French writer Pascal Quignard strives to peer beyond, or behind, what psychoanalysts typically rationalize as the primal parental realities.
The Sexual Night by Pascal Quignard, translated by Chris Turner, Seagull Books, 170 pp., $40.
By John Taylor
The perception at the heart of Pascal Quignard’s The Sexual Night is simply stated and deeply haunting: “I wasn’t there the night I was conceived … An image is missing in the soul. We are products of bodily positions that must necessarily have been adopted but will never be revealed to our eyes. We call this missing image ‘the origin.’ We look for it behind all we see.”
The French writer (b. 1948) has already evoked this striking notion in several of his sixty-odd books; more generally, his entire oeuvre returns time and again to various hypothetical “origins,” those of language, literature, and music also remaining among his recurrent fascinations.
Yet in La nuit sexuelle, first published in France in 2007 and now translated by Chris Turner, the author of Sex and Terror (1994; also available from Seagull) explores much more thoroughly and universally than ever before this “invisible” sexual scene that founds and forever affects us. And he accompanies his at once vivid and erudite examination of this “missing image” with a hundred illustrations, nearly all of which are taken from European Renaissance painting.
These paintings and engravings, reproduced on glossy black—night-like—pages on which the text is printed in white, range from Da Vinci’s little-known Coition of a Hemisected Man and Woman to Cranach the Elder’s Melancholy, Caravaggio’s Medusa, and Abildgaard’s Culmin’s Ghost Appears to His Mother.
Among the non-European paintings are Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Shitao’s The Hermit Lodge in the Middle of the Table, two images from Utamaro’s series The Poem of the Pillow, and a remarkable anonymous Indian miniature of Kali [standing on] Shiva. A Wounded Man also becomes visible, in torchlight, from his wall in the Lascaux grotto (15,000 B.C.).
In other words, Quignard characteristically draws on well-known and, especially, less-known sources to document “the age-old, Magdalenian, archetypal, idolatrous, irresistible, stunning, involuntary images [that have gone] their nocturnal way through generations of sleepers, as humanity multiplied through generations of coitions—millennia of coitions—which are themselves inexhaustible, staggering zoological images.” The author mentions his own “inexhaustible joy” in collecting these images which, it must be added, appear in a new light. Or should one say, in a new night?
By night, as it were, Quignard illustrates his central idea by seeking to pinpoint the sexual and, seemingly, psychoanalytical implications of such artworks. Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe too quickly his approach to theories stemming from Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan. He cautions that this “invisible scene” constitutes a “secret to its keeper himself” that is “not about a soul seeking out its father or mother. It is the body itself, independent of its psyche, far before its psyche existed, that seeks its source. It is doomed to the primal and the unknowable.”
In this sense, Quignard strives to peer beyond, or behind, what psychoanalysts typically rationalize as the primal parental realities. For Quignard, the horizon, or the background, lies at still one more remove from us. It cannot be imagined or formulated with the same precision—perhaps self-deceiving precision—promised by the perspective from the psychoanalyst’s couch. Whereas psychoanalysis endeavors to elucidate, the invisible scene in Quignard’s vision remains in “an eminently sensory, wholly sensory night.” “We come out of that pocket of shade,” the author continues, underscoring throughout his analysis the importance of the nocturnal:
Humanity has carried that pocket of shade with it, where it has reproduced, where it has dreamt, where it has painted. [...] It isn’t light that is being sifted out in the half-darkness where lovers disrobe. It is the primal darkness that precedes us which is advancing, progressing, welling into an enormous wave that sweeps back over us.
Quignard similarly emphasizes fundamentals other than Freudian Oedipus complexes, Lacanian mirror stages, not to mention Georges Bataille’s more diurnal reflections, which he has otherwise long admired. He situates his deductions at another existential or ontological level. Consider these consequences of the “Urszene… experienced [as] the first scene of entry into the atmosphere, the parturient scene, the screaming, violent scene of birth”:
Infantia comes first, speech second.
Forgetting comes first, memory second.
Lèthè first, truth (alèthia) second.
The mysteria come first, demystification second.
Shelter comes first, sudden nudity second.
Quignard’s intimacy with Greek and Latin, his knowledge of European classics, his penetrating (if sometimes brow-knitting) etymologies of key words (here, several Greek and Latin terms as well as their modern-language descendants such as “melancholy,” “phantom,” “idol,” or “image”), have long given his work unique atmosphere.
