NDJ:7 Eve Ann Hershberger, Phd, MD

Colette’s Chanson de la danseuse:

A Psychological Adventure in Reading Eve

Let me tell you a love story.*

Part I.
One day a would-be lover saw a young lady dancing. She was joyfully dodging back and forth along the way much like a bee flitting from flower to flower. The dust that she kicked up covered her feet and hair like flower pollen.

Part II.
From that day on, no matter what she did, no matter how unsure of herself she felt, her lover saw her movements as a beautiful dance. When she took her leave after lovemaking, she was seen as an imperceptibly dancing flame disappearing into the distance.

Part III
The beloved realizes that as long as the lover stays with her, she will be forever a beautiful dancer. Even in death, although never a dancer, through her lover’s eyes she will leave this world gracefully dancing.

This is a wonderful love story where the vision of the dance symbolizes a steadfast, transforming love.

Colette has told this story in “Chanson de la danseuse” which first appeared in the 1934 definitive edition of Les Vrilles de la vigne which was originally published as a collection in 1908. Although not labeled by Colette, the “Chanson de la danseuse” has been called a poem in prose by virtue of its tight structure, repetitions and tonal quality. The structure of the prose poem is clearly divided into three sections. The narrator who is identifiable as a woman through the gender markers in the French language moves the reader from her youth through an erotically romantic relationship and on to the fantasy of her own death.

The story line of the prose poem is easily accessible as retold in the above opening paragraph (Part I). The first section introduces the reader to the young woman playfully running about in the street. Her protagonist, an unknown, unidentified other has always maintained an unwavering vision of the woman as a dancer.

O toi qui me nommes danseuse, sache, aujourd’hui, que je n’ai pas appris à danser. Tu m’as rencontrée petite et joueuse, dansant sur la route et chassant devant moi mon ombre bleue. Je virais comme une abeille, et le pollen d’une poussière blonde poudrait mes pieds et mes cheveux couleur de chemin…

Tu m’as vue revenir de la fontaine, berçant l’amphore au creux de ma hanche tandis que l’eau, au rythme de mon pas, sautait sur ma tunique en larmes rondes, en serpents d’argent, en courtes fusées, frisées qui montaient, glacées, jusqu’à ma joue… Je marchais lente, sérieuse, mais tu nommais mon pas une danse. Tu ne regardais pas mon visage, mais tu lisais sur le sable la forme de mes talons nus, l’empreinte de mes doigts écartés, que tu comparais à celle de cinq perles inégales…

Tu m’as dit: «Cueille ces fleurs, poursuis ce papillon… » car tu nommais ma course une danse, et chaque révérence de mon corps penché sur les oeillets de pourpre, et le geste, à chaque fleur recommencé de rejeter sur mon épaule une écharpe glissante…**

In English translation we read:

Oh, you who call me a dancer, remember, today, that I have not learned to dance. You cameacross me small and joyous, dancing along the way and chasing in front of me my blue shadow. I weaved back and forth like a bee, and the pollen of a blond dust powdered my feet and my hair the color of the path…

You saw me returning from the fountain, balancing the jug in the hollow of my hip while the water, with the rhythm of my step, splashed on my dress in large tears, in serpents of silver, in tiny bursts, that spurted, frozen, toward my cheek… I walked slowly, serious, but you compared my step to a dance. You did not look at my face, but followed the movement of my knees, the swaying of my waist, you read on the sand the mark of my naked heels, the imprint of my bare toes, that you compared to that of five unmatched pearls.

You said to me: “Pick these flowers, chase this butterfly…” because you called my journey a dance, with each bending of my body leaning over the eyelets of purple, with the gesture, at each flower begun again to fling over my shoulder a delicate scarf…

After the introductory scene in the exact center of the prose poem, the other clearly becomes the lover and the woman becomes the beloved in a passage marked by sensual images.

