Tag Archives: french literature

The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life

Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other.
—Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow (11)

The Kiss, marble, 1888-89, detail

 Rodin’s The Kiss, marble, 1888-89, detail

Naturally I had to read it. After reading the essay, I thought I might just let it rest with the Kundera (follow link to have a clue as to what I am blathering on about). But once I read Slowness I knew that everything in my fast growing-finished-with-the-semester!!-reading-queue was going to receive yet another bump down. And of course I read everything out of any sort of proper order (insofar as a deep comprehension of the original essay, ‘”Are You There Yet?”: Libertinage and the Semantics of the Orgasm,” was concerned) but that’s okay: no regrets.

A woman’s imagination moves quickly, and at this moment Mme de T—’s imagination was singularly inspired (5)

The book, maybe perhaps probably written by Vivant Denon is a lovely little dream. And that is all it is meant to be. That is the point. A point which finds its glory and meaning in its very pointlessness.

The libertine novel is a curious pre-Victorian era phenomenon (when people could talk about sex without implicating themselves in the discourse of repression that Foucault famously cited) but this novel has a different tone from others that I have read such as Les Liaisons Dangerous or Les Bijoux Indiscrets  which have a distinct cynicism attached to their themes. Denon’s story is a paean to pleasure in all its fleeting splendor.

There’s an ethics to the erotic encounter properly understood and managed. Yet to think that such a lesson has any currency in our society makes the assumption that we still feel some mysterium tremendum in sex, that it is something for the private pavilion and the cushioned grotto. Is that still the case? (from the introduction, Peter Brookes, xxv)

I can not say, but we can each of us try to live according to the spirit of simple pleasures for pleasure’s sake. And at any rate, it is a fun read and makes the memory of Kundra’s novel Slowness that much more pressing on my soul. It is the commitment and the hope of writers like Devon and Kundera to love and to passion through relationships with others that I admire and in which I find consolation.

I stepped into the carriage awaiting me. I looked hard for the moral of this whole adventure…and found none (32).

*Title taken from dedication: 2 Corinthians 3:6

**translation from the French by Lydia Davis

 

 

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Existential Mathematics

recalled the well-known equation from one of the first chapters of the textbook of existential mathematics: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce various corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self.
—Milan Kundera, Slowness (135)

 

In researching my final film studies paper, I got happily (some might say, stupidly) sidetracked by an essay discussing the libertine novel genre. Through that essay I came to Kundera’s book Slowness which interpolates a modern day story with the story from the 1777 novella by Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow. The modern story relates a weekend spent at a French château in which some sort of political/scientific meeting is taking place. The narrator relates Denon’s tale of sexual ecstasy in a similar setting, to the pathetic tale of political “dancers” and their scurrying ilk.

If a dancer does get the opportunity to enter the political game, he will showily refuse all secret deals (which have always been the playing field of real politics) while denouncing them as deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, dirty; he will lay out his own proposals publicly, up on a platform, singing and dancing, and will call on others by name to do the same; I stress: not quietly (which would give the other person the time to consider, to discuss counterproposals) but publicly, and if possible by surprise: “Are you prepared right now (as I am) to give up your April salary for the sake of the children of Somalia?” Taken by surprise, people have only two choices: either refuse and discredit themselves as enemies of children, or else say “yes” with terrific uneasiness, which the camera is sure to display maliciously…” (19-20)

Kundera has a gift for describing the cynicism of the world in all of its painful reality. The hypocrisy of it all is what is at the heart of our desire to forget ourselves and others—it’s too painful. Written in 1995, one can see—not much changes. Which is why the juxtaposition of the two stories is lovely and brilliant. In the modern story people are cruel to one another, thoughtlessly hurting each other and simple racing to get through it all and to forget it all as quickly as possible. Devon’s tale is one of shameless pleasure, of a night of slow love whose transience cannot touch the memory that lingers. Time to love, time to ponder the time spent loving, matters. And it is why slowness matters.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace (39).

Kundera has a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, with joy and sorrow, and the true humanity he suspects exists in his fellow citizens. His writing is poignant, elegiac, but always hopeful. He asks us to consider the speed at which we operate when the fleeting aspects of life rushing us towards death are the most painful to contemplate.

