prof. dr. Rosi Braidotti
Joke, ladies and gentlemen –
It is a great pleasure to be here tonight and share with you a celebration
that is also a sort of re-assertion of the method of “thinking back
through the women in our past”. This was a political strategy pioneered
by the women’s movement that stressed the importance of acknowledging
our foremothers. The idea is that by working with and through our identification
with the great women of the past we can connect to one of the lifelines
of women’s creativity and of feminist intellectual history. It is
a formidable genealogical line that reconnects us to Belle van Zuylen
and Simone de Beauvoir, via Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker, to mention
just some of my favourites. They are all graphomaniacs, capable of covering
many different genres and of duplicating their life in and through writing.
This time-line of women who write as easily as they breath is a source
of enduring inspiration.
It is a relief and a source of great joy therefore to partake of this
great tradition here tonight, all the more so in these days of digital
networking, sms-sing, blogging and other virtual modes of interconnection
which stimulate the imagination but often fail to respect the complexity
of the history of intellectual and artistic women. It is moreover politically
very comforting to be able to utter in public some classical feminist
terms, like identification with great women, solidarity and but also quite
simply, pride in and respect for the achievements of those who came before
us. This basic sense of connection to great women of the past may introduce
a welcome alternative note in an era dominated by neo-liberal refrains
about the end of feminist collective actions. In our days mentoring and
coaching have replaced more political forms of solidarity, installing
a rampant form of hyper-individualism as the dominant social mode of behaviour.
This kind of social isolation from each other only makes women more vulnerable
in terms of careers, life-choices and emotional fulfilment.
Inter-generational bonding is definitely one of the themes of this evening.
This discussion implies a strong woman-led cultural memory and a sense
of trans-historical connection, which is not merely a cognitive notion
or intellectual position, but also a deeply affective one. This kind of
memory works like the echoing chambers of a collective memory that stretches
through time and is always already relevant for the present because it
resonates with a paradoxical quality of familiarity.
Inter-generational links play at several levels here this evening: between
the works and lives of Belle v. Zuylen and Simone de Beauvoir themselves,
but also among us all and Belle and Simone respectively or jointly. More
importantly for me, having just been ‘outed’ as Joke Hermsen’s
former PhD supervisor, the interconnection that also matters is between
Belle-and-Simone as a whole and Joke’s own work, which by now constitutes
a significant, highly recognized and successful corpus.
Firstly, there is the historical bond to S. de Beauvoir herself and the
foundational role she played in the second feminist wave and the momentous
changes it brought about in modern societies. The radical politics, the
existential ethics, the astounding amount of work she produced, the passionate
lifestyle – these were ground-breaking contributions to the struggle
for the emancipation of women and minorities in post-war Europe and beyond.
Simone de Beauvoir has been recognised since the 1960’s by the leaders
of the American movement as the uncontested originator of the second feminist
wave. Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Greer herself
made Beauvoir into a feminist icon, much to her own surprise at first.
They dedicated their books to Simone de Beauvoir, thus establishing existentialist
philosophy as the starting point for modern critical theory about the
status of women and also for race and postcolonial theory. As I wrote
in the preface to Joke’s edited volume on Beauvoir, but by the mid-
1980’s the situation was changing: a new generation of feminist
thinkers, soon to become world celebrities – the Belgian-born Irigaray,
the Algerian-born Cixous and the Bulgarian-born Kristeva, were turning
French feminism into a global brand. They contested the hegemonic hold
that Beauvoir’s politics of equality and solidarity had exercised
over the women’s movement. The lucid and critical rationality so
central to Beauvoir’s mind, however, endured and is all the more
relevant in this troubled beginning of the new millennium.
Secondly, there is Isabelle de Charriere – Belle van Zuylen –
a more singular but equally extraordinary figure, who worked perennially
out of context, on the move from one of her home-bases to another. Although
the French language provided her with a powerful and safe location to
write from, she exists somehow in-between languages, like a true nomadic
European always does. A fugitive at heart, Isabelle de Charriere is a
monument of feminist freedom, self-styled as an autonomous subject by
her distinct lack of talent for subordination. I find her intriguing,
contradictory in a perfectly sensible manner and enchanting as a writer.
Thirdly and most importantly for me is the location where these two striking
female figures meet, which for the purposes of this evening is the complex
psychic landscape and rich body of work that is Joke Hermsen. The distinctive
qualities of this landscape are: erudition with a lightness of touch;
bibliographies co-existing with great fictional creativity and an elegance
of style that is pure 18th century in inspiration.
