Repetition and Intermediality in Marguerite Duras’s The Atlantic Man: Practicing Dibutade’s Craft in the XXth Century

Alexandra Irimia
Western University, London, Ontario


Alexandra Irimia fait son doctorat en Littérature Comparée à Western University, London, Ontario. Après des études à Bucarest et à Prague, elle a fini un stage de recherche au centre Figura, à Montréal. Son article « Figures of the Void: Empty Signifiers and Other Figures of Absence » est en cours de publication à l’Université de Bucarest. Dans sa thèse de doctorat, elle se propose d’élaborer une approche théorique du signifiant vide dans la littérature et les arts contemporains.

Dans les années 1980, d’un geste qui rappelle celui de Dibutade, Marguerite Duras fait un film sur l’impuissance du langage de rendre compréhensible, sans reste, l’absence d’un aimé. Ce qu’elle montre, au-delà de l’histoire d’un amour perdu, c’est plutôt cette impuissance même : L’Homme atlantique est un film qui manque presque complètement ses images. Un an plus tard, Duras publie le texte du film sous forme d’un roman éponyme. L’auteure de l’article compare les références permanentes d’un médium à l’autre qui hantent les deux ouvrages avec une mise-au-jour des théories énoncées par Lessing dans Laocoön. Ensuite, elle entame, en déployant une terminologie deleuzienne, une discussion sur l’usage littéraire et filmique de la répétition et de la différence en tant que transgression des normes médiatiques. L’étude se conclut par une comparaison de ces deux traitements critiques de L’Homme atlantique comme création hybride née d’un « travail de deuil » symbolique après la perte d’un amour dont l’absence peut être seulement vaguement montrée.

In the 1980s, in an act not dissimilar to that of Dibutade’s, Marguerite Duras makes a film out of the failure of language to come to terms with a beloved’s absence. More than a story of a lost love, the film explores this very failure: The Atlantic Man is a film almost entirely without of images. This experiment pushes cinematic limits so far that it ceases to be ‘visual’. A year later, Duras transforms the film into an eponymous novel. Duras’s deliberate transition from literature to cinema lends itself to an intermedial comparison that echoes Lessing’s Laocoön. Using deleuzian terminology, the article will then explain how Duras’s ostentatious literary and cinematic use of difference and repetition transgresses medium-specific norms. The article concludes with a comparison of these two critical approaches to The Atlantic Man which, as a hybrid creation, was born as a symbolic “work of mourning” of a lost love whose absent presence can only indirectly alluded to.

Marguerite Duras’s 1982 The Atlantic Man1Marguerite Duras, « The Atlantic Man », Two by Duras, trans. Alberto Manguel, Toronto, Coach House Press, 1993, p. 29-58. (hereafter, TAM) is a hybrid textual structure that stands at the border of several literary genres and inhabits – if not inaugurates – the overlapping territory of two media: literature and cinema. Its 30 pages accommodate no more than 2 400 words, together with the many interludes of silence that separate them in the form of typographic blanks. The graphic arrangement of this experimental work situates it on the border between prose poetry and self-centered narrative, written for its most part in the second person. Rather inconsistent with the French editorial labels that classify it as a novel (roman) or a short story (nouvelle), the text lacks not only the standard length, but also epic strength and complexity to be referred to by either name.

Before being branded as a novel and published by Les Éditions de Minuit2Marguerite Duras, L’Homme Atlantique, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1982., the text was the soundtrack transcript of an eponymous movie (L’Homme Atlantique3Marguerite Duras, L’Homme Atlantique, 45’, screenplay and voice-off by Marguerite Duras, with Yann Andréa, Ina/Production Berthemont, France, 1981., 1981) created by Marguerite Duras from cuts left aside in her previous film (Agatha et les lectures illimitées, 1981). As a film, TAM is a different kind of experiment than its textual counterpart, defying fundamental conventions of its own medium. Several disparate images of the ocean shore and of Duras’s last partner, the French future writer Yann Andréa, alternate with a black screen that is on display for most of this 45-minute-long, almost imageless cinematic experience. Throughout the film, Duras’s voice is heard reading at a slow, monotonous pace what is not yet – but will later become – a literary work in itself. The origin of the text also accounts for its fragmentary structure, preserving the cutting gestures of the montage and translating the imageless screens of the film into typographic blanks that ostensibly isolate the paragraphs.4Foor good reasons, some might take issue with this statement of precedence, given that fragmentation can be manifest in texts that do not originate in films. Of course, I agree that fragmentation is a practice used in many other texts for various other stylistic reasons. However, the fact that many other texts are fragmented to serve different purposes does not alter the truth of the fact that this particular text is the transcript of a collection of montage cuts (fragments) and, thus, cannot be otherwise but fragmented. In other words, while it is true that not all fragmented texts come from fragmented movies, the fact that TAM is a transcript of cinematic fragments definitely has an impact on its written form. As such, the statement indicating a causal relation applies to this particular text, not to all fragmented texts in general

The radical visual statements of Duras’s parallel versions of TAM (written and screened) on the image (or imagelessness) of a figure more or less vaguely tied to the traces of a former love story, is perhaps the main « trait » (understood as « characteristic », but also as a visual, graphic trace) that outlines the proximity between TAM and Dibutade’s mythical gesture. Both originate in the intimate relations that representation holds with the ontological interplay of absence and presence, and with its spectral (in)visibility. If for Dibutade the development of these relations needs no further demonstration because it constitutes the very substance and structure of her myth (read literally and allegorically), we will consolidate the hypothesis of a Dibutadian craft in The Atlantic Man with a twofold approach on Duras’s work, by discussing its intermedial functioning and its use of repetition as a rhetorical and conceptual device.

