows my mind to think that someone can conceive a reality in their language while I can't in mine and vice-versa. I remember one day Patricia Claxton was asking me about the word sapin. I asked her to draw what a sapin was for her … ; while I drew mine. … One meaning, two images in the back of the mind. I like to work with translators because it keeps me alert in my own language, for which my fascination has no rest, as well as alerting me to other languages. The way we see and construct reality depends so much on the language which we are given at our birth.
Daphne Marlatt writes language-centred poetry and prose. Was this an advantage in working on the ‘trance-formation’ of each other's work? What affinities and differences did you encounter?
Working and speaking with Daphne is always a great pleasure for many reasons. I like the way Daphne thinks, feels, and writes. I am curious about her language (English and the poetic tradition that comes with it), and she is also curious about mine. Both of us know the weight of language. Both of us were, in the sixties, the only woman poet among male poets. As for our differences, there are just enough differences that we can recognize ourselves in them and be curious to know more about the part that we don't recognize. To be honest with you, I would say that I take Daphne and her writing for granted. There are people to whom you know that you will always be faithful. Daphne is one of them for me.
You take pleasure in the slipperiness of language.
Yes. Because changing the course of meaning is one of the greatest pleasures in writing. I like to be surprised by language. Sometimes the surprise pops out haphazardly. Sometimes it is the result of a difficult crafting; sometimes it is the result of a ‘coherent contradiction.’ Slipperiness has also to do with the aura of the words, their connotations. In fact, the life of a language takes place with the aura of words—their connotations; it is there that the meaning displays and renews itself. I also believe that there is a memory in language which leads to reconstituting patterns of ancient meaning. Once I wrote a text with the words star, mirror, and speculum. I went to look up the word speculum in order to be certain of its meaning, and there I found that the speculum was in earlier times a small mirror used to look at the stars. Without knowing, I had reconstituted a memory already at work in the language. This is exciting. Some writers say that writing is painful for them. I know sometimes it can be difficult, but writing definitely brings its own pleasure, even physically.
What is your fascination with the multi-dimensions of holograms, which figure in French Kiss and are made central in Picture Theory?
When I wrote Picture Theory, I had completely forgotten that the hologram was already there in French Kiss. So it means that for almost ten years I had been bearing this word in my mind. But why was it only explored ten years later? As well, Arizona and the desert, which are central in Mauve Desert, are already present in Picture Theory. But why the hologram in Picture Theory? Well, I think that my questioning about woman, women, the real, the symbolic, the imaginary, and the notion of fiction versus reality, all came together in such a way that only the metaphor of the hologram could account for them. The hologram deals with a ‘real’ object, which through ‘virtual’ image produces a ‘fictive’ image. It is as if using ‘real’ characters through imagination—which is the virtual part of the real—I wanted to envision a symbolic woman, fictive but yet changing the perception of womanhood. I have often said that writing Picture Theory was making a synthesis of my world, a synthesis like a conclusion which simultaneously opens up on a new horizon. It is hard for me to talk about the state of mind I was in when I wrote Picture Theory, but I know that this is the state of mind which I value most. Probably because it embodies certitudes, questions, and utopias in an enigmatic encounter of fiction and reality.
SOURCE: Green, Maria. Review of Baroque d'aube, by Nicole Brossard. World Literature in Review 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 905-06.
[In the following review, Green discusses the plot and thematic content of Brossard's novel Baroque d'aube, noting its glorification of women and dismissive depiction of male characters.]
At daybreak, Cybil Noland, the middle-aged écrivaine, heroine, and narrator of Baroque d'aube, brings to orgasm an unknown woman, picked up in the hotel's elevator. She learned in her youth to look straight into the eyes of women, and the beautiful young girl responded. Reader, don't put down the book after this first paragraph! The novel is not about lesbian love but rather the gestation of a novel, the intricate problems of the creative process, and the many questions it raises. The girl exits from Nicole Brossard's novel after the first chapter but emerges as the dramatis persona of the écrivaine's book. She turns out to be a gifted violinist with an adventure-filled life.
Daybreak intonates the novel and enlightens the second word of the title, while baroque has many ramifications. Cybil has a baroque heart, a baroque imagination, and above all a baroque, exuberant style. Brossard cannot suppress the poet of her innermost being. Clusters of images sprint forth irrepressibly from her fertile imagination. They are always original, striking, and often memorable.
The main body of the novel deals with an unusual sea voyage, undertaken by three creative women: our auteure, a surrealist photographer, and an equally surrealist oceanographer. The last worries that the abstractions of science will eventually empty the sea of its symbolic significance. She wants to celebrate the still-existing symbolism with an album, created by the three of them. She counts on the two artists to nourish the symbols. The writer and the photographer spend a few days in the ship's library, filled to the brim with novels, engravings, and magazines dealing with seafare. After this first stage, the two artists are immersed into the sea. Actually, they are watching underwater life on a computer screen; but, with the help of the latest technology, they are treated to a lived experience of visual and tactile sensations. At this point, Cybil gives free rein to her baroque imagination, transforming the sea fauna and flora into stunning images.
The women in Brossard's universe are creative, articulate, generous, endowed with a superb, analytic intelligence. On the other hand, the few men who flit in and out of the novel are disgustingly hairy or have a protruding Adam's apple. They are silent or inarticulate. When one of them turns out to be a good conversationalist, he is likened to a shark. Another man eyewitnessed a gang rape and remarks airily that it was good fun for the boys, although it did not suit the girls. Mothers are loving, giving, admirable, and adorable beings; fathers, however, are just playing the role of being a father. When Cybil scrutinizes the old engravings in the library, she observes that women are depicted either as mysterious, fertile creatures or as prey. Men, on the other hand, with their well-sculpted genitals pointed toward heaven, seem to implore God to cleanse the female sexual organs of all impurities.
In a circular motion, Baroque d'aube started with daybreak and ends with it: “Montréal scintille, grand tatouage mauve entre la nuit et les premières lueures de l'aube.” The light of daybreak and the light of words fuse in the eyes of the young translator who translates Cybil's completed fiction.
SOURCE: Brossard, Nicole, and Beverley Daurio. “Patriarchal Mothers: Nicole Brossard.” In The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists, edited by Beverley Daurio, pp. 42-8. Toronto: Mercury Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, Brossard discusses her feminist theory of writing and explains the linguistic effects she created in her novel Mauve Desert.]
[Daurio]: Among others, you have often referred to Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein in your work. Who else has influenced your writing, and who do you think people should be reading?
[Brossard]: I make a distinction between people who have influenced you and people who are accompanying you in the writing. In the beginning when you are writing, you are much more impressed by other texts. For me, the main influences were Mallarmé, Maurice Blanchot, and then, in terms of women's writing, when I was much older: Adrienne Rich in her feminist essays; Mary Daly; Ti-Grace Atkinson and Kate Millet were important to me at the time that I read them; Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian writer who is stimulating and exciting.
It has been twenty-five years since your first book of poetry, Aube à la saison, came out. What have been the major changes in your approach to writing during that time?
You can see Nicole Brossard in my first two books, but as with most first books, especially if the writer is twenty or twenty-one when they are written, you don't know exactly who you are, and therefore you assimilate influences, sometimes quite well; you are only beginning to design your own individuality or style. With the third book I tried to be more Nicole Brossard the way people have read me for a long time, until 1973-74, when, with These Our Mothers, there was a shift in the writing because of a shift in feminist consciousness and the lesbian experience. After Picture Theory came a novel like Mauve Desert, which is again very different. If I try to be objective, I think that my writing has become more lyrical. In my new book of poetry, Installations, the poems have many layers of meaning, but you can understand them on first reading. Superficially, the writing seems more linear, but the questioning remains: about writing, value, philosophical questions.
In her introduction to Lovhers, Barbara Godard said the subtitle of These Our Mothers, “The Disintegrating Chapter,” “points to the effect this feminist fiction has in dissolving the authority of the male tradition of the book.” How large a part of your writing project is that dissolution? Or are you more interested in building a new vision?
In feminist writing, it has to be both. You have to write two kinds of pages almost at the same time: one on which you try to understand and uncover the patriarchal lies; and another on which you try to give your new values, your utopias, and everything you find positive about yourself and about women. You have to write an unedited version, something that is totally new, to shape it. You bring in thoughts that have never been thought, use words in ways they have never been used. You want to bring your anger but also your utopia and your connection and solidarity with other women.
For me, reading Le Sens apparent was like having my skin removed and entering another woman's body, seeing and experiencing without those usual signposts of narrative. You have spoken elsewhere about the lack of outer reality which confirms women in their experiences; was part of the intention in writing this book the desire to chart an inner and recognizable reality for women?
I don't know if there was any specific project when I wrote Le Sens apparent, as you would find in Picture Theory or even Mauve Desert. I wanted to fall in love and so I had to write a book. In society we think that things have clear meanings, but things aren't clear for women, because we haven't produced that reality; it is only an appearance. The work of the writer is to dig at those appearances and into the real meaning of what we experience in a strong and sometimes frustrating way.
One of the most profoundly interesting aspects of your work is the way in which theory and emotion, wildness and discipline, randomness and intellectual concentration intersect in it. In part, this has meant vast violence to the distinctions between poetry, fiction, and theory. Was this intentional or is this just the way it worked out?
I cannot think properly or deeply if emotion is not there in the thought itself. At the same time, I wouldn't want to just express emotion, because I know that I wouldn't be able to visualize and envision things I am writing about. I don't think it's an intention; it's a necessity. There are two sides here: I have always loved science, discipline, order, but also the imagination, ecstasy.
Do you think theory has become more important in feminist and lesbian writing because of the whole project of making new visions?
It is the theory that I make which interests me; of outside theory, I will only take the parts that stimulate me. I do not follow any theory; there would be no point in writing fiction if you were just a civil servant. For me, theory is a way of being able to mentally visualize and to read the patterns of the way people relate in life, patterns in creative work, patterns of rain or snow. Theory has true value when it comes from the subjectivity of someone who values awareness in movement.
In The Aerial Letter, you wrote: “Reality has been for most women a fiction, and women's reality has been perceived as fiction.” This seems to pose an incredible paradox for writing for women.
The reality we live in is fictional for women because it is only the fantasy of men throughout history who have transformed their subjectivity into laws, religion, culture, and so on. Nobody believes what women live in their reality, whether it is about motherhood or rape or incest, good or bad things. What women were experiencing or saying was always understood as a result of “she fantasizes,” whereas men's fantasies are there and are supposed to be the reality, in architecture and everywhere. Women's perspective is a territory which has not yet been mapped. We are the only ones who can do it, but sometimes we don't have the appropriate words. The words which were available would always push us back into madness or fantasy. The way we think when no-one knows about it is called “fiction,” but when everybody agrees, it is called reality. In terms of women's texts, all the doors are open. Memory is one of the things we have to use, and it explains a lot about the way we go from narrative to prose to poetry. Women's memory is very loaded with narratives which have not been told, and it is important to tell those stories no-one wanted to tell or hear. Poetry is inner certitude, but without narrative yet, before narrative. Out of each verse you could start a novel.
You have said: “The origin is not the mother, but the sense I make of words.” What did you mean by that?
That relates to the virtuality of the creative potential in each of us. It's too late to go to mythology. I can't believe in god so I can't believe in a goddess, either. Most of our mothers were very traditional, patriarchal mothers, so we cannot go to that concrete origin in real life. Maybe this generation of writers can become symbolic mothers to another generation; and if we are not patriarchal mothers, maybe we can have a continuity.
Does that mean you are disappointed in the women of the past?
I don't know what to do with the word “disappointed.” We all know the pressure that the women of the past were under, the intimidation, the fact that they were deprived of many things. The process of fictionalizing the heroine that is where you can envision a process of validation of women, whoever they are. One of the problems of feminism is that we are moral: we don't belittle men, and we don't overestimate women. So it's hard to create a validating mythology.
Your novel Mauve Desert is set in Arizona. Have you ever spent time in the desert?
I wanted the book to take place in a North American desert, and that is the desert where they exploded the first nuclear bomb. It is a place where you can find high technology and also the greatest decadence: extremely rich people and extremely poor people. The desert is important as a symbol of highly spiritual life; and it is also a place of death, where everything can be dangerous. It is a place where life has to find very tricky ways to survive, and it's very beautiful how nature finds ways to remain alive. The horizon has always been important for me. I like open spaces, and the horizon is always open. It can be frightening, because we don't know where it ends, but you can project on it whatever you want.
Mauve Desert is a mystery, in some senses, and it is written in three parts: first, “Mauve Desert,” the short novel by Laure Angstelle about fifteen-year-old Mélanie Kerouac; second, a section written through the eyes of the older Maude Laures, who is obsessed with Laure's text; and the third, which is Maude's homolinguistic translation of “Mauve Desert,” “Mauve Horizon.” This structure gives the feeling of a book that has been expertly taken apart and surgically reassembled, so that all the parts can be examined. Do you think that's a valid way of looking at it?
I knew that I would be writing a novel set in a very hot place. I knew that I would like to have that challenge of translating myself from French to French. I wrote the first section, Laure's novel, and then I asked myself, as the fictional translator of “Mauve Desert,” what do you find in a novel? You find characters, you find objects, you find ideas, you find dialogue. And so I wrote those things, but in a different order. I liked the way the translator started to imagine those characters, to try to visualize the faces, the bodies, how they moved, the places and the people; and, in fact, Maude, as translator, does what we normally do as readers. I also enjoyed imagining the dialogue. I didn't know I could write dialogue. I didn't talk about anecdotal things, I went to the heart of the relationship between the daughter and the mother, between the two women lovers, between the translator and the author. In Maude's conversation with Angela Parkins, Angela wants to know why the author is killing her. The author replies, I'm not killing you, he's killing you. The ending seems very surprising, even gratuitous, but it's exactly what happened at the École Polytechnique, it's exactly the same kind of hatred. So I haven't imagined anything, I have only decoded a pattern which does not explode all the time, but which is there all the time. In the book, the act comes from a physicist, a man of knowledge, who's got everything; in our society he's “the perfect guy.”
Is it possible now to write a more traditional book, as in Mauve Desert, and have it carry the weight of feminist and lesbian ideas, without it having to be so radical in the way the language works?
Writing Mauve Desert, sometimes I would pretend I didn't have the kind of knowledge that I have, because I needed that kind of innocence to go on with the characters and make them alive. If I, as the writer, knew everything, then I could not have created the characters. There are many things that I know because of the difficult work of These Our Mothers, of Picture Theory, and of The Aerial Letter, difficult work that you pay for. If you look at things from a lesbian and feminist point of view, reality has no more meaning, because we are not part of that meaning in the symbolic. It's as if you have to do the whole world again. So you have to be careful. There's a limit where you don't know if you are making sense.
What do you mean by “pay for”?
Some books that you write cost you more than others. Some books I have written in cold blood, some books I have written with tears in my eyes … but the result is not that one book is better than another. The price you pay is in terms of psychological energy, emotive energy, mental energy, intellectual energy. The more difficult questions call for more energy at all levels.
Laure Angstelle's version of “Mauve Desert” seems younger and more fiery than Maude's, which is more fine-tuned and optimistic. Is the second version of that text there only because of Maude's obsession with it, or is it also there in order to provide a more mature version of the first text?
The second version, the translation, is the result of the crafting of the first text. In the first version I found myself being very passionate; in the second version I had to craft very carefully. It was a different rapport with words; I could not choose or let myself go because I had to check on the sentences in the first version. In the middle section, where Maude Laures is re-imagining the characters and so on, I had a lot of freedom, because I was still inventing through the information I got in the first book, where very little had been said about the characters and spaces. That explains why the third part is less fiery but more precise, because I was also considering the structure of the whole book. I had to be very properly attuned to everything that was going on, each word and each sentence. Writing the third section—because I was not learning more, though I was learning the pleasure of crafting new sentences—I remember, I said, Nicole, you'd better go along and go through that whole project; otherwise, I'm not talking to you any more.
SOURCE: Moyes, Lianne. “Nothing Sacred: Nicole Brossard's Baroque at Dawn at the Limits of Lesbian Feminist Discourses of Sexuality.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 70 (spring 2000): 28-63.
[In the following essay, Moyes examines how Baroque at Dawn uses the baroque genre to “explore new vocabularies and new discourses of lesbian sexuality.”]
RESISTING THE BAROQUE
Although the term “Baroque” surfaces occasionally in interviews with Nicole Brossard and in her essays and fiction from the mid-1970s onward, she resisted using the term to qualify her writing until she published the novel Baroque at Dawn1 in 1995. In an effort to understand the meanings accrued to the baroque across the discourses of Brossard's oeuvre and to discern the terms of her initial resistance to the baroque, I begin this analysis of Baroque at Dawn with a brief discussion of three earlier texts: a 1982 interview with Brossard, the 1982 fiction Picture Theory, and the 1975 essay “E Muet Mutant.” This gesture of doubling back helps to situate her use of the term within the field of Québécois literary discourse as well as within the broader field of baroque aesthetic practice. First used by late-eighteenth-century European art critics to refer to conventions and practices from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that were out of fashion and considered grotesque, the term “baroque” has come to refer in the twentieth century to conventions and practices (associated with the Baroque period) that recur throughout history (see d'Ors).2 Clearly, Brossard's lesbian feminist project sits uneasily within the religious fervour of the Counter-Reformation so crucial to the Baroque period. But the Baroque was also a period of substantial cultural transformation, including radical changes in conceptions of the subject; a period preoccupied with passion, with making the material (paint, marble, language, fabric, flesh) yield to signs of emotion; a period whose overelaborated surfaces are heavy with multiple, even contradictory, significations; a period fascinated with the ecstasy of the martyr; a period given to allegory, to representations that disrupt the eternal by yoking it to the historical; and a period associated with ornament, detail, and other categories identified as feminine. In this sense, whether they resist, mobilize, or recontextualize the baroque, Brossard's texts certainly have a stake in exploring it.3
In an interview in 1982 in La Nouvelle barre du jour, Brossard mentioned Claude Gauvreau.4 Well known as a cosignatory of the 1948 manifesto Refus global, Gauvreau has also received attention for his engagement with the baroque, particularly in his 1952 novel Beauté baroque. According to Jacques Marchand in his study of Gauvreau's writing, the term “baroque” was used widely in the 1950s and 1960s in the sense of “uneven,” “excessive,” “unusual,” and “exaggerated.” Gauvreau considered “baroque” a work marked by the rush of life's impulses, by the erratic texture of desire (84-85).5 His is a twentieth-century baroque that exists through form and abstraction infused with emotion. Curiously, when Brossard spoke of Gauvreau's work in 1982, she spoke not of the baroque but of a rejection of description and figuration in favour of a vital abstraction; she also spoke of a drive to generate meaning where there seems to be only nonsense (“Entretien” [“Entretien avec Nicole Brossard sur Picture Theory”] 192-93). She associates Gauvreau with her project of recomposing letter by letter, fragment by fragment, “the woman through whom everything could happen” (Picture Theory 147).
