On “writings irresistible to adolescents and time-worn courtesans, who are akin in their incredulity and passion for romance”
Colette's novel Chéri begins when an aging courtesan, Lea, is 49, and her young lover of five years, whom she calls Chéri, is 25. Their love, from the novel’s first scene, is not a contented one, but one in which two people love in a conspiracy to undo each other’s contentment. Chéri and Lea look at each other with “open hostility.” Lea intentionally angers Chéri only for the opportunity to see him like an animal — “rebellious only to become submissive, enchained lightly but powerless to free himself.”
Colette once bragged that the most praiseworthy thing about herself is that she could write with a “womanly” lack of moralism, but with Chéri she claimed to have made her most moral work. Yet the moral function of Chéri is mostly cautionary: Chéri is moral only in how Colette exposes the amoral processes of time.
The problem with Chéri, the lover, is the problem of time’s amorality: Every morning when Chéri wakes up, he is improved by time’s passage. Lea, on the other hand, is becoming an old woman: She can only think of diet plans and hair dye when she is not thinking of Chéri. When their love affair ends, Lea’s remorse is in direct relationship to her chronistic irresponsibility: “We have talked of no future” and “I have loved you as if we were destined to die in the same hour.”
Lea cannot think simultaneously about Chéri and a future. She can only think of Chéri and a future-negative. Lea has both been incredulous of time and hyper aware of it, as if time were a thing to be put off in time, and also a thing, which, in having been put off too long, waits to collect an exorbitant payment from her. Time is what lurks outside Lea’s boudoir.
Chéri’s relation to time is an object’s relation, but Lea’s relation to time is a woman’s. Chéri will necessarily outlast Lea. But he will not only outlast her life, he will be time’s accomplice in revenge. The cruelty of time, like the cruelty of love, is so often its unevenness both in application of effect and experience of perception. Lea is in a prison made of this unevenness, just as Chéri is in the prison made of Lea’s desire.
For Lea, desire for Chéri is a kind of edge play: “She liked order, fine linen, wines in their prime, and carefully planned meals at home.” But she also likes a bad boy whose youthful beauty is a memento tempori of her own lost beauty. Time’s threat is fundamental to love’s appeal.
When Colette was 47, she began what would become an infamous five-year liaison with her 16-year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenal, but insofar as time can be deranged, and literature can often derange it, this affair was not the inspiration for Chéri. The book was already six months into its serial publication when Colette met her boy lover. Colette, like Lea, challenged time’s reign. Colette did not only write Chéri; Chéri wrote Colette.
Colette was an infamous collector of lovers — of any sex or age — and often scandalous for what Andre Gide called “her understanding of the least-admitted secrets of the flesh.” She was also, famously, a collector of paperweights. These are logical items to collect for a woman who is a genius of the female gaze. If a paperweight has uses, primary among these is its use as an object to be gazed upon. A paperweight is mostly an appearing thing — and part of what it does when it appears is appear to contain. One can hold the paperweight, but what one can’t hold is what’s inside of it: That is, what’s inside of it, too, is merely appearance.
Easy enough, also, to gaze at a paperweight and speculate about its contents — this is like a flower but not actually one, or this is like a landscape but without trees — or to worry that the contents in the glass are just more glass: What if there’s nothing inside the paperweight but just more paperweight? Not so easy, however, to confirm these hypotheses. To do so the paperweight must be destroyed, and in this process, what will be destroyed is what is inside of it, or if one doesn’t destroy what is inside of the paperweight, at least what is destroyed is the very nature of the paperweight — how it appears.
What is the difference, then, between Chéri and a paperweight? Not much —
He was now strong, proud of his nineteen years, gay at meals and impatient in bed; even so he gave away nothing but his body, and remained as mysterious as an odalisque. Tender? Yes, if an involuntary cry or an impulsive hug is an indication of tenderness. But the moment he spoke, he was spiteful again, careful to divulge nothing of his true self.
How often at dawn had Lea held him in her arms, a lover soothed, relaxed, with half-closed lids. Each morning his eyes and mouth returned to life more beautiful. How often, at such moments, had she indulged her desire to master him, her sensual longing to hear his confession, and pressed her forehead against his, whispering, “Speak. Say something. Tell me…” But no confession came from those curved lips, scarcely anything…
A paperweight is for gazing at: Chéri is for gazing at. Chéri is naked on Lea’s ermine rug, naked in the bower, naked with an account book, naked near the fountain, naked in Lea’s brass-laden bed. Chéri is naked wearing Lea’s pearl choker: “It looks every bit as good on me as it does on you.”
Both Chéri and a paperweight are suspect for appearing to have content but likely having only the appearance of content; both are inarticulate; both are precious; both are baubles; both are for women; both are collectible (Lea: “To exchange one little naughty boy — I’ve grown used to it”); both weigh things down and are good for almost nothing but looking at. Neither Chéri nor a paperweight can be understood without being destroyed. A woman may look at both for a long time, but she can learn almost nothing from this in the end.
And what does Chéri says about it? “The day a woman loves me for my brains, I shall be done for.”
The predicament of Lea’s love, in that it is a love made of hyper-relation to the unevenness of time, is that it increases Chéri’s advantage over her. Chéri says to Lea, “Being with you is likely to keep me twelve for half a century,” and Lea responds, “But half your charm lies in your childishness, stupid! Later on it will be the secret of your eternal youth.”Chéri has often noted Lea’s decay — that she has become too fat, too haggish, too faded — but Lea will never get to have the same satisfactory vengeance of gazing at Chéri’s decline. That Lea has a human relation to time, and Chéri an object’s — in this, Chéri appears at least relatively eternal.
That Lea will never see Chéri’s beauty decay means that if she is going to witness anything, it must be Chéri’s destruction. This is something she can effect alone, and because of this limited option (ruin), the relation between a young man and an older woman has an implicit heightened violence. Constrained by time, Lea’s only choice is to do her own damage to Chéri so that they may keep apace.
Conversely, some say that when a young man loves an older woman it is because he likes to surrender to her power — to be dominated, to be spoiled. I would suggest another reason. When a young man loves an older woman it may also be to exercise the specific, brutal power of youth over age — the power of the youthful gaze. For as the older woman is compelled to gaze at the young man’s beauty, which only increases by the day, and is fed by her love through the night, the young man can, at every slight or dark mood, every moment of insufficient affection, witness the process of the lover’s fast diminishment, count the wrinkles near her eyes.
There is almost nothing about romantic love that is not antagonistic. Why should it not also involve these particular antagonisms of time?