On Intermediality: An Interarts Comparative Interpretation

In his Laocoön or The Limits of Poetry and Painting, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing argues that both poetry and painting aim at creating pleasurable illusions. While both refer to things absent as present, to appearances as realities, the two media differ in their object and mode of imitation. The famous interarts comparison summarized in sections 15 and 16 of Laocoön5Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoon or The Limits of Poetry and Painting [1766], trans. William Ross, London, J. Ridgway & Sons, 1836, p. 146-163. distinguishes between arts of consecutiveness and arts of simultaneity. The former are verbal arts and music, defined by their following of a temporal principle and by the preeminence of invention and progression in the representation of actions. The latter are visual arts, which unfold in space rather than in time and privilege execution over invention and juxtaposition over progression in the representation of bodies. To apply Lessing’s observations to the book and the film under discussion here would imply – as the German author himself does for the purposes of his polemic with Winckelmann – to expand the two terms of comparison and to read them in a broader sense. What he calls « poetry » would stand for literature as a whole and what he describes as « painting » would refer to an expanded realm of the visual, inclusive of photography and the film image. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that both the film and the novel cannot unfold outside a certain temporal order and for this reason special attention will be awarded to the relation with time maintained by the two versions of TAM.

In reading Lessing, one must acknowledge the author’s personal preference for the verbal over the visual, which continues an ancient ekphrastic tradition. However, Marguerite Duras’s use of both verbal and visual media, at least in the case of TAM, does not take any side in this dispute. She does not claim to offer a XXth-century response to the Paragone debate on the supremacy of arts – even though at times one may be tricked into thinking she does. At a certain point in the movie and in its transcript, she asks: « Why not make a film? From now on writing would be too difficult. Why not a film6Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 47.? »

She decides to make a film out of her impossibility of writing the absence of the loved one, out of the failure of language to fully grasp her loss. Translating this failure, the movie is almost entirely deprived of its images. TAM is an experimental film that pushes its medium-specific boundaries so far, that it ceases to be « visual ». It is a film meant to be seen blindly. Or unseen. When the screen turns black, the film consists only of the audible version of its literary counterpart. This can hardly stand as an argument for the superiority of the cinematic medium over the literary one. Marguerite Duras acknowledges the powerlessness of images: « I wanted to say: film believes it can preserve what you are doing at this moment. But you, from where you are, wherever it may be, whether you have gone away still bonded to the sand, or the wind, or the sea, or the wall, or the bird, or the dog, you will realize that film cannot do that7Ibid., p. 37.. » And again, she further acknowledges the powerlessness of film:

The film will remain like this, as it is. I have no more images for it. I no longer know where we are, at what end of what love, at what beginning of what other love, in what story we have lost ourselves. It is only for this film that I know. For the film alone I know, I know, I know that no image, no single image more, could make it last any longer8Ibid., p. 54..

The images vanish from the screen but the words continue for a while until the ending credits. Is that a point for the superiority of language? Hardly that, either. Rather, TAM shows that the representation possibilities of both verbal and visual artifacts have been exhausted; the two media are equally limited in their powers to render an absence present, « as absence »:

There are also remains of that exaltation that comes over me from not knowing what to do with all this, with all the knowledge I have of your eyes, of the immensities your eyes explore, to the point of not knowing what to write, what to say, what to show of their pristine insignificance9Ibid., p. 55, my emphasis..

Representation, after all, is a matter of bringing something absent into the present and into the presence of its sign, a game of absence and presence unfit for the mimetic reproduction of absolute absence: « The film will remain like this. Finished. You are at once hidden and present. Present only through this film, hidden from yourself, from all knowledge anyone could have of you10Ibid., p. 54.. » Therefore, this presence of an absence deems its object unknowable otherwise than in the form of a trace or a secret, an incomplete representation unfaithful to its referent.

There are flickering apparitions of the you to whom Duras’s monologue is addressed. On a first, biographic and cast-wise level, it refers to Yann Andréa, who is the sole actor of the movie and the last lover in the biography of Duras. In the film, just as in the French text, he is addressed formally, with the plural vous instead of the tu that may have been expected in a late XXth-century lover’s monologue. In the English translation, this important nuance is inevitably lost. On a metafictional level, however, the you may just as rightfully address the audience, in its plurality of readers and/or spectators. All the audience or each individual at a time is addressed formally, as a stranger. This observation quickly brings to my mind a contemporary art installation, extending the interarts comparison. In 2007, Urs Fischer emptied an exhibition room at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise Gallery in New York and jackhammered several feet into the floor (see Appendix #2). The resulting crater, surrounded by impeccable white walls, speaks of a lack, a loss, an absence. The installation is called You and the same ambiguity as in TAM is preserved. Who is the missing « you »? The visitor of the gallery? A lost lover? God? In a wider, transcendental key, Meaning? Or Truth?

