Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘La Religieuse’


Suzanne Simonin after harsh punishment thrown into a dungeon (2013 La Religieuse, Pauline Etienne)

Friends,

The second text I assigned as required reading for my The Enlightenment: At Risk? course has been Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which most people read in Leonard Tancock’s translation for Penguin. It is a superior translation to Russell Goulbourne’s for Oxford World’s Classics, but for the sake of the introduction (much fuller and more informative as well as having an insightful close reading), and the inclusion of the hoaxing “practical joke” letters which Diderot first sent a benevolent philanthropist-friend (left out by Tancock), next time I’ll assign the Oxford. From the class discussions, and responses to even a short clip of the 2013 film adaptation by Guillaume Nicloux, featuring Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, and François Négret (the truly powerful Jacques Rivette 1966 version has never been made into a DVD), I can state unequivocally that Diderot’s novella was far more effective in communicating what Diderot meant to than Voltaire in his Candide.

The reason is not far to seek. The Nun, however early in the development of the novel (like Defoe and Prevost, there are no separate chapters, there is much fuzziness when it comes to the relationships of time and place to the incidents, there are inconsistencies in the use of first-person narrator &c&c), has at its center a deeply felt psychologically compelling portrait. Her situation is complexly and realistically (in terms of the situation as set out) explored; each section where she is cruelly punished, scourged, emotionally and physically tortured for attempting to protest, to get out of the convent she is being imprisoned in, for attempting then to go to law to escape, is relentlessly, persuasively and exquisitely realized. I can’t say the people in the room enjoyed the novel, but most were riveted enough to think about social coercion, silent violence, the twisted perversion of human nature or what we think are natural impulses), trauma and its effects. Though some critics talk about the text as libertine, and as inviting vicarious sexual voyeurism in the last section where the mother superior is a an aggressive semi-self-hating lesbian, no one in this class showed any evidence of such titillation — unlike what I’ve seen in response to Lovelace’s hounding, harassing, and teasing of Clarissa in Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece Clarissa. (Early on I described Clarissa, we read an excerpt of Diderot’s Éloge de Richardson, and I suggested that The Nun couldn’t exist but for what Diderot learned from reading Richardson’s novel and imitated from it.) In a way I gathered those who did respond to Voltaire’s Candide took some pleasure from the hard jokes, there was little pleasure in such an exposé — it was like reading stories from the anthology I reviewed, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. There were at the same time genuinely original insights — one woman pointed out the mother who so berated Suzanne Simonin (our heroine’s fictional name) for poisoning her existence was not sinful; it was the mother who committed the sin; her daughter was innocent. I hadn’t thought of that.

A summary:

Diderot and his friends had heard of this case and played a practical joke on the sentimental heart of M. de Croismare, a philanthropist. A series of letters fooled him so they had to pretend Suzanne had grown sick and died. Finally they confessed; it’s said that Croismare was not upset but I wonder. Like Madame Roland’s Memoir, La Religieuse was first published in 1796, in his case many years after his death.

Diderot has a problem: he felt in order to gain sympathy for the nun, he had to make her religious; the reality as far as we can tell (and makes sense) is most girls who didn’t want it weren’t religious; they wanted to marry. Suzanne does not; she is presented as wholly innocent: that’s another element hard to believe because she also enjoys the lesbian sex.

First person narrative has real problems: the narrator has to report her own compliments. I’ve been trying to emphasize analogies with other forms of imprisonment, hostage situations, violations of one’s body and identity (like rape) but it is also seriously a critique of the whole idea of monasteries and nunneries as deeply wrong for human nature.. He means it – Diderot is not attacking the church as the central of the worst evils of the ancien regime as Voltaire does (intolerance, barbaric punishments, thinking life a sin) but he is attacking this way of life imposed on people from many angles

Story falls into three parts. Opening section about how and why she is pressured into going into the first nunnery, Sainte Marie, and we can say that the time there where she is wheedled into taking her vows and just goes to pieces and hates it; she is sent home. There was such a place, established 1763 and it was a place that Marguerite Delamarre spent a long time at. The mother superior at the first place wants to win new recruits.

Second and longest section, she is sent to Longchamp: there is repetition because she was scapegoated. I’d call it humiliated in public, scourged in Sainte-Marie, but here it goes to high lengths. First she has a kind mother superior, Madame Moni whose regime is reasonable; no sourging, allowed all sorts of liberties, but she is urging Suzanne to take vows and that is not what Suzanne wants; she dies and then Sister Christine takes over –- she is mean and cruel, sadistic. It is there Suzanne writes her plea to the lawyer and her friend smuggles it out, and the lawyer makes the case. There we see the visitation of these powerful men. All the lawyer can get for Suzanne is a change of convent. He pays her dowry.

