Kasi Lemmon’s 1997 film Eve’s Bayou has as its unknowable kernel what orthodox psychoanalysis uses to predicate the slippage factor of all relationality – incest. Writing in “Totem and Taboo” on the enjoyment of excessive sexual conduct that the primordial hoard of brothers perceive their father to have, Freud locates incest as the center of familial relations, and civilization itself, that radically divides the desiring subject. The hoard of brothers desire the primal origin of retroactively perceived full enjoyment, the hold of the Mother that Jacques Lacan goes on to conceptualize as the objet petit a. To approach the the objet petit a, though, insofar as it reveals the irreducible gap between need and demand, becomes an encounter with the Real of enjoyment, or the encounter with the division of desire and the jouissance of the unlocalizable drive. It should be noted then that, as an exploration of dramatization, narratives, and myth making, psychoanalysis is the study of exactly what dissolves the coherence of these Symbolic representations so repetitively. In the history of clinical analysis, the analytic experience of running against the beyond of coherent speech reveals what must be unnamable. This is why the task of predicating this beyond has been the stake of all ideologies, insofar as ideology marks our Symbolic worlds, including the ideological study of psychoanalysis. Freud called it incest, Lacan called it the Real or jouissance, and, in an even more specified manner that produces the violence of set embodied identities, the historical-political ideologies produced by various historical/mythological events have manifested the signifiers of the woman, the Black, the queer, and other figures as predicates of the beyond of incomprehensibility. Looking towards Eve’s Bayou, then, I aim to use Jacques Lacan’s elaborations on feminine jouissance and Kara Keeling’s notion of the black femme in order to realize how the film (impossibly) queers narrative futurity (in the Edelmanian sense) insofar as it disrupts its illusory security.
The film begins with indiscernible black-and-white images of hazy figures, which end up being clarified as the primal scene of Eve Batiste as she watches her father and Matty Monreaux engage in adulterous sex. The unblurring of this entangled image of a watched-upon sexual encounter transgressive of the normative nuclear family is delivered in an image of Eve’s eyes reflecting the unblurred image (figure 1). Then, the voice of an adult Eve begins to describe the mythic origin story of the Batiste family, which includes the story of the slave Eve and the slaver John Paul Batiste who, after Eve saves him from illness, rewards her with her freedom and the bayou that comes to be known as “Eve’s Bayou.” Eve is described to have, “perhaps in gratitude,” bore him sixteen children, who end up generating the Batiste family depicted in the film. At the very structural center of the Batiste family and the film, then, is the “perhaps” of why the family was produced in the first place. But this question of “why” is irrelevant, insofar as the slave’s relation to consent, as Saidiya Hartman aptly reiterates throughout her ouvre, is a non-relation entirely. Nonetheless, as the origin story is being told, the mysterious figure of Eve appears and vanishes into the land that she is rewarded, first into the bayou itself (figure 2) and then into the trees of the land (figure 3). She is an image that cannot be looked at and set in place without dissolving into incomprehensibility, as opposed to the incomprehensible image of the primal scene that is projected into comprehensible sight through Eve’s gaze. Speaking to the dangerous prophetic gaze of Eve and Eve’s Aunt Mozelle, then, which functions as both a curse and a gift that eludes formal causation and determination in normative temporality, the two feminine subjects’ sight pierces incomprehensibility and clarifies the unknowable, becoming both productive and non-productive in their associations with the surrounding community, and thus with futurity. People throughout the bayou community are shown to validate the truth of Mozelle’s gaze in their trust of her gaze, thus authenticating its productive function. But, on the side of non-productivity, the events prophetically gazed at are determined absolutely, and, such as with the death of all of Mozelle’s husbands and the film’s final death of Eve’s father, this gaze harbors death, which is completely non-relational. Kara Keeling associates the affective labor of the African slave woman in slave relationality (that Angela Davis describes in “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”) with what she calls “the black femme function” that “refers to the affectivity that disentangles itself from the project of reproducing capitalist relations (but does not [yet] break with that project) in order to participate in an enterprise that is more consistent with sustaining the conditions such affectivity perceives to be necessary to its own survival” (The Witch’s Flight, 146). Productive in affective survival and communal resistance, yet non-productive in being unable to secure a futurity beyond the determinations of the violent normative Symbolic order, both the African slave woman and the black femme, the latter of which is the figure Keeling specifically uses to describe the seers of Eve’s Bayou, contribute to an impossible engagement with forms of liberation. Appearing and disappearing into the contours of the Symbolic Order, both the enigmatic slave Eve, in her ambiguous “perhaps,” and the young Eve Batiste and her aunt Mozelle open up to an Otherness beyond their selves.