The metafictional reading implies the hypothesis of a film acutely aware of its medium, pointing at its self-awareness: « you are the only one to stand […] in my presence, at this very moment of the film that is being made11Ibid., p. 34. », « the camera will now capture your reappearance12Ibid., p. 48.. » There lies implicit a meditation on the ability of film to capture a unique presence in a unique moment of time, which outside the cinematic medium would otherwise be lost. Several pages later, the film will also be aware of the particular circumstances of its screening: « You will look at all the people in the audience, one by one, each one in particular. Remember this, very clearly: the movie-theatre is in itself, like yourself, the entire world, you are the entire world, you, you alone13Ibid., p. 50.. » The screen, in all its emptiness, becomes unbound by margins; it acquires the infinite width and depth of the entire world. To say that, for Duras, watching the film is perfectly synonymous with apprehending the world is not so far-fetched a hypothesis, considering how this film’s spectator hears, looking at an empty screen, the following:

You will look at what you see. But you will look at it absolutely. You will try to look at it absolutely. You will try to look at it until your sight fails, until it makes itself blind, and even through this blindness you must try again to look. Until the end.

You ask me: look at what?
I say, well, I say ‘the sea,’ yes, this word facing you, these walls facing the sea, these successive disappearances, this dog, this coast, this bird beneath the Atlantic wind.

Listen. I also believe that if you were not to look at that which appears before you, it would become apparent on the screen. And the screen would go blank14Ibid., p. 32-33..

Duras proves that not-looking, too, can be « apparent on the screen ». If the screen is empty, it is so because the spectators are not really looking at it. At least, not looking hard enough. Not looking « absolutely ». In Duras’s black frames, the disappearance of the image is equally the disappearance of bodies and actions. It is at once progressive, unfolding in the time of projection/reading, and juxtaposed in the claustrophobic field of view: « You are on the edge of the sea, you are on the edge of those things trapped among themselves by your eyes15Ibid., p. 39.. » The film is both visual and verbal; at times, it is paradoxically more verbal than visual. The visuals are intentionally blinded, testifying for the fundamental opacity of the cinematic medium (in need of a certain darkness to project the motions of light). The imperative commands to listen, to see, to look, or, on the contrary not to look at something account for a sort of rhythmic backbone of the film and/or of the prose: « You will not look straight at the camera. Except when you are told to do so. […] You will also forget about the camera16Ibid., p. 31.. » « You will pass once again in front of the camera. This time you will look at it. Look at the camera. The camera will now capture your reappearance.17Ibid., p. 48. » The voice-off is quasi-dictatorial, imposing itself upon the image, interacting with it, reconfiguring it in real-time. Only that more often than not there is no image, and these imperative stage directions begin to resemble, with all their performative force, a desperate attempt to control and detour one’s memory flow. The voice-off appeals to the authority of the camera and to its pretension of truth:

You will look at the camera as you look at the sea, as you looked at the sea and the window-panes and the dog and the tragic bird in the wind and the still sands braving the waves.

At the end of the journey, the camera will have decided what you will have looked at. Look. The camera won’t lie18Ibid., p. 51..

The camera is so powerful that leaving its field of view is the cinematic equivalent of non-being. It also has the power to transgress temporalities, swinging backward from future (« you will look ») to past (« as you looked ») and then forward to future antérieur (« will have decided what you will have looked at »). This time-travel modifying the past from the future is made at nauseating speed and emphasizes the dictatorial agency of the recording instrument, which surpasses the agency of the filmed subject. Adding to this imperative approach, the camera must be looked at only under permission (the interdiction and the permission mark the beginnings of the two symmetrical halves of the text: « You will not look straight at the camera19Ibid., p. 29.  », « this time you will look at it, look at the camera20Ibid., p. 48. »), in a way that denies its being a camera, an artificial eye, an instrument of alternative sight. The absence on screen is the symptom of a haunting disappearance, an ontological statement:

Only your absence remains now, bodiless, without any possibility of reaching it, of falling prey to desire.
You are precisely nowhere.
You are no longer the chosen one.
Nothing remains of you except this floating absence, ambulatory, that fills the screen, that peoples by itself, why not? a prairie in the Far West, or this abandoned hotel, or these sands.
Nothing happens, except this absence drowned in regret and which, at this point, leaves nothing to weep for21Ibid., p. 40-41..

The emptiness of the frame speaks of the emptiness of all surroundings. Should Duras have attempted to convey this radical statement in writing with the same level of intensity, the page would have remained blank. Occasionally, in the typographic interstices, it does remain white. Its naked opacity may be the strongest possible contrast, chromatically speaking, with the one on the empty screen, yet both have the same quality and accomplish the same function.

