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Uncertain physiognomies: Susan Daitch's 'L.C.'

"To the extent that the social fabric is unraveling, that's an issue tailor-made for women."(1)

Political progress for women is frequently tied to the disintegration of an existing social order. The chance to grab at a bouquet half-tossed and half-forced from the hands of power is a dubious opportunity at best; but in the realm of hope, the dispossessed will often take what they can get. Political revolutions rarely strike at the heart of tyrannies of gender, and their momentary disordering of property relations may be expiated by a more rigid reinforcement of bodily regimes. Susan Daitch's novel L.C interweaves portraits of three women and two historical moments in which gender was a fellow traveler in social revolutions whose promise for women remains largely unfulfilled.

In 1968, a scholar named Willa Rehnfield translates and edits the diary of Lucienne Crozier, an unknown bourgeois woman who witnessed, survived, or participated in the February Days of the 1848 revolution in Paris. The questions surrounding the nature of Lucienne's political involvement are central to both the document and to its scholarly transmission. In translating and annotating a text, do we witness, survive, or participate in the making of a historical record? These questions become acute midway through the diary, when a second editorial voice, in a distinctly post-'68 idiom, suddenly intervenes. The scholar's assistant, Jane Amme (a pseudonym), is a fugitive from the Berkeley student riots who has gone underground in New York. After Willa's death, Jane "completes" the manuscript, offering her own annotations and retranslating its final pages.

In writing about 1848, Marx (citing Hegel) notes that history repeats itself twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.(2) L.C is structured around such repetitions, though the novel declines to distinguish between tragedy and farce. Jane Amme and Lucienne Crozier are both disaffected daughters of single-mother homes, in search of identities that are only oppositionally defined. In 1968, as in 1848, women revolutionaries tend to follow men's lead.

If Jane and Lucienne are related by temperament and inclination, Lucienne's diary is a material link in a chain of circumstances unknowingly binding Willa to her assistant. Jane Amme and her Berkeley friends, in their final incendiary act, bombed the house of a California industrialist. Luc Feffier was at once the perfect date and the perfect target, a dealer in art and arms, a suspected Berkeley rapist, and man-about-town in New York and Paris. The same man was also Willa Rehnfield's source for the original L. C manuscript.

The scholar dutifully translates a text lent to her by an old acquaintance, a man of dubious culture and character, whose intentions, however, she barely questions. Her notes to Balzac and Montmartre contain the manuscript in historical terms. After the scholar's death, her assistant (having already blown up the tainted means of cultural transmission) retranslates the end of the diary with a distinctly defiant twist. At stake are the politics of translation and the means of transmission of a culture produced by women as it is filtered through institutions, networks, and economies defined primarily by men.

Jane's footnotes reclaim Lucienne as historical precursor. In the tradition of Walter Benjamin's historical materialism, Jane brings the revolution up to date. "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.... For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably."(3) Yet Lucienne is an uncomfortable figure upon which to stake revolutionary claims. She marries for money, according to the wishes of her fallen bourgeois family, a speculator on the Bourse. She begins to write, with characteristic passivity, because her best friend gives her a diary. At the outset of the novel, she is a likely candidate for Bovarisme, that popular nineteenth-century diagnosis (named for Flaubert's heroine) for the disaffection and depression which frequently affected recently married middle-class women. Instead, her husband leaves Paris for business reasons during the mounting social unrest which culminates in the February revolution. In the margins of this larger history, Lucienne recounts a series of petits histoires with men, from the aging and illustrious Delacroix, to a minor revolutionary, Jean de la Tour. Each affair is a step in the process of her political formation, a gradual turning toward medical socialism, on the one hand, and a vague feminism informed by the publication of first feminist daily, Eugenie Niboyet's La Voix des Femnies, and various radical women's organizations.(4)

Yet for Lucienne, the roles of bourgeois wife, artist's lover, and revolutionary companion are a series of mistaken identities. Each is essayed, and proves only slightly less ill-fitting than the others. If "Jane Amme" is a nom de guerre, "Lucienne Crozier" is similarly pseudonymous, the married name of a woman who lived only momentarily with an indifferent husband. Lucienne refers to "the Croziers" as if the name did not include her. The initials on the cover of her diary ("L.C.") express only the necessary alienation of women under patriarchy, the guise of an identity whose "truth" is still to come.

