Friday, July 20, 2007

An I.'s Light (I.Luce-idation) on Woolf

Pretentious title, eh?

First of all, I'm surprised to find that, as far as I can tell, Luce is Irigaray's given name.

I'm reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando and I've come across an interesting passage about half-way through. She and Mr. Pope (presumably Alexander Pope, since Anne is currently Queen) are riding to her (Orlando's) house through the streets, and it being night, long periods of darkness intrude upon their conversation. This is for the better, since the danger Pope poses is the danger of Truth:

"A poet [Pope] is both Atlantic and lion in one. While one drowns us, the other gnas us. If we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves. A man who can destroy illusions is both beast and flood. Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream [remember: Orlando loves Shakespeare]. 'Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life--(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped)" (203, Woolf's jabs at English writing style pepper this book. It's really much funnier than anything else I've read by her, though that asks little, since her other books have been very depressing.)

This is followed by the carriage ride, during which Orlando is not reduced to a "heap of cinders" because of the poor street lighting. During the moments of light, Orlando is repulsed by the humanity of the poet (perhaps Pope is chose not only because of his historical location and well known wits), but during the ten-minute-long darknesses, she is convinced not only that he is divine, but that she is the luckiest of women for being so near him, and surely history shall remember her for it. Just before reaching her house in Blackfriar, they pass what is not Piccadilly Circus:

"The light blazed in her eyes, and she saw, besides some degraded creatures of her own sex, two wretched pigmies [sic] on a stark desert land. Both were naked, solitary, and defenceless [sic]. The one was powerless to help the other. Each had enough to do to look after itself. Looking Mr. Pope full in the face, 'It is equally vain,' she thought, 'for you to think you can protect me, or for me to think I can worship you. The light of truth beats upon us without shadow, and the light of truth is damnably unbecoming to us both." (206,7)

First, the role of the pigmies is reminiscent of the Feuerlaender in Spivak's reading of Kant: those who are condemned to poverty, in the spiritual and intellectual sense. But for Kant, the "naturally uneducated" were to be pitied as exceptions to the grand narrative of metaphysical knowledge. Woolf, in contrast, is using them to illustrate that we are all naturally uneducated. Knowledge (Subjective knowledge) is utterly unattainable in the face of the blinding light of truth. Hence our reliance on shadow and illusion.

What drew my attention to this passage though was the use of light, and it's parallels with Irigaray's writings. Now it's probably only because I'm reading both of these authors so close to one another that this seems interesting to me. After all, using light to signify truth is hardly Woolf's invention.

But what's interesting is that both authors use light as a dangerous bringer of knowledge, not as a savior from darkness:

"Finding the ecomony of light in all its dazzling brilliance, without risk of combustion and death, marks humanity's first steps into philosophy. And just as the sun, even in eclipse, must be observed only indirectly, in a mirror on pain of blindness, even so the spirit will serve as an additional reflector that helps us to look upon the Good. In a strict sense, mortals cannot look upon Good." (Speculum of the Other Woman, 148. As far as I know, the French words for "good" and "god" do not bear the close relationship they do in English.)

She goes on:

"But the consuming contact of light will also be avoided by paying attention to forms alone. Vision protects itself from the risk of blindness by using daylight for the exact perception of 'beings' and for the calculation of the relations and correlations 'beings' have with their ideal inscription in the psyche. Direct vision means looking directly ahead, of course, but ti also means doing so through an optical apparatus that stands between man and light and prevents light from touching him at all." (148)

Woolf does not make use of mirrors the way Irigaray does. Irigaray is interested in mechanisms that protect the viewer (man) from direct vision, and is using this to critique the Western philosophical tradition. Woolf, on the other hand, uses darkness. She's an author instead of a philosopher/psychoanalyst, and that manifests here. Instead of arguing that we've deliberately mediated our interaction with knowledge in an overly determining way, Woolf argues that we've hidden ourselves from truth, and that what we call knowledge is merely our own self-delusion, willfully mistaking the shadow of a seat cushion for a noble forehead.

I keep getting interrupted in this post, and as with all my posts, I didn't really plan it out ahead of time, so I'm afraid I've lost track of my point.

So there. Two feminist authors criticizing light, I guess. Whatever.

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