imagesThe novel Baise-Moi is a raw expression of rage. The story chronicles a spree of fornication, drinking and killing in which the two main characters, Manu and Nadine, run head-long toward death and nothingness, attempting to push themselves to the limits of moral disregard. This is a story of nihilism in which the main characters single-mindedly seek to destroy the world they hate and to overcome any last vestige of civilization that they find within themselves.

The French title literally translates into English as “Fuck Me,” but has been rendered by the American publisher, Grove Press, as “Rape Me.” The author, Virginie Despentes, has objected to this translation; and I think she is right to do so. “Rape Me” is a title that emphasizes victimhood and passivity, which is certainly not what this story is about. While the character Manu and her friend Karla are raped early on in the novel, Manu’s attitude toward the attack is defiant, not passive. Just as her friend is distraught and hysterical after the assault, Manu is enraged, explaining to Karla the spiritual precautions she has taken in order to deny this sort of attack any power over her:

It’s like a car that you park in the projects, you don’t leave anything valuable in it ’cause you can’t keep it from being broken into. I can’t keep assholes from getting into  my pussy, so I haven’t left anything valuable there…

It is a shocking statement, but one also filled with profound implications. It suggests that Manu has been sexually attacked in the past and that she has resigned herself to the probability that it will happen again in the future. However, she has also resolved that this is a meaningless detail of her existence; a fact like any other that has no significance in-itself. Rocks fall to the ground when dropped. Water flows down stream. Her body is sexually vulnerable to attack. The world is filled with such facts, and Manu seems to be telling her friend that if she wants to get on with life, she needs to be aware of such raw truths and learn not to expect some sudden change in the nature of reality.

There is something both sad and empowering about Manu’s attitude. Obviously, her repeated victimization is what has pushed her to view here own body as a thing with no inherent value or meaning of its own. In this, it may seem to many of us that she has lost a part of herself, and that she is forever damaged and tragic in her woundedness. However, Manu also gains a sort of vicious power by distancing herself from her own body. She comes to see it as an instrument, a tool for her nihilistic life project, and in so doing she obtains a kind of self-determinism that she might have otherwise lacked. Given that the world she has been thrown into is one in which women’s bodies are objectified and used by others, Manu embraces this situation and twists it to her own purpose. Her body becomes a vehicle through which she expresses her lust, rage and vitality. Characterizing Manu as simply a sad, passive victim, then, is not quite right. She aggressively confronts her existential situation and harnesses it with vigor and purpose. She is defiant toward anyone who tries to use her, refusing to allow them to take anything from her that she has not already resolved to give away. In this she is angrily commanding others to “fuck” her, not “rape” her. She can’t be raped anymore. She now becomes the one who attacks.

After murdering Moustaf, a drug dealer who beat up her friend, Manu meets up with Nadine, who has just murdered her own roommate. Nadine is described as a nihilist on the book’s back cover, but she is a conflicted nihilist. She still struggles with whether her actions are right or wrong. She is also susceptible to flattery, craving acceptance in a way that Manu does not. I get the sense that it is Nadine with whom the author identifies most, as the story is framed by her perspective. The book begins with Nadine, and it is with her that it concludes. Nadine is mostly quiet throughout the novel, taking great joy in being around Manu, who is constantly drunk and out of control. Manu seems to act as Nadine’s alter ego, the way that another nihilist, Tyler Durden, acts as the alter ego to the narrator of Fight Club. Ultimately, Baise Moi is about Nadine, and how she learns, through Manu, to defy and reject all of civilization’s commands.

In one pivotal scene, Nadine and Manu are acting obnoxiously in a tea shop when Nadine all of a sudden decides to pull out her gun and shoot a young boy in the face. She does so for no reason other than it is helpful in “taking things to the limit.” They end up shooting everyone in the shop, and as they flee, Manu expresses her surprise at Nadine’s actions:

That caper was risky. That’s why it was so cool. A kid, that’s going too far. Tell the truth, I wouldn’t have done it. But you’re right: got to take it to the limit.

