Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

I just finished reading Nicky Drayden’s just-published Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis (2021), the sequel to the first Escaping Exodus (2019). These books are absolutely bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven’t absorbed enough from just one reading of these novels to be able to draw out their rich implications as fully as I would like. In what follows, I will mostly avoid spoilers as I write about what these novels offer in a fairly abstract way.

The Escaping Exodus books are space opera of a sort. The Earth is nothing more than a distant memory. Human beings live, not precisely in spaceships, but rather inside the bodies of the Zenzee, enormous (moon-sized) living animals that travel in herds through outer space. Inside each Zenzee is a complex array of parasitic or symbiotic microfauna, and an equally complex human society. These societies differ radically from one another, after thousands of years apart. The people in the novels have to negotiate their own social worlds, together with the biophysical challenges of their host environments.

That’s the basic premise of the novels. What really brings the books alive are their rich, world-building details, including a lot of gross and squishy macro-anatomy, odd foods that range from delicious to repulsive, complicated sex/gender/family/class systems that are as inescapable as they are arbitrary, and Machiavellian political infighting. These societies aren’t easily described along a utopian/dystopian axis. In the main world of the novel, for instance, same-sex relationships are just as common, and just as accepted, as heterosexual ones. Women are pretty much in control of everything; men are mostly expected to remain in the domestic sphere, and when they appear in public their appearance is beautified through makeup and revealing garments. There is a rigid class system, with a powerful aristocracy who can get away with pretty much anything, and workers who have almost no rights or privileges. Families are rigid institutions, but they are nothing like the nuclear families of our own society. Instead, these families are composed of multiple spouses, all of whom are consigned to pre-determined roles, and with child-bearing heavily policed as well. Of course, the way these structures are taken for granted within the society, to such an extent that the characters are nearly unable to think their way outside them, can be seen as a cognitively estranging ways of reminding us that our own gender and family arrangements are equally arbitrary and constraining. But the florid proliferation of these arrangements makes an impressive point in its own right; and it is further relativized by the brief glimpses we get of social arrangments inside the other Zenzee worlds (my favorite, perhaps, is the insane world in which there is no gender inequality, but children from a very young age are trained to be warriors; the result is a heavily hierarchical society filled with paranoia, as everyone is full-time engaged in trying to betray and undermine their superiors, while at the same time policing their inferiors to prevent the same thing from happening to them; assassination is common).

The overall effect of all this world-building is quite amazingly delirious, even though in logical terms it all hangs together, and makes at least as much sense as the more humdrum world-building arrangements projected by other sf writers (let alone the world-building arrangements that we ourselves inhabit, and take for granted more than we should). The social relations that I have just described are overlaid by ecological ones, based on the relation between the human beings in general, and the organisms that they inhabit. The human beings initially exploit their Zenzee as resources to be plundered; when the weight of human activities saps the energy of the Zenzee and kills it, the human inhabitants simply transfer themselves to another one. But gradually it becomes clear, not only that this environmental pillaging is unsustainable (making the books into ecological parables), but also that the Zenzee themselves are sentient and feeling organisms, whose own needs and desires need to be taken into account and respected.

Indeed, the novels are concerned above all with various forms of intertwinings and co-dependencies that exist on multiple scales and levels, moving from particular sexual relationships among human individuals, to social arrangments and exploitative class structures, all the way to large-scale ecological dependencies such those between the human beings and the Zenzee. On all these levels, people and communities need to negotiate between their own needs and those (often quite different ones) of the others they encounter. These negotiations can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, of course, but also physically in terms of energy flow and biophysical resources.

The novels thereby suggest — without spelling things out too explicity — an ontology that is very different from anything we are accustomed to. Our most basic categories break down, and it becomes evident that we need different ones. This is both intriguing and difficult, because the characters in the world(s) of the novels never articulate their primary assumptions systematically. They are unaware of their presuppositions in the same way we are all too often unaware of our own (ultimately in the same way that, as McLuhan said, fish are unaware of water). The result is a kind of exciting indeterminacy. For instance, the traditional binary between biological and social simply makes no sense in these novels. Neither of these terms is reducible to the other, or can be explained in terms of the other; but the social and the biological are nonetheless so inextricably intertwined that we cannot find a stable boundary between them. Recent feminist and ecological thinkers have addressed this sort of situation by means of linguistice coinages like Donna Haraway’s naturecultures or Karen Barad’s intra-activity; but in Drayden’s world(s), somehow these hybrid words/concepts don’t seem quite right either. This is yet another one of those cases where even our most advanced theoretical articulations have yet to keep pace with the constructions of speculative fiction.

