Destroy, She Said: Thoughts on madness
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Marguerite Duras' Destroy, She Said, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Emily Withrow: Building off of yesterday's discussion, I wanted to talk about the role of madness in this novel. These subjects are all linked, as Duras tries to infuse the characters' minds into the narration. The language is mad, and maddening, as are the characters and their intent.
The madness that pervades Destroy, She Said isn't your run-of-the-mill, nonsensical insanity. It's that special spin on madness that excites me the most in film and literature, where the madness is calculated, systemic of a discontent with society or the ruling order. It's not that these folks are crazy in the truest sense of the word; they haven't lost their minds. They've reprogrammed them, or rather, Duras has liberated them from the confines of our social norms to run amok on these hotel grounds. They're mad to most because they're different from most. It's a form of madness that I find both tempting and exhilarating, that taps into deviance.
I keep coming back to this line that appears a few times throughout the novel, and it makes me smile each time: Alissa knows, but what does she know? Duras wryly teases the reader here, having her characters pose this question that we ourselves keep asking. But the part that gets me is that first bit—Alissa knows. This is a knowing madness, one attained by a insight and shared among knowing individuals. This madness has so captured my imagination because it's an intelligent one. The scariest psychopaths for me have always been the brilliant ones. This isn't to say that I believe that Max Thor and co. are psychopaths—just that they seem to have an understanding and sense of shared purpose that's curious, and removed from the usual.
There's power in this madness, too—these characters embrace it with such fervor that they aim to destroy social order and convert others around them, pulled together in a violent game. The threesome's attack on Elisabeth Alione seems malevolent, as they pull this fragile, fascinating thing into their web. But I think the danger Duras is getting at is an exciting one, if not somewhat cultish in spirit, involving letting go, giving in, falling. I found myself delighting in Elisabeth's joining the group, and an eager spectator at the dinner table when Bernard arrives.
Duras unsettled me from time to time, when characters seemed to lose emotional control. While the cool, calculated madness worked to seduce me at every turn, the moments of languishing, emotional vulnerability, or laughing truly made me uncomfortable, causing me to wonder if these folks were even further gone than I'd originally thought. Donna mentioned yesterday that she'd like some comment on the translation. My French copy has gone missing, and I couldn't get my hands on one in time to do a side-by-side, but one thing I'd like to address is the word "cry," which appears multiple times in various contexts. In the original, the word is "cri," which is packed with more punch than its English equivalent, almost a sound that's born inside you and escapes instinctually, primally. (The word refers to an animal's noise, too.) And unlike our definition, it never means tears. So in these passages where you might have imagined dopey crying, replace that with something scarier. These moments were akin to that frightening laughter that possesses Elisabeth during the card game, which almost smacks of desperation or hopelessness.
What about you, fellow readers? Did you all feel the seductive tugging of Alissa and her cohort, or were you repulsed?
Donna Bowman: The portrayal of madness in literature and film has always bothered me. I admit that I mentally roll my eyes whenever someone goes mental. And here's why: I suspect that it's impossible for the creator of the work to refrain from calculation in the madness. The author has the godlike power to make a madness that has meaning, that comments on whatever the author wants to comment on. And so the mad character becomes not someone unhinged from the shared structures of his particular reality, but a puppet. Devoid of his own reasonable motivations, he's empty and ready to be filled with whatever the author wants him to be. I suspect that it is, at the very least, incredibly difficult for an author to write a crazy character who's authentically crazy in the terms set by the character and the story, not by the author's intentions or themes.
I was trying not to read skeptically here. And so the mentions of madness were moments I chose to not take the text very seriously, or at its word. If I believed these characters to be crazy, I would revert to my usual suspicions of that authorial device. It was certainly a relief that the overt mentions of madness were relatively few, and that they were assertions by one character about another, not portrayals from an omniscient narrator. I could, if I chose, believe the characters to be mistaken in labeling Alissa mad. Or I could (and this is what I ended up doing) interpret the word "mad" as an expression not of Alissa's mental state, but of her lack of allegiance to systems of meaning that constrain the other characters. She is mad because she has her own agenda. That's not unpredictability, exactly; that's an internal agenda that we could, in theory, understand. Yet it has the same destructive potential as a more thoroughgoing madness, if it is impenetrable by other arguments, considerations, or empathies.
It's fascinating to read Emily's description of seduction by this madness, because my story (shaped by my particular past as a reader) is so different. I am usually, and in this case, immune to such seduction, but I attempted a reading that at least allowed me to engage with assertions about madness. As a result, the narrative still held together, and I was able to keep contact with the author without accusing her of bad faith.
