Poetics and the Body

Derrida’s Weeping Women

Let us begin with the eyes. Heidegger’s Augustine is also interested in the eyes (concupiscentia oculorum), in eyes that are directed to their proper end, made to serve the ends of the soul, disciplined to do their duty dutifully, like good soldiers, as opposed to eyes that are wanton and undisciplined, distracted and led astray by every passing curiosity. Heidegger’s Augustine does not take up blindness, the ab-ocular one (aboculus, aveugle), the wounded or diseased or disabled eye. Curiously, everybody in Being and Time is healthy, hale, and whole; they are either resolute or irresolute, self-possessed or dissipated, and they even die, but their bodies, if they have bodies, seem never to grow ill or lame, diseased or disabled, and when some Stimmung or other becomes too much for them, if it does, they never break out in tears!

But when Derrida is invited to serve as a guest curator for an exhibit at the Louvre, he chooses to bring together all the paintings in the Louvre that deal with blindness. One of the first things to strike Derrida by the collection he has assembled is that it seems to be governed by a law of sexual difference. These are largely paintings of blind men, he notices, and their blindness is always entered into a larger, usually sacrificial economy. The blindness of Saint Paul, for example, is a temporary block of his sensible vision that allows him to see with the eyes of faith. Sometimes these men are not really blind, but blindfolded, and always in such a way as to put their manly self-possession to the test. Among the Greeks, for whom seeing is the paradigm of the highest operation of the soul, blindness is either a freak defect of nature, or the blindness of the oracle, which signifies a higher spiritual vision, or the self-inflicted blindness of a tragic hero such as Oedipus. For the men, blindness is either sacrificial, in which case it returns a higher reward, or it is part of the manly price to be paid all-masterful fate.

Still, Derrida wonders, ‘‘if there are many great blind men, why so many weeping women?’’ (MdA, 128/MB, 127). The only blind women Derrida finds—apart from in a painting of Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the blind to whom the blind pray and weep—are women blinded by their tears. Toward the end of Memoirs of the Blind (MdA, 127/MB, 125, fig. 71) we find a reproduction of Daniele da Volterra’s exquisite drawing Woman at the Foot of the Cross, her figure bent with grief, her face buried in her hands. All men, from Aristotle to the men of phenomenology,