Picking up on Brossard's reference to Gauvreau, the interviewers asked her if she would characterize Picture Theory as a baroque novel (Brossard, “Entretien” 193). She answered no and explained that precision, not the imprecision of shifting perspectives, is key to her sense of the holographic image of a woman at stake in Picture Theory (193-94). Yet the term “baroque” surfaces in Picture Theory, precisely in the context of a meditation on eyes—and their excesses—in a section entitled “Perspective”: “Claire Dérive pushes our sexes to the ultimate / encounter. Baroque eyes, clarity excessive / the pupil barely repetitive to wonder” (60). As I have argued elsewhere, this section bears the traces both of the narrator's reading of Djuna Barnes's novel Nightwood and of the narrator's encounter with her lover, Claire Dérive. Through the repetition of details from Barnes's text and the accumulation of different points of view, this section frames writing/reading as an erotic activity and throws into relief the lesbian embrace that remains hidden in the whorls of Nightwood (Moyes, “Composing” 212-13). When the interviewers reminded Brossard of the baroque work of “repetition, accumulation and shifting angles of vision” in her text (Brossard, “Entretien” 194), she warned them of the danger of associating sensory phenomena of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (e.g., holography) with sensory phenomena that stem from “an entirely different practice of bodies, of the eye and therefore of the imaginary” (195).
I would agree with Brossard that Picture Theory is more a novel of clarity, light, and the integration of different angles of vision than a novel of ambiguity, shadow, and proliferating perspectives. Picture Theory emphasizes the role of lucidity in the process of women writing and in what Brossard has since described as “the projection of a mythic space freed of inferiorizing patriarchal images” (“Interview” 118). At the same time, there is in Picture Theory a certain engagement with the baroque. That Brossard played down this engagement betrays an ambivalence toward the baroque, an ambivalence that would intensify and permeate Baroque at Dawn.
If, as Brossard argued, Picture Theory is a product of the late twentieth century, Baroque at Dawn is marked by more than one period, by movement between periods. Insofar as the baroque can be understood as a recurring aesthetic or tendency—often associated with moments of cultural transformation—and not simply as a fixed historical period, it is possible to apply the term “baroque” to twentieth-century sensory phenomena (see Bertrand 17-22). Baroque at Dawn explores the contemporary shift from a culture of print media to one of electronic media, a shift as radical as that from manuscript to print culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see Guardiani 132-35; Moyes, Introduction 9-11). Picture Theory, too, is concerned with this contemporary shift. However, whereas in Picture Theory words and visuals operate in tandem to produce a coherent image of a virtual woman, in Baroque at Dawn words and visuals are locked in “fearsome combat” (35), and the virtual experience generated by wearing a visiohelmet and dataglove overwhelms rather than invigorates (171; see McPherson 89-90).
Brossard is not the only one to characterize her writing prior to Baroque at Dawn in terms other than baroque. In an article published in the same issue of La Nouvelle barre du jour as the 1982 interview discussed above, François Charron calls Brossard a “peculiarly classical writer” (75). That one set of critics asks Brossard about the baroque while another describes her work as “peculiarly classical”—in the same issue of a magazine—is symptomatic of a tension within her writing. This tension is made explicit in Baroque at Dawn in the liaison between the characters Cybil Noland, a classical figure, and La Sixtine, a figure for a Christian chapel whose ceiling frescoes anticipate the baroque. Exploring the peculiarity of Brossard's classicism in further detail, Louise Dupré identifies a contradiction in Brossard's work between the desire for unity, for the perfection of the absolute, and the practice of writing through which that desire must be achieved (149-51), a practice “rooted in time and space, in history and subjectivity, in ideology and the unconscious” (150-51). In seeking unity through fragmentation, in generating a utopian image of a woman through broken syntax and multiple perspectives (151-52), Dupré suggests, Brossard's writing “reinvents classicism” (149).6
Brossard's 1975 essay “E Muet Mutant” offers another context in which to explore the ambivalence in her discourse toward the baroque. In that essay, the term “baroque” describes the spoken discourse of women:
Women's speech is quickly exhausted. Supremely censored. Confined. Condemned to turn in circles, to close in on itself insofar as it doesn't become part of history, yet where history enters in by default. Speech of the detail and the insignificant (for the other). … Repetitive speech, based on the zero degree of tradition propagating itself, that's life. Baroque, rococo speech, with plenty of trimming: which expends itself in pure loss of energy that transforms nothing. Speech which contradicts itself.
Brossard's essay manifests not so much a resistance to the baroque as a feminist resistance to the way in which prevailing culture views women's speech. The essay goes on to contrast women's writing with women's speech and to suggest that writing allows women to make themselves visible, to impose their gaze and their own subjectivity within the public sphere—in short, to enter history (49, 51).
In the twenty years between the publication of “E Muet Mutant” and that of Baroque at Dawn, Brossard found ways of mobilizing the nonlinear movement, excess of form, and spending of meaning so often used to dismiss women's speech. As Caroline Bayard points out in a discussion of “E Muet Mutant,” “what initially appeared to be a disadvantage became a tool, a means to transform the very nature of creativity” (184). Both at the level of textual practice and at the level of theoretical inquiry, a text such as Picture Theory is preoccupied with the relationship between sense and nonsense: “Fiction then foils illysybility in the sense that it always insinuates something more which forces you to imagine, to double. To come back to it again” (28). Inhabited by a sibyl, the word illysybility (illisibilité or “unreadability”) suggests that there is always something to be made of the apparently illegible and that doubling back to make sense of what at first seems to be unintelligible is potentially transformative. In Baroque at Dawn, the baroque is more than the endless repetition of that which is deemed insignificant, without sense; it offers Brossard a conceptual framework in which to explore further the oscillation between sense and nonsense. In the words of the text, “baroque thought taken as a whole … hesitates between Chaos and Cosmos” (151). This movement between chaos (formlessness) and cosmos (form) structures Brossard's fictions from the mid-1970s onward.
The “sibyl” of Picture Theory's “illysybility” becomes an important character in Baroque at Dawn: Cybil Noland. Sibyls are women of equivocal yet prophetic texts, whose power lies in their capacity to decode the present and to intervene in contemporary culture even more than in their capacity to foretell the future. Throughout Brossard's 1995 novel, Cybil bears witness to the transition from a culture of books to a culture of proliferating images and information. At times in Baroque at Dawn, the oscillation between sense and nonsense takes the violent form of “speedy visuals that gobble up meaning as fast as it appears” (59). Within this context, Cybil struggles to decipher and decode, to work with signs and generate meaning, and thereby to sustain the productive tension between chaos and cosmos, sense and nonsense, so crucial for Brossard to the transformation of the cultural imaginary.
In addition to mobilizing formal elements associated with the baroque, Baroque at Dawn returns to the issue of women's speech raised by “E Muet Mutant.” Like all of Brossard's texts, Baroque at Dawn eschews the kind of anecdotal speech associated with the baroque in “E Muet Mutant.” However, more than other novels to date, Baroque at Dawn foregrounds the question of dialogue between women (see Brossard, “Energy” 57-58). Baroque at Dawn opens with a sexual encounter between two women, an encounter that gives way to a conversation. Asked by La Sixtine (the younger of the two) “whether she's in the habit of ‘taking the elevator’ with perfect strangers,” Cybil responds: “If possible yes. … In the sexual meeting of two stranger-women there's a temporal break that allows abstraction of the background baggage carried by each. Less of the past benefits an immediate presence” (18). The sexual energy that arises from the difference between the two women, from the fact that they are strangers to one another, is arguably the source of this extraordinary conversation. Insofar as the latter conversation is published, it locates the words of these women in history and allows their energy to transform the public sphere.
The exchange between Cybil and La Sixtine invites reflection about why, to borrow the words of Lynne Huffer in conversation with Brossard in 1993, it is so difficult “for women playwrights to create dialogue between women outside of the mother-daughter relationship,” why, “Most of the time, female characters interact through monologues” (“Interview” 119). Brossard's tentative response, “Is it because of a feminist ethic that won't allow for power relations or hierarchical roles among women?” (119), is suggestive for my reading of Baroque at Dawn; the response troubles the notion that relations among women are always, or should always be, egalitarian, a contentious issue, for example, in feminist debates about lesbian sadomasochism in the 1980s.7 In Brossard's novel, female characters confront, even play out, relations and roles that the discourses of lesbian feminism might otherwise dismiss. In what follows, taking my cue from Brossard's text, I examine ambiguities and contradictions within the discourses of the novel that open the possibility for further discussion and debate. What is at stake in the novel's fascination with Baroque religious art? How does the novel manipulate the slippage between the spiritual and the historical, the sacred and the profane, made available by that art? Within lesbian feminist discourses of sexuality, what remains “sacred”? In which ways do the novel's playful rereadings of the baroque—particularly the baroque's preoccupation with passion, with the ecstasy of the martyr, and with relations of domination and submission, sadism and masochism—push the limits of the latter discourses?
Whereas in “E Muet Mutant” the baroque is a descriptive term for a kind of discourse, in Baroque at Dawn it is a way of writing the ambivalence of the text's relationship to technology, violence, passion, ritualized suffering, Christianity, queer culture, S/M, and relations of power among women. Brossard's 1995 text draws on the potential in religious painting and sculpture, particularly in Baroque religious painting and sculpture, for reading the sublime and the ecstatic in terms of the homoerotic. Baroque at Dawn finds in Michelangelo's gesture of bringing pagan prophets and prophetesses (sibyls) within the sphere of a Christian chapel an important precedent for its own baroque conjunctions. Brossard's text restages his gesture as a sexual encounter between two women, Cybil and La Sixtine. Yoking together classical and Christian figures, lovers of different generations, radical lesbian feminist culture and queer culture, lesbians and pietàs, Jesuit martyrs and leathermen, Baroque at Dawn explores an erotics of incongruity. One minute, an encounter between women has the tenderness and tranquillity of a pietà; the next, it has the violence and intensity of baroque bodies clenched toward ecstasy. Each unexpected adjacency, each apparent incongruity, raises unsettling but nevertheless productive questions about lesbian feminist discourses of sexuality, about definitions, values, and attitudes that seem to be indisputable, inviolable, almost “sacred.”
WOMEN OF DIFFERENT AGES: THE COMING TOGETHER OF THE CLASSICAL AND THE CHRISTIAN
Cybil Noland and La Sixtine, Baroque at Dawn makes clear, are of different ages, different epochs. They meet in Los Angeles, the city of angels. The first night the two women take the elevator together in the Hotel Rafale (18), Cybil's lover, a woman described as “a musician and young,” insists that she is not sixteen (9). Cybil immediately christens her “La Sixtine,” the French name for the Sistine Chapel (named after Pope Sixtus IV). The chapel is mentioned in a subsequent paragraph and again later in the novel, both times in conjunction with the five sibyls of Michelangelo (another of the text's angels). The second night the two women take the elevator together, Cybil is described, this time from the perspective of La Sixtine, as “the grey-haired woman” (38). Cybil is older than La Sixtine in more ways than one. The prophetesses of antiquity, sibyls were charged with the task of making known the pronouncements of the gods. Incorporated into the Christian narrative of the Sistine Chapel paintings, these women of words and books are evidence of the Renaissance will to reconcile classical culture and Christianity, “to see all antiquity … [as] ‘preparation for the Gospel’” (O'Malley 116). Sibyls were of particular interest for this Renaissance project because they were alleged to have prophesied the coming of a Christ-like figure (116). They are of particular interest for Brossard's text because of the relative importance that Michelangelo gave them and their books within his representation of Genesis.8
In Brossard's novel, Michelangelo's sibyls thematize the problematics of framing, perspective, origins, and incongruity. In a chapter entitled “Sibyls and Ignudi,” Baroque at Dawn reads the Sistine Chapel paintings in some detail. The scene is a ship called The Symbol engaged in oceanographic research off the coast of Argentina. Cybil has been hired by an oceanographer named Occident des Rives to write the text of a book about the sea, a book that will include photographs by another character, Irène Mage. Padré Sinocchio, the priest aboard ship, mentions Rome, and Occident takes the opportunity to give everyone a tour of the Sistine Chapel. A figure of power, Occident speaks continuously, without pausing to hear the stories of others. Her narrative, like the narrative of Creation presented in the ceiling's central tableaux, is apparently seamless. Nevertheless, the narrator, the one who selects what to report and what not to report, finds a way to intervene; she focuses on Occident's account of the ignudi9 and the sibyls, the massive, three-dimensional figures that, along with the prophets, frame the two-dimensional tableaux representing various scenes from Genesis. The narrator also reminds the reader of the impact of perspective—of where one stands in the chapel and how one tells the story—on how one reads the relations between the nine central tableaux and the sibyls and ignudi. Most often, the latter are seen merely to punctuate the biblical narrative. However, the narrator intimates that, insofar as they disturb the centrality of the tableaux and draw attention to those positioned along the edges, the sibyls and ignudi play a larger role (134). From the perspective of Brossard's narrator, for whom the bare right arm of the Cumaean sybil is “as muscular as God's” (134), women of books play a key role in (the representation of) Creation.
Michelangelo's Creation narrative, the narrator observes, would not be possible today “because according to the rules of narrative you have to point at infinity with one hand and exploit it with the other” (134). This sibylline comment—in part a reference to Adam's arm outstretched toward that of God in Michelangelo's Creation of Man—has to do with myths of origins and with the way in which such myths are framed. Padré Sinocchio's impassioned response to Occident's presentation of the scenes from Genesis provides a context for reading the narrator's cryptic comment about the Infinite. Aware of the seas rising around them, he asserts that there can be no doubt about the phenomenon of the Flood: “Noah, the Ark and all that could not be merely the fruit of our imaginations” (135).10 In the French text, use of the word l'arche is particularly revealing: l'arche refers to the ark but also to the arch, the curved structure of the ceiling on which scenes from Genesis are painted; in Greek, arche means first principle, primal element, origin. Taken as a whole, the discussion of the chapel's paintings poses the problem of beginnings, of priority. In the paintings, the ignudi and pagan sibyls appear to take precedence over the Creation. They draw attention to the illusory architectural structure that supports the central tableaux rather than to the Creation narrative. By emphasizing that which lies outside the narrative of God's Creation, that which precedes the formulation of Christian myths of origins, Brossard's text raises questions about the status of the narrative and about the privileged God-man connection. If God is the Creator, then who creates the structure, the framework in which God is represented creating? How can man represent God creating man? The Infinite, the Creator, the text suggests, is a retrospective construction that lends coherence to the biblical narrative and, at the same time, primacy to man.
The image of one hand gesturing toward the Infinite while the other assumes the creative powers of the Infinite also refers to the framing devices of Baroque at Dawn. Cybil, the main character, turns out to be a narrator and perhaps even a writer of the novel; she refers in an ongoing way to writing a novel that resembles, even overlaps with, Baroque at Dawn. As character, narrator, and writer, Cybil occupies a space inside and outside the fictional frame simultaneously; she has one hand in the realm of the Infinite (writing) and another in the realm of character (the written). In this way, she is able to intervene in the process of her own creation.
In bringing Cybil and La Sixtine together, Baroque at Dawn makes a gesture not unlike that of Michelangelo's frescoes: it accommodates difference, incongruity. Brossard's novel reads the relationship between the chapel and the frescoes, specifically the sibyls, as a liaison between two women. As Alice Parker has pointed out, “names in the novel are so pointedly symbolic that the text reads in part like a fable or an allegory” (195). The sexual encounter between Cybil and La Sixtine might be read as allegorical11 of erotic ties between lesbians of different generations, different discourses of desire, different modes of self-presentation, and so forth. (It is not so much that Cybil and La Sixtine stand for two identifiable groups as that their coming together makes it more possible to imagine various unexpected conjunctions.) In the context of twentieth-century lesbian literary culture, classical figures such as amazons, eumenides (furies), and sibyls are not often found between the same covers as martyrs, madonnas, and Christian chapels. In this sense, the encounter of Cybil and La Sixtine is no less dramatic than the coming together of the classical and the Christian worlds. Lesbian literature and criticism arguably privilege classical figures such as Medusa, Leda, Demeter, and Persephone over Christian figures. In fact, so important are amazons to this body of literature and criticism that Elaine Marks's 1979 notion of “lesbian intertextuality” is recast as “amazon intertextuality” in a 1993 essay by Jeffner Allen. Moreover, the ancient Greek poet Sappho, key to Marks's discussion of intertextuality, is a recurring figure in readings of early-twentieth-century writing by lesbians (see Benstock; Marcus), a body of writing to which Brossard's oeuvre has important links (see Meese; Moyes, “Composing”).