Dans ta maison, seule entre toi et la flamme haute d’une lampe, tu m’as dit : « Danse ! » et je n’ai pas dansé.

Mais nue dans tes bras, liée à ton lit par le ruban de jeu du plaisir, tu m’as pourtant nommée danseuse, à voir bondir sous ma peau, de ma gorge renversée à mes pieds recourbés, la volupté inévitable…

Lasse, j’ai renoué mes cheveux, et tu les regardais, dociles, s’enrouler à mon front comme un serpent que charme la flûte…

J’ai quitté ta maison durant que tu murmurais : « La plus belle de tes danses, ce n’est pas quand tu accours, haletante, plein d’un désir irrité et tourmenté déjà, sur le chemin, l’agrafe de ta robe… C’est quand tu t’éloignes de moi, calmée et les genoux fléchissants, et qu’en t’éloignant tu me regardes, le menton sur l’épaule… Ton corps se souvient de moi, oscille et hésite, tes hanches me regrettent et tes reins me remercient… Tu me regardes, la tête tournée, tandis que tes pieds divinateurs tâtent et choisissent leur route…

“Tu t’en vas, toujours plus petite en fardée par le soleil couchant, jusqu’à n’être plus, en haut de la pente, toute mince dans ta robe orangée, qu’une flamme droite, qui danse imperceptiblement… ”

In your house, alone between you and the bright flame of a lamp, you said to me, “Dance” and I did not dance. But naked in your arms, bound to your bed by a ribbon of desire, you nevertheless called me a dancer, upon seeing flowing under my skin, escaping from my arched throat to my tensed feet, the inevitable pleasure…

Spent, I redid my hair, and you watched it, softly, flow over my forehead like a serpent charmed by the flute…

I left your house as you whispered softly, “The most beautiful of your dances, is not when you run, out of breath, full of agitated and already tormented desire, on the way, the clasps of your dress…. It is when you leave me, calm with your knees softly bending, and when leaving me you look at me with your chin touching your shoulder…Your body remembers me, sways and hesitates, your hips miss me and your loins thank me…You look at me with your head turned, while your feet seek out and choose their path…

“You sail away, ever smaller toward the setting sun, until at the top of the hill, very slender in your orange dress, you are no more than a flame, that imperceptibly dances…”

During their love-making the repetitive theme of the lover’s vision of the beloved as a dancer asserts itself. After the love scene when the beloved prepares to take her leave and while she departs, the lover tells her that she is at the height of her dance. Although the author could have described the leave-taking in terms of abandonment, she instead portrays the lover as holding fast to the vision of the dance, in fact the most beautiful dance of all. La plus belle de ta danse, ce n’est pas quand tu accours, haletante, pleine d’un désir irrité et tourmentant déjà, sur le chemin, l’agrafe de ta robe… C’est quand tu t’éloignes de moi…