Let us explore the different aspects of this complex landscape.
The first great connector between these three women is passion, the ethics
of writing and a radical commitment to making a difference. On p.68-9
of De Liefde dus, in her own portrayal of Belle van Zuylen, Hermsen comments
on the revolutionary character of love, its violent, disruptive, overwhelming
“ Liefde is volgens mij eerder revolutionnair van aard. Liefde wil
iets als een omwenteling in ons leven teweegbrengen en juist daroom kan
ze inzicht verschaffen im wie we zijn en hoe we de duistere paden die
we nu eenmaal moeten gaan, moeten bewandelen. (…) Liefde is geen
rozengeur en maneschijn, vergeet het maar. Eerder een span paarden dat
over je heen rijdt, waarna je zelf maar moeten bekijken wat er nog van
je over is”.
stresses the extent to which this level of intensity is radically other
than the moral, political concerns and deliberations that we all must
go through in order to behave in a civilized manner. It is another scene,
another economy of emotions, wilder, riskier and somehow more fundamental.
In the same novel, (p.246) Cagliostro sets the record straight: love works
through self and other and awakens both to the reality behind screens,
masks and pretences:
“De liefde en de politiek zijn helaas geen bondgenoten van elkaar.
Integendeel, ze zijn elkaar vijanden. De liefde is namelijk in essentie
onwerelds van aard, terwijl de politiek zich juist richt tot de wereld
en tot de verhoudingen en patronen die daarbinnen gelden.”
great love passion is a second birth that re-positions you in life and
pierces your soul with an acute awareness that, actually, this is it,
this is here and now. Eternity within time, the perfect stillness of that
which, retrospectively, one can say was fate – ineluctable and blind.
But it is not so – it is just a random patter of coagulated and
In one of her many hot letters to Nelson Algren, Simone de Beauvoir writes
(July 3, 1947, p.42):
“Vous savez, pour moi l’existence ne va pas de soi, bien que
j’aie toujours été tres hereuse, peur-être parce
que je veux tellement être heureuse. J’aime avec passion la
vie, j’abomine l’idée de devoir mourir. Je suis terriblement
avide, aussi, je veux tout de la vie, être femme et aussi homme,
avoir beaucoup d’amis, et aussi la solitude, travailler énormément,
écrire de bons livres, at aussi voyager, m’amuser, être
égoiste, et aussi généreuse… Vous voyez, ce
n’est pas facile d’avoir tout ce que je veux. Or quand je
n’y parviens pas, ca me rend folle de colere.”
listen to the list of requirements, of expectations voiced by the great
Simone: Life is not self-evident, it is a project that needs to be actualized
and implemented. Loving life so passionately makes the thought of death
unbearable. And the desire for intensity is such that only multiple lives
would suffice to do justice to the desire that animates this great woman.
Wanting it all: to be a woman and a man, to be surrounded by friends but
also to be able to be perfectly alone; to work extremely hard, write great
books, but also to travel, to be entertained, to be selfish and also so
very generous. How many lives would one need to express this level of
intensity? And what is one to do with the impatience, even the rage that
arises from the inevitable frustrations of being limited to here and now.
Indeed it is not easy to be a woman, let alone a human being endowed with
the intensity, the power as potentia of Simone de Beauvoir, or of Belle
v. Zuylen, or their meeting place tonight – Joke Hermsen’s
inner landscapes. Lives like these are all but self-evident: they are
projects that entail enormous hard work and great endurance.
Passion is the driving force behind these independent, high-powered life-styles.
In the case of all three writers, it has produced an experimental way
of life that broke taboos and disregarded moral conventions in the pursuit
of higher aims: intensity of emotions, authenticity in acknowledging them
and freedom in turning them into actual relationships. ‘Grandes
amoureuses’ to the end, they put today’s conservative sexual
mores to shame. They are passionately opposed to the normality, the banality
and tedium of what our society accepts as the culture of love. The sexual
revolution of the 1970’s liberated lots of things – including
the sex industry and contemporary porn and post-porn cultures- but I am
not sure it exactly unleashed the desire to experiment with sustainable
forms of alternative ways of loving. One of the great lessons of the three
women we are discussing tonight is that desire and experimentation need
to be recombined with more creativity and courage.