In any case. we need to infer the consequences of Drayden’s world-building — together with those arising from the wild twists of her plots — indirectly. This is of course one of the main characteristics of science fiction narratives in general; but Drayden carries this “cognitive estrangement” to an extent, and with a meta-referential skill, that is quite unusual. I am tempted to say that, where we expect science fiction to introduce a novum that induces cognitive estrangement, the Escaping Exodus novels present the experience of cognitive estrangement itself as the novum. The books continually force us to reconsider whatever we have already accepted and agreed to. The novels present us with a series of ethico-ecological imperatives, and work to convince us that these imperatives are both urgent and entirely rational. But whenever we get to some degree of acceptance and resolution, the narratives then up the ante in startling and outrageously hyperbolic ways. The Escaping Exodus volumes are immediately gripping and entertaining; but they also push us inexorably into a series of increasingly crazy WTF moments, whose imperative logic we nonetheless have to accept.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Here is my review of Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel, A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to the Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. The book will be published in three weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel A Desolation Called Peace is a sequel to her Hugo-award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire. Like its predecessor, Desolation is a far-future space opera. Martine carries over her exquisite world-building, and some of the same characters, from the previous volume, and gives both world and people a series of new challenges. The galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire — reminiscent of both the Byzantine Empire (the subject of Martine’s scholarly work as a historian) and the empire of the Aztecs — regards itself as the epitome of civilization. All outsiders are disparaged as “barbarians.” The Empire is at once aesthetically dazzling, enormously wealthy, bureaucratically vast, and politically ruthless. Its accomplishments in art, literature, and architecture are unparalleled. It dominates galactic trade and commerce, and controls access to the “gates” (presumably wormholes) that allow for travel between distant planetary systems. With its fearsome military might, the Empire slaps down anyone and anything that dares to challenge its worlds-spanning dominance. Teixcalaan is something like a science-fictional analogue of the United States (at least in the period after we “won” the Cold War but before our recent decline), though its overtly totalitarian political structure bespeaks a franker acknowledgment of aspects of the American Empire that we tend to dissimulate, even to ourselves.

A Desolation Called Peace switches fluidly among multiple points of view; but like its predecessor, its main character is an outsider (a so-called “barbarian”): Mahit Dzmare, from the small independent space colony Lsel Station. The Station is fully in the Teixcalaanli sphere of economic influence, but it has so far managed to preserve its political independence. Mahit has grown up studying, and loving, all things Teixcalaanli, while maintaining her Lsel cultural identity. In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is sent as Lsel’s ambassador to the Empire. Coming to the Teixcalaan capitol planet and city, she fully indulges her love for its culture; but her ambassadorial charge is to preserve Lsel Station from the Empire’s imperialist designs.

Immediately upon arrival, Mahit is thrown into a world of complex and treacherous political scheming (that fully merits the adjective ‘Byzantine’ in its looser metaphorical sense); at the same time, she is forced to recognize that, no matter how well she integrates herself into Teixcalaanli cultural life, she will never fully be accepted by it. She will never escape being regarded as an inferior barbarian. Mahit acutely feels the same post-colonial dilemma that so many people of color and people from elsewhere than Western Europe or North America have had to face in our actual world today: how to negotiate between their having been shaped by, and having come to love, certain aspects of Euro-American culture, and their inescapable awareness that this culture has systematically devalued and exploited them.

