Dirty’s Story

Mark Polizzotti

  • The Collected Writings by Laure, translated by Jeanine Herman
    City Lights, 314 pp, $13.95, August 1995, ISBN 0 87286 293 3

When André Breton proclaimed in 1922 that poetry ‘emanates more from the lives of men – whether or not they are writers – than from what they have written or from what we might imagine they could write’, it is unlikely that Laure, then 19 and cloistered in the bourgeois family estate, would have got wind of it. Yet in many ways she was the embodiment of Breton’s pronouncement. Indeed, most people, if they know of Laure at all, know her not so much for what she committed to paper as for her tortured, inspired relationships with several prominent French intellectuals, most notably Georges Bataille. And although this edition of her collected writings seeks to correct that impression, its ultimate effect is only to reinforce it. By the time one emerges from this compilation of autobiographical and biographical sketches by and about her, of poems, scattered notes and fevered letters, one can’t help feeling that her true masterwork was her ability to make others react to and remember her.

Which is not to say that Laure didn’t take her writing seriously. On the contrary, poetry and autobiographical fragments were a way to exorcise otherwise inescapable demons, though the very act of writing ‘contributed to giving her mental pain the intensity of a furnace’. Rather than see literature as the path to glory or to wealth, Laure produced much of her work in secret, apparently with little thought of publication: even her lover Bataille saw almost none of these pages during their four years together. Only on her deathbed did she reveal their existence, expressing the wish ‘that her testimony not remain uncommunicated ... as only that which exists for others can have meaning’. The task of bringing these texts to light fell to Bataille and Michel Leiris, another intimate of Laure’s. That was in 1938, when family censorship kept most of them from being published. The first comprehensive volume of Laure’s work appeared, thanks to the efforts of her nephew, Jérôme Peignot, in 1977.

Born Colette Laure Lucienne Peignot in 1903, Laure spent most of her childhood and adolescence in her parents’ estate in Dammarie, just outside Paris. Jérôme Peignot describes Dammarie as ‘a pleasant place. In front of the house, a great lawn surrounded by stately chestnut trees slopes down to the Seine. One might think of Renoir or perhaps also Pissarro.’ But ‘rather than the extravagant luminosity of the Impressionists, it would be more accurate to evoke the false bourgeois tranquillity painted by Vuillard.’

Laure’s childhood had been anything but idyllic, however, and behind her own descriptions of it we can hear the restrictive admonishments and stony silences of the upper-middle class in post-World War One France. She wrote that her mother’s situation ‘allowed her to close herself off in total distrust of anything that was not Family and in complete ignorance of anything that could be cheerful, active, engaging, lively, productive, or even simply human’. Laure’s early years were further damaged by bouts of tuberculosis and, far more so, by the wartime deaths of her beloved father and three of her uncles – a calamity to which the not quite adolescent girl responded with a mixture of iciness and desperation:

I forced myself to picture the faces of the cadavers but their names came to me in a song, a very cheerful tune that ended like this:

  They are dead, dead, dead
     André and Rémi ...
  They are dead, dead, dead
Papa, André, Lucien and Rémi ...

After a long period of mourning, she

thought it would be good to go to school. What had changed? Hadn’t we been crying for months and months? Why not go out? But I was reprimanded, ashamed of my act, which was ‘heartless’. So I stayed there with my mother whose sobs redoubled at each visit ... There was something overwrought in all of this that did not suit me. I felt ashamed of my dry eyes and then atrocious remorse for not suffering enough.

This ‘Story of a Little Girl’, as Laure called it, rehearses her main themes: a revolt against weakness and dishonesty, a rejection of the placid Catholicism of her milieu – a dismissal that itself takes on the tones of religious fervour – and a disdain for socially conditioned attitudes. Most of all, it reveals an underlying belief in writing as the only means of personal salvation and worthwhile communication: ‘I felt horribly distant from all of them, capable of unravelling what each of them wanted, incapable of expressing my own reality to anyone in the world,’ she says of her neighbours in Dammarie.

As in her adult years, this writing was carried out in secrecy, like a private act of rebellion all the sweeter because it was unsuspected. Secrecy – and its underlying feeling of shame, of sin, of things that cannot be confessed – is an essential component of Laure’s work. Describing her early puberty, she points to a duality that often results when a strong libido comes head-on against ramparts of shame and guilt: ‘Life soon managed to oscillate between these two poles: one sacred, venerated, which must be exhibited (my mother’s contemplative demeanour after Communion); the other, dirty, shameful, which must not be named.’ Laure was hardly the only woman of her time and background to internalise the schism between ‘archangel or whore’, as she put it in one of her poems. Where she differed from many of the others was in her refusal to keep the two separate. Instead (and not unlike Bataille), she made of ‘sin’ a religion unto itself, one to be practised just as devoutly, fervently and openly as her mother’s more traditional obeisances to the Church.