Lessing22Lessing, op. cit., p. 144. qualified visual arts as descriptive and verbal arts as rhetorical. In the case of the film and prose discussed here, however, the supposedly visual medium is barely more descriptive than the textual one (the protagonist is given, briefly, a figure and a body). On the contrary, it is more rhetorical than its verbal counterpart; it makes use of the literary tropes in the text – such as oxymorons (the spectator is insistently invited to look at the empty screen, the predilect place of the image hosts the lack of image), hyperboles (the empty screen is boundless; one must look at it « absolutely », with a hyperbolized form of sight), metaphors (the empty screen is a metaphor for loss, blindness or oblivion), and repetitions (as exemplified in the second section of this article) – and it adds in visual rhetoric, with the shocking effect of the absence of images. As such, the modern text and film dissolve the ancient oppositions by experimenting with intermediality. The cinematic medium is able to provide a « certificate of presence », according to Youssef Ishaghpour, while the words produce an « indefinite virtuality » realized, materialized, and objectified by the film23Youssef Ishaghpour, « La voix et le miroir, Marguerite Duras », in Cinéma contemporain; de ce côté du miroir, Paris, Éditions de la Différence, coll. « Essais », 1986, p. 270: « La reproduction technique délivre un certificat de présence, renforcé par l’illusion du mouvement sur l’écran. Les mots produisent de l’irréel, une virtualité indéfinie, le cinéma les “réalise”, comme on dit, en donne une objectivation, une profération définitive. ». Duras’s « novel » speaks the vocabulary of film directing (it gives indications to the only actor, operates cuts, dictates the general atmosphere and nuances, etc.), while her film hardly achieves more, in terms of content, than its printed transcript. The novel transgresses its medium to incorporate script directions, while the film takes a step back from the potentialities of its medium and, by refusing the visual component, at times, it regresses to pure speech only. Nevertheless, since the speech is, in its turn, impregnated with countless visual references, the intermediality of the work is absolute and perfectly circular: the book can be read only accompanied by an understanding of the cinematic mechanisms of producing images and meaning, it points to the film, while the film reproduces the novel with utmost fidelity and with rhetorical similitude. In his Cinema II: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze makes another interesting observation on the Durassian cinematography, referring especially to TAM and Agatha et les lectures illimitées. According to him, even when they seem to dissociate, the verbal and the visual become, in fact, more intricately linked:

In the second stage, then, talking and sound cease to be components of the visual image: the visual and the sound become two autonomous components of an audio-visual image, or, better, two heautonomous images. In this case we can say with Blanchot: « Talking is not seeing ». It seems here that talking ceases to see, to make visible and also to be seen. But a preliminary observation is required: talking breaks with its visual links in this way only by giving up its particular habitual or empirical exercise, by managing to turn towards a limit which is at once, as it were, the unspeakable and yet what can only be spoken. […] The same observation is also valid for the visual image: seeing wins a heautonomy only if it is torn from its empirical exercise and is carried to a limit which is at once invisible and yet can only be seen (a kind of clairvoyance, differing from seeing, and passing through any-space-whatevers, empty or disconnected spaces. It is the vision of a blind man, of Tiresias, as speech was that of an aphasic or amnesic24Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Roberta Galeta, London, The Athlone Press, 2000, p. 259-260..

As such, we find ourselves trapped on the border between cinema and literature, without the possibility of remaining nested in any of them. In this respect, TAM tries to open middle grounds – or middle waters, if one prefers to remain faithful to the ocean metaphor – between (moving) image and text, visual arts and verbal arts. TAM is intermedial because it only becomes accessible by accessing two media, transgressing them and blending their potentialities into a hybrid25Term inspired by Jean Cléder, « Hybridations cinématographiques », in Entre littérature et cinéma. Les affinités éléctives, Paris, Armand Collin, 2012, p. 175-214. work. This first section of our analysis argues, in an oblique way, that TAM is a hybrid, multimedial and intermedial semiotic device, more than it is the sum of an experimental novel and an experimental film, because it is conceived precisely on the relations, associations, and interferences that tie one medium to the other: rhetoric similarities (oxymorons, negations, repetitions, metaphors), interchangeable vocabularies, as well as the explicit awareness of the inherent limitations of each medium. Duras’s choice of a double medium for her work stems from the very impossibility of representation of an absence « as absence », because a certain degree of presentification is inherent to all representation.