The intensity is driven also by the quest for ethical truth. We have to
recognize the bond to others as constitutive of our identity, but passion
teaches us that we also need to overcome it, in order to assert one’s
transcendent nature as subject. This paradox, which lies at the core of
Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics of ambiguity, is the essence of
the question of passion, namely: the erasure of boundaries. It is an unresolved
and highly productive tension between self and other that operates on
the horizon of our common humanity and hence also of our mortality. Georges
Bataille emphasized the point that what we humans most aspire to is the
erasure of boundaries and that this ecstatic transgression is the key
to higher planes of intensity. Eroticism is the high road into it, but
this insight means that desire is not deprived of violence.
Desire is actually first experienced as a violent eruption, a traumatic
impact with external agents. The violence is quite simply that of a degree
of intensity or libidinal energy which goes beyond what one is normally
accustomed to. I would sum this up in the cry: ‘I can’t take
it anymore’. Uttered in pleasure or in pain, this cry marks the
boundary beyond which some extreme state of tension is reached, the borders
of the self dissolve and the ego and bodily integrity collapse, causing
consciousness to lose its hold. It is just a question of boundaries indeed.
In other words, desire is a principle of anti-life, if by life we mean
stasis – stability. Desire is a force that is both vital and dissipative,
in that it activates affects but also erases the very boundaries that
allow us to experience the presence of the other as necessary, intriguing
and pleasurable. Yes another paradox emerges here: that desire is vital
and yet it aims at consuming itself. As a consequence of this economy
of desire, Freud argued that the death-drive is the constitutive principle
of Eros, or libidinal circulation, within the subject. It has nothing
to do with death and everything to do with excess. Desire aims at zeroing
itself out and consuming the object it covets. Thus, the death principle
is relocated at the heart of the unconscious and hence of the subject,
so as to become its most radical expression.
This line of reasoning has some spectacular consequences. As Adam Phillips
notes: life being desire which essentially aims at extinguishing itself,
i.e. reaching its aim and then dissolving, the wish to die is another
way to express the desire to live intensely. Therefore, not only is it
the case that there no dialectical tension between Eros and Thanet’s,
but also that the two forces are really just one. The point is not that
the human’s innermost desire is to disappear, but rather that s/he
wishes to do so in his/her own way. Experiencing death in life, by transcending
the boundaries and yet staying alive to tell the tale, is what the game
of passion is all about. For the artists and thinkers devoted to this
mission, the aim is a self-fashioned, self-styled death, by over-dosing
on the intensities provided by life. Self-fashioning one’s ways
of dying while remaining alive means living life to its nth power. Writers
know that all too well – that’s why so many of them cannot
sustain life at all.
This is the crucial paradox: while at the conscious level all of us struggle
for survival, at some deeper level of our unconscious structures, all
we long for is to lie down silently and let time wash over us in the perfect
stillness of not-life. It is the inability to come to terms with the stillness
which lies at the heart of the subject that triggers the repression of
desire. This denial in turn gets re-formatted as aggression so as to restore
some spurious sense of boundaries. As a result, the ego is the official
wrapper of the most aggressive and violent tendencies, while it is structurally
empty. It is pure intensity folded upon a nucleus of zero-degree stillness,
animated by the entropic drive to lie still and just breath. Violence
or aggressions are the failure of that stillness, the betrayal of the
acknowledgment that being-folded upon itself is constitutive of the subject:
it is an unbearable lightness that makes desire unrepresentable.
Love is the attempt to find an ethical solution for this structural violence,
to counteract its most destructive elements. Writing is a way of processing
that violence, aspiring to not-being as the highest form of existence,
so as to settle very close to that inner core of stillness and just breath
as the words align themselves on the page, in an almost impersonal gesture
of elegant self-composure. If only it could last forever!
You can see this complex mechanism at work clearly in the ‘grandes
amoureuses’ we are discussing here tonight. For Beauvoir, the recognition
that all men are mortal, including the one who is writing this very line
is a positive force, both epistemologically and emotionally. She produces
accordingly ruthlessly honest, implacably lucid accounts of a pitiless
truth: that we cannot save, rescue or protect the ones we love. Not because
we don’t want or don’t care to, but rather because love is
not about saving, rescuing or protecting. Love is about recognition, acknowledgement
and truth not as given but as praxis, that is to say as a life-long project
that requires material implementation and disillusioned commitment. Love
as a project is predicated on the fragility of the flesh and on the ability
to assert that, all things said and done, this is what it comes to: this
heap of ruins that is the body, the glorious transience of our shared
consciousness, the immanence of ’ you-thingy-being-here- for-me-no-matter-what’.
