The castrated woman of Laura Mulvey

 Venus at the Opera (1844) by Grandville is the best illustration to the male gaze

Yesterday, a fascinating but notoriously obscurantist text became a little clearer. In the process I was reconciled to French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

My eldest daughter, now in her second year of theatre studies, is studying one of the texts that had for a long time baffled as much as fascinated me: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema[1], a 1970s film theory essay by Laura Mulvey.

Now, it is my belief that the most valuable philosophers are not always the most lucid ones. I agree with Emil Cioran: ‘between the demand to be clear, and the temptation to be obscure, impossible to decide which deserves more respect.’

Philosophers such as Georges Bataille (‘Eroticism … is assenting to life up to the point of death’) and Gilles Deleuze (‘flying anuses, speeding vaginas, there is no castration’) I’ve never fully understood, but I’ve always been fascinated by them and and felt that it was not impossible to reach some kind of comprehension of their texts, even if the explanation remained ambiguous.

However, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure …” is so stooped in litcrit and psycrit jargon that it is almost unreadable. Key terms in the vocabulary of that essay are lack, castration, fetishism, voyeurism, gaze and scopophilia. So far so good. These are difficult terms to grapple with but not beyond comprehension (except for perhaps the Lacanian lack).

The trouble starts on the first line of the second paragraph:

“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”

Castrated woman?

I start Googling.

I find the phrase ‘castrated woman’ in Spurs, Nietzsche’s Styles (1978), a work by Jacques Derrida in which one reads, toward the end:

He was, he dreaded this castrated woman.
He was, he dreaded this castrating woman.
He was, he loved this affirming woman.

So that’s were the notion of the ‘castrated woman’ comes from.

I continue my quest. I find a video[2] by American professor Rick Roderick who defends Derrida’s sense of humor.

I’ve never much cared for Derrida. I’m fond of many 20th century French philosophers but Derrida has been my least favorite and the most dislikeable ‘bums to be kissed by American academics’, to say it in Paglia’s words.

Nevertheless, the premise of Spurs is fascinating. In it, Derrida “imagines that Nietzsche left behind, among his many papers a little scrap of paper that says: “I forgot my umbrella”. Then Derrida goes through a long, complex way that an academic interpreter would try to fit this brilliant aphorism of Nietzsche’s into the body of his work. I mean, after all, it might just mean “I forgot my umbrella”, but on the other hand…”

I am reminded that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I’m happy with my philosophical detective work.

And I may just seek out that “I forgot my umbrella” book by Derrida.

Illustration: Venus at the Opera (1844, Grandville), perhaps the best illustration to the male gaze.