The third section of the prose poem moves ahead to the beloved’s contemplation of her aging and of her own death. The beloved realizes that if her lover remains with her, the vision of her dancing will be maintained throughout her death process. Si tu ne me quittes pas, je m’en irai, dansant, vers ma tombe blanche. D’une danse involontaire et chaque jour ralentie, je saluerai la lumière, qui me fit belle et qui me vit aimée. Une dernière danse tragique me mettra aux prises avec la mort, mais je ne lutterai que pour succomber avec grâce. Que les dieux m’accordent une chute harmonieuse, les bras joints au-dessus de mon front, une jambe pliée et l’autre étendue, comme prête à franchir, d’un bond léger, le seul noir du royaume des ombres… Tu me nommes danseuse, et pourtant je ne sais pas danser… If you don’t leave me, I will go forward, dancing, toward my white tomb. With an involuntary dance, every day more slowly, I will greet the light, which made me beautiful and which saw me loved. A last tragic dance will place me face to face with death, but I will fight only to die with grace. May the gods accord me a harmonious fall, with arms joined over my forehead, one leg bent and the other extended, as though ready to leap, with a light bound, across the blackness of the realm of shadows… You call me a dancer, but yet I do not know how to dance… We have read the love story wherein the images of the dance become the symbolic equivalent of a positive and enduring love, a love so strong that it actually transforms an unsure, hesitant young woman into a marvelous dancer. In the poem’s three sections she progresses from youth through her life to her own death. The lover’s wonderful vision and transforming love follow her through her life progression and in the end are stronger than death itself. Or is this really that kind of a love story? Although it has become clear over years of literary interpretation that reading any work is an exercise in projection, there are certain works which invite the reader into a reading experience similar to the visual instability experienced when looking at a figure-ground picture. It has seldom, if ever, been the custom to read Colette with the creation of ambiguous or ambivalent texts in mind. In fact the “Chanson de la danseuse” is as perfect an example of an ambiguous text as can be found in literature. A re-reading shows that there are major elements present in the poem that are missing in our introductory summary of the story and in our preliminary, one could say naïve, reading through of the poem that highlighted the lover’s consistent attribution of dancing to the beloved. The story as told above and as experienced by a graduate student class on first reading focuses solely on the vision of the lover. It ignores the reaction of the beloved to these comments. Rereading the poem with the focus shifted toward the beloved’s own statements of her reaction to the lover’s observation of her always dancing reveals the surprising ambiguity of this work. In the “Chanson de la danseuse” the lover’s descriptions of the beloved’s dancing do provide a thematic repetition that runs through the work. However the story is centered and anchored around a more complex repetition, an insistence on the part of the beloved that she is not the dancer that the lover holds her to be. There are several strategically placed denials by the beloved of the identity attributed to her of being a dancer. The first of these statements introduces the present moment of the story: “O toi qui me nommes danseuse, sache, aujourd’hui, que je n’ai pas appris à danser.” In this present time, a woman refers back to a scene or scenes from the past asserting her identity as a negative force against another’s statement that she is a dancer. The imperative draws a firm line between the beloved’s concept of herself contrasted to the lover’s concept of her as a dancer. How did the need for this negative assertion become a part of her life and what does it mean? Is she saying that she has consciously and repeatedly refused to learn to dance? Or is she merely flattered, and saying in an embarrassed and light-hearted way, “You’re so silly. You know I’ve never learned to dance”? From the present of the opening “aujourd’hui/today,” we go back in time to a moment or moments of joyous, childlike freedom: “Tu m’as rencontrée petite et joyeuse, dansant sur la route et chassant devant moi mon ombre bleue. “ At first there was no need in this past to remind herself, or anyone else, that she is not a dancer. Her identity is no more defined than her shadow escaping before her as she chases playfully after it. She, herself, must have felt free for a short time, possibly without giving it much thought, to describe her movements as dancing. Over time the freedom was replaced by the need for counter-assertion. She came to see herself taking slow, serious steps when the lover called her a dancer: “Je marchais lente, sérieuse, mais tu nommais mon pas une danse.” The beloved realizes that the lover never looked at her face nor acknowledged her true identity, but rather concentrated on her legs and feet to support the illusion that she was dancing: “Tu ne regardais pas mon visage, mais tu suivais le mouvement de mes genoux, le balancement de ma taille, tu lisais sur le sable la forme de mes talons nus…. “ The third denial by the beloved of the lover’s insistent interpretation of her dancing is linked to the climactic scene in the exact center of the poem where the sexual liaison of the couple occurs: “Dans ta maison, seule entre toi et la flamme haute d’une lampe, tu m’as dit: ‘Danse!’ et je n’ai pas dansé… Mais nue dans tes bras, liée a ton lit par le ruban de feu du plaisir, tu, m’as pourtant nommée danseuse…. “ In the image of lovemaking the beloved portrayed herself as the captive of desire, tied to the bed by a ribbon of desire. Even in this pose the lover “pourtant/however” still called her a dancer. The contrast between the beloved’s self-statements and the lover’s statements about her is underscored by the use of conjunctions of opposition such as “mais/but” and “pourtant/however.” The beloved sees herself one way, “mais/but” and “pourtant/however” the lover has imposed another reality upon her. The strategically placed repetitions of denial assure that the tension between the lover’s vision and the beloved’s self image stands out in relief as the dominant theme of the work. These denials also create the ambiguity of the message. In other words, the reader has a choice about how to interpret the lover’s insistent vision of the beloved as a dancer, a vision that contrasts to her denials of that identity. The story may be read as a tribute to the transforming power of love. Or the reader may conclude that the lover has imprisoned the beloved through a possessive vision from which she can never escape. The story becomes one of imprisonment of the beloved by the obsessive lover who will not abandon the images of the dance in spite of the beloved’s constant protestations.3 Literary nuances inherent in this prose poem enhance our understanding and provide further depth to the analysis of the ambivalence of the work. First Colette provides no information allowing the reader to decide if the lover is a man or a woman. This ambiguity is maintained despite the linguistic opportunity of the French language to easily reveal the gender of the protagonists. Consciously or unconsciously the reader experiences a complete inability to decide from any grammatical or descriptive cues the gender of the lover. Although most first-time readers consciously assume the lover to be a man, in fact, the reader is completely free to picture the lover as either a man or a woman.4 From the attribution of gender to the lover, the reader will then project whatever associations he or she has to either a heterosexual or a homosexual relationship. Certainly the inability to definitively assign a gender to the lover, contributes significantly to the ambiguity of the poem. This ambiguity, in turn, reflects the tension of the love relationship itself in depth and transformative power. The second narrative strategy contributing to the experience of interpretive ambiguity is Colette’s use of the various tenses available in the French language. There is a remarkable interplay of past, present and future in this prose poem. As noted, the temporal present is firmly fixed by the opening statement, “sache, aujourd’hui/know, today.” Here is a clear statement of the present moment against which all temporal references throughout the poem can be compared. The first two sections of the poem are thus reminiscent of the past occurring in the present moment of the initially defined “aujourd’hui/today.” The final section of the poem projects ahead from that present moment of remembrance into a prediction of the future by a beloved either still young reading her future, or by an aged beloved at the end of her life, still “dancing,” anticipating her own death. The temporal ambiguity is encoded in the use of reminiscence. There are many uses of the imperfect tense in French that can be read in translation either as the “used to” or “would” of habitual, recurrent happenings or, by contrast, as the “was doing something” of description centered temporally at one particular scenic moment of the past. The past indefinite use in French also lends itself to the temporal ambiguity. The beauty of the French past indefinite and the imperfect is that they are just that– indefinite and imperfect. In this work they are impervious to any desire on our part to pin down the action to one or to a series of occurrences that has or have come forward into the present, or that happened once before dropping into the past. Do we read the poem as a straight line description of a single time line of events that happened just once or do we read as though these events happened over and over again? Either way of reading will work. The poem reads very well as a series of isolated, one-time examples of when the lover referred to the movements of the beloved in terms of dancing. However, it also flows well reading it as a series of oft-repeated, habitual occurrences, of inescapable