Nietzsche’s Unexpected Feminisms: Iphigenia, Helen, and Penthesilea in Derrida’s Spurs

(x-posted to The Valve)

If you’re into this sort of thing, what follows is a close reading of Trojan allusions in Jacques Derrida’s study of Nietzsche, Spurs. There is a pay-off: Derrida discovers, through Nietzsche, the account of sexual violence underlying the philosophical quest for truth, the feminine mystique, and the masculine cult of battle. For Gayatri Spivak’s current seminar on the double bind in Derrida.

If you’re not, go here and tell me about light-hearted or black-souled blogs.


Derrida writes, “Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche has been idling offshore (but we began from the enigmas offshore) ever since it missed the woman in truth’s fabulous plot-ting” (109). What is the implicit image here, the fable and plot to which we are referred? It is that of the Greek army, under Agamemnon, becalmed and thus unable to pursue Helen, the abducted (“missed”) woman.

Helen first suggests herself to us on p. 41, where Derrida writes that “we shall bear witness here to [woman’s] abduction….by way also of an announcement of what will henceforth regulate the play of the sails (of a ship, for example) around the apotropaic anxiety” (41). (Note: Harlow’s translation inserts parentheses here, instead of the dashes in Derrida’s text, which I think muddies the sense of the lines.) It is, of course, the announcement of Helen’s abduction that spurs the Greeks to set sail in pursuit of her, anxious both about her disappearance and about the ill-luck they suffer en route: plague, and then a lack of wind. (Apotropaic meaning having the power to avert evil or ill-luck.)

So, returning now to Heidegger, who is still idling offshore, we read, “Nietzsche’s analysis of sexual difference….[is] based on what might be called a process of propriation….woman is woman because she gives, because she gives herself, while the man for his part takes, possess, indeed takes possession” (109). The “expropriation….gift and barter” (109) here is a propitiation of the gods, and the solution to the riddle of their anger. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia, which “introduces some destination, finality or twisted calculation, some return, redemption or gain, into the loss of proper-ty” (110). Proper-ty: Agememnon’s own daughter.

At this moment, “all the signs of a sexual opposition are changed” — the Greeks give themselves airs, filling the sails in a womanly fashion. Earlier, quoting Nietzsche, Derrida writes that women “give themselves airs (“give themselves for”) even when they—give themselves….the hyphens should be noted” (69). The hyphen should be noted, according to Derrida, because it interposes a distance, just as Helen’s abduction gives the Greeks their direction, destination, fable, and plot. This is much more than a void series of allusions. Derrida is after the pathos of feminine modesty, an artifice that requires the sacrifice of intimacy and nearness for the Siren song of distance: “A woman seduces from a distance. In fact, distance is the very element of her power. Yet one must beware to keep one’s own distance from her beguiling song of enchantment” (49).

If this were just the exchange of the daughter for the Trojan woman, it would be a repetition of Claude Levi-Strauss’s writing on the incest taboo. But instead, it is always woman, singular, not this woman for that one. It is the woman who sacrifices herself to create seductive distance, only to be impaled upon the “prow” (39, another “spur of sorts”) that penetrates that distance, in a death-agony that is also the death of the “philosopher-knight” (53) who has appropriated the woman into his own identity, as before with the wind in the sails, and again here: “The exchange of stylistic blows or the thrust of the dagger confuses sexual identity….the sex has been veiled in transparency, the dagger turned against oneself” (53). The woman gives herself for the battle, is sacrificed to it as Iphigenia, rules it as Helen, and along with all others is ultimately killed.

Nietzsche writes: “Would a woman be able to captivate us (or, as people say, to “fetter” us) whom we did not credit with knowing how to employ the dagger….skillfully against us under certain circumstances? Or against herself; which in a certain case might be the severest revenge….?” (53). Derrida comments, “Woman, mistress, Nietzsche’s woman-mistress, at times resembles Penthesilea” (53).

Thus, the feminine artifice of distance, and the “masculine” penetration of that distance, is a suicide pact, an “eternal war” (109) dealing death on both sides. It is a cut by dagger or rapier, and like the cuttings of flowers and texts in Derrida’s Glas, it bleeds.