I’ll Tell You One Day
The confiscated mise en abyme in Henry James' The Aspern Papers and Benoît Jacquot's L'Ecole de la Chair
By Lee Yew Leong
The epistemological journey as subject – one of the best works to take this on fully, Henry James' The Aspern Papers, has just been adapted for film again this year. But another worthy filmic counterpart has already been around since 1998: Benoît Jacquot's L'Ecole de la Chair (The School of Flesh).
Both narratives are propelled by a lust to know. In Henry James' novella, a publisher (also the unnamed narrator) who is after a set of papers left behind by a deceased writer Jeffrey Aspern will even resort to seduction to get his hands on the material. In Jacquot's film, a spurned lover desperate to gain leverage over her objet d'amour obtains by underhanded means a set of photographs indexing an unsavoury past.
But in both instances, the fetishised object representing epistemological access to an auratic other is finally destroyed without the reader/viewer ever reading or seeing it. Interestingly enough, each object assumes the manifestation of the chosen mode of storytelling, be it the coveted stack of literature in the novella or the photographic images in the film. Thus the story driving the story, as it were, is finally withheld: a confiscated mise en abyme.
On the surface, L'Ecole de la Chair can be read as a parable of what happens when age and gender hegemonies are reversed. Dominique is a rich 40-year old woman in contemporary Paris who falls in love with a 20-something bisexual hustler named Quentin. When Dominique makes clear her interest in Quentin, the latter encourages it. Before long, Dominique has paid off his debts and Quentin has moved into her house. (Arranging to live in the same house as your objet d'affection and forking out exorbitant sums of money are also the preliminary steps in The Aspern Papers.)
In spite of this, Quentin keeps his epistemological distance. "One day," Dominique says over one of the first meals they share in their new living situation, "I will tell you everything about me. Everything." "I'm not asking you," says Quentin quickly. Not only is he adamantly uncurious about Dominique, he also refuses to sate Dominique's curiosity. "Why do you refuse to discuss your friends? Or your family?" Dominique asks. "We're together, but don't tie me down, or you'll be hurt," comes the non sequitur.
How does telling (and knowing, for that matter) tie one down, and how does being tied down lead to pain? Towards the end of the film, something Quentin says will reveal the internal logic of that statement: "Long ago, I decided that I would live without emotions." If Dominique, with her suggestive emphasis on "everything", alludes to a life story heavy with tumult, so too does Quentin suggest a similarly unspeakable past, when, later, in response to a comment that he still has his entire life ahead of him, Quentin says, "My life is already old." An old man inside a young man then, Quentin has already arrived at the conclusion about knowledge as recounted in Ecclesiastes: "He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow." For Quentin, knowing is a dangerous state, from knowing originates heartbreak. To tell is to be complicit in that heartbreak. (A case might even be made that Quentin, by issuing a hands-off, is being kind.) At the same time, if to live without emotion is to refuse to tell or know, then to live sentiently, full-bloodedly, is to enter into that commerce of telling and knowing. And it is through telling and knowing that lives are intertwined, and in a way that would, were those lives to be separated one day, cause pain.
But Dominique, already too much in love, cannot stop herself. Her lust to know soon fuels her every deed. It drives her to befriend Chris, a transsexual from Quentin's past, whom she mines for leads about Quentin's life. It propels her to look up Soukaz, a rich lawyer who previously kept Quentin. It induces her to visit the cafeteria where Quentin's mother works. Eye to eye with the parent of her paramour, she can barely pull away. "I saw your mother the other day," she tells Quentin afterwards, "She's beautiful." A beat, and then Dominique adds, with as much tact as she can muster, "I could help her if you want." "You think you can buy everything," retorts Quentin. "Not buy," says Dominique. "Know."
Shortly after, it all goes downhill. Quentin soon hits the streets for sex, and starts bringing men home. When the frustrated Dominique attempts to intervene, Quentin threatens to leave. At length, Quentin announces his engagement to another woman, a rich and pretty little thing he has been courting on the sly and will now marry for money. Desperate for leverage needed to hold on to the relationship – since money by itself will no longer do – Dominique looks up Chris again and obtains incriminating photos from Quentin's past.
In a scene that appears – deceptively enough – to be the eye of the storm, Dominique tells a friend of her intent to confront (and possibly blackmail) Quentin with the pictures. "What could these photographs be?" asks the friend, simultaneously reaching for the envelope. Dominique lunges forward, no, throws herself at the friend to protect its contents from being viewed. I alone! her actions say.
