Download as PDF Download PDF

The Malady of Death

Colluding with Melancholy


In an article in Practicalities called ‘Men’, Marguerite Duras says “in heterosexual love there’s no solution. Man and woman are irreconcilable, and it’s the doomed attempt to do the impossible, repeated in each new affair, that lends heterosexual love its grandeur.” Earlier in the same article she believes “it’s between men and women that imagination is at its strongest. And it’s there that they’re separated by a frigidity which women increasingly invoke and which paralyses the men who desire them.” No man is perhaps more paralysed in Duras’s work than in The Malady of Death. Duras, born in 1914, brought up in Indochina, student of the Sorbonne, and one of the Nouveau Roman novelists along with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute, is a great writer of that mysterious area of existence that concerns the inexplicability of love in the face of incomprehension between the sexes. When the central female character refers to love as “a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe”, it is perhaps because for Duras love cannot find a rationale between the sexes: that it occupies the space of the irrational. Yet Duras notes in homosexual love things are not quite the same: “in homosexual love the passion is homosexuality itself. What a homosexual loves, as if it were his lover, his country, his art, his land, is homosexuality.”

Duras’s comments here coincide with that famous theorist of sexuality, Michel Foucault. What Duras calls the grandeur and the irreconcilable are perhaps the further reaches of Foucualt’s interest in courtship, mentioned in an interview called ‘Sexual Choice, Sexual Act’. Here he says “the experience of heterosexuality, at least since the middle-ages, has always consisted of two axes; on the one hand, the axis of courtship in which the man seduces the woman; and, on the other hand, the axis of the sexual act itself.” Foucault believes “in contrast, the modern homosexual experience has no relation at all to courtship.”

The Malady of Death explores a relationship as irreconcilable, as about the gap between men and women that is not romantically resolved, but inexplicably opened. “You realize it’s here, in her, that the malady of death is fomenting, that it’s this shape stretched out before you that decrees the malady of death.” This short, hypothetical book about two people meeting up for sex  has the narrator saying early on, “You may have paid her. May have said: I want you to come every night for a few days. She’d have given you a long look and said in that case it’d be expensive. And then she says: What is it you want?”

Here, the woman is presented in the third person as she; the male character in the second as you. “You say you want to try, try it, try to know, to get used to that body, those breasts, that scent. To beauty, to the risk of having children implicit in that body.” Julia Kristeva in Black Sun has astutely referred to Duras’s “aesthetics of awkwardness”, the way Duras will create a truncated syntax to achieve a certain sense of fragmented melancholy. “Duras’s work does not analyze itself by seeking its sources in the music that lies under the words nor in the defeat of the narrative’s logic. If there be a formal search, it is subordinate to confrontation with the silence of horror in oneself and in the world.” Kristeva adds, “such a confrontation leads to an aesthetics of awkwardness on the one hand, to a noncathartic literature on the other.” In an interview, ‘Black Sun: Melancholia and Creation’, Kristeva mentions students saying to her of Duras’s work, “We cannot read Duras because it is so close to us that it plunges us back into the sickness.” Kristeva later adds, “catharsis supposes that we leave depression, while I have a sense that these books plunge us into depression and do not give us a way to get out of it.”

In The Malady of Death, the literary style seems to force upon us an inevitability that cannot be reversed; for these are characters caught in a metaphysical battle of sexual wills that goes far beyond their individual characteristics. This isn’t quite the same thing as saying they are archetypes; more that given the condition of a certain type of man, and a certain type of woman, the result is inevitable. The man wants to “try loving”, but he is also paying her, and the more intimacy he requires, the more money she will charge. When he says he wants to sleep “with your sex at rest, somewhere unknown,” and that he wants “to weep there, in that particular place”, “she says in that case it’ll be even more expensive. She tells you how much.” Is this why the malady of death takes over; because he is in love with a woman that he cannot possess except on economic terms? Duras’s genius is for balancing the singular and the general – the inexplicability between the sexes, but also the specific problem given the relationship she is looking at. Here is a man it would seem given to control, and perhaps he believes by paying for the woman he will retain that power; that he can go to the very deepest part of himself emotionally whilst holding on to his full identity.

Yet perhaps this identity is shattered before the encounter and can never recover from it, and Duras opens the book implying this: “You wouldn’t have known her, you’d have seen her everywhere at once, in a hotel, in a street, in a train, in a bar, in a book, in a film, in yourself, your inmost self, when your sex grew erect in the night, seeking somewhere to put itself, somewhere to shed its load of tears.” The man may be paying for the pleasure, but the woman is denying him some notion of the essence he wishes to understand. “She’d always be ready, willing or no. That’s just what you’ll never know. She’s more mysterious than any other external thing you’ve ever known.”

