This stylistically beautiful and theoretically compelling book presents many themes familiar to readers of Irigaray's work alongside new material and perspectives. The book's title refers to the feminine source—nature, woman, goddess—that inspires philosophy and indeed life itself, but that has been largely obscured by Western institutions and traditions. Irigaray returns to pre-Socratic philosophers, including Empedocles and Parmenides, who allude to this feminine source. Several themes here echo her 1974 text Speculum, including the analysis of Sophocles' Antigone as well as the suggestion that we need to "go back behind" certain elements of Western thought to uncover obfuscated, pre-patriarchal wellsprings for thought. [End Page 124]
The book is both critical and constructive. It offers a critique of many facets of Western thought and society: logical dualism, reduction of the other to the same, man's denial of the mother, reliance on language that is coded and dead, environmental degradation, failure to acknowledge the real. It also provides avenues for hope: the discovery and fostering of one's identity, the generative power of sexuate difference, recognition of one's limits as a path to recognition of the other, love as the way to constitute a better world.
Irigaray's concept of relational identity is expressed here as "the ecstasy of the between-us," something we are called upon to cultivate at each moment. Spiritual and religious questions also figure prominently in this book. Its engagement with the Christian tradition is largely an exhortation to think beyond a father-God governed by the dictates of patriarchy.
The book is organized into six chapters. The first four are entitled: "Introduction: The Ecstasy of the Between-Us," "When There Was Yet Life," "A Created Being without Regard for His Being Born," and "The Wandering of Man." The last two chapters yield the greatest surprises, especially chapter five, "Between Myth and History: The Tragedy of Antigone." Veiled autobiographical references appear throughout the book; in chapter five they become overt. Irigaray writes that she relates to the figure of Antigone: "I have been, like Antigone herself, criticized for disturbing the established order in the name of personal passions" (118); elsewhere, Irigaray writes that "[she] ha[s] shared Antigone's tragic fate" (115). For Irigaray, Antigone's insistence on a proper burial for her brother Polynices should be understood in terms of the economy of sexuate difference and a desire to respect the divine order as well as the natural world. Chapter six, "The Return," begins with a provocative question: "Why does Western culture have to start with Greece?" (139). It traces Western culture's "estrangement from home, from oneself" and the parallel "theme of the return" (140) through Heidegger's discussion of Hölderlin, the peregrinations and ultimate return home of Ulysses, and Nietzsche's eternal return. Irigaray analyzes aspects of the Greek language, including the middle-passive voice (which she associates with the cultivation of a "self-affection" respectful of the two genders) and the terms heteros and genos (linked to being-two and gender, respectively). The "nostalgia for a return" (161) in Western culture will be satisfied only through a return to the self in the full realization of one's sexuate identity. [End Page 125]