This essay is a dialogue between the philosophy of Luce Irigaray and my own theory of the self-reflexive muse. For the sake of clarity, I have included page reference when paraphrasing Irigaray’s ideas as well as when quoting her words directly.
“In the beginning it is a she – nature, woman, Goddess – who inspires a sage with truth” (Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was, Bloomsbury: London 2013, p. 2)
The significance of the hold the muse retains on the collective imagination widens when her history is read as a narrative of how the female became the ‘other of the same’. From ephemeral divinity to embodied (white) goddess, her story is the replacement of the feminine principle with the “beautiful object of contemplation” (Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. C. Porte with C. Burke, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 26). She has become central pillar of the “theatre of the identical” but she was once portal to the excluded (Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. G. C. Gill, New York: Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 138). Although already a dilution, the muse of mythology remained one of the last links to “the inaccessible thing from which words arise and to which they are addressed” and so to break the link to the muse is like breaking the link to the feminine. Those who utilize the mastering gaze for subversive artistic purposes epitomize mimesis and their work is haunted by the “an inaccessible, unutterable beyond” (Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was, p. 2-3).
The distinction between writer as clothed (male) artist and muse as passive (female) nude is a misguided attempt to “master what is fluid” (Idem, p. 104) with concepts “too abstract for the life of the flesh” (Luce Irigaray, To Be Two, trans. M. Rhodes, M. Cocito-Monoc, London: The Athlone Press, 2000, p. 23), too crude for the complexity of the relationship between artistic inspiration and expression. For the self-reflexive muse, embodied by any artist who explicitly becomes their own primary source of inspiration, there is no easy separation between the realms of autobiographical experience and creative production. With this shift in emphasis, from making exterior to self (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, London: Continuum 2002, p, 125) to inner subjectivity (Idem, p. 115), the need to externalize inspiration and produce an object that can be easily appropriated by the phallic economy disappears and a consciously feminine form of artistic expression develops. Within herself, the artist is “already two – but not divisible into one(s)”, capable of touching herself without external intervention (Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, p. 24) and therefore without the need of an objectified muse. Whether documented in text, objects, film or photos, the exhibit produced is an illusory fragment; the artefact is the process of subjectivity itself, always elsewhere, intangible, immediately past, existing only on the re-telling.
Irigaray warns us against becoming lost in an autobiographical “I” (Elizabeth Hirsh and Gary Olsen, ‘Je—Luce Irigaray: A Meeting with Luce Irigaray’, A Journal of Composition Theory, vol. 13, no. 3) putting forward the creation of dual subjectivity as a crucial pursuit of humanity (Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was, p. 22). The central concern of the self-reflexive muse is not “disturbing the established order in the name of personal passions” (Idem, p. 118) but considering artistic elucidation of the “subject’s highest work”, to “construct the objectivity of [her] subjectivity as human” (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love…, p. 80). From the modernist confessional “I” of Anaïs Nin and Tracey Emin to the “I” as relational in the post-structural work of Sophie Calle and Chris Kraus, the work of the self-reflexive muse can be read as a collective movement from auto-affection, “a critical gesture for a return to oneself, in oneself, a becoming oneself” (Idem, p. xiv), to a reciprocal relationship with the world. In this self-reflexive conceptualism, the individual story remains secondary to the wider impulse towards intra- and extra-textual embodiment of gendered subjectivity. This radical reflexivity echoes the gap crucial for intersubjectivity, constructs “a perspective to perspective itself” (Luce Irigaray, To Be Two, p. 47) and contributes to dismantling a culture erected according to a single point of view.