Leonard Pierce: Of course, I'd add, reader-response-theory addict that I am, that Duras has not only presented us with a text where the characters and language are insane, but where the very method of storytelling is mad, and meant to infect us with that very madness. Insanity can be explained as a break with reality, which isn't always a negative thing, and Duras' unconventional means of telling a story can be explained as a way to force us into a break with our expectations from the novel form.
Within the confines of the narrative, though, we are presented with an interesting form of madness. Since we see them entirely through their own eyes, we're forced to adjust our expectations: If we find them mad, whose standards are we using, other than our own? Do they think they're crazy? Do they think the others around them are crazy? Or are they operating under a collective delusion that, even moreso than the usual truism that the mad always think that they're sane, renders their action and behavior perfectly sensible to them? How much, in other words, do they exist outside of themselves? It's a hallmark of good writing that characters behave in a way consistent to the internal narrative, but placed within a larger framework, that behavior can seem frightening or even insane.
That's why the attack on Elisabeth, and Bernard's arrival, can be read in different ways: At face value, looking at it from the outside, it's a sociopathic, evil act. But inside the book, in the world of its internal logic, it can be seen as an attempt to draw them in, to make them part of the narrative, to open their eyes (for good or ill) so they can see the way Alissa and Max Thor see. The split in their behavior reads to me not so much as psychopathic—cruelly violent with a lack of affect and empathy—but psychotic, bearing a break from reality, but just as likely to come from having too deep a profundity of feeling. Not that they're both equally unsettling, but one delivers horror, while the other is more compelling and seductive. It's the latter—a personal, and for lack of a better term, social psychosis, that Duras makes an operant factor in Destroy, She Said, which is why, as Donna hints at, it's hard to read as a typical fictional break-from-reality form of craziness. And it's why it works for me in ways a traditional narrative of cruelty or madness would not.
Zack Handlen: In response to Leonard, I like what you're getting at, but I didn't really see it in the book. This didn't challenge my perspective on what a novel could be, because it didn't seem to open any doors to other work. This didn't fill me with a sense of possibility in the form, it didn't excite me with possibilities. It just seemed like a diversion, a momentary curiosity. A narrative cul-de-sac, if you will. But all right, say the style mirrored the characters' madness. I can see that, and I can see where it works. Again, the card game, and the mounting uneasiness about intentions, and the strange ending—that all fits.
Well, so what? This barely scratches the surface of anything. I don't know what the madness is, I don't know how their illness, or new perspective, differs from what they were before. It's almost there, and I think the fact that I did feel something during sequences that were supposed to inspire a response, means the author was at least moderately successful. But it was a singular effect. I left feeling nothing was communicated, and if that was part of the madness she was trying to evoke, well, nicely done. I guess that's just not enough for me. If this is crazy, I wanted more crazy, and if it was leading me somewhere, I guess I needed a little more hand-holding.
Ellen Wernecke: I definitely wasn’t repulsed, but I didn’t see the violence in the threesome’s game that you picked up on, Emily. As they reeled Elisabeth Alione in, I didn’t find it all that sinister… at first. Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the dialogue as much colored by the characters as static and dissociative, in rhythms that drained it of any malice it might have had. If, as Leonard says, Duras intended to infect us with the madness, I think I was—but what they do is not all that different from what other small, insulated groups of people might do to manipulate a defenseless outsider within an enclosed space.
To what extent is Elisabeth Alione a victim? I think we do her a disservice to not wonder at least whether she is a more willing participant in the madness than the other characters cast her (or Duras chooses to cast her).
Todd VanDerWerff: Every time I think of madness in literature, I think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," which I think I've read 500 times now. (Or, at least, I've heard it read to me by every other freshman girl in an oral interpretation back when I was high school.) Gilman kind of gets at what I think it must be like to feel mad, even if I think that the story pushes a little too hard, essentially inviting anyone to read it out loud to continually get more and more crazy-sounding. THERE'S SOMEONE BEHIND THE WALLPAPER. OH MY!
But I think Leonard's take is closest to my own here. Destroy, She Said works best for me as an examination of people who are clearly not conforming to the rules of polite society, people who seem mad but maybe aren't actually mad, within the confines of how they operate. The book, I agree, aims to create within its readers a sense of their own sanity slipping away. It was this sensation that hung with me the most after I finished the book. I read the thing on an airplane, and I couldn't really shake the feeling that I, myself, was being watched, that I should be looking over my shoulder and making sure I wasn't being tailed by someone.
I can't even pretend to wholly know what was going on with the novel's central threesome of borderline sociopaths, or what their plan for Elisabeth was, exactly, but I liked the way the text, with its simplicity but also the way something seemed to be lurking behind every word, made me feel very much of a piece with Elisabeth, always terrified by the implications of what these people I had just met might be suggesting about me or about the other people in my life.