And he wields a similarly distinctive style, his prose oddly combining terse statements, aphoristic phrases, Latin quotations (with translations), as well as what could be called, after Hawthorne, brief “twice-told tales.” Quignard relishes retelling myths, legends, fables, and classical anecdotes in ways that emphasize their metaphorical significance and the essentials of our human—especially bodily—existence. In this respect, his recounting recalls that of the poet and classicist Robert Graves (1895-1985), who was also seeking, even in the two volumes of his reference work The Greek Myths, something much more than a scholarly account of ancient mythic narratives
The Sexual Night groups the artwork by theme and especially myth, both Biblical and classical. Artwork depicting the stories of Dido and Aeneas, Lot and His Daughters, Noah and His Sons, Actaeon and Diana, and Eros and Psyche thus form chapters that appear alongside another short chapter devoted to the all too real historical personage of Saint Augustine. Two paintings depicting the philosopher are reproduced. One of them is Monsu Desiderio’s strangely disturbing Hell. This painting shows, to cite Quignard’s own words, “little Saint Augustines in the night, beside the sea, sunk in silence, emerging from the ruins of a violent past, edged with golden light.”
Quignard’s pertinent and provocative erudition shines forth as he then juxtaposes this latter description with Saint Augustine’s own obsession “with the wordless, memory-less, erotic, impulsive, savage world.” “I would like to cite one more sentence,” adds Quignard, “(a very Roman sentence, a sentence that isn’t at all Christian, that is even violently anti-Christian), to be found in City of God, Book 21, Chapter 14:
[I]s there anyone who, faced with the choice between death and a second childhood, would not shrink in dread from the latter prospect and elect to die? Who would be keen, at the end of his days, to wish the Fall to be repeated? To wish a recurrence of the Ruin of Paradise in Time? Or the scene of original sin? Or the damnation of God?
Particularly graphic in its support of Quignard’s main thesis is what he calls “A French Scene.” This genre of painting presents the vulva as “the origin.” The best-known example is Courbet’s The Origin of the World, which, as the author reminds us, “fell mysteriously into the hands of [...] Jacques Lacan, concealed beneath another—masking—painting by the painter André Masson.”
This painting is discussed as well as its less-known precursor, Claude Mellan’s incredible The Mousetrap, wherein an infant who has come out of his mother’s vulva has turned round and is staring at the vulva from whence he came. Once again moving between art and literature, Quignard generalizes upon this “French genre,” observing that “we are not Ulysses. We don’t have a “home” on the surface of this world”:
Every Ithaca we would like to get back to is internal. That inner residence is the maternal pouch which every birth tears open. There will be no end to the wandering then, on the surface of the waves or of the earth. [...] Where to turn back to? Should we slip our faces into the sex of a woman? Then the shoulders? Then the trunk? The hips? [...] Our only “home” is that strange “ek-sistence” where the Erstwhile drives. That drive or thrust is Nature. The farewell, the losing, the not-turning-back, the invisible are the four walls of our prison.
Some of this has been seen before: for example, the “ek-sistence” smacks of Heidegger and his idea of being “thrown” into the world. But what is refreshed, or renewed, is this idea of an “internal home.” By the way, the Erstwhile (“Jadis”) is another key notion in Quignard’s oeuvre, notably in his ongoing series Le Dernier royaume (2002-2014, nine volumes to date).
When The Sexual Night appeared in France, as well as its predecessor Sex and Terror, it was challenged by a few critics. One has to get up early in the morning to compete with Quignard in erudition, but Bénédicte Gorrillot has done so in her detailed analysis (“L’Éros antique de Pascal Quignard, Littératures,” No. 69, 2013) of the way the archaic figure of Eros is unduly simplified in The Sexual Night.
Taking a different approach, the writer Philippe Sollers impugned Quignard’s emphasis on the nocturnal, favoring instead “real paradisiacal daylight” and questioning the use of “we” and, therefore, the universality of the “missing image” (see Chantal Lapeyre-Desmaison’s “L’Ange et la bête: notes sur La Nuit sexuelle de Pascal Quignard,” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 52, No. 1, Spring 2012).