As Raymond-Jean Frontain observes in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, to date the Bible has provided far fewer inspirational figures (99). There are important reasons for this preference for the classical over the Christian, among them the greater susceptibility of figures such as amazons and Sappho to lesbian utopian and homoerotic readings (Griffin Crowder 25), the construction of women's bodies and regulation of women's sexuality within Christianity, and the difficulty that women have experienced in acceding to positions of discourse and authority within the Church. In the words of Cybil in Baroque at Dawn, “sacred books … have always endangered the lives of women” (68). In Marks's estimation, “There is no one person in or out of fiction who represents a stronger challenge to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to patriarchy and phallocentrism than the lesbian-feminist” (369). This is not to say that there are no works that draw on the Christian tradition. Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, poems such as “Immaculate, Inviolate: ComoElla,” “Holy Relics,” and “My Black Angelos” in Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, and titles such as “Passion Play” in Coming to Power (Samois), “Virgin's Request” in The Second Coming: A Leatherdyke Reader (Pat Califia and Robin Sweeney), and “Jesus Taught Me to Bottom” in Some Women (Laura Antoniou) are a few that come to mind. However, the postures that these texts adopt in relation to Christianity—from earnest affirmation or conversion to parodic recontextualization to playful, sacrilegious eroticism—are various enough and in some cases controversial enough to thwart, or at least to slow down, efforts to map the intertextual relations.
That Brossard's 1995 text associates its turn from classical to Christian subjects with the baroque is not surprising. There is an important precedent for such an association in art historical readings of the shift in the work of Michelangelo and other male painters in the second half of the sixteenth century, the earliest phase of the period that would come to be known as the Baroque. In an essay entitled “Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behaviour, Identity, and Artistic Expression,”12 James M. Saslow observes that “Succumbing to the ascetic Counter Reformation, each [painter] turned from the pagan subjects forbidden by the Council of Trent toward exclusively religious imagery” (102). He goes on to suggest that, “Although Judeo-Christian myth officially offered less material for homosexual identification, many artists' treatment of religious heroes suggests a veiled or half-conscious sensitivity toward male beauty and emotion” (102). Baroque at Dawn exploits this potential in Christian iconography for homoerotic—and specifically lesbian—readings. Working with language rather than with paint, and writing as a woman, a lesbian, and a feminist at the end of the twentieth century, Brossard has a relationship with such iconography different from that of the painters whom Saslow discusses. What they share, however, is the appropriation of seemingly “inappropriate” images to open representational spaces for sensibilities and sexualities that do not have the sanction of the Church.13
What is at stake for Brossard's text in staging an encounter between the classical and the Christian? Why is Cybil, a figure for the writer of Baroque at Dawn, involved with La Sixtine, a figure for Christianity? Why does this novel attend more to angels, martyrs, and pietà than to the classical figures that typically appear in Brossard's work?14 One possible response is that Baroque at Dawn is (among other things) a meditation on women's relationship to suffering and, particularly, to images of suffering in Christianity that Cybil had known as a child in Montreal. A conversation between Cybil and “Nicole Brossard,” who is described as “a novelist she [Cybil] had met in London at a conference on autobiography” (47), hints at this possibility. Asked by Cybil why she “so often gathered her characters around a restaurant table or desk,” Brossard replies: “I don't know enough about suffering to know what's going on in people's hearts” (48). At another scene around a restaurant table, Cybil and Jasmine, another writer, worry “over the heavy cords of suffering around the world, a world tied up like Christo's packages” (60). The question of women's relationship to suffering is not a new one in Brossard's writing. In the 1983 essay “Kind Skin My Mind,” for example, Brossard writes that “The lesbian rejects mortification as a way of life. The lesbian suffers because of the mortification of women” (121). What is new in Baroque at Dawn is the engagement with Christian icons such as martyrs and pietàs. In this section, I suggest that Brossard's text reconfigures the pietà in ways that refuse the narrative of transcendence through sacrifice that subtends Christ's Passion. The latter passion, with its shades of martyrdom and suffering, is reread as ardent affection between women.
Throughout Baroque at Dawn, La Sixtine is associated with intense suffering as well as with intense pleasure. Her response to media coverage of a massacre in front of a cathedral in the former Yugoslavia, for example, is to adopt a “terribly awkward, limb-numbing pietà pose” (17), the posture of the one who bears the suffering of the world in her arms. Clinging “to a passion for life” (17; emphasis added), Cybil searches for a way of touching La Sixtine and of derailing the litany of atrocities that has overtaken her. The focus of the pietà in this scene is on death, a focus that leaves Cybil no point of intervention. Several chapters later, during a day spent with the writer Jasmine, Cybil visits a cemetery—one of many such visits in the text—and remarks on a monument depicting the Virgin and Christ. After dinner, as she drives back along the river St. Laurent to Rimouski, Cybil imagines La Sixtine coming and sitting on the end of the bed, “her back glistening with dancing drops of water” (60). She takes La Sixtine in her arms, and, “With a series of slow, deliberate movements, she [draws] La Sixtine's head against her breast so that their bodies [form] a huge pietà in the middle of the room” (60). Here the text reinterprets the pietà as an embrace. Insofar as La Sixtine (the Christ figure) is alive, this second pietà shifts the emphasis from Christ's Passion to the passion of two women. A simple identification of the two women with Christ or with the Virgin would potentially bind them to an all too familiar sainthood. An embrace, on the other hand, emphasizes relations of touch and contiguity and imagines roles other than those of the sorrowing and the sacrificed.
The two pietàs share a sculptural quality; they explore the relationship between the bodies of Cybil and La Sixtine, their postures, gestures, three dimensionality, and arrangement in space. In emphasizing the contrast between the “limb-numbing” posture of the first pietà and the movement of the second, the text effectively stages the transition from Renaissance to Baroque sculpture, from frozen image to unity in motion.
The cover image of the original French version of Baroque at Dawn15 also reinterprets the pietà as an embrace between two women, again in the context of a shift from Renaissance to Baroque aesthetic practice. The two faces that appear in the upper right corner of the text's cover are taken from a painting by Botticelli dated around 1490 entitled Pietà or, in English, Lamentation over the Dead Christ with St. Jerome, St. Paul, and St. Peter. They are the faces of Christ and an unknown woman who cradles his head (while his body lies across the knees of the Virgin in the centre of the painting). The cover image makes a number of important alterations to this detail from Botticelli's painting. In addition to inverting the faces, it crops them: that is, it cuts away the woman's halo along with the hand of the Virgin that hangs between the two faces, but it retains the luminous effect of the woman's veil and of Christ's shroud. In this way, the emphasis is on the two faces, their proximity to one another, and the rapturous elsewhere of their half-closed eyes and slightly parted lips. The cover image also alters the effects of lighting and colour. In the Botticelli painting, the lighting is general. According to convention, it falls slightly more intensely on the face and body of Christ and on the face of the Virgin. On the cover of Baroque at Dawn, the two faces emerge from semidarkness by virtue of the fairly strong light that shines on them (and on the water) as if from a direct source. This effect of tenebroso, of situating bodies in shadow and using light to give them form, to give them a fleshy quality, is more typical of Baroque painting, particularly of the painting of Caravaggio, than of the Renaissance painting of Botticelli (Wittkower 54). Certainly, the frank eroticism and the bold use of few colours—in this case, ochre, olive green, and a deep, luminous blue—are reminiscent of Caravaggio. By way of these various alterations, the cover image of the original version of Baroque at Dawn opens the possibility of reading the two faces from Botticelli's Pietà as the faces of (female) lovers.
Facial expressions are not specifically an issue in Baroque at Dawn's presentation of the two pietàs involving La Sixtine and Cybil. However, the initial encounter between the two women prompts a reflection by Cybil about the ways in which “an orgasm will recompose the lines of the mouth and chin, make the eyelids droop, dilate the pupils or keep the eyes shining” (11-12), on the ways in which a face describes “its own aura of ecstasy, beginning with the light filtering through the enigmatic slit between the eyelids when they hover half-closed halfway between life and pleasure” (12). That these words could easily serve as a description of the face of Christ in the pietà on the book's cover further opens the possibility of reading the face on the cover as that of a woman transported, not by the elsewhere of suffering, indeed death, but by the elsewhere of pleasure. Importantly, whether they focus on faces (the text's cover) or on the postures of bodies (the text), the pietàs of Baroque at Dawn displace the role of suffering in Christian narratives by reconfiguring signs of suffering (or death) as signs of erotic intensity between women.
At the same time, Brossard's text grapples with the ambiguity that resides in such a reconfiguration or resignification. What does it mean to read the faces or postures of suffering as those of pleasure? What are the ethical limits of such a reading? As Brossard points out in a 1990 essay, “There are themes that are bound to have if not an ideological at least a troubling effect: Sexuality, eroticism, homosexuality, lesbianism—something is always at stake with eroticism because it deals with limits, the moral, and the unavowable” (“Poetic Politics” 79). She goes on to explain that “A creative person has imagination and is able to process ambivalent emotion and contradictions as well as transforming anger, ecstasy, desire, pain, and so on, into social meaning” (81).
As if to test the point at which this process of transforming emotion and sensation into social meaning breaks down, Baroque at Dawn returns to the topic of a face reconfigured by a limit experience several pages after the initial encounter between Cybil and La Sixtine. As they walk in the streets of Los Angeles, the women hear shots in the distance. Pretending “that she [knows] violence and cruelty to be perennial” (30), La Sixtine mentions an old French writer (Georges Bataille) who appeared recently on television and “described the torture death of Leng-Tch'e” (30), which he had witnessed as a boy in the streets of Peking early in the century. Cybil says that she knows the pictures of this famous torture death, pictures “first published in 1923 in a psychological treatise [Georges Dumas], then again in 1961 by an author [Bataille] who gave them an erotic dimension” (30). Disturbed by the use of “ecstatic” and “erotic” (Bataille 237-39) “to portray the bewildered expression graven by extreme pain on the tortured man's face,” Cybil quickens her pace and begins “muttering words whose sense escape[s] La Sixtine” (30). This breakdown in meaning, which takes the form of too many words rather than of silence, suggests that Cybil cannot make sense of torture; she has difficulty reading the elsewhere of a face marked by pain as the elsewhere of pleasure. Her mutterings are “interrupted by the cries of a woman standing in the middle of the street waving her arms and displaying her blood-stained bosom” (30), a sign that, in the terms of the text, there is a danger in confusing violence and suffering with the erotic. The immediate concern, this scene suggests, has to be the destructive effects of this confusion in the lives of women.
Both as a character and as a writer, Cybil is distressed by representations of violence and suffering; in effect, she “suffers because of the mortification of women” (Brossard, “Kind Skin” 121). In Baroque at Dawn, Cybil's response to Bataille's reading of the tortured face as erotic (30-31) is similar to her response to La Sixtine's “terribly awkward, limb-numbing pietà pose” (17). In both cases, Cybil is overwhelmed by a profusion of words and of “media-borne” images of death and violence (17). In both scenes, she asks herself questions about “the volcano of violence erupting in cities” (15) and about her reasons for writing “this violent book” for which she has “no special gift … or vocabulary or experience” (16). That Cybil repeatedly confronts scenes of violence suggests that the reference to “this violent book” is also a reference to Baroque at Dawn. Insofar as the book is of her own construction, a book that she is in the process of writing, she cannot distance herself from its scenes of violence and suffering; she has to acknowledge a certain complicity. Sitting with her coresearchers Irène and Occident on a terrace in Buenos Aires, Cybil suddenly hears a voice that speaks to her situation: “You think keeping your distance will protect you from repeating yourself, help you understand the hidden side of your characters. Admit it you'd like to touch bottom without dirtying yourself too much” (103).
In the sections that follow, I explore “the hidden side” of Cybil's character. In particular, I consider the role that she plays in fantasies that she might otherwise condemn and the pleasure that she takes in a vocabulary of violent or extreme sexuality that she might otherwise resist. This ambivalence within Cybil is symptomatic of tensions within Brossard's text—and within feminism—between fighting violence against women, fighting ritualized suffering, and exploring discourses and practices of sexuality that have the passion and intensity of the baroque.
CYBIL'S BAROQUE HEART
An interest in Baroque religious art makes it difficult for Brossard's text to keep its hands clean. In addition to being susceptible to homoerotic rereading, such art frequently entails references to self-sacrifice and suffering. After all, martyrdom was to the Baroque what miracles were to the Renaissance (Hartt 688). Representations of martyrs and saints, designed to give individual viewers the illusion of a limit experience of the divine and thereby to heighten the emotional impact of religious art and Church architecture, played a key role in the Counter-Reformation project of intensifying individual conviction (688). Given that the same codes were used for sacred and secular works (Lucie-Smith 79), and given the preoccupation with representing the body in states of extremity, Baroque representations of martyrdom move ambiguously between the ecstatic and the erotic. As Saslow observes, “Sodoma's Saint Sebastian, bound to a tree and pierced with arrows, writhes in ostensibly religious ecstasy open to multiple personalized interpretations, from the epitome of sado-masochism to the artist's comment on his own public ‘martyrdom’” (“Homosexuality” 102).
In Baroque at Dawn, the most vivid instance of homoerotic reframing of religious ecstasy is a fantasy that Cybil constructs while in conversation with padré Sinocchio aboard The Symbol. The priest is speaking to her about the role of the Jesuits in promoting Baroque art and architecture in Argentina and is trying to impress on her the fact that she “will never know boredom” if she heeds “her baroque heart” (151). Dissociating momentarily from the conversation, Cybil wonders at which moment a priest may be said to be Jesuitical (151). She imagines the priest tied to a tree in the forests of Quebec, tormented by mosquitoes and black flies. His skin, where it comes in contact with a necklace of burning stones, blisters, “ready to burst out like an identity” (151).16 Fog envelops the martyr, and when he reappears it is “with wrists bound together and held over his head by an iron hoop” and his body “pierced everywhere” (151). In front of him stands a huge man, “partly clad in black leather” (151), who carefully calculates the pain needed to bring the man to orgasm. Chasing from her mind this image of man cultivating “his pain like an art” (151), Cybil returns to padré Sinocchio, a man depicted as “eagerly circling his god of deliverance with all imaginable baroque torments” (152). Yet, significantly, it is Cybil who has just finished conjuring up “all imaginable baroque torments”; it is her daydream or reverie.
The scene of Jesuit martyrdom from Cybil's reverie surfaces a second time in the context of a painting that Cybil dreams about seeing in Montreal's Mary Queen of the World Cathedral (172-73). The painting, The Martyrdom of the Jesuit Fathers J. de Brébeuf and G. Lalemant in the Land of the Hurons 1649,17 allows Baroque at Dawn to comment on received modes of representing Jesuits martyred at the stake.18 In her dream, Cybil takes the Jesuit in the foreground to be padré Sinocchio. She is particularly struck by the absence of signs of suffering or aggression in the painting: “Their faces show no trace of pain, hatred or cruelty. Sinocchio is intent, his gaze turned patiently toward Heaven. The Indians have the peaceful and peaceable look of people basking in the first days of spring” (173). The Jesuit, Brossard's text reminds us, bears witness to his faith in Christ by displaying forbearance in the face of extreme pain. The description of the Iroquois as “peaceful and peaceable” is more puzzling. The painting of Cybil's dream turns out to be one in a series of paintings by Georges Delfosse portraying Montreal's beginnings that Cybil has visited in the cathedral. Curiously, the Iroquois of the actual painting, with their burning pokers, pans of boiling water, and collars of red-hot axe heads, are far more aggressive than the dream suggests. In fact, Father Elie J. Auclair, in Delfosse's 1910 publication of photographs of the paintings, writes of the striking contrast between the serenity of the Jesuit and the “ferocious features of his executioners” (27). In playing down the agency and ferocity of the Iroquois, Brossard's text emphasizes two other forms of violence: first, the aestheticization of torture and suffering; and second, the construction of a founding myth of Montreal that simultaneously glorifies the trials of the Jesuits and rationalizes the spiritual conquest of the Iroquois.
Cybil's relationship to the scenes of martyrdom and sadomasochism in her dream and in her daydream is ambiguous. While Cybil takes a certain revenge upon the priest and critiques the Jesuits' cult of suffering, she is also fascinated by this cult of suffering. Toward the end of Baroque at Dawn, she explains: “I couldn't resist the urge I had to see the Delfosse paintings again. I don't know why these pictures have so long remained so deeply graven in my traveller's memory” (211). Her daydream, her dream, and her waking desire are interconnected yet somewhat contradictory manifestations of the same fantasy, something that I will return to after considering the ways in which the scenes of martyrdom and S/M are framed and the different ways in which they might be read.
Cybil's priest-turned-Jesuit-turned-leatherman is as open to, and as much a product of, multiple interpretations as Sodoma's Saint Sebastian (Saslow, “Homosexuality” 102). Reading the priest's passion for the baroque as Jesuitical, Cybil's daydream deidealizes the experience of the Jesuits, subjects the priest to torture, and details the effects of that torture in his body. Then, in yoking the Jesuit martyrdom to the leather scene, the fantasy sexualizes the passion of the priest/Jesuit. Once again, Baroque at Dawn plays with the slippage within the notion of passion between ardent affection or joyous enthusiasm and self-sacrifice or suffering. Passion, the text suggests, is a state of being subjected to or acted on by something outside oneself. The text's strategy of reading the Jesuit as a leatherman is not unlike that of reading the pietà as a lesbian embrace and not unlike reading the relationship between Michelangelo's sibyls and the Sistine Chapel as a liaison between women of different ages. In each case, the text reframes the Christian subject in homoerotic terms and demonstrates the incoherence of absolute categories such as the sacred and the profane.
Nevertheless, a reading that suggests radical continuities in the suspended subjectivities of martyr and masochist has a different status in Brossard's text from a reading that transforms a subject such as God's Creation or the Virgin lamenting the death of Christ into a liaison between women. A lesbian pietà for example, is easily integrated into lesbian feminist discourses of sexuality and, more particularly, into the network of positive associations that accrue to the arms of women in Brossard's texts (see Moyes, “Composing” 215-19). Whereas the women's embrace shifts the focus of the pietà from suffering and lamentation to bodies in pleasurable contact, the leathermen repeat the Jesuits' gesture of cultivating the art of pain; ecstasy, in the latter case, continues to be derived from and associated with suffering. Cybil's appropriation of the lesbian pietà and her rejection of the martyr-turned-leatherman says a great deal about what is safeguarded and held in high regard in lesbian feminist culture—what becomes “sacred”—and what offends.
