As conceptualized by Luce Irigaray, notions of self-affective touch are present in, and in fact are immensely important to, Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Irigaray conceives of touch as necessarily constituting tact, which calls for the respect of limits within the self and the other. G.H.’s experience of the roach, the other, results in a disintegration of her Apollonian human organisation into the formless state of Dionysian pre-human disorganisation. G.H.’s infliction of violent touch on the roach is paradoxically a violence against G.H.’s human organisation, and its borders of separation, resulting in assimilation of self into the other. Through her imagined hand-holding, G.H. uses self-affective touch to preserve a unifying relation between differences in the self and other, Dionysos and Apollo, while maintaining individuation.
Irigaray conceives of a spectrum of difference in which the gods, Apollo and Dionysos, embody oppositional attributes. Apollo “favours remaining in a beautiful appearance, within an ideal form, at the price of subjecting to it the vitality” (Irigaray 131). He is the ideal of masculine individuation, frozen in an appearance, manifesting in one form only. He is the embodiment of limits, favouring the art of sculpture. On the other hand, Dionysos “stays faithful to his natural energy, but does not know how to embody it, [oscillating] between lack and excess of energy” (Irigaray 131). This “uneducated relational energy leads Dionysos at best to regress to merge into a primitive natural unity” (Irigaray 131). Hence, he “grows or declines without blooming into any forms, remaining in a continuous motion” (Irigaray 131). Dionysos resists form, and favours the art of music. As such, human individuation remains “torn between Dionysos and Apollo” (Irigaray 131).
The differences of the two can only be reconciled by the god of Eros, through self-affective touch. The god of Eros operates through touch, which respects and sustains “a sharing of desire in difference” (Irigaray 140), “without reducing this desire to a need” (Irigaray 139). Touch, as understood by Irigaray, makes possible “this sharing… in which each one at the same time risks losing oneself and is sent back to oneself, to the most personal core of oneself.” (Irigaray 138). Here, Irigaray implies that this sharing of difference, paradoxically entails both a losing of oneself, and a return back to the “most personal core of oneself” (Irigaray 138). Furthermore, it seems that this “core of ourselves forever will remain invisible, but it constitutes the most irreducible part of ourselves, a part of which we remain in search.” (Irigaray 138).
Self-affective touch is achieved through a touching of body parts, which would allow a sharing of difference without a loss of individuation: “uniting the two parts of ourselves through their touching one another – for example, the hands or the eyelids” (Irigaray 138). G.H’s imagined handholding is a form of self-affective touch that allows her to share in the difference of the other while retaining her individuation. In lacking a cultivation of touch, Irigaray writes that culture forces us to submit to an external form of moral code, forcing us to “adopt an artificially neutral attitude” (Irigaray 130) which results in the loss of “natural energy” (Irigaray 130). She claims that this natural energy can be cultivated to bridge the difference between self and other. Left in a natural state, it will gain an “an intensity that sometimes needs to be released through acts of instinctive domination or submission” (Irigaray 130) – effecting a touch of violence that is released without inhibition.
In Passion, G.H. is “torn between Dionysos and Apollo” (Irigaray 131). The human organisation of G.H. is representative of the Apollonian ideal, while her inhuman disorganisation after her encounter with the roach embodies Dionysian attributes. Her inability to reconcile these oppositional attributes result in the infliction of violent touch on the roach and herself. Her imagined handholding, however, allows her to re-affirm her individuation, and also to share in the difference of the other. G.H. is portrayed as an Apollonian figure, which embodies a superficial ideal of form and beauty. She seeks aesthetic beauty, form and human organisation. Her beauty is mimetic, like an aesthetic ideal. Like her own apartment that is “merely an artistic creation” (Lispector 22), she is “a pretty replica” (Lispector 23). She reveals an attraction and desire towards the image, not reality but a replica of it, claiming that “the copy is always pretty” (Lispector 22). She prefers to conceive of herself as an image, and to live in a state of “not-being” (Lispector 23) which was “so much more pleasant, so much cleaner” (Lispector 24). The image of her satisfies because of the clean definition it entails. Her desire for definition also manifests in a description of her appearance: “I was framed by my white robe, my clean and well-sculpted face, and a simple body” (Lispector 24). She also describes her tendency to use her hands: to make sculptures, arrange objects in her household, and in making bread. Her making of the bread is one that allows her to escape her own artificial conception of self: “through sculpture, the forced objectivity of dealing with something that was no longer myself.” (Lispector 18). G.H.’s desire to create order arises from an Apollonian masculine tendency to dominate, to demand order, structure and meaning: “By putting things in order, I create and understand at the same time.” (Lispector 25).
