The feminine mystique

September 18, 1998

Sacked by Jacques Lacan, shunned by French universities, denigrated by Alan Sokal, Luce Irigaray is still a star. Jennifer Wallace meets a 'high priestess of ecriture feminine'

"The most important feminist writing in French since Simone de Beauvoir", one of the three "high priestesses of ecriture feminine", among Paris's "veritable pantheon" of radical thinkers. With dust cover plaudits like these, there is no doubting that Luce Irigaray, 66, is a star, one of today's "famous intellectuals", so famous, in fact, that physicist Alan Sokal singled her out for denigration in his bestselling attack on modern French philosophy, Intellectual Impostures. Fulfilling the prima donna requirements of her legendary status, Irigaray recently made a late entrance on to a conference platform at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, telling her eager audience to "forget everything you have read and abandon everything you already know" before beginning her mystical lecture on "Le Souffle des Femmes" (The Breath of Women).

Some weeks later when I phone to confirm our meeting, she criticises my questions, faxed in advance, for being out of step with her way of thinking. "Instead of asking me about Luce Irigaray, I am asked why I am not like this or that woman," she complains.

So it is with a mixture of anticipation at encountering one of the feminist thinkers who has most stirred my generation and fear at not measuring up that I climb the endless stairs to her Parisian top-floor flat. My fear is partly exacerbated by the fact that Irigaray speaks no English and the interview is to be conducted in my stumbling school French. But, unperturbed by my linguistic deficiencies, Irigaray ("dressed for the beach," in shorts) immediately engages me in earnest conversation about feminist theology.

Being different, appearing eccentric even, is central to Irigaray's work. "I am opening an epoch of different thinking," she says. It is her apprehension of an alternative perspective that has allowed her to deconstruct patriarchy - or the male philosophical tradition - from within. Her first book, Speculum of the Other Woman, exposed the masculine bias behind all philosophical thinking from Plato to Freud, and argued that woman was still only a projection of male speculation and consequently unknowable: "Where he projects a something to absorb, to take, to see, to possess ... as well as a patch of ground to stand upon, a mirror to catch his reflection, he is already faced by another specularisation. Whose twisted character is her inability to say what she represents. The quest for the 'object' becomes a game of Chinese boxes. Infinitely receding."

Her attack in Speculum on the way in which psychoanalysis is based on masculine priorities of sight, castration anxiety and the Oedipus complex angered the Freudian academy. By then a trained psychoanalyst and lecturer at the University of Paris at Vincennes, where she had worked closely with the famous psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, she was dismissed from her post by Lacan following the book's publication in 1974 and was shunned by the major universities.

Luckily she was able to keep her position at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where she is still a director, and found support among American students eager to learn from her. (Nowadays she teaches courses on "Luce Irigaray" at the American University in Paris.) Yet despite her harsh treatment by the establishment, she went on, undeterred, in subsequent books - This Sex Which Is Not One and Sexes and Genealogies - to show the hidden masculine perspectives behind other subjects.

But while the male establishment was rightly challenged by her offbeat exposure of its age-old beliefs, some of her most vociferous critics were women. Although part of Irigaray's project is pessimistically to expose the dominance of patriarchy over our intellectual culture, the other part is optimistically to imagine a utopian alternative, a way of thinking derived from what is distinctively feminine. It is her "essentialist" notion of a separate, intrinsic, female identity that most annoys her female critics.

While many feminists follow Simone de Beauvoir in saying that "one is not born a woman but rather becomes a woman", thus rejecting the idea that biology is destiny, Irigaray seemed to be arguing that, in fact, there is something different about being a woman, that it is unaccounted for in existing (male) discourse and that it is deeply implicated in the physical and symbolic possibilities of the anatomy. "You touch me all over at the same time. In all senses," she writes, for example, in When Our Lips Speak Together: "Why only one song, one speech, one text at a time? To seduce, to satisfy, to fill one of my 'holes'? We are not lacks, voids awaiting sustenance, plenitude, fulfilment. By our lips we are women: this does not mean that we are focused on consuming, consumption, fulfilment".

