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Are We Allowed To Enjoy Daphnée du Maurier?

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

A year or so ago, while waiting in line to pay at a London Waterstone bookstore, I overheard a young man asking one of the staff: 'I just finished Mrs de Winter. Is it true that this is the sequel to another book?' This was for me a depressing encounter with the illiteracy of the younger generation-how can anyone not know about Rebecca?

Or is this oblivion perhaps deserved? There is something radically untimely about Daphne du Maurier: her prose seems marked by a melodramatic excess that often comes dangerously close to the ridiculous-after reading one of her books, it is difficult to avoid the vague sentiment that it is no longer possible to write like that today. <a name="1"></a><a href="#1x">1</a> She tells stories without truly being a writer; in what, then, resides the secret of the undisputed tremendous power of fascination exerted by her stories? What if these two features are somehow connected? What if her lack of style, her pathetic directness, is the formal effect of the fact that du Maurier's narratives directly, all too directly, stage the fantasies that sustain our lives? The notion of fantasy has to be taken here in all its fundamental ambiguity: far from being opposed to reality, fantasy is that which provides the basic coordinates of what we experience as 'reality' (as Lacan puts it, 'everything we are allowed to approach by way of reality remains rooted in fantasy' <a name="2"></a><a href="#2x">2</a>) - however, in order to fulfil this function, it has to remain hidden, it must exert its efficiency in the background: 'If what [neurotics] long for the most intensely in their phantasies is presented them in reality, they none the less flee from it'. <a name="3"></a><a href="#3x">3</a> And it is this properly shameless, often embarrassing, direct staging of fantasies that makes du Maurier's writing so compelling-especially when compared with aseptic 'politically correct' feminism. <a name="4"></a><a href="#4x">4</a>


According to the Jewish tradition, Lilith is the woman a man makes love to while he masturbates alone in his bed during the night - far from standing for the feminine identity liberated from the patriarchal hold, her status is purely phallic: she is what Lacan calls La femme, the Woman, the fantasmatic supplement of the male masturbatory phallic jouissance. Significantly, while there is only one man (Adam), femininity is from the very beginning split between Eve and Lilith, between the 'ordinary' hysterical feminine subject and the fantasmatic spectre of Woman: when a man is having sex with a 'real' woman, he is using her as a masturbatory prop to support his fantasizing about the non- existent Woman... And in Rebecca, her most famous novel, du Maurier adds another twist to the Lilith myth: the fantasy of Woman is (re)appropriated by a woman - what if Lilith is not so much a male fantasy as the fantasy of a woman, the model of her fantasmatic competitor?

So where does du Maurier belong? Properly speaking, she is flanked, on one side, by Romanticism, with its notion of radical Evil ('pleasure in pain'), and, on the other side, by Freud, and the direct impact of psychoanalysis on arts - why? It is interesting to note that Lacan identified the beginning of the movement of ideas that finally gave birth to psychoanalysis as being that of Kantian ethics (particularly his Critique of Practical Reason) and the Romantic notion of 'pleasure in pain'. <a name="5"></a><a href="#5x">5</a> It is this epoch that provides the only proper ground for what is deceitfully called 'applied psychoanalysis'. Prior to this moment, the universe was one in which the Unconscious was not yet operative, in which the 'subject' was identified with the Light of Reason as opposed to the impersonal Night of drives, and not, in the very kernel of its being, this Night itself; afterwards, the very impact of psychoanalysis transformed artistic literary practice (Eugene O'Neill's plays, for example, already presuppose psychoanalysis, whereas Henry James, Katherine Mansfield and even Kafka do not). It is also within this horizon that du Maurier moves- this space of the heroic innocence of the Unconscious in which irresistible passions freely roam around.