Additionally, in a film where most of the events are recorded via an indifferent camera (the camera being an objective looker in the film, collecting the gazes of different characters) and not through the phenomenological lens of any one character, Jacquot's decision to induce in the viewer, at this precise moment of panic, an identification with Dominique's psychological state by cutting quickly to a point-of-view shot (we see the envelope as she sees it, in her adrenaline-infused state) is particularly noteworthy.
Whenever a strategy like this is deployed in film, it is an event of real frisson generating much aura around the fetishised object, much like its counterpart in James' novel, where the nosy narrator, on the verge of discovering Aspern's papers in the secretary, looks up to see the late writer's lover Juliana's "extraordinary eyes… for the first, the last, (and) the only time" and freezes, like a "caught burglar", an inquiring subject discovering his own object status for the first time under that objectifying gaze. In both film and novel, the unexpected emergence of a hitherto unleashed gaze (representing an eruption of alterity) functions as a marker of central discursive importance.
More surprises lie in store. Dominique shows Quentin the photographs; Quentin, knowing that he has lost, plaintively asks, "Why can't I lead a normal life?" Something dawns on Dominique. At the brink of having all that she has ever wanted, she comes to the chilling realisation that she doesn't want it anymore. In a trice, she burns the photographs and sets him free. Everything that chains Quentin to his past becomes ashes in the sink.
In that instant, Quentin comes to understand that only Dominique will ever see him for who he is, and that no one else, in this world so hung up on the appearance, will ever be able to. He tells Dominique that he will call the marriage off, and that he will do everything it takes to stay by her side. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Dominique's mind is made up. Love in L'Ecole de la Chair is equivalent to knowing, or lust to know, but for love to exist, so too must its corollary, the illusion of love that too much knowing destroys. Just as a metro ticket carried too far becomes invalid, love, past a certain knowing, can no longer be.
The story fast-forwards. Years later, Dominique and Quentin meet in the streets. Now a father, Quentin, matured by experience, carries a baby girl. Dominique's new lover has just left to run an errand. In the short space of time permitted them, lovers now from the other end of a relationship, a few cordial words are exchanged. Some nostalgia. But there is a firm resolve – on Dominique's part – to keep the past past. Dominique's lover returns, Quentin bids Dominique goodbye. When the lover asks Dominique what that was about, Dominique says, without skipping a beat, "I'll tell you one day."
"I'll tell you one day." It's a heart-stopping last line, transforming experience vecue (lived experience) into racontage intime (intimate story), enveloping narrative with narrative, depicting the miniature version of the crest first, before zooming out to show us the enveloping crest. In fact, the mise en abyme doesn't stop there for, inasmuch as the lover is prefigured as the sole confidante on whom one unburdens one's intimate past (thus the photograph must remain inaccessible to the friend), the introduction of the figure of the fresh lover injects life again to the motif of the untold story whose aura attracts lust for knowledge and which lust, in turn, fuels the momentum of the ongoing story and posits it as quest. Is courtship not, after all, a drawn-out storytelling?
The epistemological journeys in L'Ecole de la Chair and The Aspern Papers are both characterised less by revelation than by concealment, since perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, every lover (three out of four of them, at least, self-identify as lovers, and the narrator of The Aspern Papers is ready to be one by the end) understands the power represented by the aura of the promised but withheld story. To the extent that he is aware of the game but incognizant (consciously or unconsciously) of its inevitable outcome, the lover manipulates his cards to exploit the other's lust to know.
Can this lust to know be eventually exhausted? Indeed it can. L'Ecole de la Chair already offers two models: knowing can get too tough and render impossible love; or knowing can overtake the object of knowledge, leaving for the inquirer nothing left to know. (Dominique left a marriage prior to meeting Quentin because she was bored.) When Quentin, who in many ways functions as the voicebox of the story, tells Dominique, "No man will give you what you want," he points to the crisis at the heart of that particular love pursued by Dominique, which, quick to destabilise because knowledge-driven, is doomed to be evanescent. Within the railings of Jacquot's weltanschauung, we can infer that Dominique's storytelling won't just stop at the new lover at the movie's end. That drawn-out process of telling and knowing (so full of the delectation of detail, lived forward) will one day again suffer the flattening into story, which in turn will be offered up to a future lover as an enticement, and so on and so forth.
As a formal device, the concept of the withheld story is easy enough to read. It is an auratic object, and, like the lover, the writer and the filmmaker both know to utilise this aura. Aura keeps alive curiosity, which in turn encourages frequentation. Before the withheld story reveals itself to be out of reach, it is dangled like a carrot, promised as "an answer", as Mrs Prest (an acquaintance of Tina, Juliana's spinster niece) in The Aspern Papers puts it, "to the riddle of the universe" or, at the very least, an answer to the riddle of the fictional universes of these stories.