A Desolation Called Peace inverts the situation of the previous novel. Now, several Teixcalaanli legions find themselves at the edges of the Empire, engaged in low-level space combat with a nonhuman but sentient alien species. If the Teixcalaanli regard human beings from other cultures as barbarians scarcely worthy of recognition, how can they deal with this far more deeply alien presence? The aliens’ technology is at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of the humans; but their communications, both among themselves and when they address themselves towards humans, don’t seem to be categorizable as anything we can recognize as language. Given the inscrutability of the aliens, together with their mastery of stealth guerrilla warfare, it seems that the Empire is faced with an alternative between humiliating withdrawal, or genocide of the alien species on a planetary scale (with the latter still not guaranteed to end the war for good).

In this situation, the linguist and spy Three Seagrass — Mahit’s Teixcalaanli contact and semi-love-interest from the first novel — is called to the space frontier to try to find a way of negotiating with the aliens. Three Seagrass asks Mahit to come along and help her. Mahit agrees, because she is in political hot water back home at Lsel Station; although she preserved the Station from direct annexation by the Empire, she is still regarded by her own people as overly pro-Teixcalaanli and therefore untrustworthy.

What follows is another story of (sorry) Byzantine political intrigue, combined with the ontological uncertainties of a First Contact novel. A Desolation Called Peace is rich on a personal-is-political level, as Mahit must negotiate her way among many stresses: the distrust and disdain of the Teixcalaanli in general, the condescension of Three Seagrass despite the mutual sexual attraction between them, and the ill-will of her Lsel compatriots — not to mention the difficulties of grasping the desires and beliefs of civilized beings who nonetheless look grotesque and menacing to human eyes, and whose vocalizations (which they think of as singing) literally cause nausea due to infrasonic vibrations when heard by human ears in human bodies.

I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the rest of this review, so that I do not give away too many spoilers. I will just say that the novel’s resolution comes about through Martine’s other great theme, besides questions of borders and negotiations and cosmopolitanism. This other theme has to do with the nature of individuality, and of possible connections among minds and bodies. The major science fictional novum of A Memory Called Empire, alongside its broad political and cultural vision, is a key technology that Lsel Station has, but the Empire does not. This is what the novel calls the imago — a prosthetic computational device that contains the memory and personality of ancestors or predecessors. Upon reaching adult maturity, every Lsel citizen is implanted with an imago that is suitable for their personality, and for their chosen career. Mahit is given the imago of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor as Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, and who shared many of her cosmopolitan interests and even (to some extent) sexual proclivities. An imago often contains a multi-generational line of predecessors, and its personality is supposed to integrate with that of the host. For various reasons, Mahit finds such integration difficult, over the course of both novels. The technology is supposed to be a Lsel secret; but when the Teixcalaanli find out about it they tend to be both fascinated and horrified.

Questions about the integrity of the self, and of personality connection and integration, are central to both novels. Mahit is genuinely helped by Yskandr’s imago, and mostly values their integration, but she also sometimes has difficulties with having what is ultimately another person “inside her endocrine system.” Similarly, after Mahit finally has sex with Three Seagrass (maybe this is a spoiler, but after we’ve been teased about this prospect over the length of two long volumes, it just had to happen eventually), she worries about what it means to say that “this person has had their hands inside you.” So it is not too much of a stretch to see the technological forms of personality integration imagined by Martine as extensions of sexual connection — just as First Contact tropes in science fiction generally are extensions of actual worldly problems of connection among people of different cultures and belief systems. In all these cases, questions of intimacy — of welcoming someone who in one sense combines with you but also at the same time remains other than you — are combined with questions of freedom and coercion, and of unequal power relations between the partners.

A Desolation Called Peace imagines an expanded range of technologies of connection among separate bodies and minds — alike among the Lsel Stationers, the Teixcalaanli, and the aliens. I will just mention that these exist, on several levels, without going into description and analysis of all of them. It is quite beautiful the way in which these prospects of connection nicely resolve the narrative, and lead to at least a certain possibility of peace, beyond the alternatives of either continual skirmishing or violent annihilation — while at the same time, things remain open, complicated, and unresolved on a broader, philosophical level, and in terms of future prospects for the characters and their societies. A Desolation Called Peace gives us so much of what I look for in science fiction: deep and cogent worldbuilding, characters who definitely intrigue us and grab our attention, whether or not we actually like them, and deep conceptual speculation, which opens up new prospects for thought.