There is another situation in which art inevitably fails: in the face of very strong passions. Lessing attributes to Timanthes the following statement: « to portray a father’s agony is beyond the reach of art26Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, op. cit., p. 20.. » Duras’s radical use of words and image (or lack thereof) seems to suggest that her lamentation is not far from that level of intensity which may render it unrepresentable. According to Lourdes Monterrubio, the resistance to representation would be the consequence of a liaison that bears the social stigma of incest; as such, « the narrative of incest, of irrepresentable nature, is produced by its absence. The showing of the irrepresentable is thereby constructed through the correspondences created among the different elements of the visual image and the sound image, all of them defined by absence27Lourdes Monterrubio Ibáñez, « Agatha and the Limitless Readings by Marguerite Duras. The literary text and its filmic (irre)presentation », Communication & Society, vol. 30, no. 3/2017, p. 58. ». Regardless of whether we accept or not the hypothesis of incestuous connotations that obscure the representational potential of the love story, Duras’s exclusive focus on the male subject (the only character appearing on page and on screen in TAM) seems to testify for the great affective charge of this monologue and also serves to identify the object of this affection with the figure of Yann Andréa, explicitly on display. The imperative monologue written in the second person, as if for an unique addressee, dwelves on a mode of intensity that is also far from neutral: there are strong prohibitions in place, every gesture is dictated in the smallest detail, and the dominant voice asserts its power even on the sensations and perceptions of the filmed object, whose subjectivity is absent. Understanding and showing that neither film, nor literature are fully able to grasp through and represent the suffering provoked by the absence of the loved Other, Duras decides to combine the possibilities of both media. The result, however, only shows that this incapacity does not pertain to one medium only, but is intermedial. By determining the film and the literary text to share the same verbal content and by eliminating image from an art which is visual par excellence, Marguerite Duras offers a dialectical resolution in the form of a synthesis entirely discernable only to those who are simultaneously readers and spectators of TAM.

On the Use of Repetition: A Deleuzian Comparative Interpretation

As anticipated in one of the earlier paragraphs, our analysis will now turn from the discussion of intermediality to the investigation of a literary trope used intermedially, as a structuring strategy both in the novel and in the film – namely, repetition. The monologic utterances in TAM return in the verbal flow many times over, with nuanced alterations; their reiteration helps build a tensed accumulation of echoes:

You will forget.
You will forget.
You will forget that this is you.
I believe it can be done.
You will also forget about the camera28Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 29..

Numerous other examples will ensue, yet the reader will notice that they all follow this pattern of imperfect repetition announced from the very first page of the novel, from the first frames of the film. As Pierre Piret rightfully notices when analyzing her theatre, the logic of the Durassian repetition testifies for a

fascination for the acts that seem to repeat themselves automatically, for the intangible scenarios. […] On the other hand, it seems that these scenarios are important only that they open the possibility of a glitch pointing toward the singularity of the subject, in the real which resists and escapes being seized, fixated, or automatized. The creative approach of Marguerite Duras is enriched by its understanding in the context of this fundamental tension29Pierre Piret, « Revivre pour la première fois. La logique de la répétition dans le théâtre de Marguerite Duras », in Christophe Meurée, Pierre Piret (ed.), De mémoire et d’oubli: Marguerite Duras, Bruxelles, Peter Lang, 2009, p. 89, my translation. In the original: « […] une fascination pour les actes qui semblent se répéter automatiquement, pour les scenarios intangibles […]. D’un autre côté, il apparaît que ces scénarios ne comptent à vrai qu’en tant qu’ils ouvrent la possibilité d’un accroc, où pointe la singularité du sujet, dans ce réel qui ne se laisse pas prendre, pas “automatiser”. L’itinéraire créateur de Marguerite Duras gagne, me semble-t-il, à être appréhendé dans cette tension fondamentale. ».

Therefore, the Durassian repetition is not a simple rhetoric device, as it might seem at a first glance; it is built upon an oxymoronic play of contraries (between the multiplicity of the repetition and the singularity of the event or of the subject) that enhances the expressive potential of TAM. As we have concluded in the previous section, intermedial strategies are at work in Duras’s use of words and images and the resulting representation re-actualizes a present that is always lived « for the first time », as Piret suggests from the title of his article. This creates an link between the proceedings of intermediality and those of repetition. Other critics took notice of the matter:

Here, speech itself can be seen in the interval opened by Duras’s off-screen, observational voices [les voix off et voyeuses]. Thus is maintained a general system unsettled by a cinematic breakthrough that places the system in danger, while causing speech to be heard against the image. The recourse to the outside, and its overturning, therefore assures a kind of aesthetic counteractualization of an event that sweeps out the system […] to make « present » as a pure operation that is always repeatable and thus perceptible each time30Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, « Image or Time? The Thought of the Outside in The Time-Image (Deleuze and Blanchot) », in D.N. Rodowick (ed.), The Afterimages of Gilles Deleuze’s Film Philosophy, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 18..

The following pages will look into this stylistic peculiarity through the filter of Gilles Deleuze’s thought on the matter in his Difference and Repetition. First, a brief theoretical introduction is necessary.

