Writing the Present in Nicole Brossard's Baroque D'aube
McPherson, Karen S., American Review of Canadian Studies
Un projet de livre sur la mer
Nicole Brossard has explored many different geographical settings in her writing. She has populated the island, the city, the labyrinth, and the desert with women, opening up spaces for what Alice Parker has called "lesbian imag(in)ing" (131).(1) In Baroque d'aube, Brossard ventures into a space that figures both expanse and depth and that metaphorically engages both imagination (the horizon) and memory (the ocean floor). The sea has always been there in Brossard's work, often as ground to figure, surrounding her archipelagos and her island-cities, lapping at the minds of the women in her bars and parks and hotel rooms, and even, in its absence, haunting the memory of her desert.(2) As "indescriptible" as the desert, the sea represents infinite risk and infinite possibility, qualities that have always, for Brossard, characterized the space of writing.
At the center of Baroque d'aube is "un projet de livre sur la mer" (BA, 54).(3) This project involves a voyage that would appear archetypal even if the vessel upon which the travelers embark were not called the Symbol. The identity of the woman behind the project, however, signals the vexed relationship between the Symbol's voyage and the long tradition of men who set sail in search of new worlds, adventure, and glory. The oceanographer Occident DesRives is both of that Western tradition and separated from it. Her family name in particular reinforces this double reading, suggesting both the substantive "des rives" (which places her on the edges or margins of any "Occidental" agenda as well as of her own project "sur la mer") and the verb "deriver" (which conveys not only the idea of traceable lineage or "derivation" but also that of diversion and drifting).(4)
In some ways, Occident is a feminist visionary. Her intention is to bring together three women (a scientist, a writer, and a photographer) to join the all-male crew of the Symbol for two weeks at sea off the coast of Argentina. While the crew carries out its mission, taking core samples from the ocean floor, she, Cybil Noland, and Irene Mages will engage in their own project. Occident's vision is that, with their different perspectives, and through the encounters of art and science, image and words, surface and depth, the women may together penetrate and transform reality. These women's project may be collaborative and visionary, but it is nevertheless undeniably the product of one woman's ambition and drive. In fact, Occident is less a participant in the project than a catalyst and a director. She has brought Irene and Cybil along on a scientific mission as artists to "surprendre et faire plaisir. Procurer des emotions que la science ne peut expliquer" (BA, 83). They are part of her experiment. Cybil is quite conscious of the extent to which her involvement in the project has been secured by Occident's forceful will and irresistible charms. As she allows herself to be drawn in, she senses that Occident's words are hiding "une quete demesuree d'absolu" (BA, 60).
Cybil Noland is not sure what to think of Occident DesRives and the reader of Baroque d'aube shares her uncertainty. As a figure of duality is Occident necessarily a figure of duplicity? Or is she merely a victim of the duplicitous circumstances in which she finds herself? What does it mean that the three women are not embarking on a vessel of their own but will be sharing close quarters on the Symbol with Captain Nadeau, padre Sinocchio, the doctor Thomas Lemieux, and a crew of porno-watching sailors? What is implied by Occident's association with the "vivacious, charming, cultivated" and sinister James Warland, a "shark" who wields his power and influence behind the scenes? Does the fact that she consorts with the likes of Warland raise questions about Occident's own motives and allegiances? Or does it merely underscore the risks for women of trying to operate within "a man's world"? …