Re-assessing the Freudian theory of penis envy

Re-assessing the Freudian theory of penis envy, Jessica Benjamin has written of the father who is unable to provide active recognition of his daughter’s wish for personal agency, and is therefore “missing.” He is, she writes, “the key” to women’s missing desire,” and to “its return in the form of masochism.” Benjamin understands female masochism as the kind of self-abnegation characteristic of an “ideal love” situation like that around which Double Blind revolves. Admitting that women “may have no female image or symbol to counterbalance the monopoly of the phallus in representing desire,” Benjamin proposes for women “an alternative psychic register.” This register partakes of an “intersubjective dimension,” that refers to “experience between and within individuals” rather than the “intra-psychic” model of the “phallic mode of representation.” This viewpoint encompasses “not simply what we take in from the outside but also what we bring and develop through the interaction with others – our innate capacities for activity and receptivity toward the world,” a mutual rather than one-way recognition. It is precisely such “receptivity toward the world” that is embodied in Calle’s presentation of the memories, perceptions and stories with which various individuals have invested the sites and objects, be they stolen paintings or out of favour political plaques, whose physical absence she marks.

Benjamin suggests that this “intersubjective” mode is often expressed in terms of a metaphor of “inner space” where women have been able to discover “their own, inner desire,” and a sense of personal authenticity. Within the pages of Des histoires vraies, Calle’s personal stories and photographs tell only of loss and a resignation to the female position outside patriarchal recognition. It is when inserted into the context of pre-existent museum installations (as for instance, a photograph of a silk wedding dress and its accompanying story hung next to a case of antique lace and a Baroque painting of an aristocratic woman) that they cease to speak of “castration” and lack and begin to function very differently. Writ large, startling because so seemingly “out of place,” these tales of unrequited longing assert themselves with an authority and a plenitude of desire that literally fill the spaces that in so many other works Calle has made to signify the absence of her own power.

The search for male validation and the abandonment

The search for male validation and the abandonment by men informs Calle’s Des histoires vraies as well. In addition to several photographs and stories alluding to her unsatisfactory marriage to Shepard, a story is featured, next to a blank page, that begins: “I was in love with him, but he had decided to leave me;” and beside an image of handwritten pages: “I’d never received a love letter. I commissioned one from a public scribe….”; facing a photograph of a closed eyelid surrounded by black, a tale ends: “I didn’t know that that would be our last night: he was going to leave me.”

Des histoires vraies suggests too what the absence of the missing art objects in her museum pieces might, at least subliminally, signify for Calle – the book includes two photographs of paintings, one belonging to Shepard that she took as a “hostage” to insure his return. It was behind the other painting, she writes, that as a child she hid a letter which she believed revealed the identity of her real, absent father. The absence signaled by the paintings is the absence of the masculine, an absence that is always implied, although more obliquely, in her earlier work as well. If in Calle’s “detective” projects one is struck by her obsessive, quasiscientific enumeration of the movements and possessions of others, one is even more impressed by the state of fear and trepidation in which she carries out these investigations. And by the fact that it is always men whom she follows, as she has herself been tailed by a man. Her anxiety in Venice as she scouts out Henri B. smacks of proscribed, OEdipal desire (as does the later rifling through hotel rooms, likely sites of Freud’s “primal scene” – the copulating of the parents that leaves no doubt in the child’s mind that she has been left out of the family romance). Her preoccupation with Henri B. is presented as a forbidden one that feels somehow to her like an erotic attachment, with the fear of retribution most likely to come from Henri B.’s female companion:

I glide through the streets. A fear seizes me: he recognizes me, he follows me, he knows….I’m afraid …. I mustn’t forget that I have no sentimental feelings for Henri B. These symptoms, the impatience with which I wait for his arrival, the fear of this meeting, really doesn’t belong properly to me.

After spotting Henri B. with a woman: “She frightens me, more than him.” Calle dreams that the woman orders Henri B. to stop going outside, in order to sabotage Calle’s game. When he finally recognizes her, complete anti-climax: “What did I imagine, that he was going to take me away, provoke me, use me? Henri B. did nothing, I discovered nothing. This banal story demanded a banal ending.” Once she stops tracking him, each day unravels with the same sense of “absence.” Like the Las Vegas wedding of Double Blind, (and the faux mariage staged outside Paris weeks later, referred to in the film and a picture of which is included in Des histoires vraies) the gratification she receives is forced, stolen and ultimately empty.

In both the work where she has herself shadowed by a detective and again when she is photographed working as a stripper (seen in Des histoires vraies and the limited edition book La Fille du Docteur, ) Calle at once offers herself up to, and attempts to control or “own,” the male gaze. Laura Mulvey has written of the conflation of the desire of male film protagonist and male audience spectator that comes to bear on the movie showgirl (11); in Calle’s The Shadow project and striptease pictures she simultaneously places herself in the position of female object of desire and male (since it is a male detective who shadows her and male strip club patrons she refers to) observer. Here it is not a relationship to the OEdipal male/father that she attempts to procure for herself, as she did in the “saga” of Henri B. in Venice, but the entitlement and prerogative of masculine desire. Even as she poses for these photographs, trying to incite male longing and thereby assure her existence within the patriarchal order, she claims for herself the power to confer this existence by controlling the photographic gaze.