I finished reading this book while stuck in a massive traffic jam. This is how jammed it was—I literally read while I drove. The irony of being forced to a crawl, enabling me to finish Slowness, gave me almost enough delight to stave off the frustration of being stuck on a hot road breathing in the exhaust of all the other irritated cars and people. But what is the rush, really? what do have besides time? What should we do with that time? Race through, reach the finish line in record speed? Particularly in the environment I currently exist in which semesters come to a crushingly quick close, I know that this speed makes it impossible to retain all that is good in every day. I have a deep craving to slow things down. I have no time to read books that are not assigned to me, I haven’t time to get through all my work and do the laundry and feed my people—never mind feed my soul. And so, when I do it anyway—when I linger over dinner, chat with a friend,  read a book only because it gives me pleasure and makes me consider the fact that maybe we should slow down and love the people who will let us love them, or even write this blog while my three final papers still loom—I set aside the feeling of vulnerability and fear that my rushed life otherwise pretends to avoid: somehow thinking that to run away and bury ourselves in an all-consuming forgetfulness will be easier.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope (156).

Kundera’s book, most of all, is about love, the kind of love that dearly departed Prince celebrates in his beautiful song (apologizes for the poor quality of the video, but as all Prince fans know getting ahold of internet videos of his music has always been like sighting a unicorn—and this brief interlude of access will most likely not last so enjoy what you can while you can). It is kind of love we all deserve in whatever form: slow love.

 

 

Joy Made Even Less Heavy

“Speaking has to do with the reality of things only commercially: in literature, one contents oneself with alluding to it or disturbing it slightly, so that it yields up the idea it incorporates.”
—Stephané Mallarmé trans Barbara Johnson, Divagations (208)

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I spent the final week of my lunch breaks during my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The American Wing. The above photo I took  is of a painting by James McNeill Whistler titled Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Théodore Duret. While the title does not exactly flow from the lips it goes a long way to get the viewer to look with the intentions Whistler thought were important. I find it amusingly heavy-handed. The label accompanying the painting insisted that M. Duret was given the props for purely aesthetic reasons and not to “imply a narrative.” I have no reason to doubt this assertion, I only can say—well good luck with that! The painting is extraordinary in every way, including (all intentions notwithstanding) implying an intriguing narrative. And, I will argue, I am able to love it all the more for that very implication. My narrative is my way in.

“Verse, which, out of several vocables, makes a total word, entirely new, foreign to the language, and almost incantatory, achieves that isolation of speech; negating, with a sovereign blow, despite their repeated reformulations between sound and sense, the arbitrariness that remains in the terms, and gives you the surprise of never having heard that fragment of ordinary eloquence before, while the object named is bathed in a brand new atmosphere” (211).

So too, I say, goes art. Mallarmé famously wrote “that everything in the world exists to end up as a book” (226), by which I think he points to the gestalt which occurs as a natural outcrop of  art (visual, performative, literary). The parts of verse are merely informative—to paraphrase Whistler: a study in black ink on white paper—but the whole is truly bathed in a brand new atmosphere. And that is where, when one is absorbed by literature, dwells in front of a painting, or is transported by music, that, is where the art lives and where the soul desires to go. How one gets there is the story each work of art must share in its own way.

“Something else…It seems as if the scattered quivering of a page only wants either to defer or to hasten the possibility of that something else” (187).

An organizing principle of the mind is creating narratives. The wonder of it all is that art (in all its forms) must, if it is successful, give, not specifics, but ambiguities in order for there to be room for a narrative of the reader, viewer, listener. I don’t mean that a thing can’t be representational or more (or less) overtly relate a story, Whistler’s painting is a perfect example of an absolute representational painting maintaining allegiance to strict ambiguity. Perhaps many people, even now, know who Théodore Duret was, but what does it matter to the painting as a work of art? It is a wonderful painting because of the beauty, (and in my narrative) the darkness lifted by the insouciance of the ridiculous and very pretty fan and pink shawl, the sober expression on his face betrayed by the slight forward thrust of the hips in an attempt to preserve some imposed masculine sense of pride. Just who is the owner of the shawl and fan? I get to decide.

Just as one crosses out certain words that, in me, take the place of what once was a heart; it would thus be a mortal sin to serve them badly. A fool blabbers on without saying anything, and to so the same with out any notorious taste for prolixity and precisely in order not to say something represents a special case: mine (122).

