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Does Woman Exist? Agrippa von Nettesheim and Slavoj Žižek on Women and (their) Presence

Posted on by Joyce Pijnenburg

What do Hermes, Plato, and the Kabbalah have to do with feminism? In this article I will give one of possible answers to this question.

ABSTRACT

Today the early modern humanist and magus Agrippa von Nettesheim (15th-16th century) is mostly known for his works Three Books on Occult Philosophy and On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences. In his own day, however, Agrippa also gathered fame with the short but influential treatise Declamation on the Preeminence and Nobility of the Female Sex, in which he sings the praise of women from various perspectives and even argues their superiority over men. The treatise evidences his participation in, and partial dependence on, a very early wave of what one may call feminism, which had emerged in the early 15th century. In the late 17th century, Agrippa’s translator Henry Care adapted the Declamatio, eloquently and enthusiastically adding some arguments of his own. Agrippa was evidently inspired by specific hermetic and kabbalistic ideas while writing the Declamatio. And indeed it seems that the most original arguments he adds to the feminist arsenal of his day are based on the worldview according to which human beings are the mediators between the Absolute, or God, on the one hand, and the relative, or the world, on the other.

Many of the themes taken up by the two early modern feminists Agrippa and Care are also central in contemporary feminism. In order to relate feminist notions to hermetic, kabbalist and platonist worldviews, I compare Agrippa’s and his translator’s arguments to some of the views of Slavoj Žižek (1949-) as presented in his collection of essays The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. The main questions touched upon are, firstly, whether the ‘feminine’ is dependent upon the ‘masculine’, or free from it; and secondly, whether women should primarily be praised for what they might be thought to reflect, or (/also) for what, and how, they already are.

(NB: The following article is also available for download and sharing in pdf format at The Ritman Library page on SCRIBD. Below the article a SCRIBD window is integrated)

Portrait of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (“Agrippa”) 1486-1535. The portrait is from Thomas Vaughan, Anthroposophia theomagica, or, A discourse of the nature of man and his state after death, London: H. Blunden, 1650.

INTRODUCTION

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), author of the famous work on magic Three Books on Occult Philosophy (henceforth Occult Philosophy) and of the sceptical On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences (henceforth Vanity), also wrote several other works, smaller in size but not necessarily less widely read. One of these is the Declamation on the Preeminence and Nobility of the Female Sex (published in 1529; henceforth Declamation), in which the humanist and magus praises women to almost incredible heights, and according to principles that cannot be found in the traditional, medieval, style of courtly love. He dedicated the work to Margaret of Austria, who consequently employed him as advisor and historian for a brief period [1]. The work would become a landmark in the at this time growing discussions on women and marriage and saw various translations in a multitude of languages – one of which I will comment on in this article [2]. Agrippa also wrote a treatise on marriage (after 1526) [3] and in 1519 [4], in an important trial in Metz, he successfully defended a woman against accusations of witchcraft. Not unsignificant in the present context, moreover, is the fact that he wrote a tractate on original sin (composed before 1519) , in which he presented a radically new interpretation of the fall in Genesis.

Christine de Pizan lecturing man (I) and in her cell (or study) (II). Illustrations accompany the Cent Ballades, in the Queen’s Manuscript of 1411-12, now in the British Library. In this important manuscript of her collected work presented to Queen Isabeau, Christine is, as is usual, portrayed in a blue gown with a white headdress.

There had been a nascent feminist literary tradition before Agrippa [5]. In the early fifteenth century, the prolific female author Christine de Pizan had extensively argued for the equality of women (e.g.: God gave man and woman similar souls, equally noble and good), and after her had followed other French, Spanish and Italian scholars, many of whom copied her arguments. Some of these writings were certainly sources of inspiration for the magus from Nettesheim. For example, the Spaniard Rodriguez de Camara’s Triunfo de las Donas (1430), went beyond the notion of equality of men and women, and deemed women superior. Agrippa followed Camara’s arguments closely in the part of his treatise that praises women’s practical qualities [6]. Agrippa’s originality seems to reside especially in two aspects of this work: an amount of radical and often very new interpretations of Scripture, and the extensiveness of his descriptions of women’s appearance and virtuous behavior as evidence of their glory. Where he does not bring forward novel grounds for the appreciation of women, he brings together arguments from various traditions, making them his own.