G.H.’s conceptions of creation, expression and reproduction contain tactile imagery, which imply a violent touch: “Creating isn’t imagination, it’s taking the great risk of grasping reality” (Lispector 12). Here, she acknowledges a divide in the function of creation and imagination – creating and reproducing reality is a “grasp” (Lispector 12), a suffocating touch that has a hold and grip on reality. She further elaborates on this divide, explaining that through her narrative, she is “attempting a reproduction more than an expression” (Lispector 13), that she needs to “express [herself] less and less” (Lispector 13). However, for Irigaray, such “inquisitive rationalism” (Irigaray 138) only retains a form of touch that is “of grasping and of appropriating” (Irigaray 139), also that it “does not correspond to the touch that constitutes the most intimate core of ourselves” (Irigaray 139), and that “this invisible cannot be seized or be understood” (Irigaray 138). Hence, writing for G.H. is self-defeating as it only imposes the same masculine desire for dominance through language and order: “Yet I must try to at least give myself a prior form in order to understand what happened when I lost that form.” (Lispector 16).
Words, or the muteness and absence of them, and music manifest as oppositional forces of Apollo and Dionysos within G.H. Dionysos possesses a musical energy, which is reflected in the roach – “But the vastness inside the little room was growing, the mute oratorio was enlarging it in vibrations that reached the fissure in the ceiling. The oratorio was not a prayer: it was not asking for anything. Passions in the form of an oratorio.” (Lispector 79). Here, G.H. describes the music of roach in a paradoxical manner: it is mute, but also like an oratorio, the harmonious symphony of an orchestra. Furthermore, music is the form that is representative of passions – the intensity of diction recalling Irigaray’s excess energy of desire found in Dionysos. The muteness thus, could be reflective of its resistance to articulate accessible meaning. Faced with this muteness of meaning, she seeks the solace of words: “Word and form will be the board upon which I float atop billows of muteness” (Lispector 12), which if not forced, would “swallow [her] forever in waves” (Lispector 12).
The violence inflicted on the roach becomes a violence on herself, through G.H.’s experience of the other within herself: “The deepest murder: the one that is a way of relating, a way of one being existing the other being, a way of seeing one other and being one other and having one other, murder where there is neither victim nor executioner, but a link of mutual ferocity.” (Lispector 79). Irigaray considers that violent touch is inflicted when the boundaries that respect the limits of self and other are transgressed; in fact, it “amounts to a kind of murder: a spiritual murder, the most serious murder and also the most serious suicide” (Irigaray 2004, 15). Yet, G.H.’s act of violence on the roach goes beyond a lack of respect for the other – the violent touch removes borders separating and distinguishing the self from the other. The violent touch enables “a way of relating, a way of being existing the other being” (Lispector 79) – contrary to Irigaray’s notion of relational touch as necessarily respecting limits, violent touch is also relational, even assimilative, in that the self becomes the other. Yet, it does not not generate the desirable state of sharing in difference, rather, it annihilates difference itself. The act retains the transgressive implications – G.H. with regard to her killing almost rewords Irigaray: “not of a suicide but of a murderer of myself” (Lispector 172). Here, we see that G.H.’s complete assimilation of the self into the other – through the “murder of [her] human soul” (Lispector 8), entailing a complete extinction of G.H.’s Apollonian human organisation. The violent touch is a violent eruption of the Dionysian excess of “natural energy” (Irigaray 130), with the intensity of “instinctive domination” (Irigaray 130) released.
G.H.’s experience with the roach results in an awakening of Dionysos-like energy within her, one that is associated with intense natural energy, that which is primal, inhuman, fluid, ever-changing. In killing the roach, she experiences an uneasiness that forces her to question: “What had I done?… what had I done to myself?” (Lispector 46). Significantly, the terror of the violence afflicting her arises from the realisation that the violence inflicted is on herself. Paradoxically, the violence inflicted on the roach, awakens her to its life matter – the eternal aliveness that is associated with Dionysos – “a source far prior to the human source and, with horror, much greater than the human” (Lispector 52). The roach’s blood is for a moment conflated with hers, in her realisation: “it was mine” (Lispector 53). Yet, this recognition of otherness in herself entirely overwhelms her human identity, in her declaring: “I am the roach” (Lispector 60). The Dionysian aliveness that is associated with the roach fully fertilises the dead, Apollonian impassivity of G.H, saturating it completely and denying her human form. A rush of the Dionysian qualities manifest in G.H. She develops an abhorrence towards beauty: “Beauty that now is remote to me and that I no longer want — I am no longer able to want beauty” (Lispector 80). She loses any sense of beauty and aesthetics as it is – a total abandonment of her Apollonian human tendency towards beauty. G.H. also comes to experience a loss of limits; a loss of physical, spatial and temporal boundaries: “I’d ended up… emerging through the cockroach into my past that was my continuous present and my continuous future” (Lispector 60).