India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

I have been teaching exclusively online since March 2020, and I will continue to do so until at least the end of 2021. This means, among other things, that I have to write out all my comments that might otherwise have just been delivered verbally, during class discussion. Last spring, I posted some of my remarks on music videos on this blog, but I haven’t posted any class notes since. But I wanted to post my notes on Marguerite Duras’ movie India Song (1975), since I think this film is still under-discussed (though revered by many cinephiles).

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was one of the major French novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Her movies are not as well known as her prose fiction, but she directed close to twenty films, wrote the screenplays for several others, and had a lot of her novels adapted into movies by others. Duras was a white French woman, but she was born in Vietnam, which was a French colony (part of French Indochina) at the time (Vietnam only became an independent country after World War II; it then went through decades of war before the Communist north and the pro-US south were finally united in 1975). Duras’ parents were schoolteachers, which is to say they were minor bureaucrats in the French colonial apparatus that ruled Indochina at the time. Duras moved to France itself in 1932, when she was 18 years old, and lived there for the rest of her life. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, she was active in the Underground resistance. She started publishing fiction towards the end of the War, and continued prolifically from the 1950s through the 1980s. Her first involvement with cinema came when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), one of the key works of the early French New Wave. She started directing her own films in the late 1960s, and continued doing so right through until the early 1980s. Often her work crossed genres and used the same characters and situations in different works; thus India Song was first written as a play before it was made into a movie, and it contains elements and characters from a number of Duras’ novels from the previous decade (most notably The Vice Consul from 1965, but there are others as well). India Song itself was further transformed in a later movie by Duras, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta d├ęsert (1976), which used the identical soundtrack but had entirely different visuals.

The most surprising and challenging thing about India Song, in formalist terms, is the separation between the images and the sound. We see the main characters of the story — Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband and various lovers, as well as the Vice Consul (MIchael Lonsdale) who is in love with her — but they never speak on screen. (Besides these main characters, the only other human figure we see is that of a single Indian servant who turns on lights and passes out champagne glasses on occasion). On the soundtrack, we hear a number of disembodied female and male voices who tell us (or tell each other) the story of these characters. We also hear music (the song called “India Song”, which the voices at times refer to directly, as well as a number of other 1930s-style not-quite-tango dance numbers, all composed specifically for the movie by Carlos d’Alessio), and some background ambient sounds, plus the untranslated speech and singing of the Laotian (? – it seems) beggar woman coming from outside. The music may or may not be diegetic; the story includes at its center a big party at the French embassy, but we never see this event, since the camera remains in a different room, with an unused piano and a gigantic mirror, into which some of the characters occasionally wander). There is also, from time to time, in addition to the main voices, barely discernible background murmuring, in both French and English, which is perhaps the chatter of the guests at the party (we cannot tell for sure whether this is diegetic sound or not; part of the effect of the movie is to make the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction itself break down).

The voices recount to each other the story of Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul; sometimes this is in the past tense, and sometimes in the present. Sometimes the voices describe what they see: but this is not always the same scene that we see on screen. At other times, the voices speak the characters’ own dialogue, instead of commenting on the characters in the third person. These dialogue sequences seem to coincide more or less with what is happening visually on screen at the time, but we do not see the actors’ mouths moving; we don’t really know for sure if the characters are actually saying these things, or only thinking them. At a climactic point in the film, there is a dialogue between Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul, in which he tells her of his love for her; she responds that she feels the same way, but will not stay with him. The offscreen dialogue starts as they are dancing together on screen; but they soon move offscreen as the dialogue continues. After this, the Vice Consul starts screaming (he has already said to her that he will do this); apparently (as far as we gather from the voices) he is kicked out from the party for acting this way, but he still continues screaming from outside afterwards. We hear the screaming, on the soundtrack, on and off for a good stretch of time, but we never see the Vice Consul making a scene or actually screaming. After he has left, we only see him in a single shot where he is walking down the road away from the camera (and not screaming).

