THE BLACK WOMAN IN THE BROTHEL
by : RENE CREVEL
This article, translated from the French by Samuel Beckett, originally appeared in Nancy Cunard’s Negro anthology in 1934. Quoted passages of poetry untranslated by Beckett appear here in translation following the French text. These bracketed translations, and all the notes (except for one by Crevel) are by Myrna Bell Rochester.
Then ppublished in : RACE TRAITOR I SURREALIST ISSUE Guest Editor: Franklin Rosemont
In every metaphor-and the shining univocal 17th-century meta phor was no exception-an author discovers himself and his public. Whatever France you are pleased to consider-France vibrating to the Homeric “Get rich” of her Guizot1 ; France bankrupted before her Poincare2 and stabilized in one little sharp erection of that sacrosanct goatee; France meditating colonial expansion and reprisals, and, once a week, after a quick Mass, the charms of her estate-at no period, not even when she cast aside her legendary woollen stocking3 in favor of one of artificial silk, did she relax that economy of word and image, that intellectual and sentimental sobriety, that bestowed upon Racine the letters patent of the poetry (?) of love. It is natural enough that a nation whose practical ethics never lost sight of at least one transcendental proposition: Un sou est un sou (a penny’s a penny) should gladly remember now, in the fine flower of her genius, the fully licensed purveyor of passion, privileged to apprehend at the court of his King the whines of Princess X and the snarls of Princess Y and the paralyzing ballast of falbalas common to them both, who saw fit to crystalize the delirium of their royal gal lants and catalogue them: objects of desire. Such a formula had only to become current to set in motion the shabby and pitiful erotic machinery destined to produce a new love and a new notion of love, sapless and withered and lamentable in the bathchair of some preposterous qualification, “divine” for example. The lecher in his lust to possess, even with the creature of his choice, cannot rise above the simple notion of an act of annexation. And when we find the instinctive articulation of sexual pleasure in such an affirmation as “You are mine” or “I possess you” and in such an acquiescence as “I am yours” or “Take me,” it is clear that the idea of inequality has been finally and definitely admitted by and between the elements of the couple. Hence the notion of love-servitude, love hellfire, if we accept all the implications of remorse on the part of the master who abuses, and recrimination on the part of the slave who is abused. Love-hellfire, only to be expressed in incandescent formulae:
Brn/e de plus de feux que je n ‘en allumais [Inflamed with more fires than I lit]-a grand old high and mighty Alexandrine, but pyrogenous, smelling of roast pork. Man in the middle, obedient to God, obeyed of women-chaplet of subordinations. A corporation of hypochondriacs banishes this intimacy from its midst, except in the form of a sacramental privilege. So the libertine is converted and Maintenon exults, and social and religious orthodoxy f lourishes within the not intolerably narrow limits of the morganatic union.4 So much then for our ideas, our Christian ideas, whose faculty of arbitrary restriction twenty centuries have not exhausted (notwith standing a God that is the Supreme Being, Spirit, notwithstanding a progressive atheism and the thinking that calls itself free), and that still claim the right to direct a world that they have so competently trampled to death. The white male takes his Mediterranean heritage, whose most fascinating characteristics were a contempt for women (prostitution-civil incapacity) and a contempt for barbarism (colonization), flavors it with a little gospel sauce and proceeds to exercise his millennial prerogatives.5 In France Norman guile is no longer a regional phenomenon, but general. Which accounts for our national miasma of fatuous credulity as well as for that tolerance which, ever since the Valois, 6 has encouraged an intersexual free trade in ideas and at the same time the poisonous obligation to sneer at every educated woman as a “Precieuse” or a “Blue Stocking.” Safely entrenched behind that fine old tradition of French gallantry, they sneer and sneer. Ergo, all subsequent social tomfoolery-flirtation, marivaudage, etc. Objects and subjects of conversation, as their less fortunate sisters were objects of desire, the rich philosophistic ladies incurred the same frustration. There wasn’t much good holding the high cards when hearts never turned up trumps. (And how much longer, by the same token, must we wait for the psychoanalysis of games?) The only escape from the paralyzing constraint of their position, unless they chose to be branded ii. la Recamier,7 lay in the shilly-shally of an adultery, and adultery, at least in the decrepit theory of our decrepit code, is punishable by imprisonment. No, for the woman in this society there is neither solution nor eva sion, in spite of the patriarchal misconduct of such thinkers as Rous seau and Diderot, who only required the stimulus of a tuppeny ha’penny notoriety to withdraw, in favor of a polite world, from the humiliating inadequacy of the marriage contracted in youth.8 Thus our civilization splits up into the holy and divided kinesis of: In the Brothel: Sexual intercourse. 63 In the Drawing-room: Social intercourse. 