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Evolution of the Author/Subject in Sophie Calle's Exquisite Pain

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The Stasis of the Evolving Self: Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain 

How can the idea of biological evolution be applied to literature?  One book can be written as a version of or homage to and earlier one, and because the more modern book reflects a different society, literary evolution can be said to be taking place.  But the evolution of a person and of her life can be the subject of a book.  French artist Sophie Calle’s book of photography, Exquisite Pain, takes up the subject of personal evolution, and shows how this fact of life effects, and even complicates, works of art.  Her vision of personal evolution is similar to Darwin’s idea on biological evolution: just as Darwin hypothesized that evolution is a non-teleological process, Calle shows that people do not evolve to become better, or cured of their pain.

            It can be said that Exquisite Pain is written by two Sophie Calles.  The first is the story’s character, Sophie in 1984.  She is given a three month grant to work in Japan, and she takes it, in spite of her boyfriend’s protestations.  He threatens her that their relationship will not last if she leaves him, but she chooses to go anyway.  The first part of her photo-book is comprised of pictures she took on her trip.  Many images are accompanied by text, which is at the bottom of the pages; some text details what happened during her trip, other texts are actually the words of the love letters she wrote at that time. 

This project though, is filtered through the eyes of Sophie Calle from 2003, who is putting these events together as an artwork, who is recreating and remembering them for a purpose that will be revealed later, and who has written much of the text beneath the 1984 images.  The first part of the book is entitled “before the pain,” and on every page there is a countdown to the day on which her boyfriend meets her in India and breaks up with her.  The plot of part one, which is also the plot, if you will, of part of Calle’s life, is exposed before part one begins, summarized dryly by Calle 2003 on the previous page.  Calle’s writing makes explicit her distance from her former self: “In 1984, the minister of foreign affairs gave me a grant to study in Japan for three months.  I left on October 25th not knowing that this date would mark the beginning of a 92 day period that would end in a break-up, banal, but that at the time I experienced as the most painful moment of my life.  I held my trip responsible” (13).  Calle tells readers that this break-up was painful for her, and in fact every photograph from part one is marred by what looks like a red stamp that proclaims the number of days before the break-up on which that particular photograph was taken.  The first photograph says “Pain: Day-92” and the last “Pain: Day-1.”  But Calle’s description of her former pain is so unemotional that she is mocking her former self for having been naïve enough to have been so upset over a man.  She contrasts her current understanding of the event, “banal,” with the one she had at the time: “the most painful moment of my life.”  She begins by writing, “In 1984, I…”: the entire photography-book is thereby affected by the concept of personal evolution; she has changed since 1984 and is looking back upon that year.  Her tone, as banal as the word she uses to describe her former relationship, privileges her current conclusion about the event over her past one: this story, contends Calle, is not worth the strain of emotion.

In this text, as in all of part one, Calle creates a narrative about evolution.  In laying down the “days before pain” over every picture, Calle 1984’s story is marked by Calle 2003’s knowledge of its outcome.  The subject of the story is not really Calle’s trip to Japan, but the way she has evolved, from naïve lover to cynical collector of facts.  Calle’s artistic evolution is depicted in part one as well: Days 87-81 are actually culled from one of her earlier artworks, Anatoli (1984), in which she, as a passenger on a train in Russia, photographs the man in the small compartment with her, an aging diplomat who speaks only Russian, and writes about getting to know him despite the language barrier.  Calle’s detailed gaze toward an other that results in photographs and detailed, stoic text, is now directed at herself.  In Anatoli she describes him as she gets to know him, she looks at her present, but in Exquisite Pain she turns to her past.