There are of course varying degree of a narrative that an artist can give, but even in the most traditionally defined narrative works, I would argue, there is room left for the individual’s imagination to shape that narrative as their own mind and heart dictates. Without that there is a failure to communicate—a void—which is different from nothing. A void is too slick for there to be anything to grip, or to make meaning. It is the something that nothing emits that captures our imaginations and holds onto our hearts.

Silence! Sole luxury after rhymes, an orchestra only marking with its gold, its brushes with thought and dusk, the detail of its significance on a par with a stilled ode and which it is up to the poet, roused by a dare, to translate! (140)

*title from p. 208: “Under those conditions arises a song, which is joy made even less heavy.”

Yes

“I can do everything with my language, but not with my body. What I hide by my language, my body utters. I can deliberately mold my message, not my voice. […] My body is a stubborn child, my language is a very civilized adult…”
—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (44)

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Oh the lover’s discourse. I know it well. One hardly requires an other for the discourse to sustain itself. But I suppose the euphoria and bitter ruefulness would not quite be the same without X. Roland Barthes’ book, A Lover’s Discourse, is by turns a complicit exploration into the sometimes amusing, sometimes helplessly humiliating neurosis of the hall of mirrors that is the lover’s internal discourse with the other, and which—consumes.

(What is stupid is to be surprised. The lover is constantly so; he has no time to transform, to reverse, to protect. Perhaps he knows his stupidity, but he does not censure it. Or again: his stupidity acts as a cleavage, a perversion: it’s stupid, he says, and yet…it’s true.). (177)

The book’s purpose is driven by Barthes’ assertion (found in a sort of prologue) that “the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude” and that it is “completely forsaken by the surrounding language: ignored, disparaged, or deride by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (science, techniques, arts).” The construction of the book too is a lovely thing. Fragments of discourse, organized by a word and the particular definition that word has to the lover, with running sidebars of the lover’s accomplices in forming the ideas within: Diderot, Lacan, Stendhal, Werther (oh lots of Werther!)Freud, Proust and many others…”So it is the lover who speaks and who says:”

To Be Ascetic
askesis
Whether he feels guilty with regard to the loved
being, or whether he seeks to impress that being
by representing his unhappiness, the amorous
subject outlines an ascetic behavior of
self-punishment (in life-style, dress, ect.).

1. Since I am guilty of this, of that, (I have—I assign myself—a thousand reasons for being so), I shall punish myself, I shall chasten my body: cut my hair very short, conceal my eyes behind dark glasses (a way of taking the veil), devote myself to the study of some serious and abstract branch of learning. (33)

It goes on, but…that one made me laugh. I can’t say I relate to the dark glasses (he has an entire entry on dark glasses) but that may just be because I’m near-sighted and need my regular glasses to see the world further than whatever book I have in my hand. But it could be possible to say my entire education is an offering at the alter of the lover’s discourse.

Barthes’ passage on Waiting is another quite funny rift on the harrowing heights and fathomless depths our discourse travels in the space of ten minutes.

The setting represents the interior of a café, we have a rendezvous, I am waiting. […] I discern and indicate the other’s delay; this delay is as yet only a mathematical, computable entity…[…] What is to be done (anxiety of behavior)? […] I am internally livid. That is the play; it can be shortened by the other’s arrival; if the other arrives in Act I, the greeting is calm; if the other arrives in Act II, there is a “scene” […] “Am I in love? —Yes, since I am waiting.” (38)

Am I in love? is a question fraught with anxiety, hope, excitement—but wait! it leads into another phrase, and moment of when—when does “I love you” come to sit on the lover’s lips dangerously threatening to be uttered at an unguarded moment?  And, well, first, what actually, does it mean to say “I love you” ? Barthes approaches the phrase as a single word (like a Hungarian—he explains that it IS a single word in Hungarian) There is a correlation between the difficulty of defining what the word “word” means and the single utterance of “I love you.”