Afterwards, when all possibility of knowing is destroyed, its aura only increases, true to Benjamin's inverse formula concerning an object's aura and its accessibility. (In the age of mechanical reproduction, when images of the Mona Lisa adorn even the common coffee cup, the aura of the real painting in the Louvre suffers a deterioration.)
Additionally, one of the valuable insights that L'Ecole de la Chair and The Aspern Papers both lend is that things with aura not only attract curiosity, but also imbue with beauty people or things connected by association. Thus Dominique even finds Quentin's mother beautiful when, in the film, she is simply a harrowed, life-beaten maid. And thus Tina, once she finds out that the bouquets from the narrator were meant for her, "like(s) them better" and asks for the flowers afterwards as if they were a "great affair". Similarly, an argument might be made that the withheld story lends everything around it aura, as if from the crater hollowed out by this withheld story we may better infer about the meteorite that created it. Even if the answer to the riddle of the universe is nowhere to be found, the riddle has been established, so we find ourselves drawn again and again to it.
As a conceit within the narratives, however, it is richer in implication and harder to parse. If the mise en abyme opens up the possibility of infinite regress, it also constitutes a questioning of the concept of origin. In both L'Ecole de la Chair and The Aspern Papers, the withheld story responsible for the diegesis is irretrievably destroyed, exiling forever the extra-diegetic reader/viewer from knowing, causing a crisis around essence.
Consider the following story recounted by Elie Wiesel:
Another mise en abyme: if in Wiesel's story we see a substitution of story for essence, then in L'Ecole de la Chair and The Aspern Papers, we see a substitution of inquiry for story, corroborating Dewey who states in his Theory of Knowing that only the inquiry or the "act of knowing" is an event or occurrence whereas the outcome of this process – the having of knowledge, or what we commonly call knowing – has a quite different status. Since the story never gets to be told, we understand that it's the pursuit thereof that is precisely the point. Not only is the subverted hegemony suggested by the concealment of the story, it is also recommended over and over again in the texts.
In The Aspern Papers, the word "curiosity" comes up several times, but nowhere as pointedly ironic as when Juliana asks the knowledge-thirsting narrator, "Do you know much about curiosities?" In L'ecole de la Chair, Soukaz, the rich lawyer who previously kept Quentin, tells Dominiqe in a moment of camaraderie, "Money will be our ruin." Money is indeed Dominique's ruin, but money only in the associative sense of curiosity here: "You think you can buy everything," says Quentin. "Not buy," she replies. "Know."
But what is the nature of the knowledge they seek? I know, for example, that if I want to know about knowing, I can go to the library, run the term through a search engine, and return home several hours later having read about Plato's decription of noesis, or Descartes' talk about our "natural light" and its "intuition", or Locke and Berkeley's references to the mind's power of perceiving its own ideas, or Kant's account of the synthetic activities of understanding. As a result, I better understand myself and my relation to the world. For these characters, who pursue not processed knowledge as it were, but knowledge about an auratic object, what kind of understanding is open to them?
Not an understanding of the object of desire, I would argue, but an understanding of the Cartesian object itself – and its inextricability from its counterpart, the Cartesian subject. Ultimately, both kinds of inquiries flow into the same delta of understanding, the one about the relationship between self and world.
Kant has stated that object and subject are mutually dependant on each other, and the thing-in-itself, the object sans subject, the noumenon, is permanently ungraspable. (This is one metaphor that the withheld story lends.) Kant goes on in fact to show us that the reality of objects is subject-constructed (though "caused" by an "external" noumenon), and this construction includes the spatio-temporal framework of the world in which the perception, so to speak, "takes place".
Without going too much into the metaphysics of Kant (although Mrs Prest did expect an "answer to the riddle of the universe" and Juliana says, "the truth is God's, it isn't man's"), we can simply use this bit of Kantianism to parse the strange transformations in perceptual reality that the subjects go through. In The Aspern Papers, Tina undergoes a beautification in the eyes of the narrator because of her association with the papers, but metamorphosises the next moment into a "plain dingy elderly person" when the narrator finds out that the papers have been burnt. Just as we will never know the thing-in-itself, so the similar suggestion exists in The Aspern Papers that the narrator may never see Tina for who she truly is.
If the aura of an object creates in us a lust to know, it ultimately also casts a veil over it, rendering impossible true apprehension of the object. In fact, the withheld story can also be seen as a conceit for that blank Lacanian screen of projection around which desire occurs. It simply says: There's nothing behind it.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010