What Duras’s book captures is the further reaches of that unknowability, a grandeur of the inexplicable, we might call it, the inevitable gap between the sexes that will occasionally reveal the abyss. One reason why Kristeva feels such trepidation in the face of Duras’s work is that it traps the reader in a state of inevitable melancholy. In the interview, she sees Duras’s work as perhaps personal, but that touches upon “something general that joins a universal symptom of our generation, I think. That is why her books speak to so many people.” Kristeva reckons, though, that the work’s danger lies in that “it is not cathartic but, let’s say, an echo, a connivance with depression.” This connivance meets the gap between the sexes, and Duras talks interestingly of the idea that men in heterosexual relationships are biding their time. “The number of men in heterosexual couples (or in drawing rooms or on beaches or in the streets) who are just waiting,” she says in the essay ‘Men’, “all alone, with no language in common between them and their partners, and don’t know it.” Here we have the flipside of The Malady of Death and yet not at all contrary to this work. If we have the man searching out the unknown other in the novella, we also have in ‘Men’ man falling not into the abyss but into boredom. Is this partly where Duras’s non-cathartic melancholy lies, from the male perspective, and in turn perhaps for the woman also? If the woman is finally no more nor less than an obsessive revelation of nothingness, or someone with whom time stands too still, what hope is there for the couple?

This is not the place to address alternatives, for that would be to defy the point Kristeva sees in Duras’s work: that in the hopelessness resides the noncathartic. Now before meeting the woman in The Malady of Death, the man seems never to have loved. “Haven’t you ever loved a woman? You say no, never. She asks: Haven’t you ever desired a woman? No, never.” Yet near the end of the book the narrator says “even so you managed to live that love in the only way possible for you. Losing it before it happened.” What does the narrator mean by this? Perhaps a sidelong glance at that great male writer of love, Cesare Pavese, can help us here, and some comments he makes in his diaries This Business of Living. When Pavese says in an entry on October 13th, 1938 “it is stupid to grieve for the loss of a girl friend: you might never have met her, so you can do without her,” Duras might say that though one may never have met the person doesn’t mean you can do without her. This is surely what Duras means when saying the man lost her before it happened. It is a crack awaiting an opening, a space that the woman creates that reveals the nothingness within him. The final entry in Pavese’s diaries, before he killed himself partly over a failed love affair, opens with “the thing most feared in secret always happens”. Has the man in The Malady of Death met the thing most feared – not so much the woman of his dreams as the one who can open up the nightmare of non-being? In one moment near the end of the book “the tears wake her. She looks at you. She looks at the room. And again at you. She strokes your hand. Asks: Why are you crying? You say it’s for her to say, she’s the one who ought to know.” Is it because, she says, he has never loved, never known the wish to “keep him for yourself, yourself alone, to take him, steal him in defiance of every law, every moral authority – you don’t know what that is, you’ve never experienced it?” The man replies “never”, and the woman says “a dead man’s a strange thing”.

Has the man always been like Pavese when he says in the diary entry on 30th September, “the best defence against a love affair is to tell yourself over and over again till you are dizzy: ‘this passion is simply stupid; the game is not worth the candle’”? Would Duras reply that the man isn’t avoiding love but confronting his own basic absence of feeling? When the woman says love takes place “perhaps through a sudden lapse in the logic of the universe”, “never through an act of will”, can a man quite countenance this acceptance? In another essay in Practicalities, ‘The Man Who Was a Lie’, Duras says of a man she knew, “he thought men and women were as fundamentally different in their flesh, their desire and their shape as if they belonged to two different orders of creation.”

Yet again we have Duras talking of the grandeur of inexplicability, and of course there is nothing more grandiose about the inexplicability of The Malady of Death than the premise upon which it is based: the man hires the woman to stay with him for a couple of weeks hoping that by the end of this relationship he will be able to experience love with a woman. It is a premise containing its own inevitable failure: as we’ve noted the woman saying, love is not an act of will, nor an act of purchase.

At the end of the book, Duras muses over ways in which it could be presented as a play or as a film. “He ought to disappear from view, to be lost in the theatre just as he is lost in time, and then to return into the light, to us.” Another suggestion is that he walks around the young woman; a third is that the “man the story is about would never appear.” This would be the mise-en-scene of the inexplicable, finding a way of staging the piece that brings out at every moment the tragic grandiosity of the gap. This is a gap Duras has often been accused of hyperbolizing, saying in an essay ‘House and Home’, “people tell me I exaggerate”, as Duras again and again points up the differences. “Men and woman are different, after all.” In the essay ‘The Chimneys of India Song’, she says “most people stay together because together they’re not frightened. Or because it’s easier to live on two salaries than on one.” There is in so much of Duras’s work in various permutations (in The Lover, in The Ravishing of Lol Stein, The Sailor from Gibraltar) this consistent pessimism towards the possibility of the heterosexual couple. Yet is it not the simultaneous attempt and the awareness of its impossibility that makes for the grandeur Duras so often also speaks about? In The Sailor from Gibraltar the narrator says he was “one of those whose tragedy it was never to have encountered a pessimism equal to their own”. Duras’s work can often feel like an alleviation of that tragedy but only to replace it with something equally devastating: an inevitable collusion, as Kristeva notes, with depression and melancholy


©Tony McKibbin



Comments are closed.