But Irigaray does not accept the word "essentialist" to describe her work. Although she believes that one's identity is dependent on one's body, that body cannot be reduced to pre-existing stereotypes that for her the notion of essentialism represents. "I think one belongs to a sex or gender not before one's birth -that would be the stereotype that I should not inevitably adopt - but I think you are marked by a gender, or you have a gender more precisely, after your birth", she says. "It is right to question the stereotypes that exist before our birth but it is also right to live in accordance with who we are."

The next bone of contention for feminists is Irigaray's passionate belief that women should not campaign for equality with men but rather for their difference to be recognised. Again this flies in the face of the legacy of de Beauvoir who argued against "the doubtful concept of equality in inequality". But Irigaray is adamant: "Equality - when you speak of equality - it is definitely the equality of men. The problem for women historically is to be different. Being equal to men is not being different; it is to imitate a model that already exists and to drown in the identity of the man and his values." Occasionally, she allows, some social campaigns for equality are necessary - at work, for example, over questions like equal pay. But this must only be on an ad hoc basis, and not part of a long-term goal. "For me," she says, "the ideal is not to have the same work as men; it is to invent a new type of work. That is much more interesting."

Finally, her views on homosexuality, or more precisely, her particular privileging of the heterosexual relationship, are proving problematic for feminists surfing the wave of queer theory. In J'aime a toi, (I Love to You) a mad but compelling read, she maintains, rather as D. H. Lawrence did, that the ideal relationship between a man and a woman is spiritual and divine. "Happiness must be built by us here and now on earth, where we live, a happiness comprising a carnal, sensible and spiritual dimension in the love between women and men, woman and man," she writes. The spirituality comes from the humbling recognition of our limitations, which the encounter with the other sex throws into relief.

That all sounds very attractive, but what about homosexuals? Can't they be spiritual too? "I don't want to destroy the gods of homosexuality. Whoever wants to honour these gods, honours them", she replies. But she feels that homosexuals somehow miss out on the possibilities of a more mystical union, a more developed stage of love. "If I am so far along a path, it does not stop," she explains. "I am walking along, I am a little child, and self-love should come here and homosexuality should come here", she gestures with her hands, "and the relationship with a different other should come here. But if I decided to stop at homosexuality, I would never know the following stages."

Perhaps one of the reasons for various feminists' differences with Irigaray is the fact that they do not understand her. The difficulty is that she writes poetically and mystically, coining a language that beautifully elides the literal and the metaphorical. "One creates a new meaning with poetry," Irigaray says. "One creates a meaning where there is no separation between the material (le sensible) and the mental (l'intelligible) as in the western tradition, between the body and the spirit."

Various parts of the body and its functions become resources for her new poetic sense - the breath, the blood, the lips. "When I speak of lips," she explains, "I am speaking of them anatomically, but in a living way, not as the lips of a dead man as they do in anatomy books. What does it mean to have lips and to create meaning from their relation with others - since the body touches itself at the lips - the lips of the mouth and the lips of the genitals? What does that create for my relationship with myself, with the world, with others?" The body is treated in her work as a "place that makes meaning", the meaning, for example, of a kiss.

After three hours of utopian conversation, I begin to get carried away. We are discussing her call, in This Sex Which Is Not One, for women to adopt a strategy of ironically mimicking men to escape the stereotypical roles patriarchy has imposed on them. But, I suggest, when everyone eventually escapes from these roles, it will no longer be necessary to masquerade. "Jennifer," Irigaray laughs, "avant que tout le monde soit sorti, il faudra encore assez de temps!" ("it will be some time yet before everyone will have escaped"). She may have her head wonderfully in the clouds, but her feet are firmly on the ground.

Jennifer Wallace is lecturer in English, University of Cambridge.

SELECTED FURTHER READING

Speculum of the Other Woman (Cornell,1985)

This Sex Which Is Not One (Cornell, 1985)

Je, Tu, Nous (Routledge, 1992)

I Love to You (Routledge, 1996)

Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (Columbia, 1991)

The Irigaray Reader Edited by M. Whitford (Blackwell, 1991)

Ethics of Eros By Tina Chanter (Columbia, 1994)

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