As for the images, most of the film takes place in the French ambassador’s mansion in Calcutta. The setting is a lavish mansion, but crumbling into decrepitude. Most of the interior shots are set in a single room, with a piano and an enormous ceiling-to-floor mirror. The camera never moves when it is in this room, but Duras gets amazing effects from the mirror, as we sometimes see characters only in the actual room, sometimes only in the mirror, and sometimes both. All this energizes our sense of space, although the room’s decrepitude and gloomy color scheme (sort of a pukey green, which is contrasted with Anne Marie’s red dress) conversely makes the room feel dead. There are some other shots in other rooms of the mansion, which are also fairly dark and often show the characters in nearly motionless tableaus. Early in the film, we see Anne Marie and several of the others lying on the floor, nearly passed out from the heat; closer to the end, there is a tableau of her and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) standing on a sort of verandah, as the light varies from murky to bright and back again. Interspersed with these fixed-camera shots are a number of sequences of the ruined mansion from outside, or of the park surrounding it; these are usually left-to-right tracking shots.

For the last half hour or so, the setting is different; we are told that the ambassador and his entourage have moved from Calcutta to the Ganges delta. Here the indoor scenery is lighter and brighter. There is one extraordinary shot where Anne Marie and the five men walk through the central corridor of the empty hotel restaurant, the camera tracks backwards as they walk forward. They continue walking, left of the camera and out of the frame. The shot continues, with the camera now motionless. as the Vice Consul comes in, tracing their steps, walks all the way to the camera, and then out of the frame on the right. (I am not sure, but I think that this is the only time the camera moves in an indoor shot).

India Song could be regarded as what is now known as slow cinema, though the term hadn’t been invented yet in 1975. What’s certain is that there is nothing random about any of this; everything in the movie is quite planned and deliberate. Duras produced the soundtrack first, and then shot images to accompany it; this is a procedure that is almost never done in cinema (usually the images come first, and the soundtrack is calibrated to match the image track). (Music videos, which didn’t exist yet in 1975, are the only contemporary form in which images are matched to pre-existing sound, instead of the reverse). In any case, because the movie is not shot naturalistically, it invites us to think of the juxtapositions between sound and image in a new way. Most movies naturalize the relation of sound to images; when we hear people speaking, we see their lips moving, and the non-diegetic music matches the mood of what we see happening on screen. Other movies deliberately mess with image/sound coordination in certain ways, in order to get certain reactions from us (in some classes, I have shown a sequence from Takeshi Kitano’s 1989 film The Violent Cop, in which a vicious fight between a cop and a gangster is accompanied by music that sounds like it belongs in a softcore porn film instead; his whole point is to blow our minds with the incongruity). But India Song doesn’t take either of these approaches; the relation between what we see and what we hear is oblique, but always meaningful.

Since the people on screen never actually speak, we mostly respond to them by interpreting their body language. Mostly, they seem bored, enervated by the heat; their lives seem sterile and repetitious, drained of meaning. It is as if they share the decrepitude of their surroundings. Delphine Seyrig, as Anne Marie, dances listlessly and without energy, handled by whichever man she is dancing with at the moment; the dance postures are always sterotypically correct. Sometimes she breaks into a smile, but we don’t get the impression that this does much to alleviate the monotony. We are told by the voices that Anne Marie has sex with any number of men, with the tacit approval of her husband — it seems that the Vice Consul, who is the only man who is truly aroused by her, to the point of obsession, is the only man she will not sleep with. Often we see these people smoking, though they usually just hold the lit cigarettes, without actually taking a puff.

The decrepitude of these characters’ lavish surroundings is a powerfully anti-naturalistic feature of the movie; we would have to presume that the mansion was not decrepit like this when it was actually being lived in in 1937. Usually, because of the intensity of the action, movies seem to take place in a heightened present (regardless of the year or historical period in which they are set). India Song amazingly goes against this; because of the decrepitude both of the setting and the characters, it seems to be played out in the past tense (in other words, it is not just that it takes place in 1937 when the movie was made in 1975, but everything we see and hear radiates pastness, over-and-done-with-ness, instead of the present tense featured alike by historical epics, futuristic science fiction, and movies set in the present moment). This in itself is a remarkable achievement. I am inclined to think of the voices we hear on the soundtrack as ghosts: they are not really present; and the now that plays out for them, when they describe what they see and what the characters are saying, is an already long-past now, which for that reason can only be revived in this ghostly form of images without substance, and sounds without bodies to produce them. (Gilles Deleuze, who we will read later in the semester, is the only film theorist I know of who conceptualizes the idea of films not in the present tense; though he develops this idea independently of his discussion of Duras).