There is one term that encapsulates everything that renders this space-and du Maurier's writing itself-so problematic for contemporary feminism: feminine masochism. What du Maurier stages again and again in a shamelessly direct way is the different figure of 'feminine masochism', of a woman enjoying her own ruin, finding a tortured satisfaction in her subjection and humiliation, etc. So how are we to redeem this feature? The ultimate point of irreconciliable difference between psychoanalysis and feminism is that of rape (and/or the masochist fantasies that sustain it). For standard feminism, at least, it is an a priori axiom that rape is a violence imposed from without: even if a woman fantasizes about being raped, this only bears witness to the deplorable fact that she has internalized the male attitude. The reaction is here one of pure panic: the moment one mentions that a woman may fantasize about being raped or at least brutally mishandled, one hears the objections: 'This is like saying that Jews fantasize about being gassed in the camps, or African-Americans fantasize about being lynched!' From this perspective, the split hysterical position (that of complaining about being sexually misused and exploited, while simultaneously desiring it and provoking a man to seduce her) is secondary, while for Freud, it is primary, constitutive of subjectivity. Consequently, the problem with rape for Freud is that it has such a traumatic impact not simply because it is a case of such brutal external violence, but because it also touches on something disavowed in the victim herself. So when Freud writes, 'If what [neurotics] long for the most intensely in their phantasies is presented them in reality, they none the less flee from it', his point is not merely that this aversion occurs because of censorship, but, rather, that the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us. (Of course, this insight in no way justifies rape along the infamous lines 'she just got what she fantasized about...' - if anything, it makes it more violent: what could be more brutal than to impose on someone the traumatic core of his/her fantasy?)


What this means is that, paradoxically, the staging of what appears to be a masochist scenario is the first act of liberation: by means of it, the servant's masochistic libidinal attachment to his master is brought into the light of day, and the servant thus achieves a minimal distance towards it. In his essay on Sacher-Masoch, <a name="6"></a><a href="#6x">6</a> Gilles Deleuze elaborated this aspect in detail: far from bringing any satisfaction to the sadistic witness, the masochist's self-torture frustrates the sadist, depriving him of his power over the masochist. Sadism involves a relationship of domination, while masochism is necessarily the first step towards liberation. <a name="7"></a><a href="#7x">7</a> When we are subjected to a power mechanism, this subjection is always and by definition sustained by some libidinal investment: the subjection itself generates a surplus-enjoyment of its own. This subjection is embodied in a network of 'material' bodily practices, and, for this reason, we cannot get rid of our subjection through a merely intellectual reflection-our liberation has to be staged in some kind of bodily performance, and, furthermore, this performance has to be of an apparently 'masochistic' nature, it has to stage the painful process of hitting back at oneself. Did Sylvia Plath not adopt the same strategy in her famous poem 'Daddy'?</font></p>

What she does in the poem is, with a weird detachment, to turn the violence against herself so as to show that she can equal her oppressors with her self- inflicted oppression. And this is the strategy of the concentration camps. When suffering is there whatever you do, by inflicting it upon yourself you achieve your identity, you set yourself free. <a name="8"></a><a href="#8x">8</a>

This also resolves the problem of Plath's reference to the holocaust, i.e., the reproach of some of her critics that her implicit equation of her oppression by her father to what the Nazis did to the Jews is an inadmissible exaggeration: what matters is not the (obviously incomparable) magnitude of the crime, but the fact that Plath felt compelled to adopt the strategy of turning violence against herself as the only means of psychic liberation. For this reason, it is also far too simplistic to dismiss her thoroughly ambiguous hysterical attitude towards her father (horror at his oppressive presence and, simultaneously, her obvious libidinal fascination by him - 'Every woman adores a Fascist, the boot in the face...' <a name="9"></a><a href="#9x">9</a>): this hysterical knot of the libidinal investment of one's own victimization can never be undone. That is to say, one cannot oppose the 'redemptive' awareness of being oppressed to the 'pathological' enjoyment the hysterical subject gains from this very oppression, interpreting their conjunction as the result of the 'liberation from patriarchal domination as an unfinished project' (to paraphrase Habermas), i.e., as the index of a split between the 'good' feminist awareness of subjection and the persisting patriarchal libidinal economy which chains the hysteric to patriarchy, making her subordination into a servitude volontaire. If this were the case, then the solution would be simple: one would enact what, apropos of Proudhon, Marx characterized as the exemplary petty bourgeois procedure of distinguishing in every phenomenon a 'good' and a 'bad' aspect, and then affirming the good and getting rid of the bad-in our case, struggling to keep the 'good' aspect (awareness of oppression) and discard the 'bad' one (finding pleasure in oppression). The reason this 'untying of the knot' doesn't work is that the only true awareness of our subjection is the awareness of the obscene excessive pleasure (surplus- enjoyment) we gain from it-which is why the first gesture of liberation is not to get rid of this excessive pleasure, but actively to assume it. If, following Franz Fanon, we define political violence not as opposed to work, but, precisely, as the ultimate political version of the 'work of the negative', of the educational self-formation, then violence should primarily be conceived as self-violence, as a violent re-formation of the very substance of subject's being.