St Eutrope, Arpagon. We are never given this third mother superior’s name… We get stars or dot dot dot – or hyphen. This was a device used in novels to make readers think some real and powerful person was involved Suzanne is a bit of a prig, and she seems to disapprove of the mother superior’s lax ways but it’s really that there is no rule, it’s all her whim and caprice; this week she is cheerful and in love with the natural world, next week she is guilty. Mother superior’s guilt is played upon by the father viciously (natural feelings are perverted) and she becomes crazed with guilt and repression. Suzanne is blamed and she finally escapes; it’s not clear if the man who helps her escape is the same one who assaults here Dom Morel.

This is only to find herself a victim of attempted rape, dragged to brothel and finally working as a laudress and from the original hoax that is when she writes M. de Croismarre.

I find the ending very poignant, and if we don’t have the letters Diderot faked and sent to Croismarre (as one does in the Oxford) it is more plangent in its way. Clarissa dies at the end of her ordeal – as does Ursula, and perhaps Theresa


Suzanne’s one compassionate friend (2013) — the recent film emphasizes the woman’s community perverted and the friendships as well as the lesbian story (Isabelle Hibbert plays that role)

I did at first try to downplay the attack direct on the Catholic church’s practices, doctrines and especially elevation of celebacy in our discussion, even if in one long passage it’s obvious that Diderot (like Voltaire before him) is intent on showing the harmful social arrangements and practices the powerful state Catholic religion was responsible for, and encouraged (getting rid of daughters where you could not afford a prestigious dowry to place her in a high position flattering the family). But as we talked I began to see that was counterproductive. One must begin there and Diderot’s investment in the story was pointed out by one of the people in the class after I described the fraught relationship Diderot had with his bigoted Abbé brother: nothing Diderot ever did could appease this man or soften his demands that Diderot believe as fervently and act as austerely, punitively as he. Diderot used a vow he made to the brother to excuse himself from trying to publish his radical works, which paradoxically freed Diderot to write for 20 years great works without worrying what the public would think. Luckily most of this has survived — the critics and scholars seem to think. I also repeated the story that Diderot’s daughter, Angelique, reported in her memoir that his third sister died of insanity after she was put into a convent: it is thought from over-work but who knows. He has in The Nun at least two unforgettable portraits of young women driven mad by the conditions and ideas they are forced to live with.


Jacques Rivette has Anna Karina play the part more gently, and more openly vulnerable (1966)

Nonetheless, I moved on to generalize as there we were involved. (It did turn out that one man as a young man many years ago had voluntarily entered a monastery; he said after class, he had had no trouble getting out.). Just at this time I’ve been following a good Future Learn course from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland on Understanding Violence Against Women and had been reading Victor Vitanza’s Chaste Rape. I’ll start with the latter:


Kate Millett’s The Basement

I had seen The Nun as a Clarissa story: in the center Suzanne forced to become a nun by the cruelties of her family, coerced, harassed. I also saw the hideous treatment she is meted out by the other members of the nunnery (they humiliate her, strip her naked, force her to whip herself, starve her, leave her to be filthy, scream at her, make her walk on pieces of broken glass) as a parable of what can happen in a prison and when you are outcast in a community whom you have openly rejected. Now I saw this is a story just like all the stories of rape except without the open sexual attack –- which is not necessary. It is very like the real events retold by Millett in The Basement where a woman is coerced into agreeing with her captors’ evaluation of her, loses her pride, self-esteem, identity, her very personality until the point when she is asked further to hurt and to berate herself she gladly agrees. Vitanza says the purpose of rape is not the sexual attack centrally; the point is to violate your ego and self-respect to the point you never forget the experience and are traumatized. This helps explain why women are so upset by rape and assault attacks and that fucking does not at all have to occur. Public humiliation is enough. Like a hostage, when such a victim is kept for weeks, he or she can easily be driven to kiss the tormenter for the smallest relenting, the smallest glass of water or kindness.

After one of the sessions of horrifying treatment, Suzanne is told her lawyer has obtained a change of convent for her. He lost the case to have her freed but he can do this. What does she do? she gives her most precious objects to the cruel superior mother; she begs those who thew her into the dungeon physically to take other favors form her and kisses them and thanks them. When the overseer comes who has the news she can move and he forbids her to see her lawyer, she says that she has no desire to see him and when there is an opportunity she refuses. This cannot encourage the lawyer to go on helping her. He might think her forbidden but he might think she doesn’t care.

Diderot’s tale also anticipates what happens to Offred-June in Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale where she takes on the values of the Waterfords, Lydia and everyone else – like Suzanne. In the second season of the TV film adaptation, the film-makers move away from the original humiliation and enforced fearful docility and cooperation of the victim and make her a heroine to American watchers by having her hold on to violence herself and manifest an active desire for revenge and hatred; the American TV Offred-June does not utterly prostrate herself as Suzanne and the woman in The Basement do.