The photographs and text from Anatoli disrupt the clear narrative Calle has presented about her life.  Calle 2003 depicts Calle 1984 as a naïve lover; Calle 2003 describes how when she was younger she seduced her unnamed boyfriend, a friend of her father, because she thought he was very handsome.  But in Anatoli, as in Exquisite Pain, Calle’s photographs are detached and unemotional, like her text which insists on facts, seemingly meaningless precise details about experience.  Even one of her love letters takes this tone: “My love.  I got into the Transiberian train that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok on October 29, 1984 at 2:20 PM.  Car 7.  First class compartment for two people, number 6.  Sleep cabin number 3” (29).  Clearly, Calle 1984 and Calle 2003 have more in common than the latter would like to admit.  I would go a step further and say that Calle 1984 is Calle 2003’s fiction; she invents a past identity for herself so that she can understand who she is in the present.  Calle 2003 is a fiction as well, that of the stoic, omniscient gatherer of facts; both are manipulated by an outside Calle, the author of this work with two subjects, a Calle whom the reader of the work can never access.  For Calle, depicting the evolution of the self in art and literature is an impossible process because it requires the author of the work to give herself separate present and past identities, and those characterizations are influenced by present motives.

Calle’s motives in part one are explained in part two.  In part two, a grieving Calle 1984 decides that in order to get past this pain in her life, she will ask both friends and strangers, “when did you suffer most?”  She will write down their stories and place the stories below photographs she will take that relate to those stories.  On the right side of each page of part two is another one of these stories; on the left is Calle’s story and a picture of the hotel room she took on the fateful night.  Calle tells her story differently on each left page, revealing new information, but the same obsession, each time.  As part two progresses, Calle’s retelling of the painful event gets shorter and shorter, the text, once black, gets lighter and lighter gray, until on the last page, there is only the number 99, to signify, “he left me 99 days ago.”  Not only does Calle 2003 relate her memories in this work, Calle 1984 asks friends and strangers to relate their most painful memories, so they too create an artificial vision of their former selves.  The whole photobook then, is Calle’s rendering of how she once coped with pain.  Calle 2003 has an agenda in her treatment of her former self: she wants to distance herself from her past persona to prove that she has indeed gotten over the pain.  In the section, “after the pain,” she writes about her goals for part two: “Upon returning from France, January 28, 1985, I chose to recount my suffering rather than my trip.  I asked my interlocutors, friends or fortunate encounters, ‘when have you suffered the most?’  This exchange would top when I would have exhausted my story through sheer force of having told it, or of having made my pain relative to that of others.  This method was radical: in three months, I was cured.  The exorcism have been succeeded, I dropped my project in fear of a relapse.  In order to exhume it fifteen years later” (202-203).  Calle’s prose meticulously explains; precise dates, times and reasons are never left one.  But one reason is indeed left out here: why resume the project fifteen years later?  It seems to me that Calle 2003 is still suffering and is showing herself the archive of her coping mechanism to anesthetize her emotions.  The third Calle, the author of the text who has written the selves or characters of Calle 2003 and Calle 1984, invokes this elaborate coping technique to probe the idea of pain, to see if it truly heals, and if it even ought to.  As Calle 2003 mocks the emotionality of Calle 1984, the third Calle, the author, mocks Calle 2003’s stoicism because it is a mask, a coping tool, that ultimately fails.  The photobook is called Exquisite Pain which is, in fact, a medical term for intense, localized hurt, but the book is filled with the worst moments of many people’s lives.  This title, as both a technical term evoking the workings of the body and as a melodramatic label evoking the suffering of the soul, symbolizes the dueling of Calle’s two selves in this work.  Calle 2003 considers herself to be a fitter evolution of Calle 1984, but the real difference between them is that she masks her vulnerability while Calle 1984 exposes it.

The concept of biological evolution can play a significant role in literature in many ways.  The idea of a literary adaptation can be seen as a parallel to biological evolution.  I have focused on paper on how evolution can be a theme of a book that is both literary and artistic.  In Exquisite Pain, Sophie Calle conjures up two versions of herself, the older one having evolved from the younger.  The older looks back at the younger and implies that she, having grown up, is wiser now.  However, I have proven that Calle 2003 is as scarred and hurt as Calle 1984.  Calle, the author of the book, reveals that evolution in literature and art is like Darwinian evolution in a pivotal way: that there is no goal toward a fittest or most improved being.