Scholars have debated over the question whether Agrippa was actually serious about his praisings and about his appeal for an equal social position for women [7]. It is not entirely clear whether he effectively intended to bring about social change, and – aside, of course, from his defense of the alleged witch – he did not take action in this regard himself. In his day, however, personal political engagement of a scholar without the backing of a patron was obviously not the norm, and quite risky indeed. Yet, Agrippa lived in a time of enormous tension and impending social change, often provoked by new interpretations of Scripture and radically novel theologies and liturgies. Riding these stormy tides, he may well have hoped that the enthusiasm and perhaps comically passionate rhetoric of his treatise would incite some form of change. In this way, the text is perhaps not unsimilar to the apparently quite comical ‘feminist’ Rosicrucian pamphlet Frawen Zimmer der Schwesteren des Rosinfarben Creutzes (1620), whose authors scold the Rosicrucians for the fact that they only included men in their group. By way of counteraction, the pamphlet presents the “Women’s lodge”, a secret Rosicrucian society established just for “sisters”, whose tradition, the sisters declare, has secrets of its own, not known to the male Rosicrucians. (The treatise is of course from a very different period in Reformation history; in fact Agrippa’s text, having been so prominent in the querelle des femmes, may have been a source of inspiration.) While many of the Rosicrucian texts had a clearly fictional basis, and their tone was sometimes parodist, it is nevertheless evident that the intention of many of these treatises was to bring about some form of societal, religious and/or educational change. Bearing in mind such considerations with respect to Agrippa’s treatise, Albert Rabil notes:

[T]he power of Agrippa’s declamation lay (…) in his use of argument to reverse the entire misogynistic tradition [8]. This reversal might have been amusing to some – because so utterly fantastic in conception – but its consequences were serious and seriously intended. That Agrippa did not intend to change social structures is true, but no one did – not for the poor, disfranchised, or women – before the eighteenth century. … [T]his was not so because Agrippa believed social institutions were eternal. Agrippa considered nothing eternal except God in His mystical hiddenness. All else is changeable, reversible [9].

The boldness of the treatise and the unpredictability of its impact in this turbulent period in history should be taken into account in an estimation of Agrippa’s goals in publishing it. Agrippa’s extensive exposition of female excellence runs from her order in creation (e.g.: she came last and is therefore the Perfection and End of the whole of creation; she was created in paradise; she was fashioned out of a superior material than man), through elaborations on woman’s beauty, to her superior virtue and other laudable specific qualities. Aside from praising her qualities, powers and achievements, however, he also devotes a section to an exposition of the wrongs that have been done to her by men (e.g. “excessive tyranny”) [10] and appeal to award her a higher status in society. By way of introduction I will cite from this section:

…[S]he is delivered over to the jealous power of a husband, or she is enclosed forever in a workhouse of Vesta [11]. She is forbidden by law to hold public office, even the most shrewd among them are not permitted to bring a suit to court. … They are excluded also from preaching the word of God, contradiction to Scripture where the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of Joel, has promised them: Your daughters also will prophesy [12].

And again quoting scripture, he rounds off the section with the following provoking statement: those who are justified by faith … are in the power of a woman and subject to the command of God, who says to Abraham: ‘Whatever your wife Sarah says to you, obey her words [13].

Summaries of the arguments and structure of the Declamation have been published (e.g. in Nauert; Rabil; Antonioli) and the introductions to the edition (Antonioli) as well as to the English translation (Rabil) are quite elaborate. In the present context I will merely highlight points that struck me as comparable to specific contemporary views. In this blogpost I will not only refer to Agrippa’s original treatise, but also to its 17th century English translation, or rather, adaptation, by the eloquent political publicist Henry Care [14]. At the end of his own treatise, Agrippa wrote:

[I]f anyone more diligent than I finds some argument I have overlooked that he thinks should be added to this work of mine, I shall believe that I have not been discredited but rather supported by him in the measure to which he will make better this good work of mine through his talent and his learning [15].