Suzanne is obviously such another as Levi in the concentration camp; people in solitary confinement and beat the hell out of and mistreated in US and other tyrannical nations’ prisons … I would not have been able to put Suzanne at long last next to Clarissa without Vitanza’s hook. Paradoxically he takes us past the way rape is discussed by de-centering the sex.

As for the Future Learn course, one of their advisors is Judith Lewish Herman whose Trauma and Recovery I know well and have long admired. So from watching and reading along with this Future Learn course I summarized:


Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery

Although Diderot started by a hoax — the typical case of based on a single real woman: Marguerite Delamarre. In 1752 at age 35 after several years she tried to have her vows annulled; she was turned down but the testimony showed an awful life; she tried again 1758, again turned down, she was still alive in 1788 when the convent was finally dissolved. What happened to her we don’t know. I say typical because young women were regularly forced into nunneries. The case of Galileo’s Daughter as retold by Dava Sobel from the 100 letters this girl left is heart-breaking and unforgettable. Gifted, socially engaging, she was cowed, starved, left in ignorance to die young – and he knew it.

The core of the Diderot’s story is violence against women, sometimes silent, sometimes overt – through law and custom. The perpetrators deny her right to have bodily security. To tell and/or seek help is to be punished. We see the impossibility of recovering from trauma in this situation. She lacks control over her environment, people helping her don’t consult her – she has experienced prolonged and repeated trauma so she is numbed – how to put back peace in her life; she has to be provided with safety, with a community to live in, work to do that’s meaningful, that she feel she is in charge of herself – problem won’t go away until society changes – until power relationships change. She is never given any opportunity to use her gifts for music and when last seen has been threatened by rape, a brothel and now lives hidden as a laundress. I assigned one recent essay which argued that the males in the tale have all the power: Suzanne’s mother is subject to her angry husband; her daughters have to pay their husband steep sums; the men in charge of the nunneries are harsh. The lesbian nun is driven into neurotic self-hatred by the priest who forbids Suzanne to have anything to do with her. At the same time, the one person who genuinely helps her with nothing to gain is the lawyer Manouri who even pays her dowry to enable her to move to the third nunnery, and pursues her case on her behalf as far as he is able.


The lawyer in the 1966 film has a stronger role, more prominence

According to the studies of the Strathclyde group: men believe they have the right to control women and whatever they have to do to achieve this is fine. The society is set up so that all authority figures have the right to transgress women’s bodies to force compliance in whatever way the society declares is fitting and to its interests. The way the female gender is trained, submissive, secretive, obedient, supposed to appeal to men, make their relationship with men central to survival fits into this paradigm. Violence against women begins early, in the girl’s earliest years. (I knew this.) It takes the form of setting up coercion in such a way that you prevent the girl from learning a skill, or idea that is enabling, or gives power to act freely on her own behalf. Later on when she is married (forced or seeming to choose), more than half the battle is done for the husband whose pride is made to inhere in controlling her to do his bidding and act out of and for his interest first. A silent violence against the child is secondary; it’s first aim is against her mother who is kept in an invisible straitjacket this way. The aim is twofold, mother and child, and we see this in The Nun, only the mother is absolutely faithful to her role as vicious instrument (as are the women who perform FGM on other women. They resent women who are not cowed and maintain self-pride. This secondary violence of women on girl children and sisters on sisters is seen with searing clarity in The Nun. Herman (like Adrienne Rich) brought out how compulsory heterosexuality is central here too: and in The Nun, the one act that is seen as bestial and beyond all forgiveness is lesbian love, yet whatever comfort and help Suzanne gets is from other girls who identify and say they love her: Ursule, Agatha. I remember Miss Temple in Jane Eyre’s story — until she marries. It is also important that no where helps the girl or women genuinely to find another role beyond wife, mother, as equally fulfilling.

To conclude, life-writing and trials bring into public awareness these kinds of psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people, but it is rarely retained for long. The woman remains so ashamed, and she carries on being punished for telling (especially when she does not win her case and she often does not) of these secrets men and society want to keep unspeakable and deflect attention from. The strong and lucky and men will deny the existence or even validity of such feelings so as not to have to deal with them.

While perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew like Voltaire’s Letters on England, would have brought before the class the sceptical and original ideas of the Enlightenment (Diderot had to make Suzanne religious in order to gain sympathy he felt), I could see from the fifteen pages I assigned it would not hve had the impact the other did.

On the two movies: Jacques Rivette’s The Nun versus Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun.

Ellen

Read Full Post »