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Love In The Time Of Cholera And Hélène Cixous

By Mara Ahmed

17 June, 2014

As I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” for the second time in my life, I was left with much to think about. It’s a book about a love affair between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza that spans over half a century. It starts with fervent love letters in their early youth, becomes one-sided when Fermina loses interest and Florentino continues to be single-mindedly devoted to her (whilst engaging in a wildly promiscuous love life), and resumes 53 years later in their old age when Fermina’s husband dies in a freak accident and Florentino reasserts his undying passion for her.

I love Marquez’s captivating storytelling: the shifts in time, the multivarious voices in which the story is told, the evolution of the main characters in all their complexity and quirkiness and humanness, the subplots and supporting characters which create a rich and contrasting tapestry, the undeniable beauty of his language and the fecundity of his imagination. I appreciate the subtle yet indispensable political context which forms the book’s backdrop: colonialism, civil wars, disease, the splitting of society along economic and racial lines which extend to institutional religion, progress and environmental degradation, poverty and other structures of social violence.

Marquez breathes life into the unnamed Caribbean city where the story takes place (ostensibly Cartagena, Colombia) with his masterly depiction of its streets and neighborhoods, it flora and fauna, its smells and superstitions, its riverboats and people. The book is a treatise on love, the oppression of old age and the social stigma attached to aging, and the ridiculous capriciousness of death.

Love is explored in all its convolutions: platonic love and the possibility of friendship between a man and a woman, romantic idealized love, the profundity of conjugal love, physical, transient or depraved love, love as a sickness (with symptoms similar to cholera), love as a violation and obsession, love as a cure, love as the ultimate raison d'être.

I agree completely with the knotty and evasive nature of love, but as a woman, some of the narrative details made me deeply uncomfortable. Florentino Ariza struck me less as a heroic personification of romantic love and more as a creepy, obsessive-compulsive seducer who is able to garner our sympathy for his “cause” while surrendering to all his instincts. It is casually mentioned, in one line, that he, who had assaulted a servant girl and made her pregnant, had sadly lost much of his manly vigor in old age. The whole question of rape is problematic in the book. I understand that Marquez might be trying to invert the idea of rape (Florentino loses his virginity when he is raped by a woman) but one of the strongest female characters in the book, Leona Cassiani, responds to her brutal rape by falling in love with her attacker and that is difficult to digest. Florentino’s description as a “hunter” looking to catch little “birds” and his assertion that “when a woman says no, she is waiting to be urged before making her final decision” fit too snugly into what we can finally articulate as rape culture.

Florentino Ariza’s deliberate seduction of his 14-year old ward, a distant relative who is entrusted to his care by her parents, is difficult to read. Sex scenes are mixed in with walks in the park where they eat ice cream and play ball. Once he reconnects with the love of his life, the recently widowed Fermina Daza, he jilts the child. She begins to do poorly in school and eventually commits suicide. Many of the women who become Florentino’s lovers are shown as being independent, in touch with their sexuality, and fully cognizant of what they’re getting into, yet pain is taken to express clearly that he is the one who always ends the affair, except for one instance, i.e. his women lovers can be sexually free but are not in control.

The descriptions of “black” and “mulatto” women are incredibly offensive. They are painted as uncontainable voluptuous bodies which ooze (and therefore invite) sex. These stereotypes, which hearken back to slavery, are not representations of what the characters think or feel and therefore time-appropriate. These descriptions are provided by the writer. Although the story happens in the late 19th to early 20th century, the book was written in 1985. Yet we don't see any "modern" sensibility in the endless caricatures of women Marquez draws.

It must be said that the book’s female protagonist, Fermina Daza, is brilliantly and comprehensively sketched. Her haughtiness, self-command and decisiveness make her strong. Her quick temper and ability to break with tradition make her interesting. She can love with a kind of devotion and clear-mindedness that is moving. Leona Cassiani is another powerful female character. She is a naturally gifted businesswoman and rises to the top of the River Company of the Caribbean. She is in charge of her life and work and possesses more foresight and sangfroid than most of the male characters in the book. She is also the one who confuses rape with love.

In short, while I cannot deny the spectacular genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I’m left wondering if most great literature is filled with problematic representations of women and how they relate to men. I have to meditate on how quick we (men and women) are to justify female stereotypes: oh, it's a reflection of the times, it's symbolic, it’s a metaphor, an abstraction, it’s deconstruction. It seems almost provincial or petty to mention the fact that literary (and artistic) devices and explorations mostly play out on the bodies of women.

We’ve become so reconciled to these images of women, written by men for the most part, that we are inured to how they shape our thinking and society. I long for more writing by women, what Hélène Cixous calls l'écriture feminine, which goes beyond women writing women, for women.

Cixous sees Western culture as rooted in the dichotomy between binary opposites: male/female, good/evil, light/dark, language/silence, speech/writing. In each of these pairs the first term has primacy over the second.

She talks about Freud’s description of women as being the “dark continent.” Women are synonymous with darkness, otherness, Africa. Men are the opposite. They represent lightness, selfhood, Western civilization. Women are the colonized, men the imperialists. This same apartheid is imbedded in language.

Cixous sees anyone subscribing to existing linguistic hierarchies as inadvertently taking up the position of a “man.” However, these restrictions on language are historico-cultural and surmountable. For Cixous writing must take place in the spaces in-between, without any preference for or reference to opposing terms. Women are more than equal to the task on account of their “gift of alterability.” As mothers, women are naturally adept at nourishing, eliminating separation, re-writing codes: “in woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.”

Rather than remain trapped inside men’s language and grammar, Cixous urges women to explode that structure and invent a language they themselves can get inside of. This is why she describes feminine writing in non-representational ways such as song, milk, flight, and rhythm. She calls for a literary revolution, and we are reminded every day, in every part of the world, that we’re in desperate need of it.

Mara Ahmed is an activist, artist and filmmaker based in Rochester, NY. Her documentaries have been broadcast on PBS and screened at international film festivals, most recently in Dublin. She is currently working on a film about the Partition of India in 1947. She blogs at www.maraahmed.com


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