repetitions of the imperfect with parallel intrusion of the past indefinite into the present. There are several instances in the poem where the meaning of the past tense in translation illustrates this ambiguity. For example, there can be two ways of understanding the action portrayed in a sentence such as, “Je marchais lente, sérieuse, mais tu nommais mon pas une danse.” In the first we are looking at a past one-time tableau wherein the beloved is seen walking slowly while the lover called her steps a dance. In the second, this is a situation that has recurred repeatedly in the past. The beloved often walked slowly while the lover used to or would stand 3 It is worth noting that the opening selection in the Vrilles collection to which the “Chanson” was added tells of a nightingale enslaved while it slept by the tentacles of the vine-another prose poem of possession. Also it cannot be ignored that Colette’s first husband encouraged her to write the famous Claudine series only to publish it in his own name rather than in hers. It was his vision that led Colette to become a writer. It is tempting to substitute “writing” for “dancing” and to imagine the “Chanson” as a mirror image of life experience. 4 Colette of course is well known to have had intimate relationships with both men and women through her lifetime. back and admire her “dance.” The latter way of experiencing the use of the past contributes to an interpretation that emphasizes how trapped the beloved is by these habitual remarks about her dancing. Whether this particular scenario played out many times or just once we know that the other’s interpretation of the dance has followed the woman into the present of today. The beloved is caught in a prison of repetition where her way of seeing herself is often, and incontrovertibly, contradicted by the lover. In the end, the imagery of the beloved ironically meeting death in a dance-like pose all the while denying the dance adds yet another level to the transforming power of the lover over her very concept of herself. Turning now to the intricate use of pronouns, it is obvious that “Chanson de la danseuse” is a story told by the first person “je/I” of the beloved. However this simple narrative perspective is complicated by the use of direct quotations by the narrator. Within the direct quotations, the lover the beloved as “tu/you.” In the narrative by the “je/I,” outside the direct quotations, “tu” refers to the lover. The beloved describes how her lover, the “tu,” portrayed her as a dancer in direct quotations where the “tu” now refers back to her as the beloved. There is a certain tension created by the play back and forth between the two protagonist referents of the “tu.” This tension reaches its height after the love-making scene. When the beloved makes preparations and then takes leave of the lover, there is an extended direct quotation wherein the lover’s vision of the “tu,” the beloved, is elaborated: La plus belle de tes danses, ce n’est pas quand tu accours, haletante, pleine d’un désir irrité et tourmentant déjà, sur le chemin, l”agrafe de ta robe… C’est quant tu t’éloignes de moi, calmée et les genoux fléchissant, et qu’en t’éloignant tu me regardes, le menton sur l’épaule… Ton corps se souvient de moi, oscille et hésite, tes hanches me regrettent et tes seins me remercient… Tu me regardes, la tête tournée, tandis que tes pieds divinateurs tâtent et choisissent leur route… Tu t’en vas, toujours plus petite et fardée par le soleil couchant, jusqu‘à n’être plus, en haut de la pente, toute mince dans ta robe orangée, qu’une flamme droite, qui danse imperceptiblement…. This is the height of the power of transformation created by the vision of the lover. The beloved could not lessen this interpretation even in leaving her lover; rather the lover’s interpretation of dance strengthens. At this point the ambiguity for the reader is also at its height. The lover violated and possessed the beloved “tu” within the constraints of the direct quotation through the embedded description of the various parts of her body, still responsive to or maintaining the memory of the lover’s embrace. The possession of the “tu” by the lover transformed the beloved’s body into an imperceptibly dancing flame disappearing on the horizon. This beautiful image within the quotation is attained at the sacrifice of the beloved’s identity. However, the beloved linguistically signals her continued will to escape. After the long, central direct quotation by the lover addressing the beloved as the quoted “tu” possessed by the lover, there is a remarkably unprepared transition back to the other “tu” of the poem (the beloved now talking directly to lover). The beloved looks ahead to her own death as she directs her thoughts to her lover as she realizes, “Si tu ne me quittes pas, je m’en irai, dansant, vers ma tombe blanche.” This is a perfectly ambiguous statement. It could be read as a confirmation of the beloved’s desire that her lover stay with her for she realizes that with the lover’s presence she will forever be a dancer, that she will ever be loved. Or