Marguerite Duras was one of the most prominent and prolific French female writers of the twentieth century, not only an author of a multitude of fictional and autobiographical novels but also a curious journalist, playwright and filmmaker. In this sense, you could say that she was one of the first intellectuels engagés to embrace and explore different forms of media so broadly.
“Les hommes ont toujours besoin de réponse, même si un jour s’il s’avère fausse ou seulement provisoire. Alors en 2000, où seront les réponses ?”
Les 7 chocs de l’an 2000 made up part of the series Un show de société hosted by Michel Drucker, a popular and well-known French TV presenter and directed by Roland Portiche who co-wrote the series with Laurent Joffin (Le tourne page). During the 26 September edition of the programme in 1985 on Antenne 2, Duras provides a response to Drucker’s question. At the time of this interview in 1985, Duras aged 71 was enjoying a new wave of public interest after the international success of her novel L’Amant, released in 1984 for which she earnt the prestigious Prix Goncourt. This interview differs from her other television appearances because she is not appearing in a self-promotional capacity; her role here is to simply indulge the audience with her wisdom. By assessing her image, home and clothes we can consider how these fulfil the intellectual stereotypes. Furthermore, we can explore how Duras, arguably at the most successful point of her career, was engaging in the evolving medium of television seizing publicity opportunities. Above all, it is a curious insight into the mind of a very influential yet highly criticized individual, where she shows an astounding sense of social awareness.
Redefining her public image
The emergence of new media such as television from the 1960s onwards contributed to the changing dynamic intellectuals had with media and by default the public. Duras’ relationship with television started during the mid-60s when she appeared occasionally as an interviewer. In the 1970s she began to fully embrace her role as a television personality and by the end of the 1980s she herself had been the focus of multiple documentaries and television shows (Hill, 2003:13). Les Parleuses by Xavière Gauthier published in 1974, relayed multiple interviews between Gauthier and Duras discussing women, sex, desire, literature amongst other things. Additionally, in 1977 Michelle Porte produced Les lieux de Margueritte Duras (Genova, 2003: 45), a two-part television documentary that claimed to ‘présente Marguerite Duras par elle-même’ (Les Editions de Minuit). Her most recent televised interview before this was on Pivot’s Apostrophes in 1984 where she discussed L’Amant in depth; Marini concurs that her appearance on Apostrophes alongside the release of L’Amant and winning the Prix Goncourt connected three audiences: ‘le grand public, la grande presse et l’intelligenstista’ (1998: 170).
Satisfying the intellectual clichés
The concept of the French intellectual has been present for over a century, initially established in the late nineteenth century during the Dreyfus Affair with the essential parameters of being ‘a sense of concern with abstract moral principles’ (Hazareesingh, 1991: 36). In addition to this sense of concern, stereotypes of an intellectual’s appearance and lifestyle had also emerged over the century and Duras does not stray far from them here whilst being filmed at home. Firstly, there are piles of books stacked behind her, papers in front of her and even a crooked lampshade in the far room. The stacks of books and papers, albeit not unusual considering her official profession alongside the general messiness of her home plays into the unconventional, bohemian, liberal lifestyle intellectuals were believed to lead. Her calm, slow ethereal composure and delay in responses assures her wisdom and convinces the listener of the validity of her thoughts. Duras’ wardrobe choices during the 70s and 80s did not vary far from the high polar neck, many rings and large glasses, in fact she wore a very similar outfit on Apostrophes. Her choice of bland, conservative and plain clothes could be interpreted to be in line with her political ideologies supporting communism, alternatively to fulfil her role as an intellectuel engagé, why would or should she worry about her fashion choices when it is her work, ideas and political engagement that are of primary importance?
The future – according to Duras
“Il n’y aura plus personne pour lire. Ils verront de la télévision. On aura des postes partout, dans la cuisine, dans les water-closets, dans le bureau, dans les rues…”
Having accomplished herself in a variety of different creative and literary industries, it is not surprising that Duras is able to predict extremely accurately how the television industry would evolve. When speaking about the medium of television itself it is clear she is able to comprehend the power it already has by reaching people in their homes, but also that in less than two decades screens would be everywhere. She also predicts that as humans we will be “littéralement noyé dans l’information” regarding our health, family life, salary and hobbies, saying that it will be a “cauchemar”. It is hard to distinguish whether as viewers from the future how much we are allowing our own experiences to convince ourselves of the validity of her comments but what does remain overwhelmingly clear is her innate social awareness at that time.
“Il restera la mer quand même, les océans et la lecture. Les gens vont redécouvrir ça.”
Murphy praises Duras saying that ‘her quest for truth shines through in her works’ and that she has ‘bequeathed her readers with a legacy of love for […] literature that will survive the media glitz of her later years and endure well into the twenty-first century’ (2002: 96). This is evident in this phrase as she believes that literature and reading will endure the test of time, acknowledging the discipline of reading to be as vast, powerful and constant as the sea. Her belief in the importance of words had always been apparent in her written work but also in her cinema. She has been described as ‘refusing such basic realist conventions of cinematic representation’ by expressing ‘an aesthetic proposition: that words have unlimited possibilities of proliferating mental images, and a greater connotative richness than the visual images of cinema themselves’ (Cottenet-Hage & Kolker, 1989: 89). Genova concludes appropriately that ‘Duras remains a writer before anything else’ (2003: 45) and her final remark “il restera toujours un homme pour en rêver” shows once again Duras’ literary romantic side as she ends by giving a shy slight smile.
And so, in 1985 while she was enjoying this new wave of publicity on account of L’Amant, Prix Goncourt and her various other televised and published interviews, she seized this smaller opportunity as it was the perfect platform for her to discuss something that was not politically controversial but was still engaging in the public sphere. However, she was able to present a very honest and sincere version of herself which, at the time and since, has only further assured her status as an intellectual because her predictions were and remain astoundingly accurate.
All images are stills taken from the interview referenced below. Duras and Drucker’s quotes likewise.
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