Difference and Repetition inaugurates Gilles Deleuze’s project of a philosophy of « difference without concept », countering the established theories of difference as conceptual difference. He argues that these theories have developed the account of representation understood as mediation of difference31Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 10. through the structures of identity, analogy, opposition, and resemblance, a mediation which attempts to « save difference by representing it32Ibid., p. 29. ». Deleuze’s main argument is that this attempt fails because it ignores the « natural blockages » posed by « differences without concepts » – « the discrete, the alienated, the repressed33Ibid., p. 15. » – that stay in the way of representation and render it impossible. Continuing a tradition that he traces back to the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Péguy, Deleuze sees repetition not as one of the laws of generality, but as a transgression which questions (and overturns) precisely these laws. In this transgression, he identifies « not only a peculiar power of language and thought and a superior pathos and pathology, but also the fundamental category of a philosophy of the future34Ibid., p. 5. ». In this light, the interplay between repetition and the differences it allows for the emergence of new means of expression able to produce

within the work a movement capable of affecting the mind outside of all representation; it is a question of making movement itself a work, without interposition; of substituting direct signs for mediate representations; of inventing vibrations, rotations, whirlings, gravitations, dances or leaps which directly touch the mind35Ibid., p. 8..

The immediacy of intense repetition and difference outside the realm of concepts and representations is praised by Deleuze as a realization of the non-representational expression. Among the examples he gives on this point, there are Mallarmé’s Book and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – works in which « the identity of the reading subject is dissolved into the decentered circles of possible multiple reading36Ibid., p. 69. ». Elsewhere, in Cinema II: The Time-Image, the French theorist refers explicitly to TAM and hints toward its resistance to representation despite the intermedial approach: «What speech utters is also the invisible that sight sees only through clairvoyance; and what sight sees is the unutterable uttered by speech37Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, op. cit., p. 260.. » By this token, I argue that TAM, in both its written and filmed forms, is another example of non-representational expression.

13 years before the making of the film and 14 years before the publishing of TAM (Difference and Repetition was first published in 1968), Deleuze discussed the « undifferentiated abyss, the black nothingness » of total dissolution and to the white « once more calm surfaces upon which float unconnected determinations38Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 28, my emphasis. » as spaces of « indifference ». Of course, the indifference is here the negation of the Aristotelian difference, based on a principle of identity. Coincidently or not, the metaphor of floating resonates with the aquatic literal and metaphoric setting of TAM. Defying conventions of verbal or visual representation, Duras explores and appropriates new ways of expression, consistent with the metaphysical framework provided by Deleuze. Apart from the repetitive form so clearly manifest in TAM (« You will look at what you see. But you will look at it absolutely. You will try to look at it absolutely39Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 30. »), the work hosts surprisingly explicit references to the interplay between difference and repetition. Referring to the darkness of the empty frames in the film, the monologic voice says, imperatively:

You will think that this which is about to take place is not a rehearsal, that this is a first night, just as your life itself is a first night as every second unfolds. That among the millions of men hurling themselves to their death throughout the ages, you are the only one to stand for himself, in my presence, at this very moment of the film that is being made40Ibid., p. 34..

This fragment is illustrative of Gilles Deleuze’s observation according to which, as opposed to the orders of generality (resemblance and equivalence), repetition can only be the repetition of the singular: « Repetition is a necessary and justified conduct only in relation to that which cannot be replaced. Repetition as a conduct and as a point of view concerns non-exchangeable and non-substituable singularities41Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 1.. » The addressed you, just as non-exchangeable and non-substituable as its lived present, differentiates itself among « the millions of men hurling themselves to their death throughout the ages ». The « you will think » imperative is repeated no less than four times in consecutive paragraphs; for brevity, I will only discuss two of them:

You will think about your own self, but in the same way as you think about this wall, this sea that has not yet taken place, that wind and that gull separated for the first time, that lost dog.
You will think the miracle is not in the apparent similarity between each of the particles that make up those millions of men in their continuous hurling, but in the irreducible difference that separates them from each other, that separates men from dogs, dogs from film, sand from the sea, God from the dog or from that tenacious gull struggling against the wind, from the liquid crystal of your eyes, from the sharp crystal of the sands, from the unbreathable foul air in the hall of that hotel after the dazzling light of the beach, from each word, from each sentence, from each line in each book, from each day and each century and each eternity past or future, and from you and from me42Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 35-36..

The addressee is repeatedly urged to look at the sea, the walls, the wind gull and the dog. The repetition of these elements of décor allows us to speak of a fourfold dispositive meant to be looked at, built upon the coordinates of a landscape anchored on the Atlantic coast. The various instances recurrent throughout TAM in which our sight is directed towards this sea-wall-wind gull-dog installation – to give it a name borrowed from the vocabulary of contemporary visual arts –, are a good example of how repetition creates difference. At the beginning of the monologue the four-fold object of sight appears as quite stable, even if the sea is strangely referred to as a word (a signifier) and not as a real body of water (a referent): « You ask me: look at what? I say, well, I say “the sea”, yes, this word facing you, these walls facing the sea, […] this dog, […] this bird beneath the Atlantic wind43Ibid., p. 33.. » Two pages later, the sea, the dog, the bird, and the walls (of the hotel) appear as instances of the « miraculous » irreducible difference that separates them. The image itself is denounced as illusion: « The camera will now capture your reappearance in the mirror parallel to that in which it sees itself44Ibid., p. 48.. » The illusion is premeditated and inflicted upon the addressee without his being aware of it: « No, I haven’t warned you. Yes, it will happen again45Ibid., p. 49.. » The game of reflections is dangerous if what is reflected is identical to itself; the difference between the reflected and the reflection is necessary because it saves the repeated singularity from generality and it prevents the ontological « blockage »: « Now your greatest danger is resembling yourself, resembling the man in that first shot taken an hour ago. Forget more. Forget even more46Idem.. »