This described function of a passive opening up onto Otherness beyond futurity recalls Jacques Lacan’s formulation of feminine jouissance. Feminine jouissance eludes totalization under the phallic function of castration insofar as the feminine subject feels beyond themselves an openness to “[t]he nonexistence of the Other [that] is itself inscribed into the Other” (Alenka Zupancic, What is Sex?, 53). Cristiana Cimino frames feminine jouissance in the context of the 1942 horror film Cat People, where the main character Irena undergoes, without any control, a transformation into a ravenous panther during intense affective experiences. Cimino allegorizes Cat People as a filmic depiction of unknowable feminine desire and feminine jouissance that, as a horror film influenced by normative heteromasculinity, must discard Irena at the end of the film without care. The masculinist history of murder, mutilation, rape, and general discarding of the feminine subject psychically centers on how the unknowable “feminine not whole is generally associated with madness, with destruction” (“The Kiss of the Panther-Woman”). Echoing this sentiment, in Eve’s Bayou, Eve’s father Louis Batiste comments on how his sister Mozelle is “not unfamiliar with the insides of a mental hospital.” Eve’s Bayou differs from Cat People‘s treatment of feminine jouissance, or what Keeling calls the black femme function, insofar as it discards the father Louis Batiste at the end of the film in service of a vaguely impossible and non-agential futurity of feminine jouissance. Neither the Father as image nor the Father as word (as shown in the rejection of Louis’ letter to Eve at the end of the film) is saved in Eve’s Bayou. An ambiguous emergence paralleling the matriarchal slave origin of Eve can be anticipated in the final moments of Eve’s Bayou, as Eve and her sister Cecily look out into the bayou together. The final image of the film shows the two sisters, after sinking their father’s note into the water, with their backs turned to the camera, projecting an intimate sisterhood. Then, the camera zooms out to make the two sisters finally dissolve into the vast imagistic realm of the bayou (figure 4). With their backs turned to the camera and vanishing into the milieu that they are bound to both resist and support following the death of the image/word of the Father, Eve and Cicely directly recall the image of the slave Eve as she dissipates into the bayou with her back turned to the camera at the beginning of the film.
Finally, I wish to shift my focus to the unknowable kernel of incest that determines the end of the film. The question of who initiated incestuous encounter between Cicely and her father is never resolved by the film’s conclusion. The film reproduces its typical series of black-and-white rapid images when Eve, taking Cicely’s hands in hers, is able to finally see what happened during the encounter. But this does not result in a pure knowledge of the unknowability of incest for both Eve and Cicely, and specifically not for the spectator. Following the “reveal” of the truth, Cicely, crying, tells Eve that she still “does not know what happened.” Not a seer like Eve, Cicely occupies the place of the spectator in this scene insofar as there is no (signifiable) clarification of the images that the spectator sees of the incestuous encounter, differing from what has usually been happening with the various seer-sequences throughout the film. Taking from Lee Edelman’s No Futureregarding the image of the ideal Child as the emblem of futurity, repressing the sinthomosexuality that accompanies all of sexuality and professed knowledge (of it), the ambiguity of consent in Eve’s Bayou‘s incestuous encounter disrupts the pure image of the Child, thus disrupting a projected heteronormative futurity. Jouissance, as indicative of the drive that exposes divided desire, is never formally stabilized in a perfectly imposed conceptualization of consent. Eve’s Bayou, then, shattering the pure image of the Child through the unresolved muddling of consensual sexual activity provides no futurity whatsoever that can be coherent in narrative form, just as the atemporal images of the seer’s gaze is incoherent narratively without the cohesion of signification. I take the film’s queering of futurity, insofar as it produces no normative futurity, as doubling Keeling’s argument regarding the black femme function, and its productivity/non-productivity that works to disentangle, but not break from, heteronormative and capitalist conceptions of desire and life. Eve’s Bayou then treads on the dangerous ground of virtually implying a space that represents that which can never truly be signifiable in the normative Symbolic order: an impossible queered futurity for, what Keeling writes on as, the figure of the black femme.