Laure had direct experience of this duality in her adolescence, when she realised that the local priest, a ‘great friend of the family’, was in the habit of sexually molesting her older sister. Her mother, whom she confronted with the facts, staunchly refused to believe them and instead accused her younger daughter of every perversion. She wasn’t entirely wrong, for while the incident cemented Laure’s hatred of organised religion and its manifold hypocrisies, it also made her believe in an unbreakable link between the holy and the erotic. One text in The Sacred borrows typically Bataillian accents to recount an orgiastic anti-Communion:

The next day she climbed onto the altar and showed her ass to all the churchgoers and the priest, while raising the host, spread her thighs and inserted the host between them, then he licked this divine ass until the choirboy, kneeling in front of him, released his cock from between the lace and gilding, with blows of the censer and he swallowed the Holy Come that spurted into his face. Meanwhile, Laure, her ass provided with a sacred suppository, freed her belly and her life with wild cries and convulsions, shaking the grand altar to its foundations until it collapsed beneath her.

Seeking someone with whom she could communicate in the stifling atmosphere of her childhood home, Laure looked to those whose behaviour and attitudes set them apart from the conventionality of her upbringing. As a young girl, she turned towards her brother, Charles (here called ‘Jacques’), who enjoyed – and, for his sister, represented – a certain freedom from the strictures that their mother sought to impose; but Charles, ‘with his gluttonous and easy ways’, was not someone Laure could truly ‘speak to’. Later, it was Charles’s wife, Suzanne, who attracted the 18-year-old’s confidences, expressed in a series of passionate and sometimes rambling letters full of adolescent effusion and insecurity: ‘Don’t pity me any more, scold me – perhaps I’ve been too arrogant, but I cannot be content with mediocrity any longer,’ Laure wrote to Suzanne in 1922. ‘I love you with all my heart and I don’t know how to tell you how touched I am by your patient tenderness for the complicated little girl I am.’

But Laure’s real break from her family, as well as her first relationship, did not come until she was 22, when she fell in love with the novelist and Communist militant Jean Bernier. The relationship did not last long – Bernier was simultaneously involved with another woman – but for Laure it marked an affective and artistic breakthrough: ‘Do you understand,’ she wrote to her sister-in-law, ‘that this miracle’ – of feeling alive through writing – ‘is embodied in him and also that he justifies the feeling that if everything that wanted to come to life in me, if all latent possibilities found their expression, it would be complete anguish, the height of anxiety – negation in exaltation.’

The following year, partly in despair over Bernier, Laure attempted suicide and survived only because the bullet ricocheted off a rib before it could reach her heart. The experience seems to have toughened her emotionally: in a farewell letter to Bernier written shortly afterwards, she enjoined him to ‘refuse to accept self-doubt ... A human being cannot doubt himself when he is following his own path. If he doubts, if he lowers his head, it’s because an element foreign to strength, to his strength to be spontaneously is pulling him backward ... Why do human beings refuse to be like plants – they want to be less, much less. They become rust.’

Not long after this, Laure cut herself off from everyone, moved to Berlin, and began an abusive relationship with a wealthy, cultivated and thoroughly depraved German doctor named Eduard Trautner, who kept her in grand style and regularly beat her, apparently with her consent. Recalling that period in The Sacred, she wrote: ‘I flung myself on a bed the way one flings oneself into the sea. Sexuality seemed separate from my real being. I had invented a hell, a climate in which everything was as far away as possible from what I had been able to foresee for myself. No one in the world could ever contact me, look for me, find me.’ Bataille, in his brief evocation of Laure’s life, noted that during this period Laure ‘dressed immaculately’ in ‘black stockings, perfumes and silk dresses by the great couturiers. She lived with Wartberg’ – Trautner – ‘never went out, never saw anyone, stretched out on a divan. Wartberg brought her dog collars; he put her on a leash on all fours and lashed her with a whip like a dog. He had the face of a convict; he was a relatively older man, vigorous, refined. Once, he gave her a sandwich smeared with his shit.’

From the sexual debasement of Berlin, Laure moved on to what her family saw as the political debasement of Communism. As a daughter of the upper bourgeoisie, she had been discouraged from associating with the servant girls and workmen who daily serviced the household; work, she was told, ‘made one ugly and dirty’. Later, like many affluent rebels in the early Thirties, she turned towards the Left, investing it with the same religious aura that had earlier marked her love for Bernier and her masochism with Trautner. She studied Russian at the prestigious Ecole de Langues Orientales in Paris, then moved to a garret in Moscow in an attempt to live like a proletarian. She even tried to spend the winter in an isolated peasant village. Yet, as Bataille recognised, her conviction was less political than psychological: ‘What dominated her was the need to give herself completely, and honestly. She wanted to become a militant revolutionary, yet her agitation was vain and feverish.’ She was, in any case, unprepared for the harshness of the Russian winter and its privations: soon after arriving among the muzhiks, she fell deathly ill and had to be brought home.