What is sought is repetition but not resemblance. What is sought is the difference, the visible/legible difference that allows the you to be at once hidden and present. What about the insistent imperative to forget and « forget even more »? It is a repetition in itself, because it echoes another command to submit to oblivion and, most importantly, to self-oblivion:

You will not look straight at the camera. Except when you are told to do so.
You will forget.
You will forget.
You will forget that this is you.
I believe it can be done.
You will also forget about the camera. But above all, you will forget that this is you.
You47Ibid., p. 31..

Deleuze describes oblivion in the present as a way to return to the state of pure contemplation, « prior to all memory and reflection48Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 71. ». Deleuze’s argument also advocates for the loss of the negative connotations of forgetting, just as his entire project aims to restore the positive agency of difference. « It is in repetition and by repetition », he says, « that Forgetting becomes a positive power49Ibid., p. 7. ».

Moreover, Deleuze advances the hypothesis of three syntheses of time, each one being able to determine the others50Ibid., p. 69.. The first synthesis is the habit, translating the living present which contracts by means of imagination and contains both past retention and future anticipation. The living present is the only temporal realm in which signs can function – « every sign is a sign of present51Ibid., p. 77. » –, and is limited not by a corresponding past or future but by lack, fatigue, and need. Duras’s monologue is a manifestation of all three: « You have remained in the state of being left. And I have made a film out of your absence52Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 48. »; « the film will remain as it is. Finished. […] The film will remain as it is. I have no more images for it53Ibid., p. 53-54. ». In TAM, the living present drowns in the state of « not knowing », in a general epistemological indeterminacy that originates in the lack of difference of what could constitute an object of knowledge. Love, seasons, inner and natural rhythms and cycles blend into one another to the point they become indistinguishable, which leads to a state of general confusion that resists apprehension and comprehension:

I no longer know where we are, at what end of what love, at the beginning of what other love, in what other story we have lost ourselves […] No one knows if it’s still summer or the end of summer, or some deceitful, undecided season, ugly, nameless […]54Ibid., p. 54-55.You do not know this55Ibid., p. 58..

Not knowing is a living present shared by the you and the speaking I. The second synthesis of time, according to Deleuze, is memory as « pure past56Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 88. ». It has a strong performative function, being « that which causes the present to pass57Ibid., p. 101. »; this performative aspect of memory has been acknowledged and pointed at not only by Duras’s choice of film (or literature as an art of succession) but also by other explicit textual hints such as « and the day returned as usual, in tears, and ready for the performance. And once again, the performance took place58Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 44-45. ». Duras’s entire monologue, after all, is structured as a series of stage directions guiding a blind actor forced to look at himself and at his surroundings, recording and forgetting what he sees in a gesture that repeats what camera is supposed to do. Last but not least, the third synthesis of time formulated by Deleuze is the pure and empty form of time or the fracture, the caesura in which the present is effaced and the past is merely « a condition of action59Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 90. ». Deleuze speaks of it only in relation to the overarching idea of a totality of time, which « must be understood as follows: the caesura, of whatever kind, must be determined in the image of a unique and tremendous event, an act which is adequate to time as a whole. This image itself is divided, torn into two unequal parts. Nevertheless, it thereby draws together the totality of time60Ibid., p. 89. ». The caesura is that significant event which splits time unequally between a before and an after. Duras’s repetitions make possible the identification of such an event that delineates unequally but not without a certain symmetry the first and the second half of the text. If the first half begins with an interdiction to look straight at the camera – « you will not look straight at the camera […] You will forget61Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 31. », the second one begins with a commandment to do precisely that during the repetition of a gesture (passing in front of the camera, after a period of passing off-screen): « You will pass once again in front of the camera. This time you will look at it62Ibid., p. 48.. » The first half is looked at in retrospect and repeated, aware of the danger of resemblance, which it is trying to avoid: « the greatest danger is resembling yourself, resembling the man in the first shot taken an hour ago63Ibid., p. 49.. » The temporal loop of the text makes a detour to the future in the past: « the camera will have decided what you will have looked at64Ibid., p. 51. », only to return in the end to the definitive present of signs: « This is how you stand […]. You do not know this65Ibid., p. 58.. » The caesura marks the turning point of the repetition and, in the graphic arrangement of the text, is marked by inter-paragraph blanks. The hypothesis of a triple relation to temporality (time as habit, pure past, or fracture) is, in conclusion, verifiable at all three levels in Duras’s TAM. Moreover, it characterizes the complex temporal framing of this hybrid work, as well as its use of repetition which, inevitably, is a figure that unfolds in sequences of time. As Duras’s uncanny use of verbal tenses (referred to in the first section) suggests, these sequences do not follow a linear logic, but rather the spiral of traumatic recollection, constantly actualizing a past event into the present and projecting it into the future, which in turn is able to modify the past.