Mary Daly's Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (1984), a text that reads scenes of Jesuit martyrdom in the context of an analysis of sadomasochistic elements in Western society, is an important intertext for Baroque at Dawn.19 Daly's text finds in written descriptions of such scenes the same message that Brossard's text finds in the paintings: “The noble christians do not fight back” (38). From Daly's perspective, “Although these descriptions of the jesuit ‘martyrs’ do not explicitly name the sexual component of asceticism, they obviously reflect the male flight from lecherous obsessions. The fanaticism both of the missionaries and of the over-zealous author of these descriptions belongs to the province of sado-hagiology” (38). In a sense, in juxtaposing the martyrs and the leathermen, Baroque at Dawn makes explicit “the sexual component of asceticism” to which Daly alludes. Just as Pure Lust takes S/M “to be essentially a phallic phenomenon, inherently directed toward the destruction of the other” (60), Brossard's text limits its representation of S/M practice to men. Daly contends that, “when women, whether heterosexual or lesbian, … proclaim themselves pro-sadomasochism, pro-pornography …, they may be exercising ‘free speech,’ but they are speaking neither as feminists nor for feminists” (66).20 Brossard's text is more playful than Daly's and allows for ambivalence where Daly's does not. However, the logic that subtends Daly's analysis of the “sadosociety” and the “sadospirituality” that legitimates it (35) also subtends Cybil's reverie. Read in the light of Daly's analysis, the representation of S/M practices in the reverie is more a mechanism for denouncing Christian ritual than for homoerotically reframing it.
The negative connotations of S/M in Baroque at Dawn are reinforced by parallels between the body style of the leathermen and that of the women and men whom Cybil and La Sixtine happen upon in the streets of Los Angeles. Brossard's text associates the accoutrements of S/M—tattoos, body piercing, black leather, and shaved heads—with the grammatical tyranny of the masculine over the feminine:
Another street. Here and there, women with tattooed biceps and men with bare chests and pierced nipples strolled about in black boots, heads shaven. Equipped with a new vocabulary, they were leaving walls alone in favour of more direct statements in their own flesh. The men carried fear and danger in their bodies, arming themselves only for sexual encounters when the electricity of a single shot would emerge from their bodies with much noise.
Rather uncharacteristically, Brossard's text quickly loses sight of the women with tattooed biceps and refers to the group as men. This gesture of allowing the masculine to take precedence over the feminine—even more pronounced in French, in which “they” is gendered masculine21—is unexpected in light of Brossard's 1973 statement that “a grammar having as a rule: the masculine takes precedence over the feminine must be transgressed” (“Vaseline” 14). In allowing the rule to stand, Brossard's text associates the practice of marking signs in the flesh with an economy of representation that obscures women. That women might take sexual pleasure in such marking remains relatively unthinkable in the terms of the text. Furthermore, that feminist ends might be well served by queer culture, by a culture that exposes the incoherence of (and thereby destabilizes) categories such as “woman” and “man,” is also relatively unimaginable.22 Wedged between the conversation about the torture death of Leng-Tch'e (30) and a meditation on “Death” (31), the executioner, the passage cited above invites a comparison of the master of the S/M scene and the torturer/executioner. There are differences in the text's characterization of the two—notably, the difference between a man “wrapped in thought,” “calculating” pain carefully in the direction of pleasure (151), and a man who “does not count the drops of blood on his free, lonely brow” but simply kills (31). Nevertheless, the spectre of torture that appears early in the text haunts the male-male S/M scene of Cybil's fantasy.
If, as Brossard's text suggests, sadomasochism is potentially dangerous within a feminist context, then what is it doing in Cybil's fantasy? The obvious answer is that the text uses the S/M fantasy to reinforce its feminist critique of religious asceticism and ritualized suffering. The less obvious answer is that S/M is as much a part of Cybil and her feminist critique as the scenes of martyrdom that she finds “deeply graven” in her memory (211). The S/M fantasy speaks of feminism's troubled yet necessary engagement with issues of sexuality, power, and violence. It speaks, for example, of an unconscious or repressed desire for mastery, a desire to make the priest suffer, which cannot be acknowledged or acted on but which can be translated into a scene of martyrdom, even a scene of S/M, and watched. The absence of a master or torturer in Cybil's dreams of Jesuit martyrdom, an absence made more noticeable by the presence of a master in the S/M scene (and in the actual painting by Delfosse), is a symptom of this repression and, at the same time, a reminder of Cybil's role in staging the martyrdom of padré Sinocchio.
In The Language of Psycho-Analysis, J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis define fantasy as an “imaginary scene in which the subject is a protagonist, representing the fulfilment of a wish (in the last analysis, an unconscious wish) in a manner that is distorted to a greater or lesser extent by defensive processes” (314). Cybil's fantasy plays itself out at various levels: Cybil sees the martyrdom of padré Sinocchio in a daydream and reframes it as masochistic, later she dreams the martyrdom of the padré represented in a painting, and even later she feels an inexplicable urge to see the painting that figured in her dream. Drawing on the work of Teresa de Lauretis on the forms and effects of fantasy, I would situate Cybil's urge, expressed in the first person, toward the conscious end of the “fantasy spectrum” and her daydream toward the unconscious end (143-48). The daydream, the form of the fantasy that in this instance requires the most analysis, is the focus of my reading.
In Baroque at Dawn, significantly, Cybil is not a protagonist in her daydream; she disavows the scenes of martyrdom and S/M as representations of herself. What is more, she does not appear to derive pleasure from the fantasy; immediately following her reverie, she joins Irène, Occident, and the divers, “relieved to have escaped Sinocchio's enthusiasm and particularly the morbid images it has raised” (152). Nevertheless, in imagining padré Sinocchio suffering in the forests of New France and in substituting his face for that of one of the Jesuits in the painting, Cybil plays the role of master in the scene of Jesuit martyrdom. In fact, her daydream is in keeping with the priest's own suggestion that she use “her baroque heart” to free herself from boredom—in this case, the boredom of the priest's own discourse. Although Cybil does not seem to derive pleasure from her reverie, there is a certain poetic justice and a certain satisfaction generated by it. Her desire to see the painting of Jesuit martyrdom over and over again suggests as much.
One might argue that the fantasy in question is not Cybil's but the priest's, that Cybil does little more than actualize the priest's fantasy of martyrdom and then expose its “sexual component” (Daly 38). However, this reading would deny Cybil's “baroque heart,” a heart in evidence in discourses of sexuality elsewhere in the novel, and it would forget the continuities between her day dream, her dream, and her waking desires. Her fantasy cannot be reduced to a condemnation of the practices of martyrdom and S/M represented within it. The fantasy arguably plays out her (feminist) desires, albeit in oblique and distorted ways; in fact, the level of distortion or obliqueness is a measure of the danger that those desires pose for feminism. That the two scenarios present exclusively male protagonists and appear to fulfil the desires of men rather than those of Cybil is not simply a symptom of what Daly calls the “sadosociety.” Feminist anxiety about women repeating patterns of desire that oppress women23 makes it relatively unthinkable for women to be players in Cybil's S/M fantasy. As Julia Creet points out in an article on the ways in which feminism figures in the economy of lesbian S/M fantasy, this anxiety has structured feminism's internal struggles since the late 1970s:
Charges on both sides of the “sex wars” are strikingly similar: both the charge of repression (by the “pro-sex” side) and the charge of replicating masculine desire (by the “anti-sex” side) carry with them the symbolic weight of the father. The ambivalence in assuming the power of either of these positions has to do with the monopoly that men have held over them. We are afraid of collapsing into the very system from which we struggle to liberate ourselves.
Creet goes on to observe that “a movement built on the repudiation of sexual objectification has had a very difficult time re-embracing sex and its inherent complexity without questioning the tenets of the movement itself” (139).
Transposed to Brossard's text, feminism's “anti-sex” and “pro-sex” arguments run as follows: to present women as participants in scenes of martyrdom or S/M is to replicate masculine desire; to deny women's participation in scenes of martyrdom or S/M is to repress aspects of their subjectivity and sexuality. Cybil's fantasy ostensibly makes the first (antisex) argument. Yet, read symptomatically, it also demonstrates the second (prosex) argument: that is, it betrays the workings of repression. The priest's asceticism, for example, can be read as a figure for the disciplining and regulating of sexual fantasies within the context of feminist antisex discourses. If the leather scene says something about the erotic intensity of the priest's regime of abstinence and self-discipline, it also says something about desires that are not allowed representation within certain discourses of feminism (see Creet 141-45). The desire for mastery mentioned earlier, the desire to make the priest suffer, is perhaps the safest and most representable of these desires because it can be understood as a form of feminist resistance.
Cybil's daydream, which positions Cybil as a voyeur at a male-male leather scene, not only transgresses the very stance against S/M (and pornography) that it sets up but also renegotiates the “turn” in the 1980s among some lesbians, notably among S/M dykes such as Pat Califia, “toward [gay] men as instructors and playmates in the world of sex practices” (Creet 148).24 It is possible, indeed helpful, to read Baroque at Dawn as a meditation on the paradoxes of women's relationships to, and resignification of, the fantasies of gay men. Cybil's and La Sixtine's repeated encounters with eroticized rituals of violence and domination, for example, remind us that women's history of struggle against such rituals informs the lesbian feminist critique of S/M. Women's relationship to the queer culture that Cybil and La Sixtine happen upon in Los Angeles is equally specific. In tracing the ways in which women are effaced by masculine grammars, Baroque at Dawn expresses concern that queer culture will give way to a seemingly neutral and ultimately masculine construction of the subject. Yet, importantly, Brossard's text also recognizes that gay men have opened critical, representational, and erotic spaces for women. The liaison between Cybil and La Sixtine is an effect of such a space, a space imagined and designed by Michelangelo, a man whose principal sexual and emotional ties were with other men. Of course, Brossard's text reimagines the space between Cybil and La Sixtine in terms of a specifically lesbian sexuality and desire. For example, it appropriates details such as the muscular arms of the sibyls—which Saslow takes to be signs of Michelangelo's “obsession with the ideal nude male form” (“Veil” 78)—for its own inquiry into female figures of passion and cultural authority: “The urge to write comes on strong, as muscular as a seductive woman who wants to take her to bed” (143). Nevertheless, the erotics of incongruity that inspire the relationship between Cybil and La Sixtine also inspire that between Brossard's text and Michelangelo's frescoes.
VERITABLE TORMENTS OF PLEASURE
Why has S/M figured so centrally in lesbian feminist debates about sexuality since the 1970s? Discussing this question, Susan Ardill and Sue O'Sullivan speculate that, “in the vacuum of lesbians speaking and writing about sex, the language of sexual excitement used in, for example, Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian SM, resonates with a great many women who are not, technically speaking, into SM” (40). That a language of lesbian S/M might be used to explore and to convey sexual intensity is suggestive for my reading of Brossard's text. Although physical pain does not produce pleasure in the sexual encounters between women in Baroque at Dawn, pleasure is registered poetically on a number of occasions through metaphors of violence, suffering, and physical extremity: the novel opens with La Sixtine's injunction to Cybil to “devastate me, eat me up” (5); in a subsequent liaison, “bodies immolate, immobilize, are a hair's breadth from ecstasy” (36); listening to La Sixtine's violin, Cybil weaves “veritable torments of pleasure” (37); the strident sounds make her think of “Luciano Fontana's paintings which, lacerated with a single stroke, open up, slash at the heart, and pose heartbreak as a fundamental question” (37); later in the narrative, Cybil imagines a woman's “[b]urning lips unbridled on her neck” (143). Through a brief consideration of the discourse of several of the scenes listed above, this final section returns to questions raised throughout the paper regarding the text's appropriation of (and resistance to) the baroque.
Much is made early in Brossard's text of the fact that the two women in the hotel room are strangers to each other, that they have exchanged only two or three sentences before having sex. Although this circumstance is framed in terms of Cybil's resistance to the biographical, it is significant as a departure from lesbian feminist discourses of sexuality of the late 1970s and 1980s. B. Ruby Rich observes that, within the latter discourses, “love replaces marriage as a prerequisite for sex” (529). In representing a sexual encounter between women outside—or on the edges of—an established relationship, the opening scene of Baroque at Dawn marks a departure from such discourses. What is more, the exchange between Cybil and La Sixtine about the former's “habit of ‘taking the elevator’ with perfect strangers” (18) makes an issue of promiscuity, another in a string of “unrespectable issues” that, according to Ardill and O'Sullivan, have led to coalition building among “sexual radicals” (40). Lesbian feminist subculture, they go on to argue, has tended to hang all of “these overlapping issues” from the peg of S/M (40).
The sexual encounter that opens Baroque at Dawn foregrounds—and confounds—postures of submission and domination in the relations between Cybil and La Sixtine. In that encounter, the command to “Devastate me, eat me up” (5), comes from the one who wants to lose herself in a limit experience with another. What Creet calls “the play of power between women” (139), or what Ardill and O'Sullivan call “the sexual dramatization … of power relations” (40), is even more ambivalent in the French text, in which Cybil hears La Sixtine's command to “Dévaste-moi, mange moi” as “Dé, vaste moi, m'ange moi” (13). This densely poetic enunciation, translated as “Day, vastate me, heat me up” (5), emphasizes the instability of relations of power and address within the scene. “Dé,” seemingly addressed to Cybil by La Sixtine, is followed by a noun in apposition, “vaste moi,” which is most easily read as a reference by La Sixtine to herself. Similarly, “m'ange moi” sounds like an imperative addressed to Cybil by La Sixtine but one with the marks of a reflexive verb—that is, something that one does to oneself. The sense of exquisite balance required to sustain the fever pitch of the opening scene is recaptured later in the description of a pair of dancers doing the tango:
Staccato, saw-toothed beats and harmonics command each approach step and separation of the bodies, prolong the pact. Broken rhythm, broken pact. The woman turns about face, the slit of her dress opening from ankle to curve of thigh. The beauty of the coded, fetish movements where equilibrium is both unquestionably perfect and precarious.
The tango, like the women's sex practice, is a performance subject to strict rules yet susceptible to endless resignification. Both scenes flirt with the contracted roles and ritualized violence of S/M. More specifically, the language of Brossard's text emphasizes movement or play among roles, positions, and modes of address. Power, the text implies, is carefully negotiated and always in flux; it is the angel (“l'ange”) that Cybil hears in La Sixtine's command.
The second time the two women take the elevator together, Cybil watches while La Sixtine painstakingly applies makeup for her evening performance. Watching this ritual produces highly contradictory responses in Cybil: one minute she questions “the tools and strategies devised for facing up” and associates face painting, tattooing, and body piercing with “sensual overkill” (35); the next she takes pleasure in the spectacle and appropriates for a sexual encounter between women lips that glisten red “like a thousand scenarios in the story of women” (36). The reflections prompted by the spectacle of “facing up” help to explain Cybil's ambivalence toward images of torture and suffering in this scene as well as throughout the novel:
Imagination used to give life another twist, implying that life had meaning. When the impression was of happiness, meaning froze. When suffering showed its face, meaning made a comeback, instigated prodigious faiths and terrible altercations in the world of the living. Each altercation generated new words and forced meaning the way you twist an arm.
Cybil's reflections suggest that suffering, far more than happiness, stimulates the imagination and produces culture. In Baroque at Dawn, suffering helps to generate the vocabulary necessary to write “this violent book” (16) and to explore the intensity of the women's passion. At the same time, the meaning generated by suffering is coercive. Cybil finds herself in a baroque age of cultural transformation in which there are too many aesthetics, “too many feelings, too many bodies of knowledge. Too many signs” to analyse and interpret (145). In spite of this diversity, there is “too much of the same kind of life” (145). Cybil's principal avenue of resistance against this numbing repetition of the same in the guise of difference is to “Decode; evaluate life's chances in view of all the signs. In each sign calculate an added value that lets one dance amid the questions and justify happiness” (35). The text's reimagining of La Sixtine's initial pietà pose as an embrace between Cybil and La Sixtine is a vivid example of this work with signs. In fact, the pietàs of Baroque at Dawn invert the effects of suffering and happiness outlined in the citation above: pleasure produces a living sculpture, whereas suffering produces a frozen statue. Part of what fascinates and disturbs Cybil about the Delfosse painting (as she sees it in her dream) is the peaceful look on the faces in what is, fundamentally, a scene of torture. In the painting of Cybil's dream, “suffering show[s] its face,” and “the impression [is] of happiness.”
The scene in which Cybil watches La Sixtine put on makeup turns out to be an elaborate ritual of foreplay. Cybil's meditation on suffering leads to a sexual encounter: “Everything becomes hazy. The moves are different from the day before. Other words, other caresses. The room fills with a very virgin energy. The bodies immolate, immobilize, are a hair's breadth from ecstasy” (36). If, early in the scene, Cybil qualifies face painting as “sensual overkill,” the scene's climax suggests that Cybil is not immune to the arm twist of spectacle. What is more, the discourse of her sexual pleasure is derived from a vocabulary of extremity shared with Christianity. Like representations of martyrdom in Baroque painting, and like Cybil's fantasy later in the novel, the excerpt above moves ambiguously between the sexual and the religious. In a discussion of feminism's relationship to fantasies of erotic domination, Jessica Benjamin associates continuities between sexual and religious eroticism with the “secularization of society” and the erosion of “previously existing forms of communal life that allowed for ritual transcendence” (296). In her view, “erotic masochism or submission expresses the same need for transcendence of self … formerly satisfied and expressed by religion” (296). Although there are hints of nostalgia in her discourse that have no currency in Brossard's text, Benjamin's insights help to explain why—from painters such as Sodoma to writers such as Brossard—discourses of religious ecstasy are so easily appropriated for discourses of sexual ecstasy (see also Bataille 239). Less clear, of course, is how to negotiate the tension between the narrative of transcendence through sacrifice implied by the words immolate and ecstasy and the resistance to such a narrative elsewhere in the text, particularly in the resignification of the pietà.