That’s it, that’s all. The rest is silence.
For all great women writers including the three we are discussing tonight,
writing constitutes an act of faith in the future, as well as a perennial
battle against the boredom of the present. They are inter-generational
connectors, producing intensity in a reproducible and transmissible form.
This is why we can think back through them, even today. Far from grandiose
utopian dreams, writing is the patient pursuit of the project of constructing
social horizons of hope. It is a basic and rather humble act of faith
in the possibility of endurance, in the sense of temporal duration or
continuity, which honours our obligation to the generations before us,
but also to those to come.
Writing as the project of autopoiesis, that is to say: self-styling one’s
death through living intensely, involves the virtual unfolding of the
affirmative aspect of the present, of what we managed to actualise here
and now. Virtual futures grow out of sustainable presents and vice-versa.
This is how qualitative transformations can be actualised and transmitted
along the time line. The future is the affirmation of the shared collective
imagining of a present that goes on becoming, effecting multiple modes
of interaction with heterogeneous others. Feminist genealogies or time-lines
are a non-linear form of evolution: an ethics that moves away from the
paradigm of reciprocity, the logic of re-cognition and installs instead
a relation of mutual affirmation. If we can say or even just think certain
things, it’s because others did it before us. They had no guarantee
that they would be heard, they sought for no rewards for their courage
and expected none – they just did it, like women do so many things,
for the hell of it, or out of love. It is that simply, i.e.: immensely
By targeting those who come after us as the rightful ethical interlocutors
and assessors of our own actions, women thinkers are taking seriously
the implications of our own situated position. This form of inter-generational
justice is crucial. This point about intra-generational fairness need
not, however, be expressed or conceptualised in the social imaginary as
an oedipal narrative. To do justice to the past, or be concerned about
the future need not result in linearity, i.e. in re-stating the unity
of space and time as the horizon of subjectivity. On the contrary, non-linear
genealogical models of intra-generational decency are a way of displacing
the oedipal hierarchy.
They involve a becoming-minoritarian of the elderly, the senior, and the
parental figures, but also the de-Oedipalization of the bond of the young
to those who preceded them. It calls for new ways of addressing and of
solving inter-generational conflicts – other than envy and rivalry.
Joining forces across the generational divide by working together towards
sustainable futures. By practising an ethics of non-reciprocity in the
pursuit of affirmation.
An example: the older feminists may feel the cruel pinch of aging, but
some of the young ones suffer from 1970’s envy. The middle aged
survivors of the second wave may feel like war veterans, or survivors
but some of generation Y, as Iris v.d. Tuin taught me, call themselves
‘born again baby boomers!’. So who’s envying whom?
‘We are in this together, indeed. Those who go through life under
the sign of the desire for change need accelerations that jolt them out
of set habits: they need to be visionary, prophetic, and upbeat. They
aim to introduce change in the present, so as to affect multiple modes
of belonging through complex and heterogeneous relations. The two key
cries of rebellion: “I hate the thought of having to die”,
by Beauvoir and “I’m bored out of my wits”, by Belle,
echo each other across space and time. Leading both women to write as
the remedy, the solution, the imaginary leap towards resistance.
The hope for better days, for a sustainable future, is a sort of “dreaming
forward”, it is an anticipatory virtue that permeates our lives
and activates them. It is a powerful motivating force grounded in our
collective and shared imaginings. Lest oblivion, greed and individualistic
selfishness destroy or diminish it for generations to come. Given that
posterity per definition can never pay us back, this gesture is perfectly
gratuitous and hence very ethical.
Great women writers and thinkers teach us a deep and careless generosity,
the ethics of non-profit at an ontological level. They enact a passion
for fashioning the past-future continuum by activating an alternative
present. They long to be generous and very selfish and be all that one
could become in the zigzagging paths of the existential process of becoming.
They teach us how to combine intensity with sustainability. So as to be
left alone to write great books and yet still go out there, among other
rebellious subjects, to say no to the meanness, vulgarity and violence
of the times. And in that simple gesture write the pre-history of a better
future for a vibrant inter-generational community of desiring subjects.