Henry Care apparently took to heart this appeal to interactivity in supporting and praising women [16]. This becomes evident when one compares the two versions, but Care also makes sure to announce it in the preface:

If the captious World shall a while lay aside its usual severities, and vouchsafe any Acceptance of these our inconsiderable pains, (now confusedly huddled up in hast,) we shall use our utmost endeavours in the second Edition to deserve that favour, by some further Additions and Embellishments [17].

At significant points in the text the translator inserted some of his own arguments, often in a quite amusing tone. In the larger part of this blogpost I will discuss Agrippa’s and Care’s arguments in concert as the ‘early modern camp’; together I will compare them to a more contemporary perspective on women.

HERMETIC INFLUENCE

Agrippa’s Declamation is not a metaphysical treatise or a work on magic like Occult Philosophy. Yet, significant aspects of the text can be related to these key interests of the magus. Let me start off by citing a passage in which Agrippa praises women on the authority of Hermes Trismegistus. Arguing for the superiority of women’s eloquence, he writes:

What shall we say now of speech, the divine gift which more than anything else renders us superior to the beasts – a gift Hermes Trismegistus believes to be as precious as immortality and Hesiod the best treasure of man? Is not woman more fluent, eloquent, and effusive in speech than man? Did we not first learn to speak from our mothers or from our nurses? Without doubt nature itself, architect of the world, in its far-seeing wisdom toward the human race, has accorded this privilege to the female sex, making it difficult to find anywhere a mute woman. It is certainly beautiful and praiseworthy to surpass men at precisely the point at which humans are particularly superior to all other living creatures [18].

Floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Siena, depicting Hermes Trismegistus (1488, attributed to Giovanni di Maestro Stefano). The text beneath Hermes reads: "Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, contemporary of Moses".

The reference here is to Corpus Hermeticum XII, 12-14, where Hermes Trismegistus teaches his pupil Tat the following:

[T]o mankind – but not to any other mortal animal – god has granted these two things, mind and reasoned speech, which are worth as much as immortality. … If one uses these gifts as he should, nothing will distinguish him from the immortals; instead, when he has left the body, both these gifts will guide him to the troop of the gods and the blessed. … Reasoned speech, then, is the image and mind of god, as the body is the image of the idea and the idea is the image of the soul [19].

The Hermetic texts, then, were clearly on Agrippa’s mind while he was writing the Declamation. As we will see, there are also other, quite central, respects in which one can relate the Declamation and its adaptation to neoplatonic, hermetic and/or kabbalistic worldviews, specifically with respect to the central place these views assign to the human being, as in the citation above. I will get to this point by comparing the Declamation to an essay on women by the contemporary cultural analyst Slavoj Žižek.

Žižek, Slavoj 'The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays On Women And Causality'

DOES WOMAN EXIST?

What is to me most striking about Agrippa’s 16th century treatise and its 17th century English translation is that some of their arguments, separately as well as in compound, remind strongly of two of the main themes of modern and postmodern feminism and women’s studies. These are, firstly, the question of the embeddedness or non-embeddedness in and therefore, dependence or non-dependence of, woman of and from male sexuality; and secondly, the question of her participation or non-participation in what many feminist philosophers, psychoanalysts and cultural analysts refer to as the patriarchical (or “phallogocentric”) “symbolic order”: the (societal and psychological) culture of signs that is, according to many, still dominated by male values. Without going too deeply into either of their respective arguments – which depend on quite diverse cultural contexts and linguistic paradigms and lead to indeed quite different specific conclusions – I will juxtapose some of the Declamation’s statements to those presented in an essay by Žižek, whose perspective on culture is informed by the psychoanalytical framework of Jacques Lacan. Žižek is separated from Agrippa (and Care) by many centuries and, notably, the sexual revolution [20], but nevertheless, the structural similarities between some of their statements are thought-provoking.

Let us first look at Žižek. His essay is called “Otto Weininger, or, “Woman doesn’t exist””. In the large work Sex and Character (Geschlecht und Charakter, 1903), misogynist Weininger declared the ‘non-existence of woman’. That is, he denied her positive qualities of the sort attributed to her by the praising words of courtly love, by a man in love, or by any idealizing instance, and insisted that she is a non-spiritual creature dominated by “her only vital interest, the interest that sexual unions shall take place” [21]. It is only by male sexual attention that woman comes into existence. And it is because of this that her every act is an attempt to seduction, thus Weininger. But providing such attention entails a man’s fall from his naturally more spiritual state; it means the “denying of the absolute in him” [22].