Laure’s political activities did not end there, however. Back in Paris she became the lover of Boris Souvarine, editor of the militant Communist periodical La Critique sociale, which she helped finance. According to Bataille, it was also during this period that Laure would ‘seduce vulgar men and make love to them, even in the toilet of a train’. Souvarine, with all the puritanism of a good Soviet, made it his mission to save her from this nostalgie de la boue, treating her ‘like an invalid, like a child’, and being ‘more a father to her than a lover’. Such a bond could not last, and when Bataille spent a weekend with the couple in 1934, he quickly realised that Laure’s relationship with Souvarine was ‘poisoned’.

It was not long after this that Bataille and Laure entered into a friendship that would soon develop into the most passionate affair of both their lives. Bataille was married at the time to the actress Sylvia Maclès (later the wife of Jacques Lacan), but he was immediately seduced by Laure’s implacable intensity. ‘From the first day, I felt a complete clarity between her and me. From the beginning she inspired unreserved trust,’ he later wrote. ‘No one has ever seemed to me as uncompromising and pure as she, or more decidedly “sovereign”, and yet everything in her was devoted to darkness. Nothing came to light.’ One can easily see what brought Laure and Bataille together: the theoretician of eroticism and sacrilege could not help responding to a woman of evident physical appeal, who wallowed in the filth into which he occasionally dipped his big toe (all the while retaining about her an aura of moral purity), who absolutely refused to take anything lightly (Michel Leiris remarked that having a conversation with Laure was like ‘being on the edge of a blade’), and whose directness and intelligence were constant provocations. The character of their relationship can be glimpsed in Bataille’s novel Blue of Noon, in which Laure is cast as ‘Dirty’ to his ‘Troppmann’ (the name taken from a celebrated murderer):

In London, in a cellar, in a neighbourhood dive – the most squalid of unlikely places – Dirty was drunk. Utterly so ... As she stretched her long legs, she went into a violent convulsion. The place was crowded with men, and their eyes were getting ominous. Dirty clasped her naked thighs with both hands. She moaned as she bit into a grubby curtain.

  Her shoulders were bare to the point of indecency ... She gave me a feeling of purity nonetheless. Even in her debauchery, there was such candour in her that I sometimes wanted to grovel at her feet. I was afraid of her ... She was on the point of falling down. She began gasping for breath, panting like an animal; she was suffocating. Her mean, hunted look was driving me insane.

I have been struck, reading her, how often Laure exhibits what seem like symptoms of certain forms of epilepsy, from her violent mood swings to her eroticised concern with God and ‘the sacred’, as well as her alternating divinisation and vilification of those closest to her, the irresistible need to express herself through writing, her references to synaesthesia and to trance-like states, and the fundamental humour-lessness of her approach to the world: ‘I hate “goodness” and “kindness”,’ she once noted. ‘I cringe before certain laughter.’ It is also interesting that Bataille, in several fictional works inspired by Laure, shows his heroine writhing in convulsions that sound very much like grand mal seizures.

Over the next four years, until her death from tuberculosis at 35, Laure and Bataille pursued a liaison that was in many ways a communion of souls – one frequently undermined by her violence and jealousy and his ‘systematic, abundant’ infidelities, but in which the exaltation of extremes so essential to both was given free rein. ‘What can be vaster than the gap through which two beings recognise each other, escaping the vulgarity and platitude of the infinite?’ Bataille wrote shortly after her death. ‘Pain, terror, tears, delirium, orgy, fever, then death were the daily bread that Laure shared with me, and this bread leaves me the memory of a formidable but immense sweetness; it was a love eager to exceed the limits of things.’

As for Laure herself, while little in this book suggests that she was ever truly content, she nonetheless seems to have found in Bataille a lover who could respond to her need for both communication and transcendence. One fragment puts it directly: ‘The God – Bataille / BATAILLE / To replace God.’

I have said more about Laure’s letters and autobiographical fragments than about her poetry because her writings are more compelling as the record of a life than as literature (‘compelling’ but somewhat disturbing: entering Laure’s world is not a restful experience). The images of mutilation and decay, of despair and putrefaction that no doubt fascinated Bataille today seem a bit shopworn. Nor is Laure above a few basic clichés – the ‘cynical prostitutes ... with a great love in their hearts drowned in absinthe’ who pass through the ‘Story of a Little Girl’ are one example. Jeanine Herman’s translation, while it creditably renders Laure’s voice, occasionally stumbles: her direct speech adheres so closely to the French that it becomes hard to imagine people actually talking that way, and she sometimes misses common idioms (for example, the expression se regarder en chiens de faïence – ‘to glare at one another’ – is literally but incomprehensibly translated as ‘looking at each other like earthenware dogs’). As for Laure’s political texts, the best one can say is that they show a sincere attempt at burning conviction, even if more often than not she seems to be examining her own state of mind rather than social iniquities.

A few years before her death, Laure confessed to Bataille: ‘It is not happiness I seek, but a latent, effective and positive strength – I know I fool people – some think I am already very strong, assured and confident ... it is not what impresses others that will ever satisfy me ... I know that I will never achieve any “goal” because even if this were to happen, at that moment only one thing would matter to me – to go beyond what would already no longer be a goal but a stage.’ The endless refusal to be satisfied still shines through Laure’s writings sixty years later.