As I have suggested at several points in this paper, Cybil is not without her complicities and her contradictions. She is able to analyse the mechanisms by which suffering generates a spectacular array of signs with little possibility for meaningful intervention in culture. For example, when she hears a former member of the Hell's Angels telling other members of her Spanish class about several gang rapes that he had witnessed, she observes that “Any evildoer capable of telling his story with hand over heart indicating confidentiality can sidetrack the subject every time, opening the way for an emotional intimacy that leads one to ‘understand’ the worst crimes and taste the bite of senses sharpened by violence” (101). Yet Cybil herself is susceptible to a poetics of suffering and to “the bite of senses sharpened by violence.” As she listens to La Sixtine's violin, for example, she wonders, “Who has made me this happy in a world of horrors?” (37). In the words of the narrator, “The word horror diverts Cybil's attention briefly but the present returns the stronger for it, brings her back to the raw pleasure of the sounds and heat of the bar” (37). The fact that “the present returns the stronger” for the use of the word horror implies that Cybil participates in a culture in which experience is intensified by suffering. In the sequence of texts that concludes the novel, she suggests as much as she reflects on her urge to see the Delfosse paintings: “It could be, after all, that we're able to reproduce a joie de vivre by introducing as decorative motifs our torments and the odd weak argument not too far off joy” (211).
Cybil's contradictions and complicities are crucial to an understanding of how Brossard's text appropriates and resists the baroque. Cybil is a reluctant participant in the construction of “this violent book,” Baroque at Dawn. Her reluctance stems from a critical awareness of tendencies in a range of discourses—from Christianity to Western science—to aestheticize and eroticize pain. Cybil is also a passionate participant in the projects and relationships in which she engages with other women. Alive to the exuberance and embodied sexuality of the baroque, she nevertheless balks at its rampant spectacle of ritualized violence. For if the baroque is a theatre of sexual intensity, it is also a theatre of pain. The fashioning of the baroque body, especially the cutting and marking of flesh, sits uneasily with a lesbian feminist ethic that “rejects mortification as a way of life” (Brossard, “Kind Skin” 121) and with a lesbian feminist politics loath to risk the appearance of a passionate attachment to the terms of its own subjection (Butler 6). Yet in Baroque at Dawn, a text of unexpected and uneasy conjunctions, it is possible for a meditation on face painting, tattooing, and body piercing—what the text calls “sensual overkill”—to end in a crescendo of lesbian passion.
In resisting an electronic culture that pushes the production of signs to the point of “sensual overkill,” of meaningless repetition that “transforms nothing” (Brossard, “E Muet Mutant” 47), Baroque at Dawn might be said to resist the baroque. However, Brossard's text also turns to the baroque, particularly the subjects of Baroque religious art, to explore new vocabularies and new discourses of lesbian sexuality. Baroque religious art furnishes subjects susceptible to appropriation and resignification (Michelangelo's sibyls, the pietà) and others more susceptible to resistance and critique (Jesuit martyrs). Significantly, in spite of these strategies of resignification and critique, the poetics of suffering and self-sacrifice that subtends images of pietà and martyrs has considerable currency in the text's representations of pleasure, whether sexual pleasure or the pleasure of listening to music or watching a tango. If feminism has a moralizing side, it also has a baroque side. In a sense, Brossard's Baroque at Dawn has it both ways; the text leaves the reader wondering where to draw the line between passion and pain, leatherman and torturer, exuberance and overkill, lesbian feminist resignification and age-old cliché. In the face of such ambivalence—ambivalence so key to the baroque—the reader has little choice but to follow Cybil's injunction to decode.
Throughout the essay, I cite the English translations of Brossard's texts where translations are available. All other translations are mine.
I use the term “baroque” to refer to practices and preoccupations that surface in twentieth-century contexts and reserve the term “Barque” for the art historical period from 1580 to 1750.
For further discussion of the ways in which the baroque has been appropriated by contemporary Canadian and Québécois women writers and artists, see Moyes, Introduction.
Gauvreau is associated with les Automatistes, the group of Québécois poets and painters of the late 1940s and 1950s whose nonfigurative use of words and paint paved the way for the experimental writing and counter-culture of Brossard and other young artists in the late 1960s and 1970s.
For André G. Bourassa, Gauvreau uses the term “baroque” in the sense of profusion, generosity, and absolute liberty (29). Michel Peterson's reading of Beauté baroque analyses the baroque as a site of the sublime, a site of the constitution of the self-contradictory subject (363). The term “baroque” does not entirely disappear in the 1970s and 1980s; it surfaces, for example, in the work of Bourassa and Marchand in the late 1970s and in that of Louise Dupré in the late 1980s. With the resurgence of interest in the baroque in the 1990s, the term is used more frequently. See, for example, Robert Richard's 1990 discussion of Hubert Aquin, Claudine Bertrand's 1993 discussion of new tendencies in Québécois writing, Pierre L'Hérault's 1994 discussion of Antonio D'Alfonso, and Peterson's 1994 discussion of Gauvreau.
Gauvreau's “beauté baroque” arises in Dupré's study in a reflection on indeterminacy in the writing of Brossard's contemporary, Madeleine Gagnon: “Is this indeterminacy not founded in the refusal of control which results in a warping of taste? As if the proper, classical ‘style’ … were endlessly overextended by exaggeration. As if the poetry showed too much: alternately too lyrical, too theoretical, too allegorical, too anecdotal, too painful, too fragmented. As if from this exacerbation comes a ‘beauté baroque’ to take up Claude Gauvreau's title” (224).
As B. Ruby Rich observes in her discussion of the evolution of feminist attitudes toward sexuality in the late 1970s and 1980s, “the defense of lesbian sadomasochism is linked to an attack on 1970s lesbian feminism and its assumed orthodoxy (nonexploitation, equal power relations, and so forth)” (532).
Significantly, the image that appears on the cover of the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible (Browning) that I consulted from time to time as I wrote this paper is that of Michelangelo's prophet Zechariah. At the present juncture, an image of one of Michelangelo's five sibyls on such a cover is unlikely—both because a sibyl is pagan and because she is a woman.
The ignudi are naked figures that hold up the series of medallions and tablets bearing the names of the prophets and sibyls. Because their function is primarily architectural, Michelangelo had a certain freedom in depicting them (O'Malley 100). Like the captives or slaves whom he carved around the same time, the ignudi prefigure the arrested motion, contorted shapes, and intense facial expressions of baroque sculpture and painting (Blunt 374; O'Malley 101).
In French, “Noé, l'arche, tout cela ne pouvait pas être le fruit de notre imagination” (141).
Allegory, a form associated with the baroque by Walter Benjamin (166) and Christine Buci-Glucksmann (68), allows for movement between historical moments but also between the mythic and the historical, the spiritual and the material, Michelangelo's frescoes and contemporary lesbian lovers.
In spite of the title's emphasis on the Renaissance, the first line of the abstract refers to the “Renaissance and Baroque periods” (90).
In his reading of Michel Marc Bouchard's play Les Feluettes (adapted in the film Lilies by John Greyson), Robert K. Martin comments helpfully on the tension between a church “founded on the hatred of the body and the repression of desire” and a church which “makes a place … for the homoerotic.”
I do not want to give the impression that classical figures dominate Brossard's texts or that there are only two possible discourses, classical and Christian. In an effort to disrupt prevailing codes and symbols, Brossard's writing ranges widely—from literature to economics to physics to popular culture—and intercalates such discourses in unexpected ways.
In conversation at the 1997 Women and Texts conference in Leeds, England, Brossard explained to me that she had asked the artist in charge of designing the cover to collage a pietà, a bridge, and turbulent water; the specific choices and the intense light had been the artist's idea.
The accounts of the torture deaths of Jesuits such as Brébeuf and Lalement in the Relations des Jésuites give similar details.
Painted by Georges Delfosse (1869-1939) between 1908 and 1909, this painting is not of the Baroque period, but it does depict a seventeenth-century religious subject, the Jesuit martyrs of New France.
In his history of the Jesuits, Jean Lacouture finds in the work of nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet a relevant critique of the art inspired by the Jesuits and their “spirit of death” (2: 102). Michelet writes of the irony of Jesuits whose desire to be represented as beautiful and appealing (rather than twisted or tortured) in their martyrdom ultimately translates into ridiculous images of eyes rolling skyward in contrived beatitude and smiles so forced that they verge on grimaces (2: 102).
Daly thanks Brossard in her acknowledgements for being an encouraging and faithful colleague. There are numerous parallels in the discourse of the two texts. For example, “Males have tried to rid themselves of their impurities by subliming themselves into ‘God’” (Daly 73); “All this time, the sexes of men were being carved to point straight at the sky, imploring God to do the dirty work of cleansing women's sexes of all impurities so that sons could step over the present and ride off on the stars” (Brossard, Baroque 145).
Daly's is part of a wider feminist discourse that considers S/M to be “intrinsically antagonistic to the goals of feminism” (Wilton 53). One finds versions of the discourse against S/M, for example, in works by Sheila Jeffreys; Bev Jo, Linda Strega, and Ruston; Robin Linden et al.; and Irene Reti. Gayle S. Rubin, in her groundbreaking 1984 commentary on the struggle between Women against Pornography and lesbian sadomasochists, expresses the concern that antiporn rhetoric “criticizes non-routine acts of love rather than routine acts of oppression, exploitation, or violence” and “directs legitimate anger at women's lack of personal safety against innocent individuals, practices, and communities” (28). For further discussion of feminism's relationship to S/M, particularly lesbian S/M, see Ardill and O'Sullivan; Califia; Creet; Rich; and Wilton.
In French, “Armés d'un vocabulaire neuf, ils laissent les murs tranquilles, préférant dans leur chair des signifiants plus directs” (39; emphasis added).
For a helpful overview and excellent bibliography of the much debated relationships among queer theory, feminism, and lesbian and gay sexualities, see Wallace.
Judith Butler's response to “the insistence that a subject is passionately attached to his or her own subordination,” one of the sources of this feminist anxiety, is that “the attachment to subjection is produced through the workings of power, and that part of the operation of power is made clear in this psychic effect, one of the most insidious of its productions” (6).
Rubin anticipates such a turn when she argues that feminism is not—and should not be—“the privileged site of a theory of sexuality” (32) and that lesbians might explore a theory of sexuality in conjunction with gay men and other sexual minorities as well as with feminists. In her terms, “lesbian feminist ideology has mostly analysed the oppression of lesbians in terms of the oppression of women. However, lesbians are also oppressed as queers and perverts, by the operation of sexual, not gender, stratification. Although it pains many lesbians to think about it, the fact is that lesbians have shared many of the sociological features and suffered from many of the same social penalties as have gay men, sadomasochists, transvestites, and prostitutes” (33).
I would like to thank Nancy Roussy for assisting me in the process of researching this paper, translating citations, and thinking through the contradictions of Brossard's text. I am also grateful to Domenic Benventi for his research on the baroque, Robert K. Martin for his dialogue, and to Ian MacKenzie for his editorial suggestions. The research for this paper was enabled by grants from Fonds pour la formation de Chercheurs et d'Aide à la Recherche, Québec, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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SOURCE: Knutson, Susan. “Text: In Which the Reader Sees a Hologram in Her Mind's Eye.” In Narrative in the Feminine: Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard, pp. 155-68. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Knutson studies Brossard's feminist vision of woman as it is symbolized by a three-dimensional, holographic image in her novel Picture Theory.]
La langue est ce qui nous permet d'acheminer l'image mentale vers la pensée.
—Nicole Brossard, Accès à l'écriture
The first edition of Picture Theory (1982) has a design on the bottom right-hand corner of page 97, showing the corner of the page lifting to reveal a three-dimensional city, its highrises modelled in shimmering white outline against a dark grid. “Enter this book/city,” suggests the picture, “and enter a virtual and three-dimensional world.” The image corresponds to a densely written passage describing the vacationers' last night on the island, during which they negotiate the ninth and richest turn of the spiral: “une nuit parfaite”1 (112):
À l'autre bout de la nuit, j'allais ouvrir une bouteillle. Les cités convergeaient dans nos verres. Des femmes émergeaient de partout, l'architecture; la somme des lois tournait dans leurs yeux, la vélocité de leur vie, les formes qu'elles s'apprêtaient à prendre: chiffres, herbes, livres, lettres, spirale, première neige.2
The scene contrasts two Brossardian conceptions of the modern city, two urban realities which co-exist. The first, defined in a 1981 text entitled “Pré(e),” is the “la ville … patriarcale jusqu'aux dents”3 (5). The second is the urban environment in which radical lesbian women come together. “[L]es cités convergeaient une à une, convoquées par la fulgurante intuition que nous avions traversant l'histoire de l'art, sagittaires aériennes en voie de transformations”4 (PT [Picture Theory] 113). Gazing into their glasses as if they were crystal balls, the five travellers witness Universal Man in the form of straight red arrows which inundate the patriarchal city, wounding women in their bodies and in their vision:
chaque ville était un document qui abondait en flèches … l'homme-flèche. … Les villes, l'orbe lunaire, black out, il nous fallait apprivoiser l'énergie pour éviter que s'installe dans nos membres et surtout dans nos regards, une mortelle immobilité pouvant faire croire à un renoncement.5
Still in the virtual world of their glasses, the horizon is opened by a flash of lightning, and the women walk calmly, in spite of the arrows in their souls, into the virtual city of their feminist desire:
Dans nos verres, un coup d'éclat ouvrant l'horizon sous nos yeux, à même mos corps en état de pensée, dans une position de tir, anticipation mentale, la flèche dans l'eau de l'âme, nous avancions calmement dans les rues désertes.6
The flash of lightning that opens the horizon links this spatial traversal to the night voyage across the continent to the island, identifying it with the primary event. Louise Forsyth argues that the city, like the human being, is a transformative topos of concentrated energy: “la rencontre des femmes fait lever la page sur la cité des femmes”7 (Préface [Louise Forsyth's “Préface” to Picture Theory] 23. See also “Deconstructing Formal Space” [“Deconstructing Formal Space/Accelerating Motion in the Work of Nicole Brossard”] 337). The city of women is the virtual site of freedom to be for the “[t]raversières, urbaines radicales, lesbiennes”8 (105) of Picture Theory. The women walk into the city on page 97, which rises like a hologram above the streets of New York, Montréal, Buenos Aires, Cairo or Paris—its hieratic metonymy evoking the textual three-dimensionality of Brossard's vision.
Three-dimensionality is an important figure in Brossard's work of this period, and not only in association with the virtual three-dimensionality of the hologram. Everyday, ordinary reality also has three dimensions, and Brossard celebrates every woman's effort to live fully, at any given moment, in all three of them. She writes in the dedication to La lettre aérienne of her desire to understand patriarchal reality and its functions, “non pas pour elle-même mais pour ses conséquences tragiques dans la vie des femmes, dan la vie de l'esprit”9 (9). In relating this dedication to the figure of three-dimensionality, we remember the patriarchal limitation of women's physical freedom, not only by extreme practices such as foot-binding and purdah, but wherever the ability of girls and women to exercise freely in three dimensions is constrained by regulations of propriety, safety and morality. In Picture Theory, the character of Judith Pamela accepts patriarchal law, unlike the five protagonists who practise extending women's horizons. Brossard writes,
Il y a dans La Lettre aérienne dix ans de combat contre ce qui fait écran à l'énergie, à l'identité et à la créativité des femmmes. Dix ans de courbes, de graffiti, de ratures et d'écriture afin d'exorciser “le mauvais sort.” Il a fallu me “colleter aux mots” pour que naissent de la bagarre bigarrée des émotions, le flamboiement des spirales et les femmes tridimensionelles qui alimentent mon désire et mon espoir.10
These three-dimensional women who nourish desire and hope are related not only to the characters in Picture Theory but also to actual women fighting for women's rights and freedoms around the world. To such women, Brossard offers a mirror which, while it is as provisional as any other representation, is relatively accurate and a welcome relief from the unrelentingly negative portrayals of feminists in mainstream culture. In fact, Picture Theory is full of rather ordinary mirrors which reflect what is: as Brossard puts it, “si le patriarcat est parvenu à ne pas faire exister ce qui existe, il nous sera sans doute possible de faire exister ce qui existe”11 (RI [“De radical à intágrales”] 87).
The figures of the mirror and of three-dimensionality are related to those of the hologram and the three-dimensional text. Narratology describes as three-dimensional any narrative text that includes discourse, or citation, because it implies multiple narrative levels or textual depth. The feminist reader of Picture Theory will see herself repeatedly in the mirror texts of the “discours autour de la table quotidienne”12 (95). But Picture Theory extends narrative three-dimensionality by signifying holography in all three registers of fabula, story and text. Perspective becomes a function of reading and writing, while mirrors and embedded mirror texts play a key role as part of the holographic mechanism.
Mirror texts share important elements with the primary fabula, signifying the fabula to the reader as to the characters (N [Narratology] 146). An important contrasting mirror text is the fragment of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre, which serves also as a footnote to Oriana's operatic career. Wagner articulates clearly the principles of European patriarchy: the daughter is subject to patriarchal authority on the four levels of her body, her family, her state and her religion: she is dominated by her husband, father, king and god. Because she has rebelled, she is isolated from any community, even the natural one of her siblings:
Did you not hear what I ordained? J'ai exclu de votre troupe la soeur infidèle; à cheval avec vous elle ne traversera plus les airs; la fleur virginale se fanera, un époux gagnera ses faveurs de femme; désormais elle obéira à son seigneur et maître, et, assise devant son foyer filant la quenouille, elle sera la cible et l'objet de toutes les moqueries. Si son sort vous effraie, alors fuyez celle qui est perdue! Ecartez-vous d'elle et restez loin d'elle. Celle d'entre vous qui oserait demeurer auprès d'elle celle qui me braverait, prendrait le parti de la misérable, cette insensée partagerait son sort: cette téméraire doit le savoir!(13)
The narratological requirement that a mirror text share a common element with the main fabula is fulfilled by the rebellious figures of the outcast sister and the other, bold woman who stays close to her. Wotan's ordained punishment of isolation images in reverse the feminist community of Picture Theory.
