Speaking Volumes: Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche

May 12, 1995

Nicola Lacey on Luce Irigaray's Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche .

I have spent far longer choosing the book for this column than writing the column itself. My initial enthusiasm for the project was submerged in a tide of indecision. As the tide receded, amid the flotsam and jetsam of recently received impressions were a number of books whose hold on my imagination had withstood the flow of time and tide, and which had shifted my view of the horizon.

Some were academic works; more were novels. My reflections on why this was the case helped finally to determine my choice of Luce Irigaray's Marine Lover. I read it only recently, but it will stay with me for a long time.

Irigaray is one of France's best known feminist theorists. She has traced the ways in which woman and the feminine have been silenced, devalued and effaced in human history and in particular within its mythologies and intellectual discourses. She is an exponent of ecriture feminine - poetic and elliptical writing, which is often dialogic in form, evocative rather than analytic in style, and seeks to recover the repressed feminine, the unacknowledged body, and to give them a place within language. Marine Lover, the most poetic of her works, falls into three parts. The first, "Speaking of Immemorial Waters", is an imaginary dialogue with Nietzsche, in which the feminine genre is represented in terms of the metaphor of the sea; the second, "Veiled Lips" is a further engagement with Nietzsche's philosophy, this time in the third person; the third, "When the Gods are Born" is a re-reading of Greek and Christian myths, in which the central elements of Irigaray's critique of Nietzsche are realised in a vivid, concrete yet imaginative way.

I am an academic lawyer, and readily confess to being of an incurably analytic turn of mind. This makes Irigaray's book an unlikely choice - the more so since I am critical of her specific interventions into feminist legal theory, which have taken the form of an argument for special rights for women. Why, then, did Marine Lover speak to me so persuasively?

The first reason has to do with philosophy as the first discipline which gave me a taste of intellectual horizons beyond the confines of orthodox legal studies. My initial escape from the legal sandcastle was as invigorating as a plunge into the sea, but after working on the boundaries of law and philosophy for some years I came to feel that philosophical scholarship, though broader in its range of inquiry than legal, exhibited a similarly limited critical reflexivity. In exploring more broadly interdisciplinary work, one of my inspirations has always been feminist thought, which has been spectacularly courageous in its engagement with a kaleidoscopic array of theoretical resources. For me, Marine Lover represents the intellectual excitement of this kind of boundary-blurring: it speaks to what I first loved in philosophy - the engagement with the contours and power of ideas - in a way that escapes the pretension to objectivity and (dare I say it) tedium of a relentlessly analytic philosophical mode. This is not to say - and this is a second lesson I have learnt from Marine Lover - that there is no analysis in Irigaray's work: it is to show that intellectually compelling analyses are sometimes expressed elliptically, poetically, and metaphorically. So, thirdly, Irigaray also showed me that philosophy could be beautiful, witty, irreverent, literary, and fun to read.

But why the recurring metaphor of the seaside, which led me to Irigaray's book? Each year I spend the summer in southern France. I work every morning, and then set off for the beach with (so the theory goes) a clear conscience. The problem - as academic readers will instantly have divined - is that, as I run from the house, chaotic basket of beach equipment in hand, my conscience never is quite clear. A guilty impulse invariably causes me to snatch some weighty tome with which (in theory) to salve my conscience and (in practice) to muddy the enjoyment of the afternoon. Year after year the works of unsuspecting luminaries have been dragged on to Leucate Plage, only to be crushed, dampened, joked about or dozed over. One famous historian lasted for half an hour before being substituted surreptitiously for Elle; many worthy criminologists have been cast aside in favour of a newspaper; dozens of legal theorists - including feminists - have been quietly passed over for the novels which jostle with them at the bottom of my basket.

But last year it was different. On an impulse doubtless prompted by the title, I picked up Marine Lover one afternoon, and so began a literary (and rather sandy) love affair as I devoured the book rather than the usual combination of cool drinks and cigarettes. I recommend Marine Lover to anyone who, like me, feels a need to mingle the sensuous pleasures of the beach with the cerebral pleasures of the text, and who is willing to contemplate that they are not so irreducibly different as that guilty conscience implied.

Nicola Lacey is a fellow, New College, Oxford.

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