Žižek adopts Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical system to show that Weininger was right to think that there is no such thing as the feminine (spiritual) Ideal, but wrong to think that this means that it is only woman who “is not”, and that the world would be a better place if men would be free to go about being their (supposedly) spiritual selves without the unease of feminine distraction. From Žižek’s perspective, also men lack a positively identifiable “absolute in him”. By the end of his essay, he has made clear his view that, rather than woman’s entire life being dominated by a boundless craving for the male gaze, the situation is rather the other way around:

[I]t is man who is wholly submitted to the phallus…, whereas woman, through the inconsistency of her desire, attains to the domain ‘beyond the Phallus’. Only woman has access to the Other (non-phallic) enjoyment. The traumatic element that Weininger absolutely refused to acknowledge, although it followed from his own work, was this inherent reversal of his ‘official’ position: woman, not man can reach ‘beyond the Phallus’ [23].

Woman Carrying a Phallus Greece: Early Classical, Attica Circa 480-450 BCE.

Žižek does not argue that the truth with respect to Weininger’s view is the other way around entirely, namely that not woman but man “does not exist”, and not woman but man is entirely dominated by desire and a fundamentally non-spiritual creature. He rather maintains that in an important respect, neither man nor woman “exists”; they are non-existent in their ‘capacity’ of pure subject, pure negativity, or what Hegel called “Night of the World” (a concept which, incidentally, one might compare to Jacob Boehme’s Ungrund). Subjectivity is inconsistent, because it is completely linked to the “surface” of changeable impressions and it is therefore impossible to describe it ontologically [24]. Lacan associates this subjectivity (which can be found in both men and women) with ‘the feminine’ [25]. Perhaps one is justified to speculate that to pure consciousness no positive characteristics can be attributed, and therefore, in a sense, it does not exist.

Also, and related to this, according to Žižek ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, are not actually complementary at all, do not form a whole together, but are rather two differently failed attempts to represent the whole. They both fail in that neither can exist fully (as the whole). Their respective failures have nothing to do with each other, because “‘[m]asculine’ and ‘feminine’ are not the two species of the genus Man but, rather, the two modes of the subject’s failure to achieve the full identity of Man” [26]. So this is where Weininger was right: there is no such thing as the ‘feminine’. His delusion concerned the non-existence of his own projection of spirituality. But what actually does not exist are the women who in their essence depend on men.

Let us compare these notions to Agrippa’s views and Care’s addenda as presented in the Declamation. On the matter of woman’s allegedly incessant attempts to seduction and, consequently, her responsibility for the fall of man, also Agrippa takes a clear stance. He writes that it is rather Adam who was the more guilty, for Adam had been told personally not to eat from the tree and therefore “sinned in full knowledge”, whilst Eve made an error in ignorance, and “because she was deceived”. She had not yet been created when Adam had been forbidden to eat the fruit. In fact, the magus holds, “God wished her to be free from the beginning” [27]. The silver-tongued translator underlines Agrippa’s point: Eve argued with the snake for a considerable time before giving in, whilst Adam did not wait to take the apple from her hand “greedily” [28]. He moreover adds [29] that it is rather obviously not a woman’s responsibility if a man ‘falls’ for her beauty, as he explains by adopting the metaphor of the sun:

And if the Sun’s lustre by dazling our weaker eyes, bring on us any inconvenience, shall we accuse his glorious brightness: or rather ought we not to bewail the imbecillity of our own Opticks, unable to cope with so much splendor [30]?

When, finally, both Agrippa and Care have dismissed as completely as possible the notion that woman’s seduction is responsible for the fall, the interpreter rounds off the accumulated arguments by stating, near the conclusion, that man is clearly dependent on woman, that she is “necessary” for him – but in a good way. He refutes a commonly used misogynistic phrase on the basis of the theological assumption of the Creator’s goodness:

We shall not therefore so vainly spend our own or the reader’s time, as to take notice of all those black scandals by them cast on this fair Sex, they being only fluxes of gall, or the purgings of idle brains: only one we must briefly examine, which seems more plausible, and passes for currant in the vogue of the World; and that is, their terming Women, Necessary Evils. … That they are necessary, we needs must grant; since he that made Man, saw it was not good that Man should be without them. That they are Evils, we utterly deny; since he that made Woman, saw that all he made was good. Is Woman good then in the judgement of God, and in your conceit also necessary? then change your phrase, and henceforth stile her, A necessary good. Those very terms, Necessary, and Evil, are inconsistent: All things that are necessary for Man, are good; food is necessary, it is good; apparel necessary, it is good; the Fire, the Air, the Earth, the Water necessary, they are good: Women necessary, therefore good. For else if we suppose God has bound Man in so hard a condition, that some things are necessary for him, yet evil, we both impair the wisdome of God, and detract from his goodness [31].

According to Otto Weininger’s book, woman is entirely dependent on man. In the scenario of the Declamation (especially in its 17th century version), man is dependent on woman. In Žižek’s view, on the other hand, man and woman, to the extent in which they can both be said to “exist” as objects, both depend on the symbolic order; only ‘woman’ qua subjectivity – which in actual practice includes a modality of all men as well – transcends it and therefore, transcends dependence on patriarchic structures. Agrippa and Žižek both dismiss misogynistic representations of woman as the obstacle to true human (or male) spirituality by taking apart patriarchal conceptions of desire and its causes. Using very different sources and arguments, both the Declamation and Žižek’s essay show that it were male projections that had led to the assumption (common in early modernity and still quite acceptable in the early 20th century) that woman was responsible for the ‘fall’.

AN END TO COURTLY LOVE’S END

Also Žižek’s reflections on another theme can be fruitfully compared to elements of Agrippa’s Declamation, namely the notion of courtly love [32]. According to Žižek (following Lacan), the exalted image of the Lady in courtly love conceals the fact that the actual woman in question, with her concrete characteristics, is not at all praised or even seen. Žižek quotes Lacan:

The Lady is never characterized for any of her real, concrete virtues, for her wisdom, her prudence, or even her competence. If she is described as wise, it is only because she embodies an immaterial wisdom or because she represents its functions more than she exercises them [33].

A courtly German knight 'Der Schenk von Limpurg' from the early 14th-century Manesse Codex.

In courtly love, whether in its medieval or a more (post-) modern guise, the Lady whom the knight takes as his ultimate and unattainable goal or end is a (narcissistic) projection of the personal spirituality, “a retroactive patriarchal fantasy” [34]. Neither Agrippa nor his interpreter Henry Care seem to have cared for the fundamental premises of courtly love. The humanist certainly praised women to dazzling heights, but he did so by enumerating an amplitude of characteristics, which emphasize her concrete worldly presence. It is an ample – indeed “infinite” [35] – variety of determinable qualities that he so elaborately glorifies, a vastness of particular, incarnated, practical, ‘horizontal’ qualities. In other words, he names concrete characteristics, rather than qualities that suggest unattainability or otherworldliness, and betray little or no interest in, or attention for, the woman in her particularity and presence. In the following citation, Agrippa might seem to adopt the tone of a knight who speaks of his ineffable Lady. In fact, however, he praises woman rather for 1) an “infinite” vastness of particular virtues; and 2) a particular worldly quality, namely her (traditional) activity of birthing and caring:

… I am not ambitious enough to pretend to be able to enclose in so small a treatise the infinite excellences and virtues of women. Who, indeed, would be equal to taking a census of the infinite praises women merit, they who are at the origin of all our being, who assure the conservation of the human race (which would, without them, be lost in a very short time), they on whom depend every family and every state [36]?

The concrete qualities mentioned in the Declamation do not project an image of the “Truth, Good and Beauty” [37] onto woman, which would result in her nullification. The 17th century version might seem to agree, as it refers to woman as a terrestrial angel [38] .

THE DIVINE AND ITS PRESENCE

Roland Antonioli notes that the most original aspect of Agrippa’s treatise resides in his use of Scripture, of theological arguments, to battle the detractors of women. He also adds novel interpretations to these passages. The new focus for these interpretations, according to the scholar, is informed by “occultist” and “cabalist” knowledge and by the “Platonist esthetic”. On top of an Aristotelianizing view that considered female superiority or perfection as the endpoint of a linear progression toward purification, as had done his predecessor Camara, Agrippa adds a Platonizing dimension which looks upon such superiority as a perfection-already-achieved, inherent to (specific qualities and actions of) woman as such. According to a Platonist view that awards more dignity to the human being, especially woman “is, by her nature, in particular communication with God.” In Marsilio Ficino’s Platonist circles an increased sense of actual beauty and grace, of perfection, had emerged. The focus of this new perspective would, from an original preference for androgyny, increasingly come to lie on the feminine, because of the increasing popularity of the “image of the Florentine madonna’s” in art [39].