The talk around the daily table is the central mirror text and sign of the novel, as Claire Dérive herself points out early in “L'émotion”: “Nous étions assises autour de la table et Claire Dérive disait que de nous voir ensemble et ici retrouvées au bord de la mer, c'est un signe”14 (96-97). The women seated together in the house by the sea are a sign of the book and a sign of social change, signifying that the break from patriarchal meaning has been effected, and the second stage, the creation of the imaginary territory or “vacance” to be filled with women's energies, is in progress. The embedded conversations impact causally on the main fabula, producing the energy essential to the primary event. The narrative technique of free indirect discourse blurs hierarchical embedding and underlines the importance of feminist discourse as the irreplaceable model and strategic occasion for the collective feminist practice of semantic divergence in the spiral of political and personal change.
The overarching topic of conversation is, of course, women's trajectory out of patriarchy, making the embedded conversations argumentative and mirroring the intentions of the book as a whole. The conversations move rapidly over a range of theoretical issues associated with the radical feminism of the 1980s, including the concept of matriarchy, the nature of patriarchy and the role of the patriarchal mother, and the resocialization of women's sexual desires. Claire is thinking about a key condition for the creation of the hologram:
Bien qu'elle affirmait que le mot abstraction se glisse quelque part dans sa pensée, elle admettait pour le moment qu'il lui était difficile d'établir un lien direct entre le fait d'être cinq femmes dans une île et la notion même de ce que peut être une abstraction.15
Her intuition of an abstraction refers to “l'abstraction vitale” (88) of May 16, which, I have argued, corresponds to Brossard's concept of turning away from negative memory in order to build on what is ecstacy, and new. It also recalls the abstraction through which women, as subjects of language, “lay claim to universality,” as Wittig argues in “The Mark of Gender” (6). Claire develops her ideas further, relating being to utopia:
à la source de chaque émotion, il y a une abstraction dont l'effet est l'émotion mais dont les conséquences dérivent la fixité du regard et des idées. Chaque abstraction est une forme potentielle dans l'espace mental. Et quand l'abstraction prend forme, elle s'inscrit radicalement comme énigme et affirmation. Avoir recours à l'abstraction est une nécessité pour celle qui fait le project, tentée par l'existence, de traverser les anecdotes quotidiennes et les mémoires d'utopie qu'elle rencontre à chaque usage de la parole.16
The “je suis” of “La perspective” (76) and “des phrases complètes et abstraites liant la vie et la parole”17 (96) are also Brossardian responses to this key issue of language and the access to undivided subjectivity.
While Claire's friends don't respond theoretically to her point, they respond in practice, each woman offering her own being, preoccupations and thought:
Oriana se mit alors à parler du temps tout en cherchant ses mots en français pour dire comment elle l'imaginait. Elle dit ne pas comprendre pourquoi, chaque fois que des femmes sont réunies, dans les films par exemple, le temps semble s'arrêter autour d'elles après les avoir figées ou changées en statues de sel chargées de symboles. Oriana, après que Danièle Judith l'eût interrompue pour dire matriarcat, continuait sa description du temps.18
In speaking of the deathly effect of the patriarchal gaze on the bodies of women, Oriana refers to the myths of Lot's wife and Eurydice, each woman paralyzed by her husband's gaze. These classical myths, rewritten by Brossard as well as by Marlatt and Wittig, are central to lesbian rewriting of patriarchal mythology. The lesbian is able to lead her lover out of hell—unlike the male lover who betrays her and incorporates her death into a religious symbology. In Picture Theory, the taste of salt is a motif associated with the memory of ancient betrayal. Danièle interrupts Oriana with the talisman of matriarchy to charm away damage to the body and imagination. Later, however, she corrects herself, disassociating the concept of matriarchy from that of utopia: “Danièle Judith disait que le matriarcat est un mot d'anthropologie et qu'il ne peut pas être utilisé d'une manière contemporaine pour exorciser le patriarcat. Ce mot ne pouvait non plus servir à élaborer quelque utopie qui aurait rendu les femmes à leur genre”19 (101). The developing political critique of lesbian utopianism, discussed in chapter 1, lies behind Danièle's qualifications of the word “matriarcat” as well as Michèle's and Claire's programmatic interventions with respect to ecstasy: “Je voulais dire que l'extase est une réalité en soi qui rend le temps éternel. Claire Dérive affirmait qu'il ne fallait pas confondre la nuit des temps, le temps patriarcal et l'extase”20 (97).
In Picture Theory, ecstasy is related to utopia, and both are feminist issues. As Brossard explains, La lettre aérienne addresses a feminist question to the heart of “des séquences utopiques qui traversent nos pensées, nos paroles et nos gestes”21 (9-10). The timelessness of ecstasy, Claire specifies, has nothing in common with the timelessness of women's non-being in patriarchal systems, as patriarchal darkness has nothing in common with night. To imagine otherwise is to identify pleasure with a masochistic annihilation: “de cette confusion naissaient des femmes suspendues et immobiles dans l'espace”22 (97). Ecstasy is part of the utopian program because it is forward looking; it can provide a match for our glimpses of what is not, but what could be. Even Oriana's search for words corresponds to the creation of a screen sufficiently imbued with ecstatic elements that it will be able to interact eventually with the utopian screen. At issue is a quality of emotion:
Nous étions assises autour de la table. … Je disais, avec dans la bouche un goût de sel, à propos de l'utopie en commençant par le mot femme que l'utopie n'allait pas assurer notre insertion dans la réalité mais qu'un témoignage utopique de notre part pouvait stimuler en nous une qualité d'émotion propice à notre insertion dans l'histoire. Avant que Claire Dérive parle d'abstraction, j'ajoutais que nous devions socialiser nos énergies de manière à n'en être point victimes ou encore pour éviter que nos ventres seuls soient méritoires comme une virilité mentale pouvant servir par la suite à meurtrir les corps pensants.23
Michèle argues that women's energies must be resocialized in order for them to cease to live as victims—a radical argument made convincingly by Monique Wittig in “La pensée straight.” Michèle might have added that such resocialization, if it is possible at all, could never take place in isolation but would require the complicity of others doing the same. Michèle's words metonymically interpellate the reorganized subjectivity of which she dreams. In order to effect the transformation of individual utopian experience into a new symbolic and historical organization of gender, women must generate a new libidinal economy. The ideal point of departure for such an enterprise is exactly where these characters are, around the table sharing language and energy. The repetition of the phrase “nous étions assises autour de la table”24 (96, 101, 105, 107, 109), with its feminine “assises,” underlines the round-table discussions as a motif in the novel, and a mirror for the readers who find themselves participating in a virtual reality there.
The circle around the table is also a healing circle, for the long-term destructive effects of the formation of female identity in the patriarchal family is also a feminist issue, as the characters' tearful memories of childhood make clear. Women are paralyzed in “le temps patriarchal,” betrayed in many ways, as Mary Daly elaborates in chapter 4 of Gyn/Ecology, often by their own mothers who initiate them into patriarchal law. In the morning light of Picture Theory, Claire Dérive denounces the patriarchal mother:
Le temps patriarcal ne s'est-il pas arrêté autour d'elles pour les confondre morbidement à la folie, à la mort et à la soumission. La mère est partout quand le temps s'arrête, la mère est pleine de secrets qui angoissent les filles laissées à elles-mêmes dans les ruines patriarcales: autos, pneus, ascenseurs, métros, verres brisés. L'âme en ruine, l'esprit de l'homme ne peut plus se concevoir autrement qu'en projetant la perte de sa déité dans les corps abstraits de quelques femmes isolément réunies, l'âme en ruines. Il y a là un manque à imaginer qui bien que n'étant pas nôtre, nous accable dans l'exercice même de nos fonctions mentales.25
But the narrator testifies to the changing times: “Pour la première fois, comme ce matin devant la mer, je n'ai pas peur d'entendre les mots d'une autre femme”26 (98). After L'amèr, in the transformative world of Picture Theory, Michèle can listen without fear to the words of another woman because, in this world, women no longer have anything to gain by initiating other women into patriarchal law.
In “L'émotion,” the characters reach for words adequate to a shared experience of utopia/ecstasy freed from the patriarchy, and they depend on each other for a linguistic community that understands words the way they do. In Brossard's thought, the women are speaking with the same accent, having undergone a parallel process of semantic deviation so that, by the time they reach the spiralling world of Picture Theory, they are practised at articulating reality from multiple perspectives. “La perspective,” which follows “L'ordinaire” but precedes the virtual production of “L'émotion,” prepares the reader to participate in “L'émotion” by developing the double perspective first suggested in the fragmentary scènes blanches.
“La perspective” presents two scenes: the scene of the book, which reads Djuna Barnes's Nightwood as mirror text/intertext, and the love scene, which carries forward the abstraction and which reveals the narrator to herself. Claire's arrival, announced with great anticipation at the close of “L'ordinaire,” is the beam of coherent light that transforms the holographic plate, the incoherent record of the first exposure, into the virtual three-dimensionality of the holographic image. The love scene between the narrator and Claire Derive puts “L'ordinaire” into a new perspective.
Perspective is traditionally thought to formalize a relationship between a work of art and an observer. The mathematical principles of one-point or central perspective, known to the architects of classical Greece but lost during the Middle Ages, were rediscovered by Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and Leon Battista Alberti theorized and applied Brunelleschi's discovery of the vanishing point in his thesis Della pittura (1436). According to his “picture theory,” all parts of a painting were to be constructed in rational relationship to each other and to the observer. The ideal observer's height and distance from the painting are established by the artist during the perspective construction, thus placing the viewer in a fixed position. This traditional one-point perspective is made obsolete by the three-dimensionality of the hologram, which permits a multiplicity of points of view.
Picture Theory interpellates a viewer/reader who develops new perspectives while engaged in the ongoing activity of reading. Whereas traditional perspective effectively transforms three-dimensional objects and spatial relationships in order to represent them on a two-dimensional plane or in flat relief, in Picture Theory, the printed page, imagined as a shallow relief of paper and ink, functions as a relay-transistor or screen for the reconstitution of a utopian and three-dimensional image. Brossard creates a place for the reader in the textual perspective, but it is no longer necessary for this place to be fixed because a hologram, like a “real” object, can be regarded from any situation without distortion of its vital characteristics.
The difficulties encountered in reading Picture Theory are guides for the developing perspectives of the reader. The hologram is to appear in the mind's eye of the reader, not as an image of woman, for images of women are everywhere and entirely co-opted, nor as a hologram of a woman, for such holograms already exist, and have changed nothing. The hologram is to appear like a wave of emotion evoked by the memory of utopia; it is to appear as interacting wave formations in the cervical cortex, resulting in a three-dimensional consciousness/memory/picture of “la femme intégrale”: a generically female human being, with all ensuring consequences. In order to produce this desired effect, Picture Theory assembles the necessary elements: Claire Dérive, the love scene, the narrator who reconstitutes nothing, the mirror and the beam of coherent light which is split into two. The love scene will be holographed, and at the right moment, the hologram will be activated by the reader.
The split beam of light, necessary for three-dimensional perspective, is figured in a variety of ways. In la scène blanche and “La perspective” the text is diffracted into the parallel scenes of the carpet or love scene, the holographed scene (43) and the book (43). Concurrently, a double perspective on time is elaborated through alternate use of the present tense with the imperfect or the passé composé (65), and through the correlation between changing consciousness and crossing the threshold. The motifs of the “hall d'entrée” and the room filled with light, familiar from la scène blanche, guide the reader through the transformations of “La perspective.” The split scene corresponds to the split beam of light; the passages in the present tense correspond to the reference beam and the passages in the past tense have been reflected off the love scene and carry that information forward to the future. Claire's cheek, offered to her lover, is a “mise en abyme” (65), but, as the section continues, the perspective appears more and more to be based on a vanishing point of light (88). The rose of light which Dante saw in paradise appears in aerial perspective: “posture aérienne / l'apparence d'une rose double dans la clarté”27 (69). Claire enters “le hall d'entrée,” and then the forest, and the images turn to Dante, Wittig and the Joycean event of the book.
Parallel linguistic strategies model wave-front interaction throughout Picture Theory. Just before the achievement of the hologram, “Screen Skin Utopia” evokes the polysemy of words in the first-person, present tense: “La langue est fiévreuse comme un recours polysémique. Le point de non-retour de toute affirmation amoureuse est atteint. Je suis là où commence ‘l'apparence magique,’ la cohérence de mondes, trouée par d'invisibles spirales qui l'activent”28 (188). The second paragraph, written in the pluperfect and imparfait tenses and in the third person, looks at the scene from a position in the future: “M. V. s'était redressée, avait lentement tourné la tête le regard pris entre le rebord de la fenêtre et l'horizon. Le poème hurlait opening the mind”29 (188). As the mind opens, Michèle's gaze traverses the boundary of the window to reach that of the horizon. The temporal gymnastics implicate the deixis inherent in verb tenses, analyzed by Benveniste as one of the primary means through which subjectivity is created in language. … Picture Theory uses every tense in the French language to invoke every conceivable relationship a subject may have to time.
In addition, the text moves between English, French, Italian and sometimes Spanish. This is characteristic of Brossard's work, as testified by her long interest in linguistic plurality and translation, her fascination with what can be richly present in one language, yet absent from another. Translation, like thought, is understood to be “a complex act of passage which inflame[s] the mind” (“Nicole Brossard” 53). Because translation is always the site of an encounter between language, thought and meaning, it suggests the transcendent figure of the white centre, that sudden illumination of the mind which transforms consciousness.
Since the characters of Picture Theory are Québecoise, American and Italian-American, the encounter of languages in Picture Theory is realistically motivated; Claire, for example, speaks English as her mother tongue. But Brossard's “literary bilingual consciousness” is creative because, as Bakhtin suggests, in the encounter of languages, “two myths perish simultaneously: the myth of a language that presumes to be the only language, and the myth of a language that presumes to be completely unified” (62, 68). In Picture Theory, the confusion of tongues is related to the creation of new discourse based not on the single origin of patriarchal law but on a double origin and all that it might represent for the development of a non-binary symbolic:
Claire revenait avec le vin, hors d'elle, parlait bitch, dyke, sentait l'américaine à plein nez, ultra modern style new-yorkais. Stop it, Michèle, watch it, disait Florence très énervée pendant que je savais vouloir réaliser la fameuse synthèse de l'eau et de feu qui brûle la langue. I know, ça me trahit cette synthèse de la double origine, I knew, I know.30
“I knew, I know” enacts the strategies of parallel verb tenses and the use of English, while naming the new perspective. “Cette synthèse de la double origine” is opposed to the single logos of phallogocentric vision. The creative chaos of circulating language elements is underlined by Oriana's speech, which slips from French to English to Italian to German: “Elle était tout genre à la fois d'une langue à l'autre31 (111). Oriana, who of the five women is the character most marked by patriarchy, is helped in her progress towards a generically feminine mind by her polyglot origins.
Picture Theory ends on page 188 where it begins again in a new book, Hologramme, another figure of translation and another mirror text, a sign of utopia which re-enacts Picture Theory on the level of the hologram. The translation and re-enactment of a text within a text is a technique that Brossard has explored in French Kiss (1974), Le Désert mauve (1987) and Aviva (1985), exploiting, as she has explained, the “abundant use of synonyms, homonyms … rhymes and rhythm” (“Nicole Brossard” 54). Activating musically symbolic associations between words and things, Brossard creates an intertextual magnetism within her texts and from one text to the next. Certain words tend to evoke others as they do in translation or in any act of interpretation. Reading Brossard reading Brossard makes virtual both the musicality of her language and the flexibility of the intertextual alliances (les connivences) between the dominant figures in her work, including a radical reading of reading. Brossard has qualified the enthusiastic claims made for “écriture feminine” by specifying that writing which is “traversé,” or “crossed,” by feminist consciousness simply permits “another reading of reality and self” (personal interview with Nicole Brossard, June 8, 1988). Feminist desire to “metamorphose mental space” (43, 58) and “open the mind” (188) can result in the cortical realization of a three-dimensional virtual reality. This hologram will not be found in a holography museum, but between the leaves of a book, where it waits for the readers' gaze to illuminate lovingly or boldly traverse the body/screen/text, seeking the perspective that will reconstitute feminist desire.
a perfect night (84).
At the other end of the night, I was going to open a bottle. The cities were converging in our glasses. Women were emerging from everywhere, architecture: the sum(ma) of laws revolving in their eyes, the speed of life, the forms they are preparing to take on: numbers, grasses, books, letters, spiral, first snow (85).
the city … patriarchal to its teeth.” (My translation.)
The cities were converging one by one, called forth by the flashing intuition we had passing through the history of art, aerial sagittarians en route to transformation (85).
Each city was a document abounding in arrows … arrow-man. … The cities, lunar orb, black out, we needed to tame energy in order to avoid the installation in our limbs and especially in our gazes, of a moral immobility able to make one believe in renunciation (85).
In our glasses, a flash opening the horizon under our eyes, our very bodies in a state of thought, in firing position, mental anticipation, the arrow in the water of the soul, we were advancing calmly through the deserted streets (85).
The encounters between women lift the page on the city of women. (My translation.)
Border crossers, radical city dwellers, lesbians (76).
not for its own sake, but for its tragic consequences in the lives of women, in the life of the spirit (35).
Ten years of anger, revolt, certitude, and conviction are in The Aerial Letter; ten years of fighting against that screen which stands in the way of women's energy, identity, and creativity. Ten years of curves, graffiti, erasures, and writing, in order to exorcise that “curse.” I had to “come to grips with words,” in order that, from the heated emotional struggle, the three-dimensional women who nourish my desire and my hope would spiral forth (35).
If patriarchy can take what exists and make it not, surely we can take what exists and make it be (103).
Talk around the daily table (67).