this could be a deeply ironic statement by the beloved as she acknowledges that she is inescapably possessed by her lover, even in death. She now sees her fate, for good or for ill, as dancing involuntarily each day until she grows ever more aged and finally faces death: “D’une danse involontaire et chaque jour ralentie, je saluerai la lumière qui me fit belle et qui me vit aimée.” The interpretation of “involontaire” is ambiguous. Does it mean that the beloved is using the term to describe movements that she does not want to be seen as dancing? Or, is she involuntarily moving forward toward death? Is she reluctantly using the words of her beloved in describing her last act as a dance? Or she could be welcoming that description when she says, “Une dernier danse tragique me mettra aux prises avec la mort, mais je ne lutterai que pour succomber avec grâce.” However a final repetition of the words, “Tu me nommes danseuse, et pourtant je ne sais pas danser…” once again closes the circle of her protest as she addresses this final denial to the lover. With her dying breath she perfectly echoes the assertion of her identity from the opening statement of the poem. Exploring further into the reading experience reveals that the narrative perspective inherent in these remarks is complex. The tension is dramatized by the repeated juxtaposition of the narrative “je” of the beloved playing against the “tu” of the lover. The reader, placed closer to the “je,” is always separated from the “tu” by the presence of the beloved. We are in essence reading from within our mind’s construct of the “je.” There is at least one other reading perspective available to the reader. Since the remarks of the beloved (the “je”) interpret the actions of the lover, they could be read as though the reader were the transference object (the “tu.”) That is to say, the reader’s affective response would be experienced within his/her internal construct of the lover (the “tu” rather than the “je”), listening to the beloved and experiencing the effect of her emotions (whatever they may be). This puts an added affective response into the reading of the poem as the beloved reacts in the reader’s mind, perhaps with bitterness at being possessed, or with appreciation for being loved so strongly. The beloved never felt that she danced, never learned to dance, never knew how to dance. Nevertheless, her lover’s gaze and steadfast vision transformed her into a wonderful dancer throughout her life, indeed beyond her life, into her death. To read a sweet love story involves a triangular relationship of projection within the reader’s mind. The reader must project into his/her internal construct of the lover powerful, but benign and positive motives. It must be “okay,” even touching, for the lover to maintain an image of the beloved which is not in keeping with her image of herself. Furthermore the reader’s projection into his/her internal construct of the beloved must be one of positive feeling about being seen in a way not in accord with the beloved’s own vision of herself. It must be “okay” with the reader that the beloved repeatedly denies being the person that the lover conceptualizes while at the same time the lover consistently and insistently holds the vision of the beloved as a dancer. From the second that the reader questions the “okay-ness” of any of these constructs, the poem does a figure-ground switch. Far from being a sweet love story, the poem becomes a portrayal of imprisonment and unwanted possession by the lover of the beloved. It is important to note that we are reading the story as though the “je” and “tu” are actual people although it is agreed that they are recognized to be internal constructs residing in the conscious and the unconscious of the reader. Agreeing on this convention eliminates the necessity of using such phrases as “the reader’s internal construct of the beloved” in favor of just saying “the beloved.” Whether the reader considers the “Chanson de la danseuse” to be a love story or a story of imprisonment and possession — or both together reflective of a lover-beloved dynamic interplay– the poem presents an intriguing challenge to explore triangular transferences and one’s own projections about the dance of love.

1 Rather than establish an initial hypothesis to guide the reader, I attempt to recreate in some way the reading process experienced by a group of graduate students as they read for the first time and re-read Colette’s prose poem, “Chanson de la danseuse”/Song of the Dancer.

2  In English translation we read: Oh, you who call me a dancer, remember, today, that I have not learned to dance. You came

2 All French quotations are from Colette, S.G. (1984). La Chanson de la Danseuse. In C. Pichois, C. (Ed). Oeurvres, Volume. 1 (pp. 967-968 with notes by Michel Mercier. pp.1538-1544). Bourges: Gallimard. I have provided all English translations from the French as cited above.

Colette, S.G. (1984). La Chanson de la Danseuse. In C. Pichois, C. (Ed). Oeurvres, Volume. 1 (pp. 967-968 with notes by Michel Mercier. pp. 1538-1544). Bourges: Gallimard.