Consequently, the first thing to do in every case of masochism is to look for the 'collateral damage' that generates the accidental side-profit. In one of the anti-Soviet jokes popular after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a fairy-queen approaches a Czech and tells him that she is ready to grant him three wishes; the Czech immediately offers his first wish: 'The Chinese army should occupy my country for a month and then withdraw!' After the fairy-queen asks him for the other two wishes, he says: 'The same again! The Chinese should occupy us again and again!' When the bewildered queen asks him why he chose such a strange wish, the Czech answers with a malicious grin: 'Because each time the Chinese were to occupy us, they would have to pass through the Soviet Union on their way here and back!' The same holds often for 'feminine masochism', and especially for du Maurier's stories whose heroines enjoying their painful passions: they follow the logic of displacement, i.e., to interpret them properly, one should focus attention on the third (male) subject who is targeted when a woman is repeatedly 'occupied by the Chinese army'.

This, then, is what du Maurier is doing when she is staging elementary fantasmatic narratives, and, perhaps, nowhere is this clearer than in six of her short stories: 'The Birds', 'Monte Verità', 'The Apple Tree', 'The Little Photographer', 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger' and 'The Old Man'. <a name="10"></a><a href="#10x">10</a> They are to be read in the same way that Claude Lévi- Strauss interpreted myths: instead of directly searching for a hidden meaning within each of them, they should be interpreted through each other, read side by side-the moment one does it, one perceives that they form a precise structure. The central four stories present four versions of why sexual relationship fails. In 'Monte Verità', a beautiful young Anna abandons her husband and potential lover for the 'Truth Mountain', a remote resort in the Swiss Alps, the seat of an initiatic group who lead there a secluded life of immortality, a life of eternal ecstatic satisfaction exempted from the traumas of our 'world of men and women'-in short, she chooses what Lacan called the Other Jouissance over ordinary phallic jouissance. In 'The Apple Tree', an older husband whose neglected wife died a while ago suddenly notices how a malformed apple tree close to his house bears an uncanny resemblance to her; the tree starts to haunt him and he dies, entangled in its fallen wings in a winter storm. In 'The Little Photographer', a lone, bored beautiful wife who married into rich nobility becomes involved in a weird and humiliating love affair with a poor crippled local photographer while on holiday at a seaside resort. In 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger', a young mechanic spends a long evening with a mysterious girl who is the following day revealed to be the serial murderer of several RAF pilots. In all four stories, the intrusion of an unexpected dimension disturbs the 'normal' run of things and ruins the prospect of a satisfied, calm life of a couple: the fantasmatic Other Place of non-phallic jouissance; the return of the dead wife in the guise of the tree as a conversion-symptom that haunts the husband; the strange lure of the low- class, doggishly faithful, repulsive lover; the unexpected lethal dimension of an ordinary girl. The first and the last stories are, in clear contrast, the ones with a 'happy' couple. 'The Birds' (on which, of course, Hitchcock's film is based) tells the story of a countryside family of tenants on the Cornwall coast who had to deal with attacking birds. In 'The Old Man', the observer witnesses how a strange couple living in a cottage near the sea maintains their secluded happiness by killing their intrusive son whose presence started to disturb their idyll. The two 'happy' families are thus more than weird: the one lives under siege by the attacking birds; the other has to secure its happiness by killing their offspring...