If the violent touch inflicted on the roach causes G.H. to be the roach, through the recognition of shared life matter, it can be said that the touching back of the roach is then G.H.’s self-touch at work. Here, G.H.’s resistance to the desire to be touched obstructs her from achieving her true individuation: “The roach was touching all of me with its black, faceted, shiny and neutral gaze… In truth, I had fought all my life against the profound desire to let myself by touched.” (Lispector 86). Significantly, the touching that induces this awakening is located inside of G.H., where it is “most unreachable”, “the one that touches my border with whatever is no longer I, and to which I give myself” (Lispector 128). This touch is one that remains “invisible”, yet “it constitutes the most irreducible part of ourselves” (Lispector 138) – it is through such self-affective touch that G.H. re-affirms her selfhood and identity, however, invisible and unknown to her. Contrary to Irigaray, touch transcends physical contact, as evident in the gaze of the roach being able to generate this powerful moment of individuation, that which G.H. “[gives] [herself]” (Lispector 138). Nonetheless, it generates an equivalent state to Irigaray’s self-affective touch, where the “sharing of desire in difference” (Irigaray 140) allows one to return “back to oneself, to the most personal core of oneself” (Irigaray 138).
G.H.’s imagination of a hand holding her, is a self-affective touch that re-affirms her own selfhood, which allows her to “gather [herself] and permits [her] to share with the other without a loss of identity for the one or the other” (Irigaray 138). In recounting her experience of formlessness, she seeks the comfort and assurance of touch, even if it is simply imagined: “While writing and speaking I will have to pretend that someone is holding my hand.” (Lispector 10). Her desire to understand the experience urges her to re-live the experience, this time, with the imagined touch of her invented hand, which allows her to hold her own hand. While not entirely the same person, this imagined person could possibly serve as an extension of G.H.’s self, but one that remains rooted in human organisation. In such a manner, it can be said that G.H. touches self-affectively – the assurance of that imagined someone, her previous organised self, provides comfort in the familiarity to the discovered horror of her current disorganised self. The reassurance of the handholding allows her to reframe the terrifying experience of entering disorganisation as an admirable, courageous act: “That brave thing that will be handing myself over, and which is like grasping the haunted hand of the God, and entering that formless thing that is a paradise.” (Lispector 10).
The nature of G.H.’s handholding undergoes a transformation, to that of a “sharing of desire in difference” (Irigaray 140). Initially, the hold is characterised as a cling, entailing desperation of one that holds on for life, to survive: “For now I cling to you, and your unknown and warm life is my only intimate organization, I who without your hand would feel set loose into the enormous vastness I discovered.” (Lispector 11). This comes with her revelation with regard to her neediness, that is transformed into a love – “most daring joy between a man and a woman comes when the greatness of needing is such that we feel in agony and fright: without you I could not live. The revelation of love is a revelation of neediness.” (Lispector 159). This neediness manifests in G.H.’s handholding – at the point where she experiences the terror of disorganisation, she confesses her need for the hand, as well as her violent disregard of the hand’s autonomy to withdraw: “I need you… I know your hand would drop me, if it knew.” (Lispector 100). While G.H.’s forcible taking of the hand implies a violent touch, it also seems that the neediness is manifestation and revelation of love, according to G.H. The roles are reversed, however, when G.H. reverses the relation of the handholding: “And now I am not taking your hand for myself. I am the one giving you my hand… But the moment will come when you will give me your hand… as I am doing now: out of love” (Lispector 179). This giving and taking evokes a form of sharing mediated through self-affective touch, that recalls Irigaray’s “sharing of desire in difference” (Irigaray 140) – love. This shift to a sharing of carnal knowledge is evident in G.H.’s giving up of dominant knowledge and meaning: “Life just is for me, and I don’t understand what I am saying.” (Irigaray 189). Yet, here she is offering her lack of knowledge not for herself, but as an act of affirmation and assurance to herself and others, of the goodness of this shared condition – “And so I adore it.” (Irigaray 189).
Touch manifests violently and self-affectively – but ultimately, both prove to be necessary to G.H.’s individuation, in reconciling the oppositional forces of Apollonian human organisation and Dionysian disorganisation. Violent touch results in the complete dominance of the Dionysian over Apollonian, yet it seems necessary, in order to precipitate G.H’s awakening and recognition of the other in herself. Finally, self-affective touch allows G.H. to approach Dionysian disorganisation without imposing a dominant understanding; instead, she offers her own lack of it as a reassurance and affirmation in the sharing of this condition.
Irigaray, Luce. “Perhaps Cultivating Touch Can Still Save Us” in Project MUSE, vol. 40, no. 3, 2011, pp. 130-140.
Irigaray, Luce. “Toward a Divine in the Feminine” in Women and the Divine: Touching Transcendence, edited by Gillian Howie and J’annine Jobling. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Lispector, Clarice. The Passion According to G.H. Translated by Idra Novey, Penguin Modern Classics, 2012.