L. Irigaray :: “Fecundity of the Caress”

“The Fecundity of the Caress,” Luce Irigaray

Psychoanalyst/feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s essay “The Fecundity of the Caress” is a biting and lucidly composed response to Emmanuel Levinas’s essay Totality and Infinity. Written in 1984, the piece delivers numerous critiques to Levinas’s work, especially to the section titled “Eros.” Using well-crafted poetic language (when I read a part of the essay to a friend, they commented that it sounded like poetry), Irigaray offers a sharp analysis of Levinas’s conceptions of sexuality and femininity. Her commentary is deeply affecting and poses ideas that are still relevant more than 20 years after its publication, both in an academic venue and in the larger world. By reshaping Levinas’s ideas and constructing a new vocabulary for their expression, she suggests a paradigm for romantic relationships that provides equality, safety, and transcendence for both partners. This restructuring of the sexual relationship lends a valuable feminist perspective to our understanding of various methods for the contemporary application of Levinas’s theories.

Irigaray centers her critique on Levinas’s perception of a wonder that precedes the conscious existence of the subject. This preexisting awe is inspired by the miracle of touch, or the “caress”. The caress exists without understanding or subjectivity-it is “naïve,” “native,” “voluptuous without knowing it” (Irigaray 185). Irigaray’s tone and word choice in the beginning of the essay suggest raw yet supernatural beauty that transports us into the ethereal world inhabited by the figures of the “male lover” and the “female lover.” As she writes at the opening of the essay, “sensual pleasure can reopen and reverse this conception and construction of the world,” can make each lover actively appreciative of their bodies and the otherness of their partner (185).

Throughout her work, Irigaray describes how this sensual pleasure occurs in a way that lifts both man and woman away from their limited subjectivity and into a plane of ultimate transcendence. Here, the two lovers rediscover their innocence and “realize a birth that is still in the future” (187). This birth replicates the incredible intimacy between mother and child and renews each lovers’ sense of self. It is a “new dawn for the beloved. And the lover” (189). While Irigaray distinguishes between the activity of the male lover and the passivity of the beloved woman at this juncture in her essay, she will soon do away with these distinctions as she launches into a critique of Levinas’s illustration of gender. In the following pages, she insinuates that although she and Levinas both believe that the love relationship carries partners away from the totalizing realm of sameness, his vision’s dependence on gender inequalities still inscribes them in a totality. She wishes to eradicate the violence of Levinas’s portrayal of the beloved woman and wonders “How to preserve the memory of the flesh? Above all, for what is or becomes the site that underlies what can be remembered?” (191). In short, how can the act of love be made meaningful for both partners while giving each of them a stronger sense of self and self-efficacy?

As she quickly and fiercely reveals, this shared meaning cannot be found in the objectification experienced by the beloved woman under the lover’s gaze as depicted by Levinas. She claims that this gaze reduces the woman to a vulnerable and stagnant object, not the vibrant and moving being that Irigaray perceives her to be, Such a lively creature is able to derive her own meaning from the sexual act, she does not need the male love to create meaning for her. Irigaray disregards Levinas’s depiction of the male lover awakening his beloved woman. Instead, she is fascinated by how both partners refashion themselves in the act of love.

This does not occur within Levinas’s vision of the woman as a dwelling place, an “abyss,” for the man to get lost inside (194). Irigaray contends that this depiction equates the woman with animality, nature, maternity-states that separate her from her power and movement. She harshly accuses Levinas of avoiding the woman’s “own call to the divine,” of undermining her brilliant connection to the cosmos (197). This positioning of the woman places her in a fundamentally contradictory role to the man, thus violating the unity of their coupling. He is elevated during the act of love, while she is cast down towards the space of childishness and animality. She is without a will, instead operating under the man’s desires and his need for transcendence (198-202). The “fecundity” of this union is only found in the creation of a son, a continuation of his father and a reaffirmation of himself. This product brings no pleasure to the woman, who still takes no responsibility and finds no meaning in reproduction-she loses herself (202-203).

The violence contained in this disparate power dynamic leads Irigaray to state, “Modesty is not found on one side only. Responsibility for it should not belong to only one of the lovers. To make the beloved woman responsible for the secret of desire is to situate her also, and in the place of the beloved man-in his own modesty and virginity, for which he won’t take ethical responsibility.” In her paradigm, the lovers are in fact equal, and they can both be affected by the divine’s role in their relationship. Fecundity is actually rooted in God’s guidance of their union. This god can “encourage the risk of encountering the Other with nothing held in reserve” (205). In this realm of total vulnerability and lack of expectations, the lovers “[become] creators of new worlds” together (205).

How? How can the two lovers each be reborn in their union? Irigaray asserts that this act must “begin at a distance” This way, the lovers each have the space to invite one another into the partnership-it is an act of each of their wills. They are each choosing to surrender the perception of their bodies as singular units in favor of their coupling (207).

When the lovers meet this way as two independent bodies choosing to share the transcendent union, Irigaray believes that they are protected from violence. They are aware of their shared physical pleasure and its tremendous value. This pleasure exists as a reminder of the act and its significance. Neither lover is blinded to the significance of their love-the female does not get swept into darkness, and the male is not blinded to his own responsibility for the act. Instead, they are able to dually appreciate the significance of their love and its fecundity. Finally, their pleasure is in the domain of the ethical, where it could not reside when it was an act of incredible aggression meeting terrible vulnerability. The memory of the flesh is born, but it cannot be contained in language, in substitution of another being, in religion. Instead, it must exist singularly, because “to destroy it is to risk the suppression of alterity, both the God’s and the other’s. Thereby dissolving any possibility of access to transcendence” (217).

Posted by jdrabinski for Nina Stewart

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~ by John on May 14, 2007.

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