My own skeptical musing about this thoroughly stimulating book revolves around the notion of terror. In his chapter on “Voyeurism” and elsewhere (as well as in Sex and Terror), Quignard posits that “the emotion proper to the unseeable scene is terror. Terror is the mark of the phantasm.” He adds that the invisible scene recalls “the hazardous contingency of the original launching of an individual existence.” The writer goes on to evoke not only the sexual but also the bestial character of the original scene that presses on our imagination, notably
the more ferarum position from which children imagine they originate. The body’s exit hole into this world is, first, the anus, through which what has been eaten reappears.
Parents make love like dogs on the pavement.
They shit out children the way horses leave their dung in the road.
The primal phantasm wrests one’s self-image away from beauty, wrenches it from the hold of language…
Is there no room for other kinds of primal emotions, let alone imagery? To put it differently: despite the varied literary and pictorial sources brought forth by Quignard, one explanation fits all. This rigid categorization contradicts the very elastic nature of myths, which are re-envisioned as they are told and retold. Quignard’s narrative streamlining tends to privilege one interpretation over another.
But are other fundamental experiences, feelings, visions, and recollections possible for such and such an individual? In an oft-autobiographical national literature, Quignard mostly eschews the personal and the present. This is perfectly legitimate, even welcome, but by transcending diverse individual ontologies and seeking their common denominator on the mythic level, he necessarily unifies and thus narrows his interpretative range. His deep-probing insights are akin to pre-Socratic unifying principles such as Thales’s declaration that “all is water” or Heraclitus’s observation that “everything flows.”
In addition, the author overemphasizes the male viewpoint here and there; and perhaps the heterosexual perspective as well. This becomes particularly clear in the chapter on “Saturn,” which is illustrated with especially terrifying paintings by Caravaggio (Sacrifice of Isaac), Rubens (Saturn Devouring His Son), and Goya (Saturn Devouring His Sons).
Focusing on the Greco-Roman myth of Kronos / Saturn swallowing his children (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon), Quignard draws conclusions that apply mostly to the heterosexual male or, at least, would raise considerable problems when applied to the situation of females, bisexuals, and homosexuals:
For the male, mourning for the other sex is the real sense of the past. The sex he doesn’t have is exchanged in his psyche for the body he lost in being born…
The seeing of the absence of the penis in the mother and the hearing of the threats towards his penis whenever the child is caught touching himself mingle in the little boy’s mind. The paternal threat of castration, the renunciation of the mother in obedience to the paternal voice, the separation from the Erstwhile, the farewell to the drives and to nature mark the outline for all the subsequent limits—in the psyche, within the family, in the group of nati, in the nation, in the universe …
It is said that, from the age of five onwards, every girl becomes a desire to have while every boy becomes a fear of losing. But neither sex will ever know how things are for the other. The only thing certain is that sexual difference consigns each sex to half of the joy possible. So, from five years of age until death, it is envy, far more than desire, that reigns between the sexes...
Quignard’s approach has obvious boundaries: the varieties of sexual experience, especially as we have become aware of them in our day and age, suggest that there are limits to an interpretative methodology based almost exclusively on the narrative structures of myths and their pictorial representation. Of course, this is not to say that Quignard’s arguments are not intellectually invigorating.
Let me add some information that should rather terrify American readers. In 2008, Quignard gave an in-depth interview about The Sexual Night to the writer Jacques Henric on the website Mondesfrancophones.com. He reveals that he was incited to write this sequel to Sex and Terror because of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Art that was passed by Congress in 2006 while he was staying at the University of Atlanta and then at Sewanee University.
“Knowing how quickly puritanism crosses the Atlantic Ocean,” reports Quignard, “I was gripped by a kind of fever. [...] I had the feeling that at any cost, and very fast, I needed to publish the original images that I had collected ever since my adolescence. So I immediately delved into the writing of this book. . . I wanted to have my collection of indecent imagery published.” Quignard adds that he is unaware of any book, ever since Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), that gathers original sexual scenes and meditates on them.
John Taylor’s overview of Pascal Quignard, “A Passionate Lettré,” is included in the second volume of his three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction Publishers, 2004, 2007, 2011). He has recently published a collection of essays, A Little Tour through European Poetry (Transaction), a translation (Philippe Jaccottet’s The Pilgrim’s Bowl, Seagull), and a collection of short prose, If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press).