“Women cannot remain merely a horizontally, ground for the male erection” (Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. C. Burke and G. C. Gill, New York: Cornell University Press 1993, p. 109)
There is undoubtedly an autoerotic element to this artistic fixation on the “blossoming of self in its own singularity” (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, p. 127). Like the whore feminist of autobiographical practise, the self-reflexive muse profits artistically from the “masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own” (Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, p. 25) against which Irigaray warns us and there is a danger that the work of the self-reflexive muse could remain trapped in the same horizon, tied to the other of the same. There is, however, a literary form of institutional critique in which the writer subjects the impositions placed on those who identify as female in an androcentric phallocracy to artistic replication; they become the thing they’re trying to negate and the transposition of this mimetic action into text begins to reveal “the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language” (Idem, p. 76).
Irigaray writes “[w]e must… interpret our culture as a determination which can possibly alienate our becoming” (in To Be Two, p. 90) but she also suggests that the exclusion of the feminine is internal to the order from which nothing escapes (in This Sex Which is Not One, p. 88). Trapped into these confines, the self-reflexive muse can often be found playing with the detritus of female experience, the bits others are keen to leave behind. Unpicking the cultural impositions embedded in the structure of the psyche is a delicate process because hidden amongst the “various artificial forms, appearance or masks that do not correspond to our identity” (Luce Irigaray, Perhaps Cultivating Touch Can Still Save Us, “SubStance” 2011, vol. 40, no. 3, p. 134) are aspects of experience that bring clarity: silence, touch, passivity, imagination, emotion, memory – all relegated to lesser importance in a culture where the “only values are masculine, virile ones” (Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p. 119). Through fixation on the tension between being object of vision and agent of perceptive sight, the self-reflexive muse strips off the accoutrements of the male model “for [her] own enjoyment” (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, p. 127) and begins to reconnect to the excluded.
The figure of the muse embodies the complexity of such process and using the legacy of the multiple associations ascribed to the term as a means of understanding this particular strand of creative production offers a different gesture towards cultural history, an alternative to traditional models of literary critique. By tracing this matrilineal heritage backwards, you move beyond the mask of silence imposed on Jeanne Duval and Laura De Novas, to an era before Christianity, which segregated the passivity of the muse as virgin from the sensuality of muse as whore, back to the creativity associated with Sappho and the albeit eroded imaginative powers of the nine muses to their Mother, Mnemosyne, the personification of memory itself, until you eventually reach the threshold of the inaccessible and the absence (Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was, p. 2) in the notion of the (white) Goddess who infiltrated Western consciousness before the exclusion of the feminine. Irigaray states that the connection to life expressed through language has been lost when the philosopher has forgotten this first relationship to the feminine principle as source of inspiration (Idem, p. 27) and as guardian of this “irradiation of the invisible through a visible covering” (Idem, p. 72) the self-reflexive muse gestures towards the restoration of that vitality.
Once that fundamental boundary between art and life is breached, when the imperative of ‘real’ life are viewed with creative concern and the ‘I’ is elaborated as aesthetic, the limitations of binary codification disintegrate and disappear. Quoting from primary sources to conceive “concrete, corporeal and sexuate” subjects, not “abstract, neutral, fabricated, and fictitious one[s]” (Luce Irigaray, To Be Two, p. 26), the self-reflexive muse commits to wanton fictionalising of her autobiography. This lends an authenticity to the work because it is “…never only theoretical in a traditional sense” (Luce Irigaray: Teaching, ed. L. Irigaray with M. Green, London: Continuum, 2008, p. xi) but draws together the body, the heart and the mind (Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love…, pp. 2-5) to convey traces of the somatic aspect of experience, irreducible to the technique of language (Idem, p. 85). Depicting the encounter with self as muse through an amalgamation of genres, rather than presenting self as art object bounded by literary conventions and pacts, the self-reflexive muse “disconcert[s] the staging of representation according to exclusively ‘masculine’ parameters” (Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, p. 68) and approximates dual subjectivity. Through a “continuous artistic process” (Luce Irigaray, To Be Two, p. 47), the “way is prepared for [escaping] the hell at work today” (Luce Irigaray, In the Beginning, She Was, p. 5) if only in the discursive ghetto of gendered art and literature.