Memory & Truth: Duras’ photographs in “The Lover” and Barthes’ search for truth in “Camera Lucida”

In Margarete Duras’ “L’Amont,” or “The Lover,” she details a story of a love affair between a young girl and her older lover. Set in the Saigon of her childhood, she provides accounts through factual memories, though aged through time, and the eye of her mind, in a format that is written in fragments of thoughts. These memories seem to change throughout the book as a new memory corrects earlier recollections. It is as if she is looking through a box of photographs and free-writing everything that may come to mind, but the mind, like a photograph, does not always provide truth.

Philosopher Roland Barthes writes “every photograph is a certificate of presence” (Barthes, 87) in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.  He compares a photograph to death; a moment that will never be again. In the forward to Camera Lucida Geoff Dyer writes, “It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more…” The photographer, however, makes decisions such as when to capture an image on a mechanical or electronic device. The device captures that image and provides a representation of something that has happened, but no photograph will provide a true representation of what had happened at the moment of creation.

We capture photographs at important times, important moments, to remember. Barthes sets out to find a photograph of his mother, after her death, that holds the essence of who she was. Through his painful journey, which seems to be as much about death as it is about photography, Barthes defines what he believes is a “true” photograph.  He writes, “… my grief wanted a just image, an image that would be both justice and accuracy — justesse: just an image, but a just image.” Barthes seeks a truth and authenticity in photography, but in an image that doesn’t say too little or too much (Barthes, 70).

There is no line between fact and fiction, Duras has created a story drawn from memory, but memory, like a photograph, does not provide truth. The memories that were not captured in a photograph can be just as important as those that were, because they are real — authentic. Describing a life changing trip from Sadec to Saigon when she is fifteen-and-a-half, Duras writes,

“It might have existed, a photograph might have been taken, just like any other, somewhere else, in other circumstances. But it wasn’t. The subject was too slight. Who would have thought of such a thing? The photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, that crossing the river. But while it was happening, no one even knew of its existence. (Duras, 10)”

Barthes and Duras seem to be seeking truth, a real representation of a moment, but the truth is that most photographs are not taken because the meaning of a moment does not reveal itself until later, until the future (Hellerstein).  Thanks to her mother, she has years of portraits:

“Every so often my mother declares, Tomorrow we’ll go to the photographer’s. She complains about the price but still goes to the expense of family photos. We look at them, we don’t look at each other but we do look at the photographs, each of us separately, without a word of comments, but we look at them, we see ourselves. See the other members of the family one by one or all together. Look back at ourselves when we were very young in the old photos, then look at ourselves again in the recent ones. (Duras, 94)”

Duras’ photographs are portraits of a perfect family, one that has come together for a portrait. A portrait is taken to “reinforce the integration of the family group by reasserting the sense that it has both of itself and of its unity (Bourdieu).” The average viewer may see a “perfect family,” but looking at the photographs years later she is reminded of her father death, her mother’s hidden madness, her older brother’s gambling, and the lover who could never be photographed. The truth, as much as truth can be true, is only real in her writings,

“In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, or our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was our whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. ” (Duras)

If it wasn’t for the act of the photographer (and other circumstances leading up to the photo shoot), would the moment even have been?  The very act of noticing a camera creates a moment that would never have been. Barthes writes “…very often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it.  Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

Standing in front of a camera the subject becomes a reflection of what the photographer is seeking. For that moment, a new person is born, a new life is created, but that new life is not authentic to the life that was. Barthes expounds, “Since Photography authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, i.e., in its essence… beyond simple resemblance…” Barthes writes of the pain that one photograph of his mother creates, a photograph that really only exists for him.  “For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it for you, no wound (Barthes, 73).”  Like Barthes’ photograph of his mother, Duras’ images would have “no wound” to the average viewer beyond that which is obvious, but to her they carry a truth that only memory can provide.

Even memory, backed by imagination, cannot provide a true account. Janice Morgan writes of Duras’ tale, “Narrated largely in the first person, the text is composed of fragments taken from shifting time frames, fragments that are related not in an external, linear way, but in circular, associative patterns that convey the more intimate, psychological rhythms of that experience… One cannot avoid the impression-confirmed even on the printed page, punctuated as it is by blank spaces-that a mysterious content must have been left out.” (Morgan) Left out because it didn’t matter to be remembered, didn’t matter to be captured, at the time.

Duras sets out to capture a story from her past in written form from her memory. She admits it’s not all truth, but rather what her memory can put to the page. Not all moments had significance as they happened, and were not important enough to capture — to the page, or as an image. Memory, like a photograph, requires an active flinch — the press of a button — to capture a truth, but with time memories, and photographs, fade and only provide evidence of what has been — what has existed. The blanks are filled in and are just another tale of fiction.

Bibliography

Barthes, R., & Dyer, G. (2010). Camera lucida: Reflections on photography (Pbk. ed.). New York: Hill and Wang.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). Photography, a middle-brow art. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Duras, M., & Bray, B. (1997). The lover. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hellerstein, N. (1991). “Image” and Absence in Marguerite Duras’ “L’Amant” Modern Language Studies, 21(2), 45-56. Retrieved January 21, 2015, from JSTOR.

Morgan, J. (1989). Fiction and Autobiography/Language and Silence: L’Amant by Duras. The French Review, 63(2), 271-279. Retrieved January 21, 2015, from JSTOR.

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