3. The word (the word-as-sentence) has a meaning only at the moment I utter it; there is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armory of meaning. Everything is in the speaking of it.” (149)

Barthes spends some time here. Diving into the waves of possible answers to I love you, after, of course, defining the dimensions of such an utterance: no real usage in the world, no nuance in its all-or-nothing clumsiness, no place to fasten itself to…but what do we know? We lover’s of the world? We know:

I-love-you is active. It affirms itself as a force—against other forces. Which ones? The thousand forces of the world, which are, all of them, disparaging forces (science, doxa, reality, reason, etc.) Or again: against language. Just as the amen is at the limit of language, without collusion with its system, stripping it of its “reactive mantle,” so the proffering of love (I-love-you) stands at the limit of syntax, welcomes tautology (I-love-you means I-love-you), rejects servility of the Sentence (it is merely a holophrase). (154)

So yes, this self-inflicted discourse is of endless fascination. The wonder and beauty of the word I-love-you is that— all Barthes says about it is true, but its meaning is in its activity: not its letters, not in its internalization. I-love-you alone connects, and connects to all the parts: the sensual, the emotional, the intellectual: it is the scaffold by which the lovers’ hands caress each other, the lovers’ hearts sing with the other, and the lovers’ mind builds castles in the air together.

4. The truth: what is oblique. a monk once asked Kao Tsu: “What is the unique and final word of truth?”…The master replied: “Yes.” (231)

*Monoprint— “Book XX, Homer” (unfinished) by J. Ryan 2015

Parlez, bijoux!

There is nothing like being a human. As ridiculous as a work may be, if it is praised it will succeed.
—Denis Diderot, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Les Bijoux indiscrets/The Indiscreet Jewels, (61)

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As my interest (okay, fine, obsession) with Diderot continues I took a slight detour into his novels (he is famed for his l’Enclopedie but perhaps not as well known for his literary works). Perhaps detour is too strong a word, the fact that each of his three novels are completely different and experimental in their own way fits perfectly into the kind of discursive and avid (not too strong a word in his case, I believe) intellect.

Allow the voice of your jewel to awaken the voice of your conscience, and do not blush at confessing the crimes you had no shame to commit (61).

The premise of Les Bijoux indiscrets is hilariously scandalous, I’m amazed, frankly, that Dali or Almodóvar never made a film of it. How can one resist a story of a sultan who obtains a magical ring which, once turned toward its female victim, causes her “jewel” to speak. Don’t think that just because this book came out in 1748 women’s vaginas didn’t have a lot to bitch about, actually, I suppose they had more…but this is not a book whose purpose is sympathy for the desires of the various jewels. It is really a provocative philosophical romp undressing the sexual hypocrisies of society.

Diderot was of course accused of indecency and while he was in the middle of negotiating the terms of his editorial-ship in regard to his monumental and incredible l’Encyclopdie, he was promptly thrown into jail for many months. That’s the thing about hypocrites—no sense of humor. Ah well.

Diderot uses this genre, (some people consider it a roman à clef, as some of the characters seem pointed towards real people—and court life in general) in an interesting way. Quick digression—I should mention that I also read his book, The Nun (La Religieuse) and, although a very different genre, it seems to me that he uses the literary form in both cases to explore philosophical ideas and political critiques. Both books suffer from this inverted stance. In literature, the story must come first, and whatever philosophy flows from the tale should not try to lead. It would be like a tango with two leads—an exquisite balance is lost. In The Nun, written as if it were a sort of Samuel Richardson novel in the vein of Clarrisa (Diderot wrote an essay in praise of Richardson that is so effusive in its praise that it is only its sincerity that keeps it from being on the wrong side of the ridiculous— but gosh I love the man’s committed passion!). I digress. The protagonist, Suzanne, is a woman forced into the cloistered life petitioning (the novel is, like Clarissa, epistolary, a long letter written to a man she hopes will help her out of her miserable condition) to be let free. For Diderot’s purposes it is important that Suzanne have no ulterior motive other than the simple reasonable truth that she has no feeling or interest for the vocation. She simply has no calling for it, why should she not have the freedom, the free will, to say, no thank you?  And the tortures and indignities she suffers with perfect patience and understanding! And yet, this purity and simplicity makes Suzanne a pretty flat character, and worse, she really loses credibility when, in an extended series of scenes (greatly detailed) she remains oblivious to the importunate sexual advances that are inherent in the Mother Superior’s fondling of Suzanne’s breasts (and other sweet spots)…. Really Suzanne? I know Diderot wanted to make her “an innocent” but I don’t care who you are, if your breasts are being fondled you are going to feel something, and if you are remotely intelligent you are certainly going to suspect something. Geesh.

