Yesterday I read a bit about Oulipo. While reading I discovered this beautifully arranged picture of a part of the group, but couldn’t help noticing that there weren’t any women around … (I am, after all, on a quest for literary foremothers).
In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf writes: “we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure.”
Definitely the Opera hinted to this party of men not being a case of accident, but more of a cultural tendency, or – to be honest: a classic case of historical phallocentrism. A concept Derrida can tell us more about, as he also can about friendship.
Derrida recounts the three models of friendship proposed by Aristotle:
- the higher friendship’ which is ‘based on virtue’ and which has ‘nothing to do with politics. It is a friendship between two virtuous men’;
- ‘friendship grounded on utility and usefulness, and this is political friendship’;
- ‘On the lower level, friendship grounded on pleasure’.
These different concepts of friendship, Derrida argues, move across different registers. Some are political and some are not. Derrida notes, as he works through the Aristotelian models, that ‘political friendship’ is fundamentally inflected by gender. It is, to quote from him directly, ‘a phallocentric, or phallogocentric, concept’. From an Aristolean construction onwards, the parameters of friendship and friendship bonds exclude women and the notion of female friendship.
Whilst Derrida himself doesn’t cite the example of the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, we might well use him as an example. In his essay ‘On Friendship’, Montaigne argues: ‘the normal capacity of women is, in fact, unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie’.
Derrida argues that the canonical model of friendship is archetypally ‘a friendship between two young men’. Such a canonical model, Derrida notes immediately, excludes several possible permutations: ‘first of all friendship between a man and a woman, or between women, so women are totally excluded from this model of friendship: woman as the friend of a man or women as friends between themselves’.
Derrida identifies the guiding principle that underlies the model of canonical friendship as ‘brotherhood’ or ‘fraternity’. Such a principle finds its roots in various dominant cultural discourses; Derrida identifies it in Greece, as well as Christian ideology in which ‘Men are all brothers because they are sons of God’.
“we think back through our mothers if we are women”!