Originally written in French by Annie Le Brun
[Annie Le Brun is a writer, poet, critic and thinker of France. She became a part of Andre Breton’s surrealist circle in 1963 and remained with it until its dissolution in 1969. She has a singular voice and vision, expressed in writings on subjects ranging from Raymond Roussel to war in the former Yugoslavia. Among the titles translated into English are the original works Sade: A Sudden Abyss and The Reality Overload: The Modern World’s Assault on the Imaginal Realm. She lives in Paris. Umang has selected this essay on a unique style of feminism by Annie Le Brun because of its resonance with important currents in contemporary Urdu women poets.]
It is out of convenience that people have spoken and that we still speak today of romantic women since, in truth, there is no type of “the romantic woman.” Furthermore, that is what is fascinating about this handful of young women who knew, I think, before Rimbaud’s injunction, how to reinvent love.
For what strikes us first is the diversity of their characters, the differences in their behaviours: it is indeed impossible to find any resemblance between Bettina’s turbulence, Suzette Gontard’s passion, Caroline Schlegel’s vivacity, Caroline von Gunderode’s despair, Sophie von Kuhn’s innocence, and Henriette Vogel’s audacity…Nonetheless, as dissimilar as they may be, these young women have in common a complete lack of pretense of playing a role. Not that it is a question of self-effacement – and the best example is Bettina, of whom Rilke wrote:
“That strange Bettina has, through all her letters, created a space, one that is like a world of enlarged dimensions. From the start she threw herself into everything as if she had already overtaken her death. Everywhere she profoundly installed herself in being, she became a part of it, and everything that happened to her was for all eternity contained in nature…”
And paradoxically this evocation that fits Bettina so well could more or less fit all women of romanticism to the precise extent that none of them takes pains to be: they are. And they are intimately, innocently, impudently, madly, scandalously, tragically but always, always superbly.
And it is above all in this sense that they completely escape the secondary role that is, and especially will be, reserved for women in various intellectual adventures. They are the heart and at the heart of romanticism in the same way as their friends, their lovers, their brothers…In the tumultuous and desperate chronicle of the liberation of women, I see no other figures move so freely. A little as if these women were characterized by a weightlessness that could only follow freedom. A weightlessness that common sense soon caricatured as weakness. We know the cliché of the young romantic woman, diaphanous, evanescent – the opposite of what these young women were. For this weightlessness is the weightlessness of excess, of the game played to the point of death, of the intensity of the moment, of the impatience to live…It is the weightlessness of life returned to itself, stripped of what holds it back, of what separates. “It’s as if I were thrust into everything I look at,” Bettina would say. And here two questions arise:
(1) How, when the feminist idea had hardly begun to exist, did a few young women spontaneously find themselves risking their lives in the alarming freedom of being what they are?
(2) How is it that contemporary feminists, otherwise eager to find ancestors, have up to now literally censored the existence of these women of romanticism?
The two questions are in fact connected. And the silence shrouding these women of romanticism seems to me perfectly natural given that there is no attitude less irreconcilable with Bettina professing to “dream upright” than that of any contemporary feminist busy certifying the realities of her protest, not to mention her recrimination. How indeed could people who are in the process of creating an ideology based on the insurmountable difference between the sexes recognize themselves in lives bent on losing or finding themselves in the lovers’ quest?Isn’t it a question of choices that are not so much irreconcilable as incompatible? And is not every militant ideology inherently interested in warding off the “disturbing strangeness” that is at work in the depths of individuality? Is it not this that opposes the politics of profit and ideological productivity to the poetic prodigality of life? So the distinction becomes very clear: It is the withdrawal of the Same that resists the opening toward the Other; or, in other words, it is the enlistment under a uniform of thought, feminist or otherwise, that is opposed to an indomitable inner desertion. An inner desertion that can attain the absolute revolt of Caroline von Gunderode, who wrote just before she stabbed herself on the Rhine: “I was filled with a nostalgia that did not know the object of its desire, and I was always searching and never finding what I was searching for.”
Of this revolt, without which the idea of freedom is reduced to being only a means of socio-economic development, without which love is reduced to an individual weakness; of this revolt, of this thirst for the absolute, one hears not a word in contemporary feminist discourse, and that is, as far as I am concerned, the definitive reproach that should be made of it. For I think it is by having had in common with a few young men this absolute revolt, this fierce refusal to adapt to banality, that the women of romanticism knew how to invent their freedom.
I am furthermore persuaded that it is this revolt in common – and specifically because this revolt is in common – that permitted Friederich Schlegal to decide, just as radically as naturally, the question of equality, hoping for “the complete destruction of the prejudices that have established between the two sexes an inequality of rights fatal to him who it favors.” But it is also this revolt in common that incites them all to look to love as one of the privileged paths of this desperate quest of the individual beyond his or her self.
And this is why the women of romanticism merit the privilege of having, despite everything and against everything, reinvented love because they had searched for what women had never before searched for: love becoming knowledge and knowledge becoming love.
(Translated from French to English by Max Blechman)
Source: Umang Poetry