But back to the jewels.

“Many are those in whom the soul visits the head as if it were a country house, where the stay is brief. These are the dandies, flirts, musicians, poets, novelists, courtiers, and all those whom we call pretty women. Listen to these people argue, and you will immediately recognize vagabond souls that are influenced by the different climes they inhabit” (126).

While the premise of this novel is fun, I don’t think Diderot has enough fun with it, but that may be because that is not really what he wants to talk about, and he may simply lack any deep insight into the complexity of what a woman’s vagina may have to report on from her perspective…the novel seems focused on the jewels’ fidelity or lack thereof (more the man’s perspective, I’d say) but what is lovely in the novel is the relationship between the sultan Mangogul and his beloved Mirzoza. Their spirited and philosophically complex discussions are the true heart of this novel. I couldn’t help thinking that Mirzoza stood for Sophie Volland who was Diderot’s mistress—her name was not Sophie, but because the name harkens the Greek word for wisdom that is what he called her throughout their passionate (intellectual and sexual) relationship as documented in his copious letters to her (only his are known to be extant).

“What! [affection in a jewel] devoid of meaning?” Cried Mirzoza. “So, is there no middle ground, and must a woman necessarily be a prude, a gallant, a coquette, a voluptuary, or a libertine?”
“My soul’s delight,” said the sultan, “I am ready to admit the inexactitude of my list, and I would add the affectionate woman to the preceding characters, but only on the condition that you give me a definition thereof that does not fall under one of my categories.” (100)

Where does the soul reside? Are animals sentient? Are people fundamentally good or bad? These are some of the conversations dispersed throughout the tale between these two lovers whose respect and tenderness for each other is a lovely thing to spend some time with.

*monoprint—”Motherhood” by J. Ryan 2015

The Path of Sympathy

“But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 
—Albert Camus, The Plague (162).

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Last week I was talking to a friend who lives as far away from me as is possible while still sharing the planet. We got to talking about Camus and he asked if I had read The Plague. I hadn’t. He said, “Do read it. It is why we must see eachother again.” The Plague is about exile and separation, it is about the resignation of despair, the banality of evil, and the capacity for endurance, but at its heart there is also: friendship.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (255).

The story, told by a slowly revealed narrator, is related in a kind of detached expository manner. With the help of a detailed diary kept by a man named  Tarrou, the hellish months of the plague-stricken town Oran are calmly related. The story is neither unnecessarily ghoulish nor gory. After all, everyone knows that plague is ghoulish and gory. The question Camus seems to want to ask is: is it any worse than the plague, the inner plague, that infects humanity?

One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being  that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill (131).

The capacity to murder one another for whatever well-thought-out logic, law, or Supreme decree is the truly disturbing plague. All others are mere “natural” microbes doing their thing, running their course. At least with microbes the evidence of their malfeasance is indisputable. Or one likes to hope. Camus does spend the first third of the novel describing the inertia of the human mind when faced with unpleasant evidence. Our confirmation bias runs strongly in both directions towards good or bad—it’s an addiction to being right, I suppose…but I digress…

True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defense (172).

Pockets of the virulent inner-form of plague pop up with unsurprising and depressing frequency. The history books and current news are bursting with examples. In Camus’ tale, the microbial plague stripes away much of what keeps societies occupied and largely sedated: the petty dogmas and concerns of daily life.  The friendship between Dr. Rieux and the stranger to town, Tarrou, reveals the profound beauty of friendship and simply joys, but also the un-heroic yet, human response of sympathy to others. The ties of love that bind us and make us terrifyingly vulnerable to a world in which microbes and other natural events wreck havoc, are are also what give us its deepest pleasures.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it seems to me we have made some small advancements as far as recognizing and dealing with “natural” menances. Very small perhaps. But in comparison to acknowledging what Camus was really talking about—the inner plague—there is no contest. And it’s wearying.

I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. […] All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences (253-54).

Love serves nothing if it cannot serve each other. Friendships are unique in that they describe a love that is not based on birth or affiliation. That is the kind of love, expanded, which shows the way of sympathy to all of our fellow humans. Let’s follow it.