From Deleuze’s perspective, repetition is able to draw similar temporal loops. He differentiates between three kinds of repetition that cannot be reconciled: intracyclic repetition (of the same thing), cyclic repetition (of a sequence), and the eternal return (a repetition that occurs not because the same forms repeat but because the same field of intensive difference engenders these different forms)66Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 90-93.. In the case of the eternal return, what returns is the pure form of time in the form of intensive difference, assuming different actual expressions. In the case of TAM repetition also unfolds at several levels of the discourse with variations in its breadth, functioning as a mechanical insistence, as a refrain, as an incantation, or as the sign of a permanent approximation.

The second half of the text is a repetition of the first and one may think of it as the repetition of a cycle. There are also intracyclical repetitions, at least on two levels – inter- and intra-paragraph. An example of interparagraph repetition is given by the five consecutive paragraphs that begin with « you will think67Duras, « The Atlantic Man », loc. cit., p. 34-45. », or the five that begin with « you will68Ibid., p. 31. ». Another inter-paragraph repetition is that of certain signs and motifs, as it is the case with the sea-wall-dog-bird installation (the later Deleuze would have probably named « the Atlantic machine ») repeatedly subjected to sight. The intra-paragraph repetitions are somewhat less frequent and perhaps the most poignant is the obsessive repetition of the word you. The knowledge of the powerlessness of representation also takes the form of ripples: « It is only for this film that I know. For the film alone I know, I know, I know that no image, no single image more […]69Ibid., p. 54.. » Eventually, the text achieves an ‘eternal return effect’ with every passing paragraph, not in that the paragraphs are repeated identically (they are not) but because they inhabit the same intensive field of differences. These repetitions achieve more than their rhetorical effect: they recreate, on a textual level, a movement of the incessant return; this movement, monotonous, constantly repetitive, yet not twice identical to itself, can be likened to the movement of the waves seen and heard on the shores of the Atlantic, as well as in the pages and in the frames of The Atlantic Man.


This article has advanced two different readings of Marguerite Duras’s TAM. Given the intermedial nature of the work that exists both on paper and on film, the first reading follows Lessing’s comparison of verbal arts and visual arts. However, it does so paradoxically, without aiming – as one may expect – for an evaluative final judgment of the two media. The second reading approaches a formal characteristic of the text/film, namely the repetition, in its twofold relation with difference and with the question of time, and proceeds to an analysis in more contemporary, Deleuzian terms.

The first interpretation proves that for Duras both media are equally powerless (as all representation is) in referring to the radical alterity maintained as interlocutor by the voice of a subjectivity which focuses exclusively (and dominantly) on the Other. Be it telling or not for the biographical passions that tied Marguerite Duras and Yann Andréa (which would confirm Lessing’s theory of the impossible representation of « strong passions »), the affective intensity of the text, as well as its unconventional artistic treatment could be understood through Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier’s understanding of how Deleuze and Blanchot (in The Space of Literature and in The Infinite Conversation) conceive the possibilities of representing the outside, if we assimilate the Durassian you to an embodied exteriority of the speaking subject:

the outside is never formulated as « thought » but rather as an « attraction » that is also a « passion », that is, the force of an attraction whose particularity is due to the fact that it strips the subject of all reference to being. […] Blanchot links this strangeness of the outside, provoking fear and vertigo, to a deficiency of time, a lacking of the present that makes presence impossible70Ropars-Wuilleumier, op. cit., p. 19..

Even when the film becomes rhetorical and literature borrows cinematic vocabulary and strategies, the imports are, to a certain degree, able to expand the field of expression but cannot transcend the limits imposed by mimetic representation. As Lourdes Monterrubio puts it, « the showing of the irrepresentable, as a limit expression of the fusion between literature and cinema, is built through the relationships among their different elements, all of them defined by an absence that the author shapes71Lourdes Monterrubio Ibáñez, op. cit., p. 41. ». Incapable of transgression, the work scraps and exposes its own medium; the printed words make room for lengthy, intrusive blanks, while the projection screen is progressively deprived of all image until the cinematic experience is reduced to the blind audition of its soundtrack. By contrast, the second interpretation ignores – when it does not deny – the aesthetic aspects of the work, emphasizing instead its heavy dependence on a wider cultural context (including frameworks of perceptions of time, for example). The Deleuzian reading not only resituates the literary discussion and the one concerning film in the broader context of contemporary metaphysics; it also manages to decipher how TAM in fact does transcend the conventional limits of expression and generality, through difference and repetition, and speaks to its ambiguous audience as the voice-off or Marguerite Duras, one of the many names of Dibutade.

Pour citer cette page

Alexandra Irimia, « Repetition and Intermediality in Marguerite Duras’s The Atlantic Man:
Practicing Dibutade’s Craft in the XXth Century »,  MuseMedusa, no 6, 2018, <> (Page consultée le ).