India Song works as a political commentary on European colonialism in Asia, something that Duras was concerned with, and all too familiar with as a result of her childhood as a French colonialist in Vietnam. The film shows us the lives of white European colonialists, bureaucrats of colonial occupation, who are rich and powerful but have no knowledge of, or connection to, the people whose lives they control, and who they oppress. The colonized masses are never seen in the film: they are represented only by the voice of the beggar woman, whose ongoing life, in conditions of extreme poverty, contrasts with the vapid existence of the white colonials. (There is also, as I have already mentioned, the discreet presence of the one Indian servant who we see briefly). The colonial rulers live in ignorance and isolation. The men are involved either in bureaucratic governance or in making money through business; the women (of whom we see only one, Anne Marie Stretter herself) have nothing to fill their lives, but are kept as trophy wives or mistresses by the men. We are told that Anne Marie Stretter has already tried to commit suicide once, with a lover, but the attempt failed. We also learn that Anne Marie used to be a concert pianist, but she has stopped playing and now basically does nothing. The abandoned piano (with the music of India Song, and a photo of Anne Marie in her youth) is prominent in the mise en scene, and it notably remains unplayed. (We are told at one point that it is out of tune, due to warping as a result of the heat).

There is a remarkable moment, in the latter part of the film, after everyone has gone to the islands. We see a tableau of Anne Marie and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) seated around a dining table, dressed mostly in white, and brightly lit (as was never the case in the mansion). The camera pulls back slowly from the group. The offscreen voices tell us, for the first and only time, that it is 1937. They add by cataloging what is going on in the world at this time. Japan is waging war against China, and they have just bombed Shanghai. In Spain, the civil war goes on, and the Republic is on the verge of being destroyed by the fascists. In Russia, the Revolution has been betrayed by Stalinist terror. In Germany, the Nazis have just held the gigantic Congress of Nuremberg rally, consolidating their power. Suddenly it all gets crystallized for us: these people live in a bubble, a sort of vacuum, unconnected to and unaware of not only their colonial subjects (the very people they oppress), but all the horrible things that are going on in the world. I find this an absolutely stunning moment, because of how it emerges from the otherwise even tone of the film, and how it both estranges us from what we have been seeing for over an hour and a half, and gives us a sudden deeper insight into it).

Why does Duras make a long movie about such worthless people? Why does she dwell upon their splendor and decadence? (I am thinking both of the characters’ wealth and privilege, and of the way they are ironically portrayed, by being shown in the ruins and decay of a retrospective view of their lives? (I say retrospective, because of the temporal disjunction at the heart of the film — the way it doesn’t seem to have a present tense, the way the decay of the mansion in which we see them is apparently decades removed from the life they lived in 1937). I think the answer to this is in the tale of passion at the heart of the story: the Vice Consul’s hopeless love for Anne Marie Stretter. Duras is, in a certain sense, an ultra-romantic novelist and filmmaker. Her compulsive subject, in nearly all of her work, is hopeless romantic passion. (Part of her claim to be a major feminist writer and filmmaker is the way she takes this stereotypically ‘feminine’ subject and twists it around, analyzing it, pushing it to extremes, suggesting both its inescapability and its failure or impossibility). Here, the Vice Consul is the only one of the male characters who realizes the full extent of his vacancy and nullity. He is madly in love with Anne Marie Stretter, despite barely having met her and knowing nothing whatsoever about her. He sacrifices everything in his life, including notably his privileged position in the diplomatic corps, to his overwhelming, and totally ungrounded, passion.