Especially instructive here is 'The Birds', especially if we compare du Maurier's original story with Hitchcock's film: while both share the same fantasmatic cataclysmic event, this event is in each case included in a different context that confers upon it an entirely different meaning. In order to unravel Hitchcock's The Birds, one should first imagine the film without the birds, simply depicting the proverbial middle-class family in the midst of an Oedipal crisis-the attacks of the birds can only be accounted for as an outlet of the tension underlying this Oedipal constellation, i.e., they clearly materialize the destructive outburst of the maternal superego, one mother's jealousy toward the young woman who tries to snatch her son from her. The same procedure should also be applied to du Maurier's 'The Birds': her 'Birds without birds' would have been a sketch of hard English peasant life, of tough characters who are aware that, ultimately, they can only rely on themselves, and are able to keep their mind and provide for their survival even in the most disturbing circumstances. The attacking birds here are thus to bring out the best of the tough character of the 'ordinary' English peasant-against what? Hints scattered throughout the story make it clear that the true target of the story is the post-World War II Labour Welfare State: the state fails to react properly to the threat of the birds and, towards the end of the story, simply ceases to function.

And the same goes for the other stories: one should first imagine an alternate version without the disturbing intrusion. 'Monte Verità without Monte Verità' would have been a story about an apparently happy and prosperous young couple, in which the wife is nonetheless not fully satisfied, haunted by visions of and longing for a different, more emancipated, life. 'The Apple Tree' would have been a depressing story about an old couple whose superficially calm life conceals silent despair and cruel ignorance. 'The Little Photographer' would have been a vignette on a beautiful girl who married for money but is now condemned to lead a suffocating, aseptic existence of empty family rituals, cut off from the bustle of real life. 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger' would have been a story of the everyday emotional misery of a young mechanic unable to find a stable love relationship. Finally, 'The Old Man' would have been a portrait of utter immobility: a couple isolated from society, living in a state of psychotic seclusion... The intrusive Event (birds attacking, the twisted apple tree, the strangely attractive crippled photographer, etc.) is then nothing but a fantasized escape from this misery, a figure that renders all the more palpable the misery of its everyday background - can one imagine a more devastating picture of the choices life is offering us today?

The paradox of old gramophone recordings is that, today, we perceive the singing voice whose clarity is obfuscated by scratches as more 'realistic' than the most faithful Dolby- stereo or THX recording - as if the very imperfection of the rendering is a proof that the 'real voice' was there, while, in the second case, the very perfection derealizes what we hear, turning it into an experience of a perfect fake. And, perhaps, this is how one should read du Maurier's texts: their very scratches - what makes them old-fashioned, often ridiculous-are also what keeps them alive.

Notes;

<a name="1x"></a><a href="#1">1</a> However, does the same not hold for many a great classic? Is it still possible today to listen to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the naïve recognition of the persistent knocking of fate, or is this movement forever lost on account of its later 'commodification'?

<a name="2x"></a><a href="#2">2</a> Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73 (Encore), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 95.

<a name="3x"></a><a href="#3">3</a> Sigmund Freud, 'Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria ("Dora")', in The Penguin Freud Library, 8: Case Histories I, ed. and trans. James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 151.

<a name="4x"></a><a href="#4">4</a> Another more contemporary work that, although worthless in strict artistic terms, provides a similar powerful staging of fantasies would be Colleen McCullough's Thornbirds.

<a name="5x"></a><a href="#5">5</a> See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (London: Routledge, 1992), 24-25.

<a name="6x"></a><a href="#6">6</a> See Gilles Deleuze, 'Coldness and Cruelty', in Masochism (New York: Zone Books 1989), especially 123-34.

<a name="7x"></a><a href="#7">7</a> Zizek develops this notion of 'liberating violence' at some length with particular reference to David Fincher's 'Fight Club in 'Lenin's Choice', in Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, ed. Slavoj Zizek (London and New York: Verso, 2002), 250-63.

<a name="8x"></a><a href="#8">8</a> Claire Brennan, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Icon Books 2000), 22.

<a name="9x"></a><a href="#9">9</a> Sylvia Plath, 'Daddy', in The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 223.

<a name="10x"></a><a href="#10">10</a> This paper was originally written as an introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition of The Birds and Other Stories (London: Virago, 2004), but was rejected 'for being too theoretical and disrespectful of du Maurier' (Zizek, private communication). The six stories listed here were collected in this volume.

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