That Obscure Object of Desire
The idea of Spain had a certain vogue in France in the nineteenth century, from Mérimée and Gautier to Debussy and Ravel. It meant, usually, Granada and Seville, orange trees, boleros, secret gardens, southern nights, gypsies, guitars, castanets, and abrupt, capricious passions unknown to the colder civilizations of the north. It meant dark-eyed, dark-haired beauties—so much so that a character in Flaubert’s Education sentimentale, published in 1869, can claim to be tired of such things (“Assez d’Andalouses sur la pelouse!“), while the hero of Pierre Louÿs’s La Femme et le pantin, published in 1898, is so entirely trapped inside this dusky Iberian fantasy that he can regret never having had a blonde mistress, inadvertently suggesting a title to Luis Buñuel as he does so: “J’aurai toujours ignoré ces pâles objets du désir.” Buñuel’s new film is described as “inspiré par” Louÿs’s novel.
Louÿs’s La Femme et le pantin is a minor, elegant, slightly sickly piece of work. Mérimée’s Carmen here becomes Concha, she is very young, almost an anticipation of Lolita; and she is less a person than an incarnation of the worst hopes and fears of men who say they love women. She is a virgin, for example, that dream of possessive Don Juans, the mirage of a female who would be neither a whore nor your wife nor the wife of somebody else. She flaunts her virginity at Don Mateo, the hapless, aging hero of this story; offers it to him and holds him at bay, since she knows that he can’t have what he wants without simultaneously losing it. She undresses in front of him but won’t sleep with him; gets into bed with him but is wearing an intricate, impenetrable corset.
At this point the mirage becomes nightmare, and the corset signals the end of Mateo’s youth, because he thinks all women now, for him, will wear such corsets or will want to: closed legs wherever he goes. And the nightmares then multiply. Concha dances nude for a group of tourists, her virginity still intact but somehow scattered. She makes love to someone else before Mateo’s horrified eyes, her virginity given to a young, handsome fellow who is everything Mateo is not, or is no longer. Mateo beats her, and this, it turns out, is what she wanted all along. She grovels in delight, and confesses she was faking with the young man, solely to torment Mateo. This unlikely story happens to be true. Mateo takes her, and the two embark together on a long life of misery and mutual torture—Concha inventing infidelities, and sometimes actually performing them, so that Mateo will knock her about when she comes home. But if she likes punishment, Louÿs says, she also likes the crime, not for the pleasure it gives her, but for the pain it causes others: “Her role in life ended there: to sow suffering and watch it grow.” All of this, in …