*Title from p. 254

** A Vintage Books Publication, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert

 

Heartache’s Élan

There is nothing more tiresome, is there, than to answer in cold blood a letter that has been written in emotion, but you know you needn’t (10, 24th Nov. 1918).

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If one thing can be said about Dorothy Bussy, it is that she is a woman of emotion. Selected Letters of  André Gide and Dorothy Bussy recounts the thirty year span of their correspondence, begun over her work as his chief translator into English and which began late in their lives, in their fifties! Their undeniably passionate, mutual yet skewed love, and devotion to their friendship is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, but inspiring too.

Dear Gide,
I always feel in such a fearful panic after I have sent you a letter. I want to go and drown myself. Such intolerable stuff I write you. I can’t imagine how you bear it. Shameless it seems to me after it has gone, and worse than shameless–stupid–often not true. Can you tell what is true and what is false? I suppose you can. I suppose that is why you put up with me and why I always find the courage to begin again. Because in reality I’m not ashamed of the essential part–the part that is true. No. I’m proud of it (52, 16th Aug ’20).

She was in love with him, but alas, one can not feel what they don’t feel, and Gide did not return that sort of feeling. They were both married, and Gide had homesexual lovers and other heterosexual lovers as well (of more particular heartbreak for Bussy) and yet, he writes to her a day after her letter above:

Very Dear Friend,
Your letters send my heart and mind into corkscrews spirals–but delightfully (55, 17th Aug. ’20).

The relationship is rich in its intellectual depth, and wonderously complex regarding what it means to love someone. Where she loves body and soul, Gide can only offer his soul and wonders if that is not superior:

I cannot convince myself that what I feel for you in my heart is not really better than what you are looking for –and stronger, more constant, more serious (121, 9 April ’28).

And yet it is something of a constant torment to them both. The letters are historically, culturally, and intellectually fascinating. But it is Bussy that is truly remarkable. Her love, which she is aware is considered a humiliation, (and she battles those feelings in herself) she also understands to be the most authentic force of her life. She writes again and again about her inability to suppress her feelings. Her inability to be anything but completely nakedly honest with Gide. Why shouldn’t she? Most people don’t allow themselves to love so intensely. On his part, he writes again and again to her, beseeching her to write, to continuing writing her way. Sometimes with nothing to say, he writes only that he must write her. His words are achingly beautiful:

I read your letter of the 8th; that little swallow of pure friendship refreshes the soul (173,  12 Jan ’37)

I devoured this book. I have correspondences of my own, heartbreaks, and vigorous exchanges with people I love, and I am aware that letter writing is not so fashionable in this day and age, but there is something freeing and deeply enrichening to me in the practice, (even in email form, mine more often than not adhere to the long format letter length exchanges of former days..) which is perhaps why I was compelled to read this book.

My only disappointment was the inclusion in the epilogue  of a third party’s take on the letters. Gide’s friend Martin du Gard had certain papers in reference to “Madame Simon Bussy” and he added his own thoughts. He wrote of Bussy’s “delusion” and recalled Gide “avoid[ing] her, flee[ing] from her” noting that Gide’s love was only compassionate – to me, a condescending word in this context. Oh, how my heart burned in indignation at his take on the matter!

This morning you were very near to me, your check on mine, your lips so near to mine. But no, I did not dare. That must be reserved for dreams. They have sometimes come.
Good night my very dear.
Tear this into a thousand pieces & drop it into the sea.
Yr. D (210, 29 April ’42)

Five months later Gide, responding to her accusation that he didn’t read her letters, writes, “It goes without saying that I miscalculated, but you immediately accuse me of not reading your letters carefully…Shame! How mean! I read and reread your letters; there is even one (simply dated ‘Wednesday evening’) that I always carry with me.

The letter to which he refers is the above account of her dreaming about him….

It was no wonder at all to me that he loved her, and I felt deeply sorry that his feelings (that strange chemical reaction) differed from hers. But all the same. I found her a brilliant force of love and feeling. If that is humiliating, then so be it. Should she have humiliated herself by revealing all? Yes. By God Yes. What else is there?

Not a saint–not a boy–just your hopeless and yet not altogether unhappy

Lover
D.B. (74, July ’21)

*edited by Richard Tedeschi, Oxford University Press.