For Marx, the 1848 revolution in France displayed with particular clarity the difficulty of defining a revolutionary identity in opposition to the past.

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle crises and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.(5)

Eighteen forty-eight was a revolution of citation; borrowing words and gestures, rhetoric and public figures, from 1789 and its revolutionary traditions. The ghosts of received ideas and established forms were summoned to calm the anxiety accompanying a radical break with the past. The revolution promised an unmediated relation to presence, a change not only in the names of months in the calendar, but in the relation of people to time. Yet this promise of presence was constructed from layers of history, riddled with ghosts from the past.

Lucienne, we learn in the first pages of the novel, is a woman who "mourns for the present," for whom each gesture in 1848, whether revolutionary or otherwise, is tinged with its own transience. She is a woman of her time only to the extent that she is acutely aware of its passing. In Marx's terms, she mourns for a present tense which is evacuated between the conjured ghost of the past and an uncertain future.

Tocqueville, in writing his Souvenirs of the 1848 revolution, describes his project as seeking "to catch and engrave on my memory those confused features that make up the uncertain physiognomy of my time."(6) Both Tocqueviue and Lucienne seek in the "uncertain physiognomy" of revolution a reflection of themselves. For each, the problem is to distinguish their own identity, as landed aristocrat, or gendered subject, from the complexion of their time. Identifies are at issue in revolutionary moments, when all the old markers of social definition suddenly become radically unstable. Women, as members of a perennially disaffected social class, may find in such moments a reflection of their perpetual estrangement from established codes.

Alienation has a specific economic meaning, as a transfer of property. When the Crozier home is sacked during the general looting in February, Lucienne accepts the loss of property with almost total equanimity. By then impoverished and in hiding with Jean because of their affiliation with a banned political organization, she regrets only that she hadn't sold more of the Crozier property previously, to support their coming exile. As an after-thought, she searches the house for a sketch she made of Delacroix one day while he was drawing her, a mirror reflection of the artist as seen through the eyes of his object. But this reverse image, all that (with the diary) had properly belonged to her, had disappeared.

Where is Lucienne in these events? She notices that in spite of the revolution, business as usual continues on a street of prostitution. Girls who do it part type are seamstresses, laundresses and domestic servants, usually those who don't live in. Revolution or not, business on the Rue de Langlade will continue as before.... Women's work: sewing, scrubbing, peeling potatoes, legitimate work sanctioned by religion, pays just enough to starve slowly and gives you enough time to think about how unfair life is while you're in the process of attenuated dying.(7)

What is the relation of these daily forms of oppression to a history of events, and to a revolutionary promise of radical change? Aligned neither with property, nor strictly with the people (revolted by Proudbon's misogyny), Lucienne's place is with the improper: the margin of her gender, which is variously elided from both sides of the struggle; and with space of writing, which offers her a minimum critical distance from both her own position and events.

My sense is that for Susan Daitch, writing is a kind of exile, a literary space of cross-gendered exchanges, and the end of L. C questions the relation of that space to political action and social change. Lucienne's diary accompanies her into exile in Algeria, where her challenge to property has led her to a radically sex-segregated society. According to Rehnfield's translation, she dies of tuberculosis, abandoned by her lover in an Algerian brothel. In this version, questioning the established order leaves Lucienne hopelessly dependent on the failed revolutionaries who are her companions.

According to Jane Amme's revision, she circulates in Arab men's clothing in Algerian society and, fearing arrest, disappears defiantly, sending her diary back to France to avoid incriminating her friends. "In my translation I've tried to be true to the original," Jane contends. Yet how true was this "original" to herself, and how true were 1848 or 1968, in Paris or Berkeley, to the promises of change? These are questions that remain open when the covers of L. C are closed.

NOTES

(1) A political analyst, speaking on the possible effect of the Los Angeles riots on the chances of female candidates in the 1992 elections (National Public Radio, 4 May 1992). (2) Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 15. (3) Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 255. (4) See Maite Albistur and Daniel Armogathe, Histoire du feminisme francais, vol. 2 (Paris: Des Femmes, 1978). (5) Marx, 15. (6) Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Doubleday, 1971),3. (7) Susan Daitch, L C. (London: Virago, 1986), 98.
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Author:Camhi, Leslie
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:1820
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