We learn that, in the backstory, the Vice Consul has been dismissed from his consular position because he started shooting at random into a leper’s colony, indiscriminately murdering the native inhabitants. I think the point of this is that he has only literalized what all the European colonialists are doing when they make their livings in Asia by oppressing the inhabitants. All the other colonials are every bit as racist as the Vice Consul, but only he has had the bad taste to overtly and publicly act it out. Leprosy is significant in the movie both literally and metaphorically. Lepers were in the past separated from the rest of society, because their illness was believed to be so highly communicable. In earlier times, leprosy was a menace in Europe as much as elsewhere, but by 1937 it had largely been eliminiated in the affluent West (although effective treatments were not developed until after World War II). Leprosy has therefore been traditionally metaphorized as a form of social stigma. But we are also told by the voices in the film that leprosy involves decay of the nerve endings, so that sufferers do not actually feel pain, even though their bodies are in a state of decay. In this sense, the voices describe the situation of the European characters in the film as a “leprosy of the heart.”

The Vice Consul’s passion is both a symptom of the malady of the European colonizers, and a desperate (and inevitably futile) effort to overcome it. His screaming about his unreciprocated love for Anne Marie Stretter — a screaming which we hear on the soundtrack, but do not see — is both a deliberate social transgression (it gets him ostracized from white colonial society in a way that even murdering native people did not do) and a desperate attempt to express what cannot possibly be expressed. For Duras, extreme erotic passion is both fascinating and delusive. It is a demand for something that cannot possibly be attained — my fusion with the person I love, at the same time as that other person remains unattainable, because the condition of my love is precisely that they are utterly different from and alien to myself.

In nearly all of Duras’ novels and movies, this excess of passion is at the center. The Vice Consul’s passion is a desire that ruptures all social bonds, and all structures of meaning. Duras romanticizes and celebrates this excess, because it is the ultimate rejection, both of all social constraints and of the very state of being self-enclosed or trapped within one’s own subjectivity. But at the same time, it is entirely futile, because such a crossing of all boundaries is impossible; and also because such extreme feelings are inexpressible. Anything you say or do is inadequate to the desire you are trying to express. All words fall short, and all deeds are ludicrously ineffectual. Such extreme desire cannot really be represented; to represent it in any positive way would be to sell it short, and thereby to trivialize it, and indeed even to betray it. In this sense, the sexual passion that is the ultimate subject of India Song is not represented anywhere in the movie. We neither see it nor hear it, although everything we do see and hear testifies to it — or rather, testifies to its absence. This is the deepest reason for the separation of sound and image in the movie (as in most of Duras’ movies). What the movie is really about is what falls between the cracks, what neither soundtrack nor imagetrack can contain.

Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, artists have been obsessed with transgression, insisting on images of extreme sexuality and violence in order to scandalize audiences and break taboos. Duras turns this impulse inside out, in effect suggesting that transgressive images themselves overly tame and normalize the actions that they present — the effort to shock only ends up making the “shocking” material banal. This is why Duras is interested instead in what cannot be presented at all, what resists being captured cinematically, what falls into the disjunction between sound and image. By showing us daily banality, she preserves the extreme passion from being banalized. Life is exhausted in these movements of excess.

India Song therefore ends with the voices informing us of Anne Marie Stretter’s suicide, which once again, of course, is not directly presented to us on screen, but only communicated to us indirectly. Anne Marie has sex with just about anybody; but this sex is evidently entirely insignificant. Perhaps it temporarily relieves Anne Marie’s boredom, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything emotionally. The one passion in the movie on the part of any of the white characters, that is not just idle and trivial, is the Vice Consul’s passion for Anne Marie. But it is for this very reason that she turns him down. She reciprocates his passion only by failing to connect with him as massively as he fails to connect with her. Were she to accept him, as she does with all her other prospective lovers, this would only trivialize his passion, and extinguish her own. Another way to put this is to say that there is no solution to, and no escape from, the sterile and empty lives of the colonists. The movie’s grim message is that only escape is death, and the only meaningful passion is the one that culminates, not in satisfaction, but in death. At least this is the case for the European characters; Duras said in a interview that the only non-tragic character in the movie is the beggar woman who we never see. The beggar woman, Duras says, goes on with her life despite conditions of deprivation; but this is something that the European characters, even or especially with all their affluence, are unable to do.