Did You Not Hear What I Ordained? J'ai exclu de votre troupe la soeur infidèle; No more will she ride her horse through the air with you; the virginal flower will wither, a husband will win her womanly favours; henceforth she'll obey her lord and master and, seated at her hearth will ply the distaff, she'll be the target and object of all mockery. If her fate frightens you, then flee her who is lost! Distance yourself, keep away from her. One of you women who dare to stay near her who will bravely defy me, take the side of the miserable wretch, that rash woman will share her fate: that bold one must know it!
We were seated around the table, and Claire Dérive said that to see us all here together again, meeting at the seaside, was a sign (69).
Even though she asserted that the word abstraction slipped its way somewhere into her thought, she admitted for the moment that it was difficult to establish a direct link between the fact of being five women on the island and the very idea of what could be an abstraction (69).
at the source of each emotion, there is an abstraction whose effect is the emotion but whose consequences derive from the fixity of the gaze and ideas. Each abstraction is a potential form in mental space. And when the abstraction takes shape, it inscribes itself radically as enigma and affirmation. Resorting to abstraction is a necessity for the woman who, tempted by existence, invents the project of going beyond routine daily anecdotes and the memories of Utopia she meets each time she uses language (77).
complete sentences, abstract ones, linking life and speech (69).
Oriana then began to talk about time and the weather all the while searching for the words in French to say how she imagined it. She said that she did not understand why, each time certain women got together, in films for example, time seemed to stop around them after having frozen them or changed them into pillars of salt, loaded (with) symbols. After Danièle Judith had interrupted her to say matriarchy, Oriana continued her description of time (69).
Danièle Judith was saying that matriarchy is a word from anthropology and it cannot be used in a contemporary way to exorcize patriarchy. This word could not be used either to elaborate some Utopia that would have restored women to their gender (73-74).
I wanted to say that ecstacy is a reality in itself which makes time eternal. Claire Dérive affirmed that we mustn't confound time out of mind, patriarchal time and ecstacy (69).
the utopian sequences which traverse our thoughts, words and deeds (36).
from this confusion were born women suspended and immobile in space (69).
We were sitting around the table. … I said, with a taste of salt in the mouth, on the subject of Utopia beginning with the word woman that Utopia was not going to ensure our insertion into reality but that a Utopian testimony on our part could stimulate in us a quality of emotion favourable for our insertion into history. Before Claire talks about abstraction, I added that we ought to socialize our energies so that we would in no way be victims or again to avoid having our wombs alone praiseworthy as mental virility able to serve afterward for the murder of thinking bodies (73-74).
We were seated around the table (69, 73, 77, 78, 81).
Didn't patriarchal time come to a stop around them merging them morbidly in madness, death and submission. The mother is everywhere when time stops, the mother full of secrets that cause anguish to girls left to themselves in the patriarchal ruins: cars, tires, elevators, subways, broken windows. The soul in ruins, the mind of man can no longer conceive itself differently except by projecting the loss of his deity on the abstract bodies of a few women reunited in isolation, soul in ruins. There is a lack of imag(in)ing in this which, although not ours, overwhelms us in the very exercise of our mental functions (70).
For the first time, as this morning in front of the sea, I was not afraid to hear the words of another woman” (70).
[A]erial posture the appearance of a double rose in the clarity
Langu age is feverish like a polysemic resource. The point of no return for all amorous affirmation is reached. I am there where “the magical appearance” begins, the coherence of wor(l)ds, perforated by invisible spirals that quicken it (153).
M. V. had straightened herself up, slowly turned her head her gaze caught between the window ledge and the horizon. Le poème hurlait opening the mind (153).
Claire came back with the wine, beside herself, saying bitch, dyke, feeling American to the tip of her nose, ultra-modern New York style. Stop it, Michèle, watch it, said Florence very worked up while I knew I wanted to real-ize the celebrated synthesis of water and fire that burns the tongue. I know, that synthesis of the double origin betrays me, I knew, I know (84).
She was all genders at once in one language or another (83).
A: Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic.
HHS: Daphne Marlatt's How Hug a Stone.
IASR: Roland Barthes's “Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits.”
MG: Monique Wittig's “The Mark of Gender.”
N: Mieke Bal's Narratology.
NBBW: Alice Parker's “Nicole Brossard's Body Work.”
Préface: Louise Forsyth's “Préface” to Picture Theory.
PT: Nicole Brossard's Picture Theory.
RI: Nicole Brossard's “De radical à intágrales.”
RM: Hélène Cixous's “Le rire de la Mèduse.”
Touch: Daphne Marlatt's Touch to My Tongue.
WG: Robert Graves's The White Goddess.
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SOURCE: Holbrook, Susan. “Delirium and Desire in Nicole Brossard's Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (summer 2001): 70-85.
[In the following essay, Holbrook explores the suggestive relationships among reading, writing, translation, interpretation, and desire illustrated in Brossard's novel Mauve Desert.]
“le ravissement” dit L. pour saisir le sens d'une expérience mentale où fragments et delire de l'éclat traduisent une pratique de l'émeute en soi comme une théorie de la réalité … … … … … … JE N'ARRÊTE PAS DE LIRE
(Brossard, Amantes 11)
“the rapture” said L. to grasp the sense of a mental experience where fragments and delirium from the explosion translate and experiment on riot within the self as a theory of reality … … … … … … I DON'T STOP READING/DELIRING
(Godard, Lovhers 16)
Hurtling home on the C-train, Calgary's rapid transit car, I read Nicole Brossard's Amantes. Actually, I am reading Barbara Godard's translation, Lovhers. Actually, I am reading them both, one book planted on the fingers of my left hand, the other planted on the fingers of my right. Reading this poetry means looking back and forth. That phrase tumbling in French, how does Godard spin it in English? What shifts between this and that French word, this English, that French? And more often, what does that word mean? Sometimes a French-English dictionary triangulates my field of reading, so that interpretation is a juggle: three texts spinning, aerial. Fingers slipping in and out of contiguous pages, head moving back and forth as if in a slow shake of amazement, eyes tracing transformations in shape, sound, sense. French lessons, English lessons. The train stops before I can extricate my hands from Amantes and Lovhers, and I rise abruptly, fingers in spastic collusion with books, making delirious signals. The yellow sign at the C-train tracks announces “Look Both Ways for Trans.”
The vertiginous act of reading back and forth has skewed my vision, absenting the “i” from “Trains.” But perhaps my error springs not from bleary eyes but from a wish—Octavio Paz tells us, “as always when we talk about accidents, we also talk about desire” (qtd. in Honig 153)—for what I am faced with is a bold-face imperative, black on yellow, to embrace the unusual hermeneutic I practiced on the train. Reading a translation does not necessarily entail looking back and forth; many translations are read as if original, as if the original had been borne whole through a field of linguistic equations. But to read the action, the across, you need to look both ways. You may swing your jaw slowly from left to right and back or, as in the apprehension of a pun, there might be a frenzied shake between meanings. Perhaps it is even possible to look both ways at once, left eyeball going one way, right another. This may be the poet's cross-eyed gift.1
Barbara Godard's translation of Amantes emerges out of a complex back-and-forth traffic of sounds, signs, nodes of associative potential. Brossard's writing, with its neologisms, polyvalencies, puns, and indeterminacies, demands an attentive, creative translator. In her translator's preface, Godard comments on how her interaction with such an experimental poetic results in the asymmetrical distribution of linguistic play across texts. While some associative clusters arise only out of the English incarnation—Godard cites as an example her spinning out of “sinks” and “ink” in “Igneous Woman”—a pun central to Amantes, “deliré,” appears in English as ramified paraphrase (11). “Délire” appears in Brossard's text both as a single word and in the recurrent, punning statement, “JE N'ARRÊTE PAS DE LIRE” (11). The pun, a notoriously untranslatable figure, is spelled out in Lovhers as “I DON'T STOP READING/DELIRING” (16). In the French, délire (or de lire) signifies variously as “reading,” “delirium” and, as Godard points out, “dé-lire, to unread or unfix reading” (11). Working in English, unable to accommodate this particular semantic cluster within one word, Godard concretizes the bipolar constitution of the pun by placing “reading” and “deliring” on either side of a virgule. This slashed construction (compelling the reader to look both ways) marks the operation of translation, not only in its bifurcation of the pun, but also in its exhibition of what appears to be an anglicized French word resulting in an English neologism. Indeed, “deliring” is nowhere to be found in dictionaries of contemporary English usage, and thus functions as an instance of foreignness, a nod both to the linguistic specificity of the first version and to the translator's labor. An etymological dig, however, reveals that the verb “delire” was once in English circulation, losing ground only at the end of the seventeenth century. Delire meant “to go astray, go wrong, err,” and was derived, like the French, from the Latin delirare which originally meant “to go out of the furrow, to deviate from the straight.” When Brossard deploys délire in its unbroken form, Godard translates it literally as “delirium,” a word that is also derived, like the French and English delire, from delirare and signifies a “frenzied rapture.”
Brossard invokes délire/de lire in order to convey the momentous stimulation, excitation, and creative response a woman experiences when reading the text of another woman. The first section of Amantes, “(4): AMANTES/ÉCRIRE,” includes multiple citations from other women writers; the words of Mary Daly, Monique Wittig, Sande Zeig, Michele Causse, Adrienne Rich, Louky Bersianik, Djuna Barnes, and others designated by initials, are honored by the refrain, “JE N'ARRÊTE PAS DE LIRE.” The following section, “juin le fièvre,” makes explicit the productive response provoked by a lover's text; it is a letter of straying response, a writing, which never abandons the imperative of reading: “si j'écris aujourd'hui, c'est afin de te lire mieux comme une provocation …” (18), insists the speaker, “if i am writing today it is so i can read you better provocatively” (24). The process celebrated here is not a progression from reading to writing but an energizing circuit of mutual ignition. In her preface to Lovhers, Godard proposes a translation strategy that resonates with Brossard's poetic. Moving away from a model of translation that aligns translation acts with vanishing acts, her strategy “would insist on translation as an act of reading, as an interpretation, one among many possible. Translation here is a practice of reading/writing …” (7).
Emergent in the poetic models of both Brossard and Godard is a network of agents—translator, reader, writer—all engaged in the production of text. For all, these roles are shared attentions, so that Godard's translating Brossard's book, the poet responding to her lover's letter, my reading the books and writing this essay—all these acts entail at some level reading, writing, translation. All entail looking both ways, refusing the single function, exploding the single meaning, stepping out of the straight furrow, deliring. Exploring the generative interconnectedness of these functions has been a lasting passion of Brossard's. In an interview with Janice Williamson, she says:
Personally, I have always been fascinated by translation, as I am usually writing about acts of passage, whether it is passage from fiction to reality, from reality to fiction, or from one language to another. I wrote Mauve Desert because it blows my mind to think that someone can consider a reality in their language while I can't in mine and vice-versa. … I like to work with translators because it keeps me alert in my own language.
Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert, in fact, represents Brossard's most explicit demonstration of the metonymic, rather than metaphoric, relations among translation, reading, and writing. The deliring figure in this poetic novel is Maude Laures, who comes across Laure Angstelle's novel, Le Desert mauve2 (comprising the first part of Brossard's book) in a second-hand bookstore; reading it, she is seduced into rewriting it, translating it into Mauve l'horizon (comprising the last section of Brossard's book). Laures's “act of passage” can be suggestively articulated through the invocation of a mode of interpretation Julia Kristeva names “delirium” (“délire” in the original French). After contextualizing Kristeva's delirium within the European tradition of thought around délire, I will introduce her provocative notion into my discussion of the several acts of passage at work in the production of Le Desert mauve/Mauve Desert. Several bodies, some more textualized than others, participate: the fictive Maude Laures translates Laure Angstelle homolinguistically, the living Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood translates Brossard across languages, and I read Le Desert mauve and Mauve Desert together, in effect reading four novels simultaneously. I opened this section with an account of my encumbered hands, with Brossard's play on de lire/délire, and now proceed to Kristeva's notion of delirium with a wish to highlight, rather than isolate, the function of reading as it joins translation and writing to comprise the cluster of energies propelling Mauve Desert and, more generally, Brossard's poetic.
Délire, or delirium—Jean-Jacques Lecercle favors retaining the French in his discussion of this complex term—is a prevalent concept in European (particularly French) philosophy, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. Lecercle's Philosophy through the Looking Glass traces the various traditions and incarnations of délire/delirium, arriving at some definitions that are as consistent as such a critical text, which adopts a method informed by its own delirious object, can allow. Focusing on certain disjunctive writers (Raymond Roussel, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Louis Wolfson), case-studies of schizophrenia (notably that of Daniel Paul Schreber), and unconventional critics (Gilles Deleuze), Lecercle characterizes délire/delirium as “a form of discourse … where the material side of language, its origin in the human body and desire, are no longer eclipsed by its abstract aspect (as an instrument of communication or expression)” (6). Délire/delirium is consistently referred to in Lecercle as “the other side of language” (65), a phrase that suggests this discursive mode's deviations from protocols of syntax, grammar, phonotactics, logic. Attending the uncertain distinction in Lecercle between the poet and the schizophrenic patient is a contradiction through which the issue of agency, or mastery, percolates. On the one hand, Lecercle submits that “délire is a perversion which consists in interfering, or rather taking risks, with language” (16); he can also assert, however, that “in the case of delire, language is master” (9). Perhaps such an uncertainty surrounding the question of how the subject is disposed to language springs from Lecercle's notion (borrowed from Deleuze) that “délire is the linguistic manifestation of desire” (165). Desire can always be imagined, produced, theorized in complex, oblique, and contradictory relation with the subject; we speak of desire as an unconscious drive, a conscious motivation and, indeed, a consciousness.3 Consonant with Lecercle's ambivalence, Kristeva's delirious subject hovers over a distinction between being overwhelmed by the discursive mode of délire/delirium and employing it as a vehicle of transgression. Her important departure within a psychoanalytic tradition, however, lies in her refusal to reserve delirium for certain types of subjects, a refusal to fantasize, in other words, delirium as proper only to schizophrenic patients.
In “Psychoanalysis and the Polis,” Kristeva focuses on interpretation, compensating somewhat for the underplayed role of the reader in Revolution in Poetic Language as she differentiates between ways of reading and their implications for both subject and societal formations. Kristeva begins her article with a critique of what she calls “political interpretation” (304). The word “political” here is apparently deployed, as Toril Moi suggests, in “its original Greek sense of ‘popular’ (politikos) discourse, or discourse for and of the citizens (polites) of the city-state (polis)” (301). Indeed, the hermeneutic designated as “political” in Kristeva's article is that which institutes the irrefutability of singular, delimited meanings; she points to Fascism and Stalinism as totalitarian outcomes of political interpretation. Such an interpretive mode arises, she argues, from “the simple desire to give a meaning, to explain, to provide the answer,” and this desire in turn springs from the “subject's need to reassure himself of his image and his identity faced with an object” (304). She views the project of psychoanalysis as offering an antidote to such an interpretive mode, as it is founded on the notion of a cloven subject, in whom the presence of an unconscious precludes the possibility of conscious mastery and thus of singular meaning. Also underlining the energy of desire, psychoanalysis becomes both inspiration and privileged example of the interpretive mode Kristeva advocates, a mode characterized by delirium. Her focus on the delirious interpreter (or analyst) can be read as a fruitful response to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's critique, in Anti-Oedipus, of a psychoanalytic tradition of imposing reductive, pre-ordained interpretations on the rich, transgressive, and fantastical discourse of the delirious patient. Addressing the problem of subjective insecurity, of the threat semantic incoherence poses to the coherence of the subject, Kristeva emphasizes the “lucidity and ethics” (304) promised in the complex and unpredictable results of the new interpreter's delirium.
Kristeva argues that the interpreter should submit to the undeniable and exciting fact that “the knowing subject is also a desiring subject, and the paths of desire ensnarl the paths of knowledge” (307). The desire propelling Maude Laures's reading of Le Désert mauve is made explicit. When that book falls into her hands it “arous[es] the throbbing desire that never quit her” and for two years she “stretche[s] herself through the pages” (51). While Le Désert mauve has “seduced her” (62), it is her own desire that extends the production of that book. The erotics thematized here points to a dynamic of intersubjectivity wherein the reader makes as many passes as there are passages. “Ensnarled” with desire, the reader's knowledge is subject to desire's unconscious realms, its changeability, vagaries, idiosyncracies. Knowledge, giving way to delirium, proves neither a passive replica of its object nor the inevitable result of a predetermined interpretive schema that evacuates its object of possibility. What the delirious reader produces instead, Kristeva suggests, is “a fiction, an uncentred discourse, a subjective polytopia” (306). Certainly this is the outcome of Maude Laure's desiring, deliring interpretation. Stretching herself through the pages, sleeping on it often, she finds that it “is not always possible to dream without having to follow through on the images” (55), and she writes her own delirious “fiction,” Mauve, l'horizon.
A useful analogue to Kristevan delirium can be found in The Pleasure of the Text, written by Roland Barthes, one of Kristeva's contemporaries in the Tel Quel group. Barthes proposes an “erotics of reading” (Howard v) for which the ideal text to read is clearly a “modern” one (Barthes 12), one that “unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (14).4 While privileging such defamiliarizing, polylingual “texts of bliss” (21), Barthes maintains his emphasis on the reader's role, suggesting that even when encountering a traditional narrative, we can transform or derail the intended experience by leafing through, jumping around. “Our very avidity for knowledge,” he claims, “impels us to skim or to skip certain passages” (11). This “avidity” speaks to the desirous knowledge of delirium, and to the skipping and flipping I do as my fingers work among the four novels which make up Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert. Yet I don't flip to get past the expositions, explanations, and descriptions of linear narrative prose; Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert, foregrounding the problematic of translation, invites flipping back and forth, looking both ways. In her novel, Brossard has presented us with a striking testament to the erotics of reading; Barthes claims that a text of bliss can only be “reached through another text of bliss” (22), and Laures's Mauve l'horizon is that answering “text of bliss.” Similarly, Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood's translations, Mauve Desert and Mauve, the Horizon are themselves further texts of bliss.