Sandro Botticelli's 'Madonna del Magnificat' (1480).

The following passage illustrates how Agrippa exalts the “divine splendor” of women, and considers this splendor often present in her concrete, worldly, state:

…[M]an is the work of nature, woman the creation of God. Therefore, woman is generally more capable than man of receiving the divine splendor with which she is often filled, something one can see even today in her refinement and extraordinary beauty [40].

The expression “divine splendor” [41] might refer to the kabbalistic notion of the Shekhina – God’s splendor, or presence, which is feminine. Close to the passage where he discusses this female splendor, Agrippa indeed betrays a kabbalistic influence. The magus first refers to the meaning of man and woman’s Hebrew names:

Woman was created as much superior to man as the name she has received is superior to his. For Adam means earth, but Eve is translated as life. And as far as life is to be ranked above earth, so far is woman to be ranked above man [42].

'Adam and Eve' by Jan Mabuse (circa 1520) in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, London, UK.

He then adds that Eve’s, rather than Adam’s name is closer to the name of God, the tetragrammaton, “according to the mystical symbols of the kabbalists” [43]. Whether Agrippa’s sources for his presentation of woman as more receptive to the presence of the divine be kabbalistic, hermeticist or platonist (and he was certainly well-versed in all of these), it is certainly grounded in the particular view of the world and of man that one finds in many of the representatives of these currents, which had become dispersed in western Europe since the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance. It is the notion of the human being as (primary) receptacle, instance, or active and conscious instrument of the divine in the metaphysics of such systems, the dynamical inclusion they award the human in the interplay between being and becoming, or God and world, that allows for such immanence of the divine, that grants woman a heavenly grace that is nevertheless this-worldly, that makes it possible to appreciate and exalt feminine presence rather than the courtly Lady’s ineffable absence.

In conclusion, both authors effectively deny the non-existence of woman as such or of particular women: for Žižek, woman nor man exists in the sense that they are both subjects, pure negativity, and changeable, while for Agrippa, woman does not not exist, because she is worthy in her full presence. Ethically their stances imply something very similar: a woman, like any man, may or may not live up to becoming a respectable creature, but she deserves recognition, respect and perhaps even glorification as a worldly presence, rather than nullification, whether by the negative theology of courtly love, or by hatred.

Quite a few other Hermetic and Platonist authors in the early modern period had particular sympathy for and interest in women and the feminine. Paracelsus, for instance, realizing that all of medicine was wholly based on the male body, was the first to propose a special branch of healthcare for women, and he awarded the feminine a central position in his cosmology and epistemology. More in the abstract, the metaphysics of Giordano Bruno established the ontological emancipation of the ‘inconsistent’, of the changeable.