9 “Using” prostitutes translates only one aspect of masculine com plexity: establishing foci of contempt and respect in the hierarchy of blue stockings translates another. On the reverse of the medal we find an aspermatic Baudelaire in the alcove of his official Egeria,10 Madame Sabatier, the “chair woman.” 11 The chairwoman belonged to the spiritual system, not to the physical, and it was out of the question to pass from the one cos mogony to the other. But she bore him no ill-will, whether out of goodness of heart or a clear vision of our old friend the main chance, f or having failed to mitigate her inflammation. And he has merely to refer himself and his indignity to Jeanne Duval, his mistress, the har lot. Not even his enduring hypochondria can prevent him now from acting the male with a sense of superiority, of superiority over the woman, over his woman. And with the same stone he kills the sup pliant bird of those velleities that were so real a part of him (cf. Mon Coeur mis a nu [My Heart Stripped Bare]), in so far at least as he anticipates his milk-and-water critics whose mawkish more-in-sorrow than-in-anger deprecation of his liaison with this whore, an offence doubly deep in the eyes of society since she was not merely a whore but a colored whore, 12 was already in his mind to consolidate the axiom of her subordination. Thus the circumstances of what the aesthetic canaille is pleased to accept as a providential dispensation conferred upon the destiny that suffers to the point of lyricism is no more than the poet’s self-imposed ordeal. If we must cling to the worm-eaten image of the cross that was borne, at least let it be applied as a testimony to the naivete of a humanity that gives itself away even in the most subtle movements of its sharp practice. The father on earth of the Son of God was a carpenter, and of crosses, inter alia: which means, if it means anything, that parents are at some pains to carve and plane and polish the misfortune of their children. The Christian symbol is a statement of that sadism that relates old to young, man to woman, rich to poor, white to Black, in the ratio of torturer and victim. Charme inattendu d’un bijou rose et noir [The unexpected charm of a pink and black jewel]: Baudelaire adores the dark flesh of Jeanne Duval, the charming convolutions of this dark, rose-tinted shell. The Taylor system with division of labor.13 The other, the cerebral Madame Sabatier, has the monopoly of his ethereal devotion and the proud conviction that hers is the far, far better part. At last we are beginning to understand, in spite of the torrents of Dostoyevskian colic concerning the rehabilitation of loose women, that all these condescensions and artificial gallantries that stoop to the whore for the favor of her caresses are nothing more than a hypocriti cal servility before things as they are. We are concerned neither with the compassion inspired by the spectacle of a creature in the gutter, nor with any adventitious homage that she may receive from a manifestation of man’s so-called sacrosanct “virility,” but with the very elementary justice (neglect of codified injustice) that cannot regard this social degradation as of any importance. But since such an attitude is impracticable in capitalist societies stinking of class con sciousness (colored men and women being assimilated to the proletariat because they happen to have suffered colonization), it becomes necessary to annihilate the imbecile ideology that is precisely the cause and the sanction of that social degradation. In the meantime let no man weep or rejoice because he happens to have desired, enjoyed and perhaps even married a Black woman out of a brothel: the very considerable epithelial advantages of such an intimacy absolve it from the need of apology or justification. And finally we may succeed in reducing to its grotesque essentials that pernicious literary antithesis between soul and epidermis, culminating in every case, the Baudelairean not excepted, in the triumph of the church. What can be wrong with Baudelaire’s Black woman and the brothel, a home away from home, when the Turkish ladies rendez voused with the Crusaders round the holy sepulchre (which seems to me worth two of the unknown warrior under his Arch of Triumph)? Oh I could tell you where the Kimmerians14 itch when they emerge f rom their horizons of spleen under a sun in a blue sky. I think you will agree with me, Victor Hugo, that it was only right and proper that the labors of our blessed company of infected settlers and cut-throat Jesuits, punctuated so gloriously by St. Louis, Lyautey and the Due D’Aumale15 (who conferred, by the way, his name and titles of nobility on one of the most highly esteemed propositions in brothelian geometry) should culminate in the colonial anthem of Les Orienta/es: Sarah belle d’indolence se balance.16 The very and proudly European bawd claps her hands and calls upstairs: “A customer, Sarah! Sarah, a customer!” And Sarah, beauti f ul and indolent and African, the jewel of the collection, duly imparts tone to the depraved manoeuvres of white erethism. Which brings us back to our object of desire, with this difference, that now, thanks to the scenic organization of venal love, the object of desire has become an object in the decor of desires. The Black woman of the metropolitan brothel, at least, in the eyes of the pertinent consumer is as appropriately situated as her sister in bronze on the stairhead, hold ing aloft her light to lighten the red carpet