The guiding intuition of this project is that there is a force at work, or at play, in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, an element that makes their thought and writings relevant to the “return of the repressed” that is taking place in the contemporary women’s movement. My thesis is that these writers’ explorations of language show a deep, abiding concern and fascination with “the feminine,” in some of the many forms it can take. This is of course not to argue that Nietzsche and Heidegger were really feminists, or proto-feminists, or even that they would have identified what they were doing in this way. Neither is it to suggest that what I see as their fascination with a “feminine” dimension in language outweighs or negates their attitudes toward women; the value of their works does not need to be justified in this way. What I want rather to argue is that a careful reading of certain of the texts of Nietzsche and Heidegger provides valuable insight into the processes of human self-constitution within language, and thus in relation to various dimensions in language, including a dimension that is linked in ways we shall explore with women and “the feminine.”
Indispensable to the project is the theoretical work of French psychoanalyst and literary critic Julia Kristeva. In what follows, I devote an initial chapter to her work, arguing that her perspectives on the position of the subject in relation to language are “ethically” motivated, and that they can serve as powerful hermeneutic tools for the exegesis of literary-philosophical texts such as the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Of particular importance to this work are Kristeva’s notions of the “symbolic” and “semiotic” dispositions in language, and their resonances with the cultural facts of male dominance and female “marginality.”
Kristeva’s use of the French word jouissance is here explored, and I suggest that in and at the margins of the texts by Nietzsche and Heidegger is a figure I call la mère qui jouit, a force in language with which both writers had much to do, and which they consistently imaged as feminine. I argue here and throughout the work that Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s jouissance in language is intimately related to their quest for nonmetaphysical ways of thinking, and that their achievements in revising the ways we understand philosophical and religious thought also make new room for the “feminine.”
In subsequent chapters, I experiment with applying Kristeva’s theoretical framework to selected texts by Nietzsche and Heidegger. I try to detect the jouissance in their language, to discover the points at which the passion and intensity of their thought, on the trail of an elusive otherness inaccessible to ordinary discourse, move them into poetic utterance.
In the case of Nietzsche, I begin with an analysis of two short excerpts from The Gay Science, entitled “We artists” and “Women and their action at a distance.” Close reading of these passages reveals a clear association between what Kristeva calls the “semiotic” dimension of language and feminine imagery. The energetic and explosive character of these passages reveals Nietzsche’s sense of the phenomena of art and writing as self-creation in the face of death, the feminine, nature, and the absence of God.
In the next chapter, I propose a reading of six chapters of Thus Spoke Zarathustra which seem to be emblematic of the central question of the book as a whole. Zarathustra addresses the problem of speaking “over the abyss,” or of using language after traditional notions of the grounding of language have fallen away. Zarathustra’s quest is always for language, for speech, and for speech that will be heard and understood. Presiding over his search are a series of mysterious and powerful female figures, who are actually the only figures in the book to whom Zarathustra himself ever listens. Their messages are paradoxical, even parabolic; they push Zarathustra to the limits of his sense of self, and propel him into a dizzying yet jouissant relation both with them and with language itself.
Finally, in the chapter on Ecce Homo, a newly restored section of Nietzsche’s autobiography is translated and analyzed. I conjecture that the pressure directly to confront his feelings about his own mother and to write about her for public consumption led to the bizarre history of two radically different and incompatible passages on this topic, neither of which represents Nietzsche at his stylistic best. I speculate that it is precisely suspension between opposed forces that makes for jouissance in style, and that a fall from that suspension into one side or the other means only madness.
I then ask whether Martin Heidegger’s works demonstrate some of the same kinds of phenomena. First, I look at Being and Time, and suggest that two of the central categories of that work, “inauthenticity” and “authenticity,” may be understood as representing particular relationships to language. I interpret the mode of “inauthenticity” as an immersion in the “symbolic” mode of language, while the “call” to “authenticity” bears a marked resemblance to the call of the “semiotic” dimension. Here I also investigate the anomalous character of the “fable of Care” in Being and Time.
In the last section of the book, eight of Heidegger’s later essays are read with an ear to their maternal, erotic, and jouissant moments. Here we find that Heidegger’s lifelong fascination with the “question of Being” is fueled by an intense passion for language itself, which he often images as a feminine figure.
I hope to accomplish several things through this reading. I argue that Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s attempts to get beyond metaphysics drove them into relation with la mère qui jouit, the feminine in language, which in turn required them to develop more poetic and evocative ways of using language. They both recognized that a view of language as representational held thinking in a metaphysical mode, and that more poetic ways of saying offered greater possibilities for approaching the elusive object of thought. In focusing primarily on image and style in these writers, I try to demonstrate the importance of these aspects of their writing to Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s overall influence.
The question of the styles of Nietzsche and Heidegger has generated considerable philosophical and literary interest. Entire monographs and collections of essays address this theme in the case of each writer, yet with few exceptions, they rarely address the relationship between language and “the feminine.”1 Jacques Derrida’s Spurs certainly focuses on the relationship between Nietzsche’s style and the ways in which he figures “woman.”2 My interpretation departs from his in applying to Nietzsche’s texts a more limited test, a search for textual evidence of what Kristeva calls the “semiotic” dimension in Nietzsche’s language. In the case of Heidegger, it seems that again only Derrida has noted the conspicuous absence of overt references to woman or sexuality in his work.3 My reading differs from others in emphasizing what I see as the crucial formal role of the fable of Care in Being and Time and the feminine characteristics and semiotic associations ascribed both to language and to Being itself in Heidegger’s later works.
I also argue for the usefulness and power of Julia Kristeva’s theoretical framework, asserting that her perspectives on language and on the constitution of the subject within and in relation to its forces are valuable contributions to contemporary discussions of subjectivity, language, and sexuality. Although I do not fully rehearse those discussions here, they form an important part of the “subtext” of this work. Many recent developments in literary criticism, the philosophy of discourse, and feminist theory circle around these same questions. I hope to demonstrate that some of the categories and tools developed by Kristeva are powerful aids in the examination of important texts in the history of the philosophy of religion, and that they help us to discern in these texts the dimensions of their relevance noted above.
Finally, it seems to me that Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kristeva all have something to contribute to an analysis of our contemporary religious situation. All are concerned with what it means to live on after the death of the “Father.” All, I argue, are deeply engaged by the most fundamental questions of what it is to be “human,” and to be in relation to that most mysterious of “others,” language. Remaining in a difficult and painful awareness of the modern situation of suspension over an abyss, they all are drawn by the possibility of a jouissance that would do something other with the human drive for meaning than turn it into another “religion.” Kristeva has shown how this drive for jouissance is correlated with the “feminine” dimension in language. What I do here is explore how Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s struggles to find ways of speaking after the death of God the Father, bring them into relation with the “mother” in language, la mère qui jouit, and thus make of them not theorists of the feminine, but its practitioners.