Barthes locates textual pleasure in a bustling entre: “Between two onslaughts of words, between two imposing systematic presences, the pleasure of the text is always possible, not as respite, but as the incongruous—dissociated—passage from another language …” (30). While the disjunctive “modern” text, favoring juxtaposition and interruption over normative syntax, occasions pleasurable readings of between, I note that translation, the “passage from another language,” functions here as privileged template. Translation is the spectral figure haunting Barthes' book from the onset, where he insists that “the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel” (4). Indeed, the between of translation is exemplary, when visible. (Its magnitude can also extend into virtual invisibility, rendering either original or translation a speck in that distance.) In Mauve Desert, both original and translation appear, constituting and concretizing a between which, dense with the meditations of Maude Laures, occupies more space than both novels put together.
The force of a between is celebrated in Elizabeth Meese's (Sem)erotics, a study that inflects Barthes' interleaving of desire, text, and reading with the particularity of a lesbian poetics. (Sem)erotics posits “the lesbian love letter” (26) as genre and as amorous paradigm through which to consider many of the lesbian experimental works of this century as well as the relationships among author, text, reader. In choosing the love letter as paradigm, Meese initiates an elaboration of the interstitial, the “energetics” (123) between sender and receiver, text and reader, and letters both epistolary and alphabetical.5 The back-and-forth traffic of love letters ensures a certain repetition she deems imperative to the survival of lesbian culture:
Saying it, over and over, in our own ways helps make it so: L, L, L, L. Dear L, we need to play it again and again and again, patiently recording the variations in our tunes.
The interstices between “the variations in our tunes” and between the variations on Le Désert mauve dilate and contract, enabling Barthesian blissful readings of repetition's stray.
Re-belle et Infidèle/The Body Bilingual is the title of Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood's account of her own bilingualism, her particular history as a translator, and her theorizations on translation as feminist practice. The French half of her title, Re-belle et Infidèle, reworks the traditional tag “belles infidèles” (unfaithful beauties), an expression indexing the imperial practice of skewing the sense of foreign language texts to confirm target- culture ideologies. Because Lotbinière-Harwood brings to her translations a particularly language-centered feminist ethic, an ethic that assumes her medium is compromised by the sedimentation of misogynist bias, skewing text can prove an act of renewal and survival. She comments on her title: “My addition of the prefix re-changes the beauties into rebels and implies repetition with change” (99). This “change” could be seen to result from the desire innervating delirium, a state in which, Kristeva says, “the speaking subject is presumed to have known an object, a relationship, an experience that he is henceforth incapable of reconstituting accurately” (307). The sense of delire as “err” and the idea of accuracy as casualty of desire raise questions about the role of voluntarism, or conscious rebellion—questions that Brossard engages in Mauve Desert. Close to the beginning of Un Livre à traduire, the elaborate “between” of Brossard's book, appears the phrase, “Elle plonge, est-ce erreur ou strategie” (57). (“She dives in, is this mistake or strategy. (53).) Further down the page we find a word that might have occasioned that question, “l'auteure.” In French “auteur,” author, is gendered male; Brossard's erroneous addition of an “e muet,” or silent “e,” which marks the feminine in French grammar, makes visible the exclusionary function of grammatical structures and mobilizes the e muet with a view to feminist resignification. The author is embodied differently, transgendered, through a mistake in spelling that has been foreshadowed as strategic. The inaccurate reconstitution of “auteur,” one that has been widely deployed by Quebec feminists, is indeed a grammatical error, yet an intentional one, one that attempts to makes sense of “the non-sense patriarchal reality constitutes for us” (Brossard, Aerial Letter 112).
When Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood embarked on the English translation of Le Désert mauve, she was faced with the dilemma of how to feminize “author” in a target language framed by different grammatical schemata. Feminist translators are aware that because of the “technical difficulties” between the two languages, English translations can neutralize feminist subversions that exploit the gender-marking of French. The force of error in its more delirious guise is evidenced in Lotbinière-Harwood's anecdote about her translation of “auteure”:
How it came about: my colleague Marie-Cecile Brasseur and I were drafting a work-related letter on computer. She was inputting as I dictated. Instead of typing “author” she slipped and wrote “auther.” “Eureka,” I gasped, “that's it!”
This instance of rebellion (which “repeats with change” both “auteure” and “author”) illustrates the potential of the cleavage in the subject discovered by psychoanalysis. Brasseur's “slip” is apparently unconscious, yet it is consonant with the desires of a feminist poetic to the extent that Brasseur's collaborator, Lotbinière-Harwood, regards it as a gift and a textual solution. Delirium, that state where “the imaginary may join interpretive closure” (Kristeva 307), produces such gifts-“e” slips over “o” to create “auther” and “i” slips from trains to make “trans.” More important than the quest to distinguish between the strategic and the erratic (and their respective value) is perhaps the ability to welcome moments when, in the rapturous state of delirium, the two are productively interlined.
The complex “auteure”/“auther” is the result of collaboration, not only between Brasseur and Lotbinière-Harwood, but between Lotbinière-Harwood and Brossard. The reader/translator's desire to find a feminized “author” is excited by Brossard's subversion, and that subversion is extended through translation. Pertinent here is a description of the generative bivalence Kristeva observes in delirium:
… the object may reveal to the interpreter the unknown of his theory and permit the constitution of a new theory. Discourse in this case is renewed; it can begin again: it forms a new object and a new interpretation in this reciprocal transference.
“Reciprocal transference” could serve to characterize the acts of passage carried out among the various readers/writers/translators I've been discussing. Replacing a notion of the unidirectional flow of knowledge (from intending author, from source language, from original), delirium's “reciprocal transference” acknowledges the traffic between readers, languages, versions, words. In Le Désert mauve, Laure Angstelle writes, “Lorna dit qu'elle aimait le moly et la mousse de saumon” (12). Noting the turbine of alliteration here, Maude Laures translates, “Lorna s'émerveilla a propos de la mousse au sommet des montagnes, douce sur les mollets” (182), moving m's off of the kitchen range and onto a mountain range. This is truly “literal,” letteral translation.6 “Mousse” has survived the transfer physically intact, yet semantically skewed, or expanded; the second “mousse” whips moss into its antecedent, salmon mousse, conferring on it the pleasure of a homonym. A further instance of reciprocal transference is inaugurated by Lotbinière-Harwood, when she reads Maude Laures's translation as, “Lorna marveled over the moss on the mountaintops, soft against the shins” (168). Although “douce sur les mollets” means “soft against the calves,” Lotbinière-Harwood delires it as “soft against the shins”; in doing so she welcomes the alliteration of the original's m's and s's while moving meaning beyond. Given a leg up, she twists it around for the sound of it, for a new sense. Here is a moment that demonstrates Lecercle's notion of délire/delirium as exposing “the material side of language, its origin in the human body.”
A dynamic of reciprocal transference supposes the active presence of the interpreter. In the world of Mauve Desert, where translation is the dominant figure of interpretation, this means making visible an agent traditionally obscured, the translator. The construction of Mauve Desert honors the vision Lotbinière-Harwood articulates in Re-belle et Infidèle, that of a “co-authership” between writer and translator (155). Confronted with Angstelle's compelling book, Laures imagines herself to be a “minimal presence. … A marker perhaps between this book and its becoming in another language. This remained precisely to be seen” (51). The deictic, “this,” in the last sentence might refer to the eventual translation, that text which remains to be seen. The “perhaps” of the preceding sentence, however, points to another possible antecedent; “this” can refer to “minimal presence” and “A marker,” indexing the conventional invisibility of translators and denying it as a priori. It is “precisely” the translator and her labor that, historically, remain “to be seen.” In this particular context, what remains “precisely to be seen is whether the translator will indeed only act as “marker.” The rest of the book demonstrates that she moves far beyond that; A Book to Translate, the 116-page narrative and record of Laures's creative process, stages a remarkable translative labor.
Delirious readings, Kristeva suggests, exhibit “a transforming power” (307). Clearly, the syntax, drift, and noise shift among versions, but what or who has been radically transformed in Mauve Desert? Here, I recall the cloven scaffolding of “Psychoanalysis and the Polis” and attempt to unsettle Kristeva's opposition of political interpretation and delirium. Transforming her sense of the “political” into the sense deployed in contemporary feminist and poetic communities, I want to pull it into delirium's realm; delirium, as it is played out through Mauve Desert, is crucial to a “political” that, in direct contradiction to Kristeva's use, can inspire Brossard to state: “I don't believe that one becomes a writer to reinforce common values or common perspectives on reality” (“Poetic Politics” 73). Brossard's delired “auteure” or Lotbinière-Harwood's answering neologism “auther,” for example, are motivated by the assumption of an interdependence between linguistic and social structures, and thus gesture toward political transformation. But Brossard's ethic of creating a more hospitable, even compelling, language for women is not always marked by neologism. More often, in fact, Brossard chooses to repeat certain words over and over, threading them through various contexts in an effort to resignify. Any reader familiar with her work will already register the charge of the words “horizon,” “vertigo,” “reality.”
In Un Livre à Traduire/A Book to Translate, Maude Laures interprets and imagines aspects of the source text, elaborating on settings and characters and composing conversations. She also elaborates on what she calls “Dimensions,” and their names prove to be the words that are repeated in this book to the point of shimmering: desert, dawn, light, reality, beauty, fear, civilization. The first appearance of “civilization,” for example, is modified by a reference to atom bomb testing, “the civilization of men who came to the desert to watch their equations explode like a humanity” (13). Brossard already begins, then, from the point of negative resignification Adrienne Rich initiated in her article “Disloyal to Civilization,” which interrogates the misogyny and racism implicated in what passes for “civilized.” Later appearances of the word are inflected, alternatively, as positive or negative, with the leap between often overlapping the translative gap. Laure Angstelle has Mélanie describe herself as “civilization in reverse” (19), while Maude Laures translates the self-portrait, “I was speed, civilization, in the distance, city, lost gaze, ruin in reverse” (175). The substitution of “ruin” for “civilization” in the final phrase invites the pessimistic consideration of the mutuality of these terms, while in its new syntactical position, the second “civilization” assumes a hopeful cast. In another case, a utopic deployment of the word is delired into a use of “civilization” that, again, resonates with Rich's argument:
Some day I would know the silence and the secret that lives on inside beings so that other civilizations may be born.
… … … … … … … …
Some day I would experience everything in synchrony, ecstasy, the secrets which from within undermine dear civilization.
There is no simple progression, in Mauve Desert, from a negative to a positive inflection of “civilization.” Rather, its persistent “repetition with change” compels the reader to perform the defamiliarizing act of looking both ways, and arouses in her, all at once, suspicion, critique, hope.
The “transforming power” of Kristeva's delirious mode of interpretation, then, should not be conceived as one that shapes words into static conclusions. The transformation of language, or “resignification” (to use Judith Butler's term), is a process rather than a task, as can be observed in the drama of the word “horizon” in Mauve Desert. “Horizon” emerges as a highly invested term in Brossard's book, as is signaled by the translation of Laure Angstelle's title, Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert, into Maude Laures's title, Mauve, l'horizon/Mauve, the Horizon. On a mundane level, the horizon is that evershifting contour of land toward which Mélanie races in her Meteor. Suggestively in flux, shifting with vantage point and atmosphere, a limit to the seen that promises a beyond, the figure of the horizon takes on the rhetorical significance here of a permeable line between reality and fiction, between the sayable and the unsaid, between the imagined and the unimaginable, between the normative and the perverse. Along this line, Brossard martials words that resonate with a potential world where a lesbian reality is no longer considered fictional, where patriarchal fictions disperse, where knowledges are “ensnarled” with a woman-centered desire. The horizon itself, in other words, functions as a figure for the dynamic of resignification operant on language in the novel, including that very word, “horizon.” Resignification entails the unfaithful citation of “horizon,” its deployment in varying contexts. Laure Angstelle writes of the “vanishing horizon” (18) while Laures translates that as “the repeated horizon” (174). At times “the horizon is a mirage” (28), while at other times it is something of which you can be “certain” (23). It can be set in threatening language, as in “crazy cracks horizons horrible zones of laughter” (28), and also be characterized as “magical” (23), “beautiful” (184) and “immediate” (179). “The horizon is curving,” notes Mélanie on her way back to the Motel (24); and, indeed, the word “horizon” is “curving.” Mauve, l'horizon is not a translation into anything so final as a “target” language, rather it joins Mauve Desert to produce a “horizon” language, where familiar terms warp and curve.
While Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter proceeds on assumptions that the improper constitutes the proper and the abject constitutes the normative, her “political” contribution to these deconstructive commonplaces lies in her interrogation of limits, of the surety of distinctions between what counts and what is relegated to an outside. She argues that “the task is to refigure this necessary ‘outside’ as a future horizon, one in which the violence of exclusion is perpetually in the process of being overcome” (53 my emphasis). According to Butler, this process of overcoming exclusion, silence, and oppression is driven by the engine of citation or, rather, the instability of that engine, which allows for an emancipatory ripple in the horizon. Maude Laures's unstable citation, or “repetition with change,” of Angstelle's Mauve Desert, agitates signification in the places, things, characters, scenes, and dimensions of Mélanie's desert, Mélanie who has “eyes that seek to get ahead of the horizon” (120). Laures's motivation for reading/translating Mauve Desert is clear; she undertakes it for the “approach and possibility of some transformations” (54). She is like the woman in Amantes/Lovhers, who experiences “all her senses … working for her to give her pleasure and to make her think up a version of existence which takes a displacement of the horizon for granted” (80).
The “transforming power” Kristeva attributes to delirious reading is affirmed by Brossard's belief that “it is in the reading that a text has a political aura (“Poetic Politics” 78). In Barbara Godard's reading of Amantes, in Lotbinière-Harwood's reading of Le Désert mauve, in Maude Laures's reading of Laure Angstelle's novel, the transformative effects of the “two-way passage” (Mauve Desert 57) are vital, radical. It is Brossard's radical reading of Brossard, however, that I would like to acknowledge at this point. Perhaps it is time, in other words, to dismantle her fiction (one I have maintained in my discussion) that Le Désert mauve is written by two people. While this novel's pretense of dual authership offers a crucial critique of conventional notions of originality and translative invisibility, as well as dramatizing the energy and erotics made possible through the textual meeting of two women, Le Désert mauve is, in fact, written by Brossard. This novel is a more theatrical incarnation of a compositional process Brossard engages in all her writing, a delirous self-reading, a poetics of autotranslation. Dismantling the fiction of dual authership entails dismantling somewhat the generative fiction of translation that propels the book. In “Reading Nicole Brossard,” Susan Knutson articulates the dynamic function of translation in Brossard's poetic:
As in L'Aviva, Brossard in Le Désert mauve translates Brossard from French into French, and again, she points clearly to translation not so much as an exploration of the physical frontiers of languages and cultures—although these are still present as fictions, as metaphors, as incitations—but rather as the drive to reach the internal horizons of meaning and the consciousness or construction of reality.
While I would use the term metonym, rather than metaphor, to characterize translation's intimate relation to her poetics—thus my inclusion of the Godard and Lotbinière-Harwood material—I take as paramount Knutson's observation that it is the “internal horizons” that are at stake. Internal horizons comprise the field of action in a translative poetic; one writer reads her own language over, looking behind and ahead of words, looking deliriously both ways, so that language chafes at itself and at the realities it both reflects and envisions.
Peter Quartermain deems it significant that Robert Duncan, who often published several incarnations of a single poem, was cross-eyed: “How, if you're cross-eyed, can reading not be revision? And how can revision ever stop” (109)?
For the sake of clarity, the titles of Brossard's and Lotbinière-Harwood's books will remain italicized while the novels within those novels will be underlined in the remainder of this text.
Lesbian performance artist Holly Hughes recalls discovering her desire as an experience “that the expression ‘coming out’ doesn't quite cover. In my case, it was more a question of … coming to” (191).
Godard honors his deliring theory in her preface to Lovhers when she declares, “Reader, the pleasure of the text is now yours” (12).
The love letter is especially pertinent to the composition of Le Désert mauve/Mauve Desert; Laure Angstelle wrote her novel during a time when she was reading and rereading a lesbian love letter she found in a geology book (83). In a sense, Le Désert mauve reads that letter and writes back.
My use of “literal” here favors the OED definition, “expressed by letters of the alphabet.” Louis and Celia Zukofsky's translation of Catullus is founded on this definition, as their preface indicates: “This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin—tries, as is said, to breathe the ‘literal’ meaning with him” (n. pag.).
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Brossard, Nicole. The Aerial Letter. Trans. Marlene Wildeman. Toronto: The Women's P, 1988.
———. Amantes. Montréal: Les Quinze, 1980.
———. Le Désert mauve. Montréal: l'Hexagone, 1987.
———. Lovhers. Trans. Barbara Godard. Montreal: Guernica, 1986.
———. Mauve Desert. Trans. Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood. Toronto: Coach House P, 1990.
———. “Poetic Politics.” The Politics of Poetic Form. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 73-86.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.
de Lotbinière-Harwood, Susanne. Re-Belle et Infidèle/The Body Bilingual. Montréal: Les editions du remue-menage/Women's P, 1991.
Honig, Edwin. The Poet's Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.
Howard, Richard. Introduction. The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. v-viii.
Hughes, Holly. “Clit Notes.” Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler. New York: Grove P, 1996.
Knutson, Susan. “Reading Nicole Brossard.” ellipse 53 (1995): 9-21.
Kristeva, Julia. “Psychoanalysis and the Polis.” Trans. Margaret Waller. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 301-20.
Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Philosophy through the Looking Glass: Language, Nonsense, Desire. La Salle: Open Court, 1985.
Meese, Elizabeth. (Sem)erotics: theorizing lesbian: writing. New York: New York UP, 1992.
Moi, Toril, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
Quartermain, Peter. “Duncan's Texts.” Sulfur 40 (1997): 108-121.
Rich, Adrienne. “Disloyal to Civilization: Feminism, Racism, Gynephobia.” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. 275-310.
Williamson, Janice. Interview with Nicole Brossard. Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 57-74.
Zukofsky, L., and C. Zukofsky. Catullus (Gal Catulli Veronensis Liber). New York: Grossman, 1969.