and its golden rods in a petrified testimony to the ineffable self-sufficiency of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And Sarah need not be homesick. For what are they doing, governors, generals and even the Imperial Roman marshal} himself? Playing with the 11picaninnies 11: which is only tit for tat. The heart of so prosperous a family shall not be troubled. After that I propose to withdraw my subscription from the Society f or the Diffusion of the White Man’s Moral and Physical Complaints among Savage Peoples. The mind of the Frenchman who gets clear of his country, of his continent and his continence experiences a liberation (hence the suc cess of Morand, Dekobra17 and others). But even when for one reason or another he is obliged to remain at home he demands to be entertained and debauched by the exotic curiosity that lifts him clear of the national fact into an illusion of renewal. Hence the popularity of Martinique jazz, Cuban melodies, Harlem bands and the entire tam-tam of the Colonial Exhibition. Nowadays the white man regards the man of color precisely as the wealthy Romans of the La,te Empire regarded their slaves-as a means of entertainment. And of course it is no longer necessary to go to Africa. The nearest Leicester Square, now that our livid capitalism has instituted the prostitution of Blacks of either sex, is as free of European squeamishness as was thirty years ago the oasis of Andre Gide’s Immoralist. 18 Then again the average Frenchman who is not interested in depravities, who is merely seeking the picturesque, can go to the brothel and meet a thoroughbred “Negress. 11 Now, if, instead of appropriating the value of his money with the traditional member of his nauseating person, he could be persuaded to approach those hired nymphae not merely as the exquisite negation of the regrettably proliferous article on tap, so to speak, at home, but rather as the shell that imprisons the music of the sea, it is just pos sible that he might be favored, for all his cloacal labyrinth, with the inexorable vibrations of a distant wave that hastens to engulf every capitalist fortress, from brothel to cathedral. And then at last good-by to geographical symbolism. The old saying: Truth our side of the Pyrenees, falsehood the other, will appear nonsense even to the survivors of a carious Chartism, 19 and paleontologists will no longer attempt to justify the sordid and implacable imperialism that has the insolence to outrage with its rag bag the naked splendor of Black peoples.
Fran�ois Guizot (1787-1874), French bourgeois historian and minister under Louis Philippe. 2. Raymond Poincare (1860-1934), Third Republic president of France
(1913-20) and later prime minister. 3. Representing the French Revolution. 4. Creve! is referring to the 17th century Jansenist community of Port-Royal, near Paris. Mme de Maintenon (1635-1719), known for her piety, was governess to the children of Louis XIV and Mme de Montespan and married Louis XIV after Mme de Montespan’s death. Under the double influence of the Jansenists and Mme de Maintenon, Racine turned to writing religious drama and history. 5. In French, millenaire. In both lan guages, the term refers to the thousand-year period during which Jesus and his fol lowers are to rule the Earth. 6. Line of French kings (1328-1589) that ascended to the throne with the legal ruling that women could never reign. 7. The much admired Mme Recamier (1777-1849) was famous for her salon, attended by important Napoleonic and Restoration writers and politicians. 8. Both Rousseau and Diderot neglected and abandoned their wives. 9. Surely the case of the young man who, having met with a misfortune at the outset of his sexual investigations, marries from a need of comfort and security, is identical with that of the licensed free-lance prostitute settling down in a red lamp. (R. C. ‘s fo omote) 10. Roman nymph or goddess, advisor to the legendary Roman King, Numa Pompilius; thus, any woman counselor or advisor. 11. Known as La Presidente (the Chairwoman), Mme Sabatier, a former artist’s model, gained fame in the mid-19th century for her Sunday evening gatherings for writers and artists, among them Baudelaire. 12. Jeanne Duval was known as “la Venus noire.” 13. A technique of production efficiency (speed-up) developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), American industrial engineer. 14. Nomadic people of Thracian origin who invaded Asia Minor in the 7th century BC; of the same name described by Homer as a mythical people inhabiting a land of perpetual darkness. 15. St. Louis was Louis IX (1215-70), the Capetian king killed in the crusades; Marechal Lyautey (1854-1934) set up the French protectorate of Morocco, was minister of war during World War I, and chief organizer of the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931; the Due D’ Aumale (Henri d’Orleans) (1822-97), a son of Louis-Philippe, a general and historian, known f or for his role in the 1843 war in Algeria. 16. From Victor Hugo’s 1829 collection of poetry. 17. Paul Morand (1888-1976), French writer of exotic novels and career diplomat; Maurice Dekobra (1885-1973), prolific travel and ·adventure writer. 18. In Gide’s first novel L’Immoraliste (1902), a celebration of sensual freedom he discov ered for himself in North Africa. 19. Workers’ political reform movement, active in England (1838-48); to the bourgeoisie, it came to represent a revolutionary threat for all Europe.