Disappointment and Inadequacy: The Aftermath by Anna de Noailles

June 6, 2010 at 10:38 am (Literary Criticism, Philosophy, Poetry)

Photo of Anna de Noailles

Anna de Noailles

Whereas contemporary authors and scriptwriters concentrate obsessively on the trivial, or at best the entertaining, aspects of sex — and curiously this includes female authors with the honourable exception of  Camille Pagglia — the two great women poets of the early twentieth century, Edna St. Vincent Millay in America and Anna de Noailles in France, stressed its tragic aspects. Both women shocked or annoyed contemporary male opinions, though thankfully not enough to be rejected by publishers, because they dared to write seriously and, by and large, decorously about feminine emotional and physical needs. Despite in both cases being beautiful women very much in the public eye surrounded by countless male admirers, they were both, almost from the beginning, disappointed not so much by love as by life itself. They had the ‘tragic sense of life’ — and in a manner at once far more profound and convincing than Unamuno (author of   Del Sentimento Trágico de la Vida). There is no way to be happy,” Anna de Noailles writes in Les Innocentes ou la Sagesse des Femmes, “Happiness is that already lapsed moment when…we felt as though we had been drawn from nothingness towards a new destiny….  He who cannot arrest the moment is powerless. Imagination and hope are nothing but the search for memories, a frantic zeal, a servile devotion to the demands of memory” .
This sentiment was not the pique of the bored dilettante, or the affected ‘world-weariness’ of the society beauty : in both cases it was rooted in the correct perception that there is something inescapably flawed about the human condition, overshadowed as it is permanently by the twin divinities of Love (or Sex) and Death. Moreover, the two ‘immortals’ are linked, endlessly leading into one another. To ‘lose oneself’ in love or sexual ecstasy is a kind of death, whereas death, the dissolution of the physical body brings union, if not with God, at least with Nature. Biologically speaking, the reproductive system ‘chosen’ by mammals involves sexual differentiation which is more the exception than the rule in Nature (since bacteria and other unicellular organisms reproduce by division while many plants and invertebrates retain the ability to reproduce asexually). The mammal reproductive system has proved extremely successful, otherwise we would not be here, the principal advantage being that genes get mixed and so there is greatly increased variation in offspring. However, there is always a price to pay : you “don’t get owt for nowt“. One of the prices has been the quasi-permanent state of anxiety that afflicts homo sapiens, an anxiety whose roots lie in fear of extinction and fear of not finding a mate, whether a body or soul mate, or both.

More specifically, the radical specialization of the male and female functions in reproduction — which does not exist in species which are hermaphroditic like certain snails and fish — has resulted in mutual suspicion and hostility between the genders, exacerbated by unrealistic expectations. A contemporary of Anna de Noailles, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, wrote with special reference to the former’s work, “Woman calls [for] the God. A man appears, miserable substitute” (quoted, Catherine Perry, Persephone Unbound.)  In Anna de Noailles’ case the ‘man’ from whom she seems to have expected the most was the (then) famous writer and politician, Maurice Barrès, rather than her husband. The following remarkable poem, originally published in a slightly bowdlerized version, was allegedly written with Barrès in mind — though the  situation is timeless.

The Aftermath

Above all, after climaxes the most intense
In our close-knit uniting, frenzied, barbarous,
Reclining side by side, gasping for breath, I sense
The abyss that severs us;

In silence we recline, not understanding why,
After such pent-up fury, longed-for, deep, insane,
So suddenly we find ourselves apart and lie
As separate selves again;

You are beside me but your gaze does not reveal
That eagerness I answered with a fire unknown,
You are a helpless beast gorged with its meal,
A corpse sculpted in stone;

You sleep and do  not stir — how can another know
What dream has quieted your restless mind?
But through me yet great gusts of yearning blow
Leaving their mark behind;

I cannot cease from living, O my dearest love!
My warlike frenzy underneath its peaceful air
In desperation searches round me and above
To find a passage there!

And still you lie content! The throbbing ecstasy
Of sadness coursing through my limbs, and that profound
Confusion, nothing of all this in you I see.
My love, my only love! Between yourself and me
There is no common ground.

(translation by Sebastian Hayes)

There are two points to be made here.

On the strictly physical, or technical, level Anna de Noailles, almost alone amongst poets who have written about love, dares to highlight the ‘asymmetry’ of male and female sexual responses. As Margot Anand, author of The Art of Sexual Ecstasy (The Aquarian Press, 1990), writes :

“…a woman’s energy is not depleted by her sexual climax — for her, depletion happens more through menstruation than through ejaculation — she is ready for more lovemaking, while the man typically is not. Male ejaculation often cuts off the communion between partners, as if the man has suddenly turned off the TV while his female partner is still watching the show.  I believe this difference is one of the major reasons for unhappiness in intimacy between men and women.” (op. cit. p. 350).

In the quoted poem, the speaker even treats her lover with disdain,

“[vous êtes] Comme un faible animal gorgé de son repas,
Comme un mort sculpté sur sa pierre”

which I have translated :

“You are a helpless beast gorged with its meal,
A corpse sculpted in stone;”

As a put down one cannot go much further than this : one almost feels sorry for the poor male (though it is difficult to have much sympathy for the self-important Barrès).
However, there is more to it than this : Anna de Noailles is not just talking about the mechanics of male/female intercourse. At a deeper level there is the question of the inescapable loneliness of the human condition which inevitably reinstates itself whether the two partners ‘come together’ satisfactorily or not.

“Je ressens ce qui nous sépare!…
Chacun de nous a pu, soudain et simplement,
Hélas! redevenir soi-même.”

which I render

“…suddenly we find ourselves apart and lie
As separate selves again”

The point is that after every experience of  unity with ‘the other’, there is the ‘come down’, the return to ‘oneself’ and ‘ordinary existence ‘. Life, everyday life, is separation : separation  from other people,  from one’s environment, from the source of life.

The problem is not specific to sex since it applies to all experiences where there is, or can be,  participation mystique : shared religious worship, tribal ‘gatherings of the clans’, collective dancing, troops parading and preparing for battle, the modern-day frenzy of pop concerts and demos. The individual experiences a  sense of going far beyond the limits of his or her individual existence — which makes the return to humdrum reality all the more intolerable.

Acknowledgment: This translation of  “C’est après….”  by Anna de Noailles (the poem is untitled in French) first appeared in the magazine “Tears in the Fence“. 

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