A Tribute to Nelly Arcan or How Femininity Inexorably Stabs You in the Guts
Arts & Culture Editor
Via Marlène G. Payette
TW: Mentions of suicide, sex work, and other sensitive topics.
I am oddly on time, for once. Seated within the left flank of the theater’s mass of chairs, I wait, docilely, for the play to commence. La fureur de ce que je pense. I don’t believe there exists a way to properly prepare yourself to face such devastating passion, something I could have grasped onto in order to save myself from what I was about to witness. “Please turn off your cellphones,” requests a suave, although computerized voice, as the lights get dimmed until darkness envelops the elderly crowd. On stage, nine cubic compartments revealed by showcase windows stand brazenly, an ironic reflection of the public’s reluctant gaze. But suddenly, the stage gets ignited.
Inside those nine cubicles stand six women, evolving within their own, distinct settings. The impression of invading the actresses’ privacy is disconcerting. I cannot move. I can only subjugate myself to the immensity, to the poetry, to the mesmerizing yet terrifying intelligence resonating through every single word written by Nelly Arcan; a woman too smart for her own good, too smart to avoid the never-ending torment of those who understand that all is doomed.
Arcan was stuck in a multiplicity of societal spirals that kept her entrapped and agonizing. Not only did becoming a sex worker (in order to pay for her literature studies) partially consumed her vitality, self-esteem, and perception of femininity, but suffering from the cycle of events that moulded her soul became so inextricably cruel that it was only a question of time until suicidal thoughts would pervade her mind. Saturated with constant guilt fused to the yearning to be desired at all costs, Nelly Arcan’s thoughts are prognostic of the hopelessness behind finding any genuine fulfillment in our postmodern era.
La fureur de ce que je pense, a gut-wrenching mosaic of Arcans’s texts, addresses issues that are foisted on nearly all women and femme-presenting people on a regular basis. An inexplicable yet terrifying dread regarding aging and the relentless course of time. The desperate wish to be the true owner of your sexual life, combined to the growing disgust for every time you whispered “yes” when your brain kept screaming “NO.” The archaic fear of being a sinner, of partaking in either lust, envy, or any other imaginable debauchery for which one may be condemned. The glorification of suicide. Of any self-destructive tendency, any noxious drug, any toxic relationship. All those constituents of a decadent femininity lie at the very core of this cataclysmic, brutal play.
Nelly Arcan was never wanted as a child. She was the plan B, the second option as her older sister died not so long after being birthed. Arcan even went as far as using her dead sister’s name for her stage persona. What a distasteful homage to a dead sibling, some may say. But that was never relevant. For the author, sex was a relief that lasted for a few minutes in the midst of a tormented existence, in the same way dancing was. Dance, this trance that possesses sweating bodies until the ultimate salvation. Through dilated pupils, through music that emerges from within the body’s nucleus, from the bottom of one's stomach like a climbing orgasm, as the crowd, if ever watched from above, would become a single pulsating organ; yes, this trance was the only conceivable redemption.
Although the play illustrates Arcan’s overflowing and exuberant sexuality, it ultimately depicts the loathing and fear of it. She writes how she always wished to be a man, to have the ability to spawn an erection, to dictate her desires instead of undergoing the cravings of others. Arcan expresses this swelling tiredness through a frightening blur of anxiety and substance abuse that keeps begging the question: Am I broken, or is it a universal collapse that cornered me into thinking this way?
Nevertheless, sexuality is far from being the sole theme tackled by the impressive work of the six involved actresses and production. The recurrent, persistent mentions of suicide, the detailed, methodical plan that was to be followed, the prayers for Arcan’s dad to believe she was good and pure, even after death… According to the writer, her very existence was defined by its obsolescence, by the fact that it had no concrete purpose. Although this is not explicitly stated in the play, Nelly Arcan eventually killed herself on September 24th, 2009, in Montreal. I pray for the afterlife to offer her this longed-for peace of mind, as Arcan’s sufferings were truly beyond any form of comprehension.
When my hands start clapping by themselves and I finally inhale my first legitimate breath of fresh air, I understand that the 100 uninterrupted minutes of performance have passed by. As I arise on the gloomy, voracious street (Saint-Laurent Boulevard), I light a cigarette and look around. I feel like I am descending from another realm, another universe. At that instant, I wish to scream that society is fucked, that my only aspiration is to love, to love unconditionally. I pray for this feeling to never fade. But it inevitably does, and I am once again the bystander I so desperately wanted to punch.