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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Passionate Rebel: Colette's Ode to Life

Last Thursday's Philosophy Club paid tribute to a woman who lived life according to her own rules whilst simultaneously writing about that life in a manner that broke with literary convention. If a key task on this third session of our current six-week series was to learn what we could about the trope of the female rebel through the life and writings of French novelist, memoirist, actress and journalist, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), an equally important task lay in getting to the bottom of what made Colette's prose revolutionary. To do this work, we had to step away from how we had understood the term, revolution, in relation to Mary Wollstonecraft - that is, as a large-scale political and social movement - and turn inwards instead.

Here, Julia Kristeva's notion of "revolt" as a creative energy sweeping through an individual and triggering a kind of re-birth proved helpful: enabling us to distinguish between writing that provides a mindful kind of plaisir and writing that provokes a stab of bodily jouissance; highlighting for us the difference between Wollstonecraft's pursuit of a world for women organized around rational thinking and reasoned response, and Colette's apolitical commitment to playful paradox and bodily sensation. And just as our chosen method for getting to know Mary Wollstonecraft - 'deep thinking' - was a 'fit' with that particular rebel's philosophical take on the world, this week's exploration of earthy 'child of nature' Colette found us taking the cue from our bodies.

Coming into the session we had each read an excerpt from Judith Thurman's 1999 biography, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette; selected pages from Colette's 1920 novel, Cheri; and a summary of Colette's writing about love, as discussed by Julia Kristeva. What was it, we asked ourselves - warming to this somewhat unorthodox methodological approach - to read with one's body? to think with one's body? to come to know with one's body? to look for one's body - or the body of someone else, for that matter - in a given text? What exactly did Colette mean, we asked ourselves, when she stated: "When my body thinks...all my flesh has a soul"?

Kristeva, as it happens, is particularly interested in where bodies lurk in our thoughts, in the language we use, in the texts we write and read...And Colette, for Kristeva, is one of the few writers who manages to successfully infuse words on the page with the body. By 'the body,' what Kristeva means is the bodily drives - the body's vitality and energy. When words come alive on the page, when they spark off each other and we as readers find ourselves riding a breathless and seamless wave between what the text is saying and the bodily sensations accompanying what is being said, then what is happening - according to Kristeva - is that the bodily drives are being discharged by the musicality of the prose - by the prose's very rhythms and tones. Here, of course, we were returning to old terrain examined in salons past: to our explorations of poetry and photographs, respectively, as art forms that can be 'read' in a bodily way; to our look at the highly gendered representational systems at work in the symbolic world of heraldry.

For her part, Kristeva goes to great lengths to point out the difference between bodily drives as represented in a text and bodily drives as discharged through a text - the latter being what Colette manages to achieve as a prose stylist, and wherein lies the "secret" to what makes her prose revolutionary...an explosion of "phonetic rapture" that "writes the relation between 'meaning and feeling,' and between 'sense and sensation." For our part, we workshopped this difference between representation of the body and an active evocation of it through a series of inter-related group exercises: looking first at representations of Colette's much-photographed body in search of 'cultural readings' of the prevailing themes that constituted her life and her oeuvre; delving next into a set of recipes penned by Colette which contained far more signs of life, if you like, than your average chicken casserole. As voluptuous women with names like Veronique and Juliette sallied forth out of our 'readings' of these recipes, we reflected on the "marvelous commonplace" that was Colette's natural dwelling place, on the voracious appetite for life that she possessed, and on her writerly ability to "infuse passion into words" and in so doing, transform an everyday recipe into a highly charged sensual experience.

Of course, in addition to examining Colette's stylistic acrobatics, a good part of the evening was spent becoming familiar with the scandals that dogged her as a result of her unconventional love affairs and her daring stage performances; with the criticisms that greeted her as a result of the company she kept and the causes (including militant turn-of-the-century suffragist-style feminism) that she eschewed; with the mix of scorn and admiration that she attracted as a result of her staunch refusal to be anything other than true to herself in an age when women where expected to be true to the needs and wishes of everyone but themselves.

As for Colette earning a place in our Rebel Hall of Fame, we were unanimous that she indeed deserved to be there...Less united in our appreciation of the qualities that got her there. What all of us did feel is that Colette gave us a taste of freedom that was intoxicating, and a hunger for the simple bodily pleasures of life. In her embracing of a hedonism that celebrated female passion and rewrote the way that women, young and old, lived their sensual proclivities, what Colette gave us is an early example of sex-positive feminism. In her ability to pique the interest of others (an endless stream of biographers have attempted to 'capture' Colette!) whilst remaining strangely elusive - a free spirit in life as in death - what the 'self-interested' Colette teaches us is that paradox, if perturbing, also has the power to excite and endure. As we head into our fourth session of the series this Thursday, it will be interesting to see how the "creative contradictions" inherent in the "marvelous commonplace" that also describes the surrealist world of rebel-in-exile artist and writer, Leonora Carrington, compare to those that defined the free-spirited rebel realm of Colette.