FOOTNOTES

  1. For succinct biographical overviews, see Nauert and Valente (see bibliography).
  2. Rabil, 27ff.; 35: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Agrippa’s Declamation exercised an influence on the querelle des femmes similar to that of Erasmus on humanism and Luther on the Reformation.”
  3. Antonioli, 13.
  4. Antionioli, 13; Nauert, section 2.
  5. Antonioli, 15ff.; Rabil 18ff.; Valente, 7.
  6. See e.g. Antonioli, 21-25; which also cites Camara’s entire (brief) treatise. Many arguments, however, do not figure in Camara, such as the practical ones in favor of a better position for women. Many of these can be found in the more practically oriented de Pizan, who emphasizes equality and does not, like Rodriguez and Agrippa, claim the superiority of women over men.
  7. See Rabil, 29-33 and Nauert, section 5.
  8. One of Agrippa’s main points in the Vanity had been that it was possible to turn around any argument to claim the exact opposite of what was originally intended. In the Declamation he employed this strategy for the praise of women.
  9. Rabil, 32-3.
  10. Declamation, 94.
  11. I adapted Rabil’s translation of the phrase Vestalium ergastulo (who rendered it ‘workhouse for religious’).
  12. Declamation, 95.
  13. Declamation, 96.
  14. On Henry Care, see Schwoerer’s The Ingenious Mr. Henry Care, Restoration Publicist.
  15. Declamation, 97.
  16. See Schwoerer, 30-2 on Care’s project. Like Agrippa, also Care dedicated ‘his’ Declamation to a woman of high rank (Queen Catherine). (32) Care also wrote another work regarding women, The Female Secretary (1671) which intended to teach women letter writing. (30)
  17. Agrippa and Care, Female pre-eminence (1670). (The online text can be searched for words, at esotericarchives.com.)
  18. Declamation, 61.
  19. Translation by Copenhaver, 45-6.
  20. Žižek does not understand the feminine-masculine distinction as a biological difference. Cf. note 25.
  21. Weininger quoted by Žižek, 137.
  22. Weininger in Žižek, 141.
  23. Žižek, 161.
  24. Žižek, 151-2.
  25. Žižek on Lacan with respect to the masculine-feminine difference: “In Lacan, ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is not a predicate providing positive information about the subject – that is, designating some of its phenomenal properties; rather, it is the case of what Kant conceives of as a purely negative determination which merely designates, registers, a certain limit – more precisely: a specific modality of how the subject failed in his or her bid for identity which would constitute him or her as an object within phenomenal reality.” (159)
  26. Žižek, 159-60. The quote is from p.159.
  27. Declamation, 62-65. Citations from 62 and 63. Note, moreover: “All of us have sinned in Adam.” (62) He goes as far as to say that this must be the reason why, for instance, the saviour came in male form and all men must be priests. It is not woman who principally requires salvation!
  28. Agrippa and Care, Female pre-eminence.
  29. Leaving out a passage which compares woman’s stance to that of pope Innocent III, clearly in order to avoid association with Catholicism.
  30. Agrippa and Care, Female pre-eminence.
  31. Agrippa and Care, Female pre-eminence.
  32. Žižek refers to courtly love in his commentary on Weininger but elaborates it more extensively in another essay in the same volume: “Courtly Love or Woman as Thing”.
  33. Žižek quoting Lacan, 90.
  34. Žižek, 151.
  35. See the citation below.
  36. Declamation, 89.
  37. Weininger apparently relates his (for woman unattainable) spiritual ideals to Plato; see Žižek, 142.
  38. Agrippa and Care, Female pre-eminence.
  39. Antonioli, 26-7; 29-30; 35-7. Citations from p. 29.
  40. Declamation, 50. I translate “splendoris” by “splendor”, rather than “light” (as does Rabil). “Light” would more precisely be rendered by “lux” or “lumen”.
  41. Such divine splendour is also evidenced by the many feminine miracles that Scripture recounts – not in the last place by the phenomenon of parthenogenesis, or the virgin mother.
  42. Declamation, 44; cf. Antonioli, 36.
  43. Declamation, 46.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius and Henry Care. Female Pre-eminence: Or the Dignity and Excellency of that Sex, above the Male. London: 1670. Freely accessible online at www.esotericarchives.com.
  • Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius. De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus. Ed. Charles Bené, transl. Odette Sauvage. Genève: 1990 (Antwerp: 1529).
  • Antonioli, Roland. Préface, in: Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius, De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus. Genève: 1990. pp. 7-38.
  • Copenhaver, Brian (ed. and transl.). Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New Translation. 2000 (1992): Cambridge.
  • Nauert, Charles. “Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  • Rabil, Albert. Declamation on the preeminence and nobility of the female sex. Chicago: 1996.
  • Schwoerer, Lois G. The Ingenious Mr. Henry Care, Restoration Publicist. 2001: Baltimore.
  • Valente, Michaela. Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius, in: Wouter J. Hanegraaff et al. (eds.), Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, Leiden: 2006. pp. 4-8.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Women and Causality. 2005 (1994): London & New York.

Does woman exist? Agrippa von Nettesheim and Slavoj Žižek on women and (their) presence

6 Responses to Does Woman Exist? Agrippa von Nettesheim and Slavoj Žižek on Women and (their) Presence

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