Manu is not at all disturbed by the murder of the kid, but she does warn Nadine that she “doesn’t want any carnage with Arabs.” Is this because Manu is an Arab, or is it because Arabs are a minority discriminated against in France? Does Manu empathize with Arabs because they are members of an underclass? Nadine doesn’t care, responding:

I don’t give a fuck about Arabs. I believe in taking it to the limit with them.

Manu cautions that they “Got to take it to the limit, but not every time. There’s a clever balance to find.” As it turns out, the two women do end up befriending an Arab by the name of Fatima later in the book. It is this friendship, in fact, that results in events that will bring the story to its mundanely nihilistic crescendo.

There are no great surprises or mysteries in this book. Manu dies in a shootout with a store clerk, and Nadine is denied her own suicide when she is apprehended by the police. But this is not a novel that one reads for the sake of subtle plot points or surprising turns of the situation. No, what really drives this story is the deadpan and relentless pursuit of nihilistic dissipation engaged in by the main characters. These are two women who have decided that they just do not give a fuck about the future. They live in a culture that has debased them to such a degree that they have nothing left to take away; and this is what makes them into the dangerous figures that they become.

Baise-Moi is written is a perfunctory, staccato fashion, which is appropriate for the nature of this story, evoking as it does a sort of matter-of-fact sense of spontaneity and immediacy. As I read it, I felt as if I was absorbed into a world unfolding right now, cut off from future consequences or concerns. I lived viciously, moment-to-moment along with the main characters. For those of us who sometimes bemoan our own imprisonment within the iron cage of modern culture, this is a story that is exhilarating in its angry simplicity.

DownloadedFileIt is interesting that the movie version of Baise-Moi, which was co-directed by the author, fails to capture the full extent of nihilism evoked by the book. The film, which was banned in France, provoked quite a bit of controversy upon its release, but this seems mainly due to the inclusion of graphic, pornographic scenes of sexual penetration rather than by the really disturbing attempt to “take it to the limit,” and to go beyond good or evil, that is the main strength of the written story. In fact, the movie, in the end, comes across as a conventional moral tale that seems to reinforce, rather than to subvert, social norms. Yes, we do have the main characters fornicating, drinking and killing their way through the story, but some of the most subversive scenes from the novel are are missing. For instance, the key scene from the book in which Nadine shoots an innocent child in the face is left out of the movie; presumably because it would be just too upsetting to mainstream sensibilites. In the book, this is an act that earns the pair of outlaws outrageous infamy, but in the movie their crime spree is depicted in a more conventional manner that is understandable in terms of their sexual victimization and their consequent hatred of men. Toward the end of the movie there is a scene – absent from the book – in which the two women massacre the participants at a sex club. This culminates with Nadine shoving her pistol into a man’s anus and firing it. While this is certainly horrifying and cruel, it is also an act that encourages us to view the heroines of the story as sexually damaged victims, motivated by resentment and a desire for revenge rather than as amoral beasts who have been cut loose from the influences of society.

Paired with a reading of the book, however, the film does help to clarify just what it is about the novel that is so powerful. It is not the violent or sexual content, so explicitly depicted in the movie, which is shocking, but the rejection of moral constraint and the evocation of Dionysian excess that makes the story effective. While in the movie Manu and Nadine retain traces of victimhood, in the book they more successfully take their nihilistic project “to the limit,” transgressing the boundaries of good and evil and rushing toward the abyss of absolute nothingness.

Roads to Freedom

imagesAfter thoroughly enjoying Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, I looked forward to reading the other two books in The Roads to Freedom trilogy: The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep. Unfortunately, neither of these works measured up to the excellence of the first installment in the series. In fact, I initially became so exasperated with The Reprieve that I set it aside for a few months before mustering the energy to once again make an attempt to finish it. It was a slog, but I eventually did make my way through it and Troubled Sleep, not because I found them especially enjoyable but out of a weird feeling that having started the project of reading the trilogy I needed to finish the task. And now it is done.

The Age of Reason really drew me in with the story of Mathieu, a philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis. Here was a book that articulated many of my own thoughts and feelings about life, meaninglessness and growing old. In another posting on this blog I detailed what I loved about this book, so here I will just report that I had expected the story of Mathieu to continue in the last two volumes of the trilogy. Unfortunately, Mathieu only makes sporadic appearances in the remaining books as the narrative structure of the story becomes much more fractured and confusing; especially in the second volume, The Reprieve.

DownloadedFileThe Reprieve consists of a kaleidoscope of stories that bleed into one another and that seem intended to convey a sense of collective, anxious nervousness in the days leading up to the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The title refers to the fact that, at the end of the book, war is temporarily averted by the concessions made to Germany. The mood is frantic, and I will admit that the writing style does help to produce this effect in the reader. Unfortunately it is also at the expense of narrative clarity. Each time I felt that I was beginning to gain some orientation toward what was going on in the novel, the scene would change and I was lost once again. The transitions between the various vignettes are abrupt and unpredictable; the characters are too numerous and mush into one another; the action moves from place to place. All of this contributed to my exasperation. The back cover characterizes the book’s style as “stream of consciousness” and as utilizing a “cinema technique of simultaneity,” but to me the writing just seemed undisciplined and jarringly incongruous in comparison to the style in which the other two installments in the trilogy are written.

This is not to say that there is nothing to recommend The Reprieve. There are characters and episodes that are truly effective and that have stayed with me. We get to check in with Mathieu as he goes off to join a French fighting unit, finally making a resolute decision to act in the world and to break out of his bourgeois lifestyle. And there is Gros-Louis, a stupid and pathetic character who bumbles through the story, getting drunk, being beaten up and taken advantage of. He has orders to report to his unit, but since he is illiterate, he can’t read them and must rely on others to direct him in what to do. And there’s young Ivich who is disappointed in her hope for the utter destruction of Paris by the Nazis. Perhaps the most effective scene in the novel is toward the end when her rape is juxtaposed with the negotiations for the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany without a fight. The comparison of Ivich’s personal, sexual violation with the collective, political violation of the Czech people really does produce a startling and upsetting effect.

All is frantic, anxious confusion in The Reprieve, with the characters swept up in the political uncertainty of the times leading up to World War II. Sartre, I think, was trying to convey a sense that while the world at that point in history felt out of any one individual’s control, people were still making existential decisions whether they realized it or not. This is reinforced in the scenes featuring Chamberlin, Hitler, Mastny, Daladier and other politicians. While the forces of history seem to be sweeping impersonally over the continent, behind all of this stand flesh-and-blood human beings who are negotiating, planning and scheming. There is nothing necessary or impersonal about the course that history takes. The war, which from the perspective of the people seems to loom like a threatening force of nature, is actually the result of human decision making. History unfolds according to the collective choices that humans make, and we fall into bad faith the moment that we relinquish our own responsibility for the state of the world. In The Reprieve, we meet characters who have yet to fully learn this lesson.

DownloadedFileTroubled Sleep is organized in a more coherent manner than is The Reprieve. Part One focuses on a retreating French unit, of which Mathieu is a member. This unit has failed to repel the Nazi incursion and now simply waits for something to happen. Having been abandoned by their officers, these men are leaderless and in a state of disarray. They are terrified by the advance of the German “Supermen,” and are convinced that there is nothing that they can do to stop their advance. Some of them get drunk, some of them sit around reading books that they have found in the ruins, one of them starts a sexual relationship with a French postal worker. In a way, what they do is not much different from life before the war. In the absence of leaders to issue orders, these men meander about and waste time, waiting to be captured or to die.

Things change when another French unit arrives. This unit is also without officers but is nonetheless ready to resist the advances of the Nazis. Mathieu and some of his comrades join together with this group and resolve to fight back. When the Germans arrive, a clash ensues in which it becomes clear that Mathieu and his fellow soldiers are vastly outnumbered. As the fighting intensifies, Mathieu becomes increasingly worried that he will prove to be a coward.  But as he fires his weapon he gains courage, realizing that the Germans are human, that they are “vulnerable” just as he is; they are not “Supermen.” The French troops are overwhelmed, but they fight on, killing as many Germans as they are able and trying to hold out for just a few more minutes. “This was no more than the beginning of his own death” (p.254). Mathieu dies in battle, firing his gun and realizing that he is free. He has chosen not to be a coward through his actions. At this point in the story, I was reminded of a line from the previous book when Mathieu thinks to himself, “freedom is exile, and I am condemned to be free.  …I am free for nothing” (p. 363). This is Sartre’s message: being conscious of one’s freedom is its own reward. There is nothing but this sort of authentic self-awareness that makes life worth living. In this sense, Mathieu dies a happy man.

Part Two of Troubled Sleep details the lives of a group of French prisoners of war who wait in a camp while the Nazis decide what is to be done with them. In this final installment in the story, I got the sense that the prisoners were their own worst enemies. Sartre depicts them as hostile toward one another, fighting over food and arguing over whether the Germans are really all that bad. They become angry when one of their group successfully escapes the camp, viewing it as some sort of betrayal of their captor’s hospitality! The central character in this segment of the story is Brunet, a communist who busily tries to organize the members of the camp and to collectivize their resources. He meets continued resistance from most of the other prisoners; except for Schnieder, a printer who is helpful to Brunet, but also seemingly skeptical of his political agenda.

Part two of the book meanders on for hundreds of pages until the final scenes when the prisoners are loaded onto a train that they hope is bound for home. The reader, of course, is left with the ominous suspicion that all of these men will be taken to another camp where they will most likely be brutalized and worked to death. The book ends when one of the prisoners is shot to death and his body is left laying by the side of the tracks. The novel’s closing line, “Tomorrow the black birds would come,” refers equally well to the fate of the murdered prisoner’s body as it does to the remaining prisoners on the train. It is also a symbolic intimation of the future unfolding of the World War.

Conceptually, I like what it is that Sartre has attempted with The Roads to Freedom. Beginning with the first book, he has introduced us to a character who, in the midst of an existential crisis, illustrates the deep, spiritual difficultly of individual human choice and descion making. This is existentialism on the personal level. In the second book, we are thrust into a culture in turmoil as it struggles on a collective level with its situation and the threat to its existence. In the third book we are presented with two separate responses to the existential crisis. One the one hand, there is Mathieu who takes hold of his situation and acts in defiance of the Nazis, fighting and dying for nothing other than his own freedom. On the other, there are the prisoners of war who generally comply and submit to their Nazi captors. In their passivity, of course, they are still making a choice: the choice to obey. Unlike Mathieu who uses his fear to become self aware, the prisoners on the train allow fear to use them and to make them immobile and compliant. Both will die, but, Sarte seems to be telling us, at least Mathieu will die with a full realization of his own power and freedom to act in the world. “He fired: he was cleansed, he was all-powerful, he was free” (p. 256). Mathieu represents the individual who acts and is ultimately alone in the world, while the prisoners seem to represent the group, which is comprised of individuals who cannot bring themselves to act resolutely and independently.

In terms of aesthetic quality, The Roads to Freedom fails for me. While the first book was focused and fascinating, the remaining books are unfocused and fragmented. The Reprieve, especially, reads like it was written while Sartre was high on speed. Troubled Sleep, with its two separate parts, reads like two separate stories. I think that the material in these last two books could have been fruitfully edited down and integrated with the material in The Age of Reason in order to produce a single, cohesive story with Mathieu as the focal point.

I have just learned that there is a fourth, unfinished novel in The Roads to Freedom series. It has